AppSec Network Engineers: Align Security with Business

It may surprise many people but the number one skills gap hampering today’s application security network engineers is primarily centered around the soft skills which includes communication, writing, presentation, team building and critical thinking. Why is this so important? Because first and foremost, their goal is to manage the organization’s security posture by deploying the best application security tools and technologies for the specific security and growth needs of the business.

Keep things safe but don’t get in the way of revenue generation

What an application security network engineer should not do is get in the way of developing new business-critical or revenue-generating applications. At the same time, they need to understand that they have a leadership role to play in steering a safe and profitable course for the business.

Starting with an in-depth understanding of all wired traffic, AppSec network engineers need to know what applications are running on the network, how they communicate, who they communicate with and how to secure the traffic and connectivity flow associated with each one of them.

An AppSec network engineer’s expertise should extend much more than mastering simple applications such as FTP and SSH. Rather, business traffic continuity should sit at the pinnacle of their responsibilities. There’s a lot of revenue-generating traffic that they need to understand and put the right guardrails to protect it. However, equally as important, they need to make sure that the traffic is not hindered by outdated or irrelevant rules and policies, to avoid any negative financial impact on the organization.

Layers of expertise beyond the OSI model

A good starting point for any AppSec network engineer is to acquire a commanding knowledge of the seven layers of the OSI model, especially Layer 6 which covers Presentation.  In practical terms, this means that they should have a thorough understanding of the network and transport layers – knowing what traffic is going across the network and why. It’s also helpful to have basic scripting knowledge and an understanding of simple scripts such as a cron job for scheduling tasks. It could also be useful to know some basic level programming like Perl and PHP. Beyond the network skills, AppSec network engineers should grasp the business vertical in which they operate. Once they gain an understanding of the business DNA and the applications that make it tick, then they can add real value to their organizations.

What’s on the network vs. what should be on the network

Should AppSec network engineers be expected to understand business and applications? Absolutely. With this level of skill and knowledge, they can help the business progress securely by correlating what is actually in the network environment versus what should be in the environment.  Once they have clear understanding, they can clean up the environment and optimize network performance with enhanced security. This becomes more critical as organizations grow and develop, often allowing too much unnecessary traffic into the environment. Typically, this is how the scenario plays out: Applications are added or removed (decommissioned), or a new vendor or solution is brought on board and the firewall turns into a de facto router. The end result of such often leads to new vulnerabilities and too many unnecessary threat vectors. This is precisely where the aforementioned soft skills come in – an AppSec network engineer should be able to call out practices that don’t align with business goals. It’s also incumbent upon organizations to offer soft skills training to help their AppSec network engineers become more valuable to their teams.

Need an application view to be effective in securing the business

When firewalls become de facto routers, organizations end up relying on other areas for security. However, security needs to be aligned with the applications to prevent cyber attacks from getting onto the network and then from moving laterally across the network, should they manage to bypass the firewalls. All too often, east-west security is inadequate and therefore, AppSec network engineers need to look at network segmentation and application segmentation as part of a holistic network security strategy. The good news is that there are some great new technologies that can help with segmenting an internal network. The lesser good news is that there’s a danger in the thinking that by bolting on new tools, the problem will be solved. So often these tools are only partially deployed before the team moves onto the next “latest and the greatest” solution. When exploring new technologies, AppSec network engineers must ask themselves the following: Is there a matching use case for each solution? Will procurement of another tool lead to securing the environment or will it just be another useless “flavor of the month” tool? Regardless, once the new technology solution is acquired, it is imperative to align the right skillful people with this technology to enable the organization to intelligently secure the whole environment before moving on to a new tool. To further hone this point, celebrating the introduction of a new firewall is superfluous if at the end of the day, it does not utilize the right rules and policies. Ushering some of these new technologies without proper deployment will only leave gaping holes and give organizations a false sense of security, exposing them to continuous risks.

Don’t put the cloud native cart before the horse

The role of an AppSec network engineer becomes even more critical when moving to the cloud. It starts with asking probing questions: What are the applications in the business and why are we moving them to the cloud? Is it for scalability, speed of access or to update a legacy system? Will the business benefit from the investment and the potential performance impact? It’s also important to consider the architecture in the cloud: Is it containerized, public cloud, private cloud or hybrid? Once you get definitive answers to these questions, create reference architectures and get senior-level buy-in. Finally, think about the order in which the enterprise migrates applications to the cloud and maybe start with some non-critical applications that only affect a small number of locations or people before risking moving critical revenue generating applications. Don’t put the cart before the horse.

DevSecOps: We should be working together; you can be sure the criminals are…

Network application security is complicated enough without introducing internal squabbles over resources or sacrificing security for speed. Security teams and development teams need to work together and focus on what is best for your business. Again, this where the soft skills like teamwork, communications and project management come into play. The bottom line is this: Understand bad actors and prepare for the worst. The bad guys are just chomping at the bit, waiting for your organizations to make the next mistake. To beat them, DevSecOps teams must leverage all the resources they have available.

Future promise or false sense of security?

There are some exciting new technologies to look forward to in the horizon to help secure the application environment. Areas like quantum computing, machine learning, AI and blockchain show great promise in outfoxing the cybercriminals in the healthcare and financial services industries. It is expected that the AppSec network engineer will play a vital role in the viability of these new technologies. Yet, the right technology will still need to be applied to the right use case correctly and then fully deployed to in order see any effective results.

The takeaway

So much of the role of the AppSec network engineer is about taking a cold hard look at the goals of the business and asking some challenging questions. It all starts with “what’s right for the business?” rather than “what’s the latest technology we can get our hands on?”  To be an effective AppSec network engineer, individuals should not only know the corporate network inside out, but they also must have an overall grasp of applications and the applicable business cases they support. Furthermore, collaboration with developers and operations (DevOps) becomes an agent for rapid deployment of revenue generating or mission-critical applications. But it still goes back to the soft skills. To protect the business from taking needless security risks and demand a seat at the decision-making table, AppSec network engineers need to apply strong leadership, project management and communications skills.

Eric Jeffery

Eric Jeffery has nearly 30 years’ information technology experience with over 20 years in cyber security. He currently works as a Regions Solutions Engineer at AlgoSec. He has published dozens of articles, presented at numerous conferences, and has a patent filed for a novel cyber security defensive maturity model. Eric runs a Podcast under the moniker Cyber Security Grey Beard® to help students and early professionals learn, grow, and advance in the information security profession.

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