Your Security Strategy Needs to Scale Too – Here’s How

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It’s hard to go to a tech conference or read a developer’s blog these days without being reminded of how critical scalability is. If we want to keep users happy, optimize costs, and future-proof our software, we need to scale, scale, scale.

Arguably, the conversation about scalability tends to gloss over one important component: security. When most people talk about scalability, they are referring to the ability of software to support a greater or lesser number of users by increasing or decreasing the number of application instances available, and/or the size of the infrastructure that hosts an application. They are not thinking of how security factors into that equation.

Yet the fact is that you can’t scale your systems effectively if your security operations are not also scalable. Let’s take a look at what scalable security means, and how you can achieve it.

What is scalable security (and why should you care)?

Put simply, scalable security refers to a security strategy and toolset that can increase or decrease in capacity to support a larger or smaller load, depending on fluctuations in demand.

Why does scalable security matter? The answer may seem elusive. As noted above, security may not be one of the realms that comes to mind when you think about scalability writ large.

However, scalable security is important for several key reasons:

  • Most obviously, it ensures that your systems remain secure even if load increases.
  • It can help to reduce costs in the event that you need to scale your systems down, and therefore you no longer require an extensive (costly) deployment of security tools.
  • Security scalability helps to ensure that capacity problems do not delay your ability to identify and react to security incidents. Avoiding delays is important in any context, of course, but it’s especially crucial for security, since the cost of a breach (and the difficulty of solving it) can increase exponentially in a short amount of time.
  • It helps to keep your users confident in your ability to secure their data, even if your deployments grow very large and lose the personalized feel that small-scale systems instill in users.

Achieving scalable security

What does it actually take to achieve scalable security? Consider the following best practices for implementing a security model that is highly scalable.

Use cloud-based security tools
By now, we all know that scalability is one of the chief selling points of the cloud. That’s true not just when it comes to building infrastructure and deploying applications, but also for security tools.

Simply put, a security tool that runs in the cloud is a tool that will scale better. You don’t have to worry about rolling out new instances (and infrastructure to host those instances), increasing storage capacity, aggregating more logs (and so on) when you want to scale up a security tool that runs in the cloud.

Adopt multi-purpose security tools
Some security tools are designed to do one thing (such as security-related log analysis, in the case of SIEM) or they support one type of platform (such as a cloud environment).

Other, better security tools can handle multiple tasks at once. They can secure multiple types of infrastructure — ranging from on-premises to various public clouds, and from traditional virtual machines to containers to serverless FaaS. They can also perform multiple security services, such as log analysis and network firewalling at the same time.

Multi-purpose tools help to enable scalable security by allowing you to expand your infrastructure or application deployments in new directions without having to worry about setting up a new security tool. If you’re using virtual machines today but plan to migrate to containers tomorrow in order to increase your overall scalability, you don’t want your security needs to create an obstacle for that process.

Embrace dynamic configurations
When your security tools rely on manual configurations that must be tweaked each time your environment changes in nature or scale, they become a serious hindrance to scalability. For that reason, you want security tools that can dynamically adjust their own behavior as environmental factors change.

In concrete terms, this means, for example, avoiding a firewall configuration that is based on a statically configured blacklist of IP addresses. Instead, prefer a cloud-native firewall that automatically reacts to changes in your environment, and makes intelligent decisions based on a variety of data points to determine which traffic to block.

Don’t forget compliance
When thinking about security and scalability, it can be easy to forget that other issue that developers don’t often like to think about: compliance.

Yet the reality is that if you want your security strategy to be able to scale seamlessly, you need security tools that are optimized for compliance requirements. This is especially true because compliance requirements can sometimes change depending on the scale of a deployment.

You don’t want to scale up or down only to find that you’re facing a compliance gap after your scale changes. Instead, adopt security tools that enable compliance (and the auditing and reporting facilities that go hand-in-hand with it) at every stage of your deployment, and every scale of your environment.

Conclusion

To build scalable systems, you need to think about more than just how easily you can extend your infrastructure or application deployments. You need to also consider how well your security tools and processes can change in scope when the rest of your environment changes. To achieve maximum scalability in security, choose a cloud-native security tool that supports a unified security strategy.


Chris Riley is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling.


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