Even before the major denial-of-service attack that took down power in the Ukraine in December 2015, industrial systems experts had been growing more restive about the mounting insecurities of these mission critical systems. That attack brought significant awareness to this issue.
In the 18 months since then, we've seen other similar examples of what happens when industrial systems remain unhardened while they gain connectivity–one need only look at the Dallas “Tornado Siren” attack. The trouble is that even now so much of the ink spilled over these events still fixates on bringing awareness to the problems without putting concrete suggestions forward about how we can make progress toward solving them.
When experts make recommendations, they often gloss over the realities of industrial network architectures and the direction industrial businesses need to move toward in the future. For example, one high profile report from MIT’s Internet Policy Research Initiative recently recommended taking critical components of the electrical grid and gas pipeline offline for the sake of security. This despite two glaring realities of industrial systems. First, that so-called air gaps have already been proven to be ineffective in protecting systems from hacking. Second, the organizations relying on industrial systems need them to be more interconnected than ever. The more connected they are to each other and to the internet, the greater gains there are to be made in manageability, predictive maintenance, compliance and safety. The truth is that there's no putting the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) genie back into the bottle. It doesn't make business sense.
Rather than sticking our heads in the sand about the increasing connectivity of industrial systems, why not embrace it and move forward from there? It's time to move beyond doom-and-gloom predictions of industrial network attacks and start talking about the practicalities of what it'll take to protect ourselves against them.
One way we can do that is to start considering software-defined networking (SDN) as a technological approach with far more potential beyond its first use-case in the telecom world. SDN was designed to benefit carrier-level networks. But repurposing this now maturing technological framework may be just what the industrial world needs to solve three of its biggest security problems. Here's how.
Problem 1: Mixed-mode environments
Many industrial organizations struggle to secure their systems because they're dealing with a mix of applications that require multiple networking approaches, which can add a great deal of complexity in the architecture. It's not uncommon to find industrial systems running time-sensitive networking (TSN) applications in parallel alongside legacy Ethernet.
SDN can help ameliorate this by facilitating these two approaches on the same network–the flexibility of SDN architecture makes it possible to easily handle a mixed environment.
Problem 2: Convergence of connectivity
There is an arms race of connectivity in the industrial world for transmitting high-fidelity data from the instrumentation layer all the way down to the components for emerging applications like predictive maintenance and variable rate billing.
The trouble is that most industrial systems were individually built with the assumption that they'd always be offline and isolated. With more and more industrial system vendors connecting directly to the cloud without proper security considerations being made, we're short circuiting just about every known security principle we have in the digital space. Industrial SDN is uniquely suited to enable secure communications while addressing the security of those communications in facilitating key business practices.
Problem 3: Lack of visibility
Ultimately, the combination of increased connectivity and mixed-mode environments contributes to a lack of visibility that absolutely squashes the ability to protect an environment. This is where SDN shines. SDN is uniquely positioned because it essentially repurposes the switch infrastructure and enables you to use those switches to not only handle the network traffic, but also perform traffic prioritization.
This way, an organization can see every device that’s on the network, how they’re communicating, the protocols they’re using, who their communication partners are, and the behavior of those partners. It offers 100 percent visibility–which is not the case for current industrial networks.
A lot of people are starting to recognize the value that SDN holds for industrial security. In fact, the Department of Energy (DOE) is getting behind the idea in with a new multi-million dollar research and development program it calls Chessmaster, which is focused primarily on this area.
Rather than simply banging our head against a brick wall by insisting on traditional security practices that have never gained much headway in the industrial world, it's time to address the problems that prevent administrators from implementing meaningful protections in these systems. SDN may not be the magic wand for securing industrial systems, but it provides the perfect architectural bridge across some big infrastructure gaps so that we can move forward building other layers of security into these systems.