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Defending the Mobile Core

Michelle Donegan
News Analysis
Michelle Donegan

BARCELONA -- Mobile World Congress 2014 -- Network security specialist Arbor Networks this week launched a traffic analysis product designed to give mobile operators visibility into their packet core networks so that they can detect attacks and prevent potentially widespread service outages.

With the new Peakflow Mobile Network Analysis, the company has extended its Peakflow product line, which tracks and detects anomalies in traffic flows in fixed-line backbone and datacenter networks, to provide the same level of visibility into mobile operators' core networks. And when used together, operators can have visibility and threat detection across their fixed and mobile networks from one management console.

One of the biggest challenges for mobile operators when it comes to network security is the lack of traffic visibility in the packet core and radio access network, as well as real-time insight into the sources of potential attacks, according to Arbor Networks

The company points to recent research from Heavy Reading which found that 60% of mobile operators have had a network outage or service degradation lasting at least an hour due to malicious attacks. In addition, 60% of respondents said they do not have visibility into their mobile packet core infrastructure.

Heavy Reading senior analyst Patrick Donegan said in a statement: "In today's environment, no one security approach is going to prevent all malicious traffic from reaching the mobile network. And nothing is going to stop the increasingly complex mix of protocols within the network from generating anomalous traffic behaviour. Mobile operators are increasingly looking for new ways to quickly visualize, identify and reduce security risks within the packet core."

Mobile network security is one of a number of key topics that will feature at The Big Telecom Event (BTE), June 17/18 at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers.

According to Tom Bienkowski, director of product marketing at Arbor, mobile operators' networks are threatened from both sides of the packet core -- that is, network attacks can originate from the fixed-line network over the Gi and SGi interfaces that sit between the packet core and external IP networks/public Internet, or they can come from devices, through malicious malware or non-malicious signalling storms.

"Today, the majority of threats are coming from the fixed-line networks, but the emerging trend is for attacks to come from the other side of the network, through mobile malware," said Bienkowski. "That's why operators need a holistic view."

But traffic anomalies do not always indicate a malicious attack on the network. Sometimes the unusual traffic patterns can be the result of a malfunction in the network or a signalling overload from user devices.

The Peakflow Mobile Network Analysis provides a view of this signalling activity by collecting telemetry from the packet core and reporting operational and security insights. For example, the product provides detailed signalling flow behaviour between the serving GPRS support node (SGSN)/serving gateway (SGW)/ mobility management entity (MME) elements and the gateway GPRS support node (GGSN)/packet gateway (PGW) nodes, for real-time and retrospective analytics. It also detects and alerts operators to signalling message volumes, so that they can quickly identify causes.

"Whether it's malicious or not, a threat is a threat and operators need to stop it," said Bienkowski. He added that Arbor has been doing IP traffic threat detection for 13 years in the fixed-line networks, and now that mobile packet core networks are IP-based, the company can apply its expertise in mobile networks.

The Peakflow Mobile Network Analysis is currently in trials with an operator in Asia-Pacific and will soon start another trial with an operator in the Nordic region, according to Arbor.

For more coverage of these issues, check out our Mobile Security content track.

— Michelle Donegan, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

Want to learn more about this topic? Check out the agenda for The Big Telecom Event (BTE), which will take place on June 17 and 18 at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers. The event combines the educational power of interactive conference sessions devised and hosted by Heavy Reading's experienced industry analysts with multi-vendor interoperability and proof-of-concept networking and application showcases. For more on the event, the topics and the stellar service provider speaker line-up, see Telecommunication Luminaries to Discuss the Hottest Industry Trends at Light Reading's Big Telecom Event in June.

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User Rank: Blogger
2/28/2014 | 8:22:00 AM
Amazing that there is so little visibilty
I am shocked at the lack of visibiity into the mobile packet core.... shouldn't this have been addressed by te IP router vendors?
Carol Wilson
Carol Wilson,
User Rank: Blogger
2/28/2014 | 11:04:24 AM
Re: Amazing that there is so little visibilty
I'm not shocked at all - and I don't think it's a simple as a vendor issue. As Michelle's piece points out, the important thing is the holistic view and without the tools to create that, having a lot of information about how your network is performing scattered all around doesn't help you identify anomalies and potential problems/threats. 

Sometimes it's shocking there haven't been more problems...
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/28/2014 | 2:21:26 PM
Blanket security
In addition to being part of BTE, mobile security actually has two dedicated LR events this year, in May (London) and December (New York). Details are in the "Upcoming Live Events" box in the right-hand column of this page. Patrick Donegan of Heavy Reading is at the forefront of the mobile security awareness movement, and he is leading all LR events in this area. Operators need to find out now what they DON'T know about mobile network security, and from what we've seen so far, they DON'T know a lot.
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/28/2014 | 3:11:24 PM
Tidy packets
This sounds really impressive. I'm glad to see this kind of progress being made at the packet level. Mobile malware is absolutely growing. I'm curious to know if U.S. carriers plan to take advantage of this technology to defend their networks.
Joe Stanganelli
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/28/2014 | 11:48:26 PM
Wow.  Those are some statistics, Michelle.  Any information or insight as to how this is impacting cyber insurance policy sales?
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