The evolution of access control

Do you remember what it was like when everyone had desktop computers and data security focused on the best way to physically lock computers to heavy desks?

Many customers are asking us the question how they would be able to take control again of their “environment” where the environment now has become scattered amongst on-premise or outsourced resources, Cloud resources and Mobile devices.

In this blog post, we’ll review the ways security and access control have changed over the years, highlighting how Enterprise Mobility Management solutions (we’ll be showing you the  Microsoft Enterprise Mobility suite here) are poised to provide integrated solutions for the current world with mobile devices and online (Cloud) services.

We’re using the Microsoft Enterprise Mobility (EMS) solution as the explicit example here, because Microsoft has a different vision on how to solve these issues compared to other solution providers like MobileIron or Airwatch. The main and most important difference in vision between those providers, is the way they are handling the delivery of (mobile) applications and data. Where MobileIron and Airwatch (as an example, there are many other providers out there) are desperately trying to create “controlled bubbles”, the Microsoft vision is to use the native device and application experience, while protecting the access towards the application and the data. That’s a fundamental other way of taking care of the challenge here. It’s not that the “bubble” approach is wrong to begin with (even more, there are specific use cases to use the approach) but the end-user will lose the “native device experience” but even more the end-user will end up using the EMM solution provided mobile apps to replace the native apps…

bubble approach

Picture: showing the MobileIron “apps” with the “bubble” approach 

We’ve seen cases at customers where the “bubble” approach failed or at least was not that successful as end-users did not fully accepted the fact that they where losing the native device apps like Outlook mail of ActiveSync. Let’s not get going about the quality of those non-native EMM apps here but you’re able to imagine the challenges there for the EMM providers 😉

So what’s the vision of Microsoft here ? Well, Microsoft has of course the best interest in using their  applications but on the other hand they have a great bundle of solutions to their availability. But first, let us have a look in the way things have been changed the past years for now:

Mobile Access version 1: Mobile Laptops

In the past, corporate data was hosted on-premises. It was accessed by desktops that were physically connected to the corporate network. Then, laptops emerged as the dominant corporate device, and the Virtual Private Network (VPN) was born.
VPNs provided 3 primary functions:

1. They made it possible for laptops to reach corporate services on the Intranet
2. They restricted corporate access to Internet-connected laptops
3. They helped prevent data loss by encrypting communications and running agents on the laptops that helped contain data

Over time, VPN technology evolved. The criteria that could be used for access control (e.g. require the laptop to be domain-joined) expanded and the technology to prevent data loss matured.
Eventually, new types of VPNs such as SSL VPNs emerged. SSL VPNs enabled app-specific, as opposed to device-wide, access to corporate services from the Internet. This reduced the attack surface and also enabled new scenarios such as accessing corporate services from web browsers running on unmanaged devices.

Mobile Access version 2: Smart Mobile Devices

Later, when smart mobile devices arrived in the corporate computing landscape, they needed access to corporate resources, and VPN technology was the tool available to provide that. Mobile devices, primarily connected to the Internet, needed network reachability to corporate services. However, theses always-on devices brought many security concerns from their early general lack of IT controls. This drove demand for complementary technology to the VPNs which would help protect data.
All of this created an opportunity for integrated solutions based on Mobile VPN, Mobile Device Management (MDM), and Mobile Application Management (MAM). The management system would provision a VPN profile to a mobile device and thereby give it controlled access to corporate services on the Intranet. MDM and MAM features would help provide data protection on mobile devices analogously to the agents deployed by VPN clients on laptops.
Over time, Mobile VPNs emerged into per-app Mobile VPNs. The per-app variety provided similar benefits to mobile devices that SSL VPNs had provided to mobile laptops in the past. They reduced the attack surface and enabled new scenarios.

Mobile Access version 3: Identity-based Access Control and Data Protection

Now, we are in an era of mobile access where increasing amounts of corporate data lives outside of the network perimeter. Data still lives on corporate networks, but it’s also in cloud services, on mobile devices, and in mobile apps. Perhaps one day you won’t have any corporate data left on-premises, but the moment you start adopting cloud services you need to rethink the way access is controlled and data is protected.


Picture: showing that within the current world the apps, devices and resources are scattered

In the mobile-first, cloud-first world, a fundamentally different approach was needed, so we built access control and data protection directly into mobile devices, mobile apps, and the cloud infrastructure itself.  In this world your network perimeter is replaced by an “identity perimeter.”


Picture: showing that within the perimeter protection layers do not apply anymore

That’s what Microsoft has built with Office 365 and the Enterprise Mobility Suite, as a supplement to the classic VPN provisioning mechanisms that other  EMM providers like MobileIron or Airwatch have for on-premises apps. Microsoft EMS delivers integrated identity, access control, management, and data protection – built to protect your corporate data wherever it lives, using technologies like Device and Application Management, Information Right Management, Risk based contextual based authentication, Analytic Security Services and more.

With Microsoft EMS, whenever a mobile device or app attempts to authenticate to an online service (Microsoft or 3rd party) or on-premises web app, subjects the request to criteria you define, consulting with the management system as needed. Is the mobile device managed and compliant with your IT policies? Is the mobile app managed? Has the user presented multiple forms of authentication? Is the PC domain-joined and managed or controlled ? Is the request coming from the corporate network or the internet? All of these criteria and more are provided without the need for VPN. It’s just built-in the solution.
The diagram below shows how Microsoft EMS ensures that you have the access controls in the cloud needed to replace the access controls in your VPNs.


Picture: illustration of conditional access using Microsoft EMS

In addition to providing cloud access control, Microsoft EMS also provides native data protection. Again, this is based on identity and integrated with management.
Was a corporate identity used to access the data? If yes, then the mobile apps will prevent the data from being shared with consumer apps or services via Save-As, Open-In, clipboard, etc (Intune MAM with or without device enrollment into MDM). Is the document itself explicitly protected by an access policy (using IRM like Azure RMS)? If so, enforce access control on that file, even when it roams outside of apps and devices under management.

This integrated approach to data loss prevention enables the same application to isolate the corporate and personal data that it handles. This means your employees will not have to use separate apps for work. They can just use native or Office mobile apps for work and personal use and the right protections will apply at the right times. The diagram below shows this concept.


Picture: showing the Microsoft EMS approach to handle Data Loss Prevention

As mobile access evolves from VPN-based to identity-based, we foresee several benefits:

  • Cost savings compared to VPNs. VPN technology is typically expensive and complex. Deploying VPN agents, profiles, and certificates is also complex and expensive. As more and more of your data moves to the cloud, you’ll enable larger and larger populations of cloud-only users that don’t require a VPN and everything it carries.
  • Simpler access infrastructure to operate. Instead of operating a global scale network perimeter with various proxies, gateways, and VPNs, you just need to connect your existing on premise AD with the Azure Active Directory. From there, Office 365 and other SaaS apps will route their authentication through Azure AD and your modern access controls will be enforced.
  • Better end-user experiences. With EMS’s identity-based access control, your end users will not have to install and launch separate VPN apps. The access control experience is natively a part of the sign-in experience in the mobile apps. Since your traffic isn’t bounced from the Internet to the Intranet and back, your employees get better latency and performance in their mobile apps.
  • Positioned for the future. Once your basic cloud access infrastructure is in place, you have a solid foundation for future innovation. Because the capabilities are provided from the cloud, improvements come often and automatically. You don’t need to plan upgrades or migrations to start to take advantage of the latest and greatest. Compare this to your VPN infrastructure today and the tremendous amount of effort it takes to upgrade to the latest and greatest.

As Route443, we’re often working by the identity-based model for mobile access control and data protection, as it has our special interest we’re following any developments very closely. We see this development as one of the best things offered in the industry to help you provide great mobile experiences to your employees and in the most future-proofed way.

In the meantime, if you’d like to know more on how you are able to use this functionality within your corporate environment, please contact us and let us know how we can assist you.