Securing your client network 2: Separate by device classes

June 16, 2015

The second article in the securing your client network series (after Enforce DHCP usage) is about separating different client device classes in the network. Typically enterprises separate different departments in separate VLANs. If the VLANs are routed in the same VRF and no ACLs separate them, the gained security is negligible. If you’re configuring ACLs for this, you have too much time on hand or the rules are not tight. And the setup works only good if you’re within one central office building and your network is not distributed over an city or even country.  So after I told you what is not a good idea – what setup do I recommend for bigger networks (> 500 client switch ports .. works great for > 10.000 ports and more).

Separate not by department, separate by device class

Yes, that’s the basic idea behind it. Why is that better?

  • less work
    Employees and departments move around. You need to keep your configuration up to date and if part of a department moves to an other location you need to extend the layer2 network think about something else
  • simpler and more secure firewall rules
    If your VoIP phones, PCs and printers of an department are in the same Layer2 network you need to keep track of the devices for the firewall rules or allow a printer the same access as an PC or an VoIP phone. If you separate your printers in a separated network the firewall rules for them are easy, every device in that network is a printer. The firewall rules can be much more strict than in the PC network – a printer needs to talk to the print server (and dns, dhcp, ntp) but nothing else – a PC needs much more
  • network authentication tailored to the device class
    MAC authentication works for any device, but 802.1x only works if the device supports it. Switching 802.1x on for all devices at the same time won’t work, but if only one device is allowed into a network area with only MAC authentication – It does not help that all others use 802.1x, the attacker just fakes that MAC address. With a separation by device classes you can  implemented 802.1x for some networks and others not. e.g. 802.1x for Windows PCs with AD integration is not that complicated – so for the PC network 802.1x could be required, but for the printer network MAC authentication is Ok.  This is specially valid if the firewall rules in the printer network are much more strict – even if someone gets access to that network he is not able to connect to the Exchange, database or file server … only the print server is allowed to connect to the printers and not the other way round
  • separate systems with different patch intervals
    Most likely your Windows clients get an update very month but when did your company the last time update the firmware of the printers? Separate them and attacker can’t jump systems that easy any more.
  • block client to client communication
    If a network area is only used for devices classes that don’t need (or should) communicated directly with each other, you can just block that communication with ACLs. The ACLs are the same for all Layer 2 client access switches and are maintenance free. A classic example for this would be the printer network … why should one printer talk with an other printer – just the print server needs to be able to reach the printers.  So if one printer gets pwned it does not affect the other printers. The same is true for building automation networks (like cameras, access control systems, attendance clock) or maybe your PCs don’t need to talk to each other – VoIP most likely needs to 😉

I hope I convinced you its an good idea, but how is it technically done.

Dynamic VLAN assignment

I recommend to use dynamic VLAN assignment via MAC or 802.1x authentication (via RADIUS Server) .Lets assume you’ve following setup:

  • Edge: Layer 2 edge switch to which the clients are connected to
  • Distribution: Layer 3 switch which aggregates multiple Layer 2 edge switches in the same building
  • Core: aggregates the distribution switches in the data center
  • Firewall: firewall between DMZ and between the different client network areas


The names of the VLANs on every edge switch are the same, just the VLAN IDs are different. This allows the RADIUS server to return the name of the VLAN the switch should assign to a port or MAC. As the name is the same for all switches, the RADIUS server does not need to know the VLAN IDs. The RADIUS server just has a table that tells it which MAC or common name (in case of 802.1x EAP-TLS) does go into which VLAN. All your switches are configured exactly the same, just the management IP address and the VLAN IDs are different … that makes deploying and maintaining really easy.

For getting the traffic from the edge to the data center I recommend using VRF (Virtual Routing and Forwarding) and OSPF. Just assign the PC VLANs in one VRF and vlanPrinter in an other VRF. The link from the core to the firewall is also tagged. The firewall is now the only way to get from the PC network to the printer network.

I hope that example makes the setup clear, if now just write a comment.

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