General Architecture Design Guidelines

We've touched on the many design issues needed for security, but now we boil these down to three key design principles for security architectures:

  1. Isolate potentially hostile traffic from sensitive traffic.

  2. Canalize[1] potentially hostile traffic through a small set of fixed entry points that are well protected and monitored.

    [1] Canalize means forcing the data down a well-defined route, like water in a canal.

  3. Use a layered defense whenever possible.

Many of you will recognize these as the guidelines that apply to Internet connections. The firewall is an instantiation of these principles. It isolates and canalizes traffic through a fixed entry point, and it can apply additional layers of security through the use of a virtual private network or additional authentication requirements.

Wireless networks are somewhat more difficult to deal with than an Internet connection, however. Whereas an Internet connection enters the enterprise in only a few fixed locations, wireless access points must be located throughout the enterprise to provide reasonable coverage areas.

So what are our choices in providing isolation and canalization? Well, we could make each access point a firewall. While this certainly meets our goals, it also introduces a horrendous management burden in large enterprises and may not be the best approach in all situations. Certainly in small office/home office (SOHO) scenarios, this might make some sense because there is only one access point, however.

You can now recognize some of the tradeoffs you must make when designing security architectures. A good security architect must balance the threat, information value, and costs (both monetary and management) in designing the architecture. While the solution of making every access point a firewall-like device meets some of the design criteria, it introduces a potentially difficult management problem in some environments. As a result, you must select your equipment carefully.

You would be well served by working closely with your vendor or value-added reseller when choosing equipment. Don't blindly accept statements by either the vendor or their integrator that the equipment is secure. Ask them to define what they mean?for example, "Secure against what type of threat?" Be especially diligent if the vendor uses a proprietary solution. Ask who has reviewed the solution, and ask to see the details so you or someone within your organization can review it. These days, there are few reasons to use a proprietary solution because both WPA and RSN provide protection robust enough for almost all organizations. If you are extremely paranoid, you can add security using upper-layer protection, such as VPN.

Finally, remember, that WPA is an interim solution until IEEE 802.11i RSN is complete. It may be that the full RSN will become WPA2 in the future. The cryptographic primitives used in WPA are believed to be robust, but it takes time to ensure that an algorithm is secure. For instance, RC4 was known publicly for some time before the problems were found that decimated WEP. As such, you should (if security is important to you) plan on upgrading your infrastructure to the AES-based solution (RSN) as soon as you can.

    Part II: The Design of Wi-Fi Security