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Unified Access and Optimization

Integrating Security, Availability, and Application Acceleration Services to Enable Context-Aware Networking

by Peter Silva
Technical Marketing Manager, F5 Networks

The 1987 movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles follows Neal Page as he tries to get home for Thanksgiving by any means possible and despite all the setbacks he encounters along with way. Del Griffith, the jovial shower curtain salesman who tags along with Neal, only adds to the incidents that make the trip long, hard, and full of delays. Now, more than 20 years later, the title could be Planes, Trains, Automobiles, Buses, Coffee Shops, Airports, and Everywhere Else, which would aptly describe all the different locations, devices, and networks people use to get "home," or, in other words, connect to their corporate network. Just as Del inhibits Neal from easily reaching his "home network," quality of service, network threats, slow connections, and complex deployments challenge our access to our "home enterprise" networks.

The mobile workforce is expected to increase from 758.6 million in 2006 to 1.0 billion in 2011, a figure that represents 24.8 to 30.4 percent of the worldwide workforce and approximately 50 to 60 million teleworkers solely in the United States.1 Employers disperse their workers all over the globe with a variety of trusted and un-trusted devices that are used to request access to corporate resources from different types of networks. Users need fast, secure, and reliable access to the corporate infrastructure. Simultaneously, IT departments struggle with multi-vendor access solutions and systems, enforcement of policies, regulation of access, security threats and vulnerabilities, and ensuring that the right user is connecting to the proper applications based on context. If all that weren't enough, IT departments also need to ensure that content is delivered quickly, reliably, and securely-while keeping management and maintenance costs in line. The enterprise needs unified and converged access and policy management in a globally distributed environment, for wireless and public connections. Managed service providers (MSP) need to differentiate themselves by offering their customers a customized look and feel for their service offerings and MSPs need to virtualize their environments to maximize investment.

The days of expensive, single-purpose, single-point products that only provide an isolated solution are waning, and customers are now looking to consolidate their deployments for easier management and better return on investment (ROI) and total cost of ownership (TCO). Unified, optimized, and secure access is what customers need.

The Enterprise

Access Challenges
Enterprises have long struggled with separate-point, multi-vendor security solutions for remote, LAN, or wireless access modes. They will deploy IPSec or a SSL VPN for remote teleworkers, Network Access Control (NAC) for LAN-based control, and WiFi Protected Access (WPA) or other wireless encryption for their WiFi access points. With multiple, varying application entry points, it can be difficult to maintain a consistent security policy across all access points and expensive to manage multiple systems. Current IPSec solutions might only be available for certain endpoint devices and usually require a pre-installed client and configuration to work properly. SSL VPN, while advantageous for quick deployments and endpoint checks, can be limited in performance once you reach a certain threshold. NAC solutions don't adequately protect important corporate applications or data since because they typically just authenticate the user and might only assign a particular network segment. Different users need to access different, and often restricted, corporate resources; yet, L2-L3 access control lists (ACLs) inherently do not control access to applications, and wireless access points are often wide open for connection by any user. If the WiFi access point does use security, it's usually the same 802.1x technology as NAC, so many of the same pitfalls can still haunt IT departments.

IT organizations can also find it difficult to control the endpoint security posture of the different types of machines requesting access to applications. Companies are sharing more data as part of their value chain, and having access to sensitive partner resources is critical to that ecosystem. While corporate-issued, trusted machines must abide by a mandated security policy, partners, contractors, and other business associates might not have the same requirements or restrictions when they are requesting access. Additionally, it might be difficult or forbidden to push security policies to non-corporate devices. Users want seamless access and ease of use without having to employ multiple solutions. Support costs can escalate when users are frustrated; business can suffer when workers are unable to complete their tasks. And, ultimately, the corporate network is not completely secure.

Global Distribution
When users are all over the world, globally distributed access across several data centers can help solve access and availability requirements, but both the user base and IT administrators still need a solution that is easy to use and simple to manage. At the same time, the worldwide strain on budgets is forcing, customers to reduce the number of data centers while still offering fast and secure application performance to the global user base. Content delivery networks (CDN) can place certain objects at the edge of the network for fast access, but the cost of entry for using a traditional CDN can be prohibitive for small-to-medium-size businesses. There are also security and control concerns with traditional CDNs because some content is shared, which can be perceived as a potential risk to the business. The asymmetric acceleration used in CDNs does little to impress first-time visitors: large media (video/audio/ISO) files are being distributed and requested more than ever over both HTTP and FTP, and there are few things more frustrating than waiting on a file to slowly make its way to your desktop, especially if it is critical and you need it now. Lastly, depending on the location and network of both your users and the applications they use, issues like latency, packet loss and poor performance can have a detrimental effect on the user experience.

Managed Service Providers
Many small-to-medium-size businesses might not have the resources to manage their own secure access deployments, so they turn, instead, to MSPs. A good number of MSPs offer remote access solutions, and while they have moved away from offering IPSec due to the deployment challenges, they still offer a SSL VPN solution. Customization is important to both MSPs and customers alike: MSPs need to differentiate their offerings while providing a presentation/branding--for example, company logo, color scheme, host names, and more--with which customers are familiar and comfortable. MSPs also need virtualization functionality to maximize their investment. The ability to host multiple customers on the same unit, with the segregation needed for security, can provide the economies of scale necessary for ROI.

Fast, Secure, and Consolidated Access

The ability to converge and consolidate all three access modes-remote, LAN, wireless-on a single management interface along with providing easy-to-manage access policies saves money and frees up valuable IT resources. IT departments need a gateway that provides secure, consolidated, speedy access with readily managed policies on the same device. These controllers should support any endpoint that has a browser and provide the security and performance equivalent to or greater than IPSec. Using SSL technology and bringing together access security, acceleration, and application availability services can enable context-aware, policy-controlled, secure access to applications and provide LAN speed performance for remote users. An integrated client can provide a broader and less expensive solution to policy-based access management and improved application performance for remote users. The ability to scale to support tens of thousands of users around the globe has always challenged IT departments.

One of the main drivers of such a device is to increase the security of applications by driving identity and access management into the network, which can also drive down bandwidth costs by optimizing access to applications. By bringing these services together and driving user and group identities into the network, policy and service levels can then be enforced based on identity. This makes the Internet and cloud computing faster, more predictable, and more secure for the enterprise.

These 'edge'-type gateways should protect applications with L4 and L7 ACL to control network access and application access at a fine-grain level, enabling IT administrators to control access down to the specific path within an application, securing areas that might otherwise have unrestricted access. Endpoint host inspection is another 'must have' and should be added into any access control decision. Implementing a complex security policy on a remote access product can be difficult to accomplish accurately, and, as a result, administrators will often either decide not to implement a policy or spend inordinate amounts of time doing it. With human readable policy flowcharts, both of these issues are addressed, leading to better security, higher productivity and end-to-end policy definition.

IT departments also need full control over authentication, authorization, and resource management. With the tremendous and ongoing growth in the number of telecommuters and mobile users, it is critical that organizations ensure that endpoint devices are secure and compliant. Being able to push a group policy that provides policy-based endpoint security to any remote user, inside or outside a Microsoft Active Directory domain would be a nice touch along with a choice of templates to suit many particular policy requirements. These types of templates can benefit enterprises that must comply with regulatory or industry requirements such as PCI, HIPAA, or GLBA. You should also be able to initiate a protected workspace or virtual desktop to limit data loss prevention by ensuring no files or data are left behind on a PC or device.

A couple desktop clients on the market can automatically detect when a VPN connection is required, like when connecting from home or to an open wireless signal. When a user disconnects from their primary work domain-for example, when a user needs to undock their laptop to take it to a meeting -and connects to an open WiFi signal, the newer clients can automatically detect that the user is no longer on a trusted network and will immediately initiate an encrypted tunnel. This saves users time and frustration since they can continue whatever they were doing securely and without manual intervention.

Global Solution
Today, with users who are spread around the world, connecting with mobile devices on over-the-air networks or sitting in branch offices that may have limited or varying bandwidth, application performance is not always acceptable. Depending on the network and location, network latency is always a concern-especially in emerging markets. Secure gateways that provide an integrated WAN optimization and web acceleration can minimize the impact of latency without building a data center or co-locating equipment in a particular region. Optimization services can be used for data centers, POPs, remote sites hosting applications for mobile users, and for remote branches accessing those applications.

Quality of service, particularly with VoIP, is another challenge facing mobile and remote users. One solution is to offer Datagram TLS (DTLS) mode for remote connections. TLS is the standard protocol used for securing TCP-based Internet traffic, also known as SSL. DTLS is a protocol-based on TLS that is capable of securing the datagram transport. DTLS is well suited for securing applications that are delay sensitive (and hence use datagram transport), tunneling applications such as VPNs, and applications that tend to run out of file descriptors or socket buffers. Combining the remote access and optimization services onto a single platform reduces the hardware necessary in these locations, minimizing risk and consolidating infrastructure. Access to applications is effectively managed, while the performance of multiple applications is greatly improved.

These gateways should also be able to integrate with a global server load balancing solution so as individual gateways reach certain thresholds, the global application delivery controller can load balance users to the next best gateway without users noticing and provide emergency capability when needed. Disaster recovery, business continuity, and workforce continuity accomplished all in one unit!

MSP' Perfect Match
For small-to-medium-size companies with limited IT resources, a MSP can be a great resource in accomplishing data-intensive or complex deployments. Since there are many MSPs to choose from, each must differentiate themselves by offering unique services. With these enterprise class gateway solutions, MSP can virtualize each customer environment to create multiple virtual edge gateway devices and customize all the user-facing content, including logon pages, errors, end pages, and more. Segmenting organizations keeps sensitive information in the right hands and helps administrators tailor the offerings for their users. For instance, virtual routing permits a unique and separate access policy for each end customer. Not only can MSPs offer remote access services to their customers, but data center and cloud providers can also deploy these services as part of their own infrastructure, enabling segmented access to and management of each customer's unique environment.

While many MSP do offer portals through which customers can manage their equipment, secure gateways can offer even greater security by tying into existing authentication mechanisms. For example, after the customer authenticates, an encrypted tunnel can be launched (think VPN) so they can be 'on net' with their systems. The unique customer portal can also be made available after strong authentication as better security than simple HTTP or form-based authentication over the Internet. It would be especially beneficial to both customers and cloud providers alike to offer encrypted and optimized tunnels that can be created between the provider's and customer's devices to allow the customer to upload data directly to its environment over a secure tunnel. Or in the case of wanting to keep/control the data 'at corporate' due to concerns about cloud security, you could have non-critical applications delivered from the cloud and have a secure tunnel back to the corporate infrastructure to access the data. Acceleration technology included in the gateway lets MSP differentiate services-access or access and acceleration-depending on the packages they offer.


We've come a long way since Neal's fateful trip 22 years ago but the goal is still the same-connect back home. While we now carry devices that help us stay in contact with friends, family, business associates, trusted networks, and needed applications, challenges still exist. Secure gateways can offer a unique set of features, capacity and performance, enticing TCO, and ROI value. They should be able to integrate with existing enterprise infrastructure and applications while simultaneously providing authentication, authorization, and access to networks, applications and portals. The comprehensive endpoint security helps make corporate compliance easier. Dynamic access using asymmetric and symmetric acceleration and optimized sessions with caching, compression, and de-duplication gives users the highest performance available in the market. Scalability, acceleration, optimization, performance and reliability, and support for a wide range of clients, applications, and infrastructure give IT departments the management and consolidation features needed for critical environments.

1. Source: IDC: Worldwide Mobile Worker Population 2007-2011 Forecast.

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