Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Forgotten Servers

In the enterprise, there is often a separation between network segments containing endpoint/workstation systems (e.g., laptops), network segments containing internal-facing servers (e.g., Exchange), and network segments containing external-facing servers (e.g., web servers). Fundamentally, this makes a lot of sense. Each of these segments serves a very different purpose, and as such, we would expect the traffic transiting each segment to behave differently. Further, each segment should have its own controls that permit traffic necessary for business operations, while denying traffic not befitting of that particular segment.

Although enterprises separate the various types of assets reasonably well, detection and alerting are predominantly focused on network segments containing endpoint/workstation systems. This is for several reasons, but primary among them are:
  • Identifying compromised/infected endpoint/workstation systems is relatively well understood and fairly mature, while identifying compromised/infected server systems is less well understood and not particularly mature.
  • Network segments containing servers, and particularly external-facing servers, are generally less well instrumented than network segments containing endpoint/workstation systems.
It is true that server compromises happen less often than endpoint/workstation compromises. But, it is also true that when server compromises do happen, they are often far more serious and consume far more incident response resources than endpoint/workstation compromises. Server compromises have the potential to lead to additional intrusions, data loss, theft of intellectual property, fraudulent activity, and other malicious activity. Furthermore, server compromises tend to go undetected for long periods of time, mainly because of the two reasons I outlined above.

So, given the risk, and the continued evidence that server compromises lead to bad things, it's a wonder enterprises don't study their server network data more closely. I would recommend two initial steps here, based on my own experience monitoring server networks:
  • Ensure the server network segments are properly instrumented, as it is difficult to monitor network segments for which data collection is incomplete/inadequate.
  • Dedicate some well-trained, highly-skilled analyst cycles to study the traffic on the server network segments.  When reliable, high fidelity approaches are discovered, they can be automated as appropriate.
On server network segments, the stakes are high. So why is it that enterprises almost never pay them the attention they are due?

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