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Proxies and the Cloud (Public and Private)

By Rich

Recently I had a conversation with a security vendor offering a proxy-based solution for a particular problem (yes, I’m being deliberately obscure). Their technology is interesting, but fundamental changes in how we consume IT resources challenge the very idea that a proxy can effectively address this problem.

The two most disruptive trends in information technology today are mobility and the cloud. With mobility we gain (and demand) anywhere access as the norm, redistributing access across varied devices. At the same time, cloud computing redefines both the data center and the architectures within data centers. Even a private internal cloud dramatically changes the delivery of IT resources.

So both delivery and consumption models change simultaneously and dramatically – both distributing and consolidating resources.

What does this have to do with proxies?

Generally they have been a great solution to a tough problem. It’s a royal pain to distribute security controls across all endpoints, for both performance and management reasons. For example, there is no DLP or URL filtering solution on the market that can fully enforce the same sorts of rules on an endpoint as on a server. Fortunately for us, our traditional IT architectures naturally created chokepoints. Even mobile users needed them to pipe back into the core for normal business/access reasons – quite aside from security.

But we’ve all seen this eroding over time. That erosion now reminds me of those massive calving glaciers that sunk the Titanic – not the slow-movers that created all those lovely fjords.

From the networking issues inherent to private cloud, to users accessing SaaS resources directly without going through an enterprise gateway, the proxy model is facing challenges. In some cloud deployments you can’t use them at all.

There are a many things I still like proxies for, but here are some rough rules I use in figuring out when they make sense.

  1. If you have a bunch of access devices in a bunch of locations, you either need to switch to an agent or reroute everything to the proxy (not always easy to do).
  2. Proxies don’t need to be in your core network – they can be in the cloud (like our VPN server, which we use for browsing on public WiFi). This means putting more trust in your cloud provider, depending on what you are doing.
  3. Proxies in private cloud and virtualization (e.g., encryption or network traffic analysis) need to account for (potentially) mobile virtual machines within the environment. This requires carefully architecting both physical and virtual networks, and considering how to define provisioning rules for the cloud.
  4. With a private cloud, unless you move to agents, you’ll need to build inline virtual proxies, bounce traffic out of the cloud, or find a hypervisor-level proxy (not many today – more coming). Performance varies.

But the reality is that the more we adopt cloud, the fewer fixed checkpoints we’ll have, and the more we will have to evolve our definition of ‘proxy’ away from its currently meaning.

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