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Lee Badman
Lee Badman
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Meraki's Managed Wireless Gets Stronger Security, But ...

Meraki's new code release includes the Air Marshal security module as well as several other features. If you're new to managed wireless, however, here are some things to note.

Meraki's latest announced feature release ups the cloud WLAN value proposition, but those new to wireless security need to consider the big picture.

As a university wireless architect, I'm responsible for a number of remote sites as well as our main campus, with its 3,200 Cisco access points. Among these distant locations is the Syracuse University London Program (SULP), which features a 35-access-point WLAN and Meraki-enabled site-to-site VPN connection back to the mother ship in Syracuse. Users at SULP have a wireless experience that's identical to those on the main campus, right down to common SSID and authentication process. The cloud-managed Meraki framework in London is a good alternative to the far more complex and box-heavy Cisco option that would have been required to get the same functionality. I administer from afar and seldom have a concern about this far-flung part of campus.

To date, the managed wireless system has proven day in and day out to have been a great choice. Hundreds of happy users on the extended secure campus wireless network and statistically zero downtime are the proof in the network pudding, but at the same time Meraki has been thin in some important areas. For example, my high-dollar Cisco network is truly amazing at finding rogue APs and allowing me to make life miserable for the poor users behind them (if I so choose), while Meraki has simply done OK at showing the presence of unwanted network signals. Also, my Cisco wireless network offers a fairly robust wireless intrusion prevention/detection (WIPS/WIDS) capability, whereas the Meraki system does not. Until now.

In the newest Meraki code release, existing customers will soon get a free automatic upgrade that brings several welcome new features to the cloud-managed system console, including the Air Marshal security module. Air Marshal promises license-free (a differentiator) wireless intrusion, detection and threat mitigation. It all sounds very nice, with the ability to detect rogues and various wireless attacks with optional automatic response, but Meraki customers new to the security side of the WLAN need to proceed with caution.

To really make use of security features like WIPS/WIDS and rogue mitigation, admins need to have a policy that guides such things--and have strong faith in the vendor-provided dashboard that guides them. Developing a meaningful managed wireless security policy can be far more daunting than finding good hardware to enforce it, and a complicated dashboard can be a dangerous thing to uninitiated eyes. I like that signatures for attacks are "automatically updated," but I always wonder where the new attack vectors are coming from, and how many new wireless attacks are really being discovered on a regular basis. But then again, all it takes is one major attack to cripple the network and potentially lead to staff-terminating embarrassment for an organization, so arguably more capability in this area is always good (especially when licensing is free).

In practice, it's easy to say "we tolerate no rogues," while allowing automatic strafing of an area with disassociation frames to render the unauthorized access point useless takes things to a whole other level. I have personally made the mistake of shutting down a high-profile visitor's Mi-Fi device under our "no rogues" policy, and then had to answer for it even though I was abiding by our own rules (pretty much all environments end up needing exceptions on occasion).

Even informational rogue reporting is dicey. If I let my London Meraki environment email me every time a new "rogue" AP is seen by our Meraki APs, my inbox would be full of squawks from the hotels, businesses and apartments that surround our campus in very tight urban quarters. Adopting a proactive stance is far easier said than done in a world that's getting ever more saturated with wireless signals, and so these tools often get used in a more reactionary mode, after rogue-originated trouble arises.

There certainly is value in knowing what's afoot from the perspective of potentially malicious and policy-violating signals, so Meraki gets a thumbs up for Air Marshal. At the same time, how much time and effort a customer can put into using it, and how much value can really be extracted, will vary. This challenge is certainly not Meraki-specific, and any true enterprise-quality wireless system is expected to have tools the likes of Air Marshal, while the customer chooses how to make use of it.

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User Rank: Apprentice
7/27/2012 | 8:06:51 PM
re: Meraki's Managed Wireless Gets Stronger Security, But ...
As always, Lee an interesting post. WIPS need not be overwhelming nor difficult to manage even for those comparatively new to it. The trick is to use a WIPS which can automate prevention with no fear of "strafing" your neighbors benign APs which you see in the air but which are not on your network.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/25/2012 | 5:04:04 PM
re: Meraki's Managed Wireless Gets Stronger Security, But ...
In the past, I've seen wired-auto mitigation of rogues wrongly take down switch uplinks when the access port that the rogue was on couldn't be identified- this can be catastrophic. Beyond that sort of madness being considered, I guess I'd say enable WIPS, and observe how crappy most environments really are for a while. Much of what you see may be explainable and worthy of a free pass, others may jump out at you as immediately worrisome. i've learned to be an ease-into-it sort of guy.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/21/2012 | 1:38:06 AM
re: Meraki's Managed Wireless Gets Stronger Security, But ...
Great post as always, Lee. I agree that WIPS is powerful yet can become overwhelming, particularly for administrators who haven't had years of experience on a network like Syracuse.

For those new to the world of WIPS and looking for a policy to start with, I'd personally suggest configuring the system to automatically shooting down rogue APs plugged in to the wired LAN (which open your network wide up), and 'masquerading' SSIDs (networks with the same or similar name to your proper WLAN, which can trick users into providing passwords etc.) Whether using Meraki's Air Marshal or a solution from another vendor that has these capabilities, these policies provide an important layer of security, with relatively few headaches for admins and users. From there, administrators can "set it and forget it" or experiment with their policies and alerts to find the best balance for their particular environment.

What would you recommend for the administrators new to WIPS?

- Kiren Sekar, Meraki
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