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Securing the 5G edge

by Blogs & Opinions
Article Image The rollout of 5G networks coupled with edge compute introduces new security concerns for both the network and the enterprise. Security at the edge presents a unique set of security challenges that differ from those faced by traditional data centers. Today new concerns emerge from the combination of distributed architectures and a disaggregated network, creating new challenges for service providers.

Many mission critical applications enabled by 5G connectivity, such as smart factories, are better off hosted at the edge because it's more economical and delivers better Quality of Service (QoS). However, applications must also be secured; communication service providers need to ensure that applications operate in an environment that is both safe and provides isolation. This means that secure designs and protocols are in place to pre-empt threats, avoid incidents and minimize response time when incidents do occur.

As enterprises adopt private 5G networks to drive their Industry 4.0 strategies, these new enterprise 5G trends demand a new approach to security. Companies must find ways to reduce their exposure to cyberattacks that could potentially disrupt mission critical services, compromise industrial assets and threaten the safety of their workforce. Cybersecurity readiness is essential to ensure private network investments are not devalued.

The 5G network architecture, particularly at the edge, introduces new levels of service decomposition now evolving beyond the virtual machine and into the space of orchestrated containers. Such disaggregation requires the operation of a layered technology stack, from the physical infrastructure to resource abstraction, container enablement and orchestration, all of which present attack surfaces which require addressing from a security perspective. So how can CSPs protect their network and services from complex and rapidly growing threats?

Addressing vulnerability points of the network layer by layer

As networks grow and the number of connected nodes at the edge multiply, so do the vulnerability points. The distributed nature of the 5G edge increases vulnerability threats, just by having network infrastructure scattered across tens of thousands of sites. The arrival of the Internet of Things (IoT) further complicates the picture: with a greater number of connected and mobile devices, potentially creating new network bridging connection points, questions around network security have become more relevant.

As the integrity of the physical site cannot be guaranteed in the same way as a supervised data center, additional security measures need to be taken to protect the infrastructure. Transport and application control layers also need to be secured, to enable forms of "isolation" preventing a breach from propagating to other layers and components. Each layer requires specific security measures to ensure overall network security: use of Trusted Platform Modules (TPM) chipsets on motherboards, UEFI Secure OS boot process, secure connections in the control plane and more. These measures all contribute to and are integral part of an end-to-end network security design and strategy.

Open RAN for a more secure solution

The latest developments in open RAN and the collaborative standards-setting process related to open interfaces and supply chain diversification are enhancing the security of 5G networks. This is happening for two reasons. First, traditional networks are built using vendor proprietary technology a limited number of vendors dominate the telco equipment market and create vendor lock-in for service providers that forces them to also rely on vendors' proprietary security solutions. This in turn prevents the adoption of "best-of-breed" solutions and slows innovation and speed of response, potentially amplifying the impact of a security breach.

Second, open RAN standardization initiatives employ a set of open-source standards-based components. This has a positive effect on security as the design embedded in components is openly visible and understood; vendors can then contribute to such open-source projects where tighter security requirements need to be addressed.

Aside from the inherent security of the open-source components, open RAN defines a number of open interfaces which can be individually assessed in their security aspects. The openness intrinsically present in open RAN means that service components can be seamlessly upgraded or swapped to facilitate the introduction of more stringent security characteristics, or they can simultaneously swiftly address identified vulnerabilities.

Securing network components with AI

Monitoring the status of myriad network components, particularly spotting a security attack taking place among a multitude of cooperating application functions, requires resources that transcend the capabilities of a finite team of human operators. This is where advances in AI technology can help to augment the abilities of operations teams. AI massively scales the ability to monitor any number of KPIs, learn their characteristic behavior and identify anomalies this makes it the ideal companion in the secure operation of the 5G edge. The self-learning aspect of AI supports not just the identification of known incident patterns but also the ability to learn about new, unknown and unanticipated threats.

Security by design

Security needs to be integral to the design of the network architecture and its services. The adoption of open standards caters to the definition of security best practices in both the design and operation of the new 5G network edge. The analytics capabilities embedded in edge hyperconverged infrastructure components provide the platform on which to build an effective monitoring and troubleshooting toolkit, ensuring the secure operation of the intelligent edge.

Steve Hart, Director of Security Product Management, Wind River

Featured image by Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

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