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Bringing Zero Trust to mobile network operators


6 min read

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Bringing Zero Trust to mobile network operators

At Cloudflare, we’re excited about the quickly-approaching 5G future. Increasingly, we’ll have access to high throughput and low-latency wireless networks wherever we are. It will make the Internet feel instantaneous, and we’ll find new uses for this connectivity such as sensors that will help us be more productive and energy-efficient. However, this type of connectivity doesn’t have to come at the expense of security, a concern raised in this recent Wired article. Today we’re announcing the creation of a new partnership program for mobile networks—Zero Trust for Mobile Operators—to jointly solve the biggest security and performance challenges.

SASE for Mobile Networks

Every network is different, and the key to managing the complicated security environment of an enterprise network is having lots of tools in the toolbox. Most of these functions fall under the industry buzzword SASE, which stands for Secure Access Service Edge. Cloudflare’s SASE product is Cloudflare One, and it’s a comprehensive platform for network operators.  It includes:

  • Magic WAN, which offers secure Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) connectivity for your data centers, branch offices and cloud VPCs and integrates with your legacy MPLS networks
  • Cloudflare Access, which is a Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) service requiring strict verification for every user and every device before authorizing them to access internal resources.
  • Gateway, our Secure Web Gateway, which operates between a corporate network and the Internet to enforce security policies and protect company data.
  • A Cloud Access Security Broker, which monitors the network and external cloud services for security threats.
  • Cloudflare Area 1, an email threat detection tool to scan email for phishing, malware, and other threats.

We’re excited to partner with mobile network operators for these services because our networks and services are tremendously complementary. Let’s first think about SD-WAN (Software-Defined Wide Area Network) connectivity, which is the foundation on which much of the SASE framework rests. As an example, imagine a developer working from home developing a solution with a Mobile Network Operator’s (MNO) Internet of Things APIs. Maybe they’re developing tracking software for the number of drinks left in a soda machine, or want to track the routes for delivery trucks.

The developer at home and their fleet of devices should be on the same wide area network, securely, and at reasonable cost. What Cloudflare provides is the programmable software layer that enables this secure connectivity. The developer and the developer’s employer still need to have connectivity to the Internet at home, and for the fleet of devices. The ability to make a secure connection to your fleet of devices doesn’t do any good without enterprise connectivity, and the enterprise connectivity is only more valuable with the secure connection running on top of it. They’re the perfect match.

Once the connectivity is established, we can layer on a Zero Trust platform to ensure every user can only access a resource to which they’ve been explicitly granted permission. Any time a user wants to access a protected resource – via ssh, to a cloud service, etc. – they’re challenged to authenticate with their single-sign-on credentials before being allowed access. The networks we use are growing and becoming more distributed. A Zero Trust architecture enables that growth while protecting against known risks.

Edge Computing

Given the potential of low-latency 5G networks, consumers and operators are both waiting for a “killer 5G app”. Maybe it will be autonomous vehicles and virtual reality, but our bet is on a quieter revolution: moving compute – the “work” that a server needs to do to respond to a request – from big regional data centers to small city-level data centers, embedding the compute capacity inside wireless networks, and eventually even to the base of cell towers.

Cloudflare’s edge compute platform is called Workers, and it does exactly this – execute code at the edge. It’s designed to be simple. When a developer is building an API to support their product or service, they don’t want to worry about regions and availability zones. With Workers, a developer writes code they want executed at the edge, deploys it, and within seconds it’s running at every Cloudflare data center globally.

Some workloads we already see, and expect to see more of, include:

  • IoT (Internet of Things) companies implementing complex device logic and security features directly at the edge, letting them add cutting-edge capabilities without adding cost or latency to their devices.
  • eCommerce platforms storing and caching customized assets close to their visitors for improved customer experience and great conversion rates.
  • Financial data platforms, including new Web3 players, providing near real-time information and transactions to their users.
  • A/B testing and experimentation run at the edge without adding latency or introducing dependencies on the client-side.
  • Fitness-type devices tracking a user’s movement and health statistics can offload compute-heavy workloads while maintaining great speed/latency.
  • Retail applications providing fast service and a customized experience for each customer without an expensive on-prem solution.

The Cloudflare Case Studies section has additional examples from NCR, Edgemesh, BlockFi, and others on how they’re using the Workers platform. While these examples are exciting, we’re most excited about providing the platform for new innovation.

You may have seen last week we announced Workers for Platforms is now in General Availability. Workers for Platforms is an umbrella-like structure that allows a parent organization to enable Workers for their own customers. As an MNO, your focus is on providing the means for devices to send communication to clients. For IoT use cases, sending data is the first step, but the exciting potential of this connectivity is the applications it enables. With Workers for Platforms, MNOs can expose an embedded product that allows customers to access compute power at the edge.

Network Infrastructure

The complementary networks between mobile networks and Cloudflare is another area of opportunity. When a user is interacting with the Internet, one of the most important factors for the speed of their connection is the physical distance from their handset to the content and services they’re trying to access. If the data request from a user in Denver needs to wind its way to one of the major Internet hubs in Dallas, San Jose, or Chicago (and then all the way back!), that is going to be slow. But if the MNO can link to the service locally in Denver, the connection will be much faster.

One of the exciting developments with new 5G networks is the ability of MNOs to do more “local breakout”. Many MNOs are moving towards cloud-native and distributed radio access networks (RANs) which provides more flexibility to move and multiply packet cores. These packet cores are the heart of a mobile network and all of a subscriber’s data flows through one.

For Cloudflare – with a data center presence in 275+ cities globally – a user never has to wait long for our services. We can also take it a step further. In some cases, our services are embedded within the MNO or ISP’s own network. The traffic which connects a user to a device, authorizes the connection, and securely transmits data is all within the network boundary of the MNO – it never needs to touch the public Internet, incur added latency, or otherwise compromise the performance for your subscribers.

We’re excited to partner with mobile networks because our security services work best when our customers have excellent enterprise connectivity underneath. Likewise, we think mobile networks can offer more value to their customers with our security software added on top. If you’d like to talk about how to integrate Cloudflare One into your offerings, please email us at [email protected], and we’ll be in touch!

We protect entire corporate networks, help customers build Internet-scale applications efficiently, accelerate any website or Internet application, ward off DDoS attacks, keep hackers at bay, and can help you on your journey to Zero Trust.

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Mike Conlow|@mikeconlow
Matt Silverlock|@elithrar

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