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Improving Internal Data Center Security with NSX-PANW Integration

Dharma RajanBy Dharma Rajan

Today’s data center (DC) typically has one or more firewalls at the perimeter securing it with a strong defense, thus preventing threats to the DC. Today, applications and their associated content can easily bypass a port-based firewall using a variety of techniques. If a threat enters, the attack surface area is large. Typically the low-priority systems are often the target, as activity on those may not be monitored. Today within the DC more and more workloads are being virtualized. Thus the East-West traffic between virtual machines within the DC has increased substantially compared to the North-South traffic.

Many time threats such as data-stealing, malware, web threats, spam, Trojans, worms, viruses, spyware, bots, etc. can spread fast and cause serious damage once they enter. For example, dormant virtual machines can be a risk when they are powered back up because they may not be receiving patches or anti-malware updates, making them vulnerable to security threats. When the attack happens it can move quickly and compromise critical systems which needs to be prevented. It is also possible in many cases that the attack goes unnoticed until there is an event that triggers investigation, by which time valuable data may have been compromised or lost.

Thus it is very critical that the proper internal controls and security measures are applied at the virtual machine level to reduce the surface area of attack within the data center. So how do we do that and evolve the traditional data center to a more secure environment to overcome today’s data center challenges without additional costly hardware.

Traditional Model for Data Center Network Security

In the traditional model, we base the network architecture with a combination of perimeter-level security by way of Layer 2 VLAN segmentation. This model worked, but as we virtualize more and more workloads, and the data center grows, we are hitting the boundaries when it relates to VLANs with VLAN sprawl, and also the increased number of firewall rules that need to be created and managed. Based on RFC 5517 the maximum number of VLANs that can be provisioned is 4,094. All this adds complexity to the traditional network architecture model of the data center. Other key challenges customers run into in production data centers is too many firewall (FW) rules to create, poor documentation, and the fear of deleting FW rules when a virtual machine is deleted. Thus flexibility is lost, and holes remain for attackers to use as entry points.

Once security is compromised at one VLAN level, the spread across the network—be it Engineering VLAN, Finance VLAN, etc.—does not take very long. So the key is not just how to avoid attacks, but also—if one occurs—how to contain the spread of an attack.

DRajan Before and After Attack

Reducing Attack Surface Area

The first thing that might come to one’s mind is, “How do we prevent and isolate the spread of an attack if one occurs?” We start to look at this by keeping an eye on certain characteristics that make up today’s data centers – which are becoming more and more virtualized. With a high degree of virtualization and increased East-West data center traffic, we need certain dynamic ways to identify, isolate, and prevent attacks, and also automated ways to create FW rules and tighten security at the virtual machine level. This is what leads us to VMware NSX—VMware’s network virtualization platform—which provides the virtual infrastructure security, by way of micro-segmenting, today’s data center environments need.

Micro-Segmentation Principle

As a first step let’s take a brief look at the NSX platform and its components:

DRajan NSX Switch

In the data plane of the NSX vSwitch that are vSphere Distributed Switches (vDS) and FW hypervisor extension modules that run at the kernel level and provide Distributed Firewalling (DFW) functionality at line rate speed and performance.

The NSX Edge can provide edge firewalling functionality/perimeter firewall to the Internet-facing side. The NSX controller is the control plane-level component providing high availability. The NSX manager is the management-level component that communicates with vCenter infrastructure.

By doing micro-segmentation and applying the firewall rules at the virtual machine level we control the traffic flow on the egress side by validating the rules at the virtual machine level, avoiding multiple hops and hair pinning as the traffic does not have to make multiple hops to the physical firewall to get validated. Thus, we also get good visibility of traffic to monitor and secure the virtual machine.

Micro-segmentation is based on the startup principal: assume everything is a threat and act accordingly. This is “zero trust” model. It is indirectly saying entities that need access to resources must prove they are legitimate to gain access to the identified resource.

With a zero trust baseline assumption—which can be “deny by default” —we start to relax and apply certain design principles that enable us to build a cohesive yet scalable architecture that can be controlled and managed well. Thus we define three key design principles.

1) Isolation and segmentation – Isolation is the foundation of most network security, whether for compliance, containment or simply keeping development, test and production environments from interacting. Segmentation from a firewalling point of view refers to micro-segmentation on a single Layer 2 segment using DFW rules.

2) Unit-level trust/least privileges What this means is to provide access to a granular entity as needed for that user, be it a virtual machine level or something within the virtual machine.

3) And the final principle is ‘Ubiquity and Centralized Control’. This helps to enable control and monitoring of activity by using the NSX Controller, which provides a centralized controller, the NSX manager, and the cloud management platforms that provide integrated management.

Using the above principle, we can lay out an architecture for any greenfield or brownfield data center environment that will help us micro-segment the network in a manner that is architecturally sound, flexible to adapt, and enables safe application enablement with the ability to integrate advanced services.

DRajan Micro Segmentation


Dynamic Traffic Steering

Network security teams are often challenged to coordinate network security services from multiple vendors in relationship to each other. Another powerful benefit of the NSX approach is its ability to build security policies that leverage NSX service insertion, with Dynamic Services chaining and traffic steering to drive service execution in the logical services pipeline. This is based on the result of other services that make it possible to coordinate otherwise completely unrelated network security services from multiple vendors. For example, we can introduce advanced chaining services where―at a specific layer—we can direct specific traffic to, for example, a Palo Alto Networks (PANW) virtual VM-series firewall for scanning, threat identification, taking necessary action quarantine an application if required.

Palo Alto Networks VM-series Firewalls Integration with NSX

The Palo Alto Networks next-generation firewall integrates with VMware NSX at the ESXi server level to provide comprehensive visibility and safe application enablement of all data center traffic including intra-host virtual machine communications. Panorama is the centralized management tool for the VM-series firewalls. Panorama works with the NSX Manager to deploy the license and centrally administer configuration and policies on the VM-series firewall.

The first step of integration is for Panorama to register the VM-series firewall on the NSX manager. This allows the NSX Manager to deploy the VM-series firewall on each ESXi host in the ESXi cluster. The integration with the NetX API makes it possible to automate the process of installing the VM-series firewall directly on the ESXi hypervisor, and allows the hypervisor to forward traffic to the VM-series firewall without using the vSwitch configuration. It therefore requires no change to the virtual network topology.

DRajan Panorama Registration with NSX

To redirect traffic the NSX service composer is used to create security groups and define network introspection rules that specify traffic from guests who are steered to the VM-series firewall. For traffic that needs to be inspected and secured by the VM-series firewall, the NSX service composer policies redirect traffic to the Palo Alto Networks Next-Gen Firewall (NGFW) service. This traffic is then steered to the VM-series firewall and is processed by the VM-series firewall before it goes to the virtual switch.

Traffic that does not need to be inspected by the VM-series firewall, for example, network data backup or traffic to an internal domain controller, does not need to be redirected to the VM-series firewall and can be sent to the virtual switch for onward processing.

The NSX Manager sends real-time updates on the changes in the virtual environment to Panorama. The firewall rules are centrally defined and managed on Panorama and pushed to the VM-series firewalls. The VM-series firewall enforces security policies by matching source or destination IP addresses. The use of Dynamic Address Groups allows the firewall to populate members of the Dynamic Address Groups in real time, and forwards the traffic to the filters on the NSX firewall.

Integrated Solution Benefits

Better security – Micro-segmentation enables reduced surface area of attack. It enables safe application enablement and protection against known and unknown threats to protect virtual and cloud environments. The integration enables easy identification and isolation of compromised applications faster.

Simplified deployment and faster secure service enablement – When a new ESXi host is added to a cluster, a new VM-series firewall is automatically deployed, provisioned and available for immediate policy enforcement without any manual intervention.

Operational flexibility – The automated workflow allows you to keep pace with VM deployments in your data center. The hypervisor mode on the firewall removes the need to reconfigure the ports/vSwitches/network topology; because each ESXi host has an instance of the firewall, traffic does not need to traverse the network for inspection and consistent enforcement of policies.

Selective traffic redirection – Only traffic that needs inspection by VM-series firewall needs redirection.

Dynamic security enforcement – The Dynamic Address Groups maintain awareness of changes in the virtual machines/applications and ensure that security policies stay in tandem with changes in the network.

Accelerated deployments of business-critical applications – Enterprises can provision security services faster and utilize capacity of cloud infrastructures, and this makes it more efficient to deploy, move and scale their applications without worrying about security.

For more information on NSX visit: http://www.vmware.com/products/nsx/

For more information on VMware Professional Services visit: http://www.vmware.com/consulting/

Dharma Rajan is a Solution Architect in the Professional Services Organization specializing in pre-sales for SDDC and driving NSX technology solutions to the field. His experience spans Enterprise and Carrier Networks. He holds an MS degree in Computer Engineering from NCSU and M.Tech degree in CAD from IIT

One thought on “Improving Internal Data Center Security with NSX-PANW Integration

  1. German Barros

    Are there any integration options with physical PAN firewalls/Panorama and standard deployment of VMWare DVS (non-NSX) ?


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