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The SASE story: How SASE came to be, and why it has quickly become the default architecture

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In collaboration with Jon Heaton and Roel Bernaerts

Cisco IT started implementing SASE architectures well before Gartner coined the term.
SASE has provided efficiency, security, and flexibility to our global network.

Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) has quickly become one of the hottest topics related to cloud, networking, and security architectures. As Cisco engineers, we have seen hesitation and confusion among some customers on what SASE really means. We hope to answer most of those questions here.

What is SASE, and how is it related to the Cloud Edge, Zero Trust, and SD-WAN? SASE has positively impacted how we run our IT organization, and how we envision Enterprise IT customers will run theirs. To accurately explain what SASE is, and why SASE came to be, we must look at the evolution of how data is stored and transported within an enterprise.

Our journey started inside the data center

A decade ago, many of us lived in a data center-centric world, and security was simpler to implement.  Here at Cisco, we were moving data inside the four walls of our data centers, and  we assumed complete trust. The corporate office, the MPLS circuits between sites, and the Cisco data centers were all within a trusted environment, which enabled us to meet our security and compliance requirements.

Move to hybrid cloud and hybrid work

However, while many enterprises still focus on data center-centric applications for their core business needs, the world is shifting towards cloud-based application development. This enables faster and more efficient deployment of software and services to meet ever-changing business needs.

IT organizations have also shifted from a model of only managed devices (PC or laptop) for use within the trusted corporate network to allowing users to work on multiple devices from just about anywhere. The emergence of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) as well as remote work had already been gaining traction in the industry over the past few years, and this trend significantly accelerated with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, employees are expected to be able to work from anywhere, and any device. Combined with the distribution of resources across on-prem networks and the cloud, Hybrid Work presents a significant security problem as business users and application providers are no longer fully controlled by the IT organization.

To address security concerns in the interim, network architects designed a model where all user/cloud interactions were routed back, or backhauled, through a data center — i.e. the trusted entity — prior to being redirected to the cloud application. While meeting the security needs, this model has performance and cost challenges.

Arriving at SASE

To improve security and efficiency, a SASE-like architecture was developed internally by Cisco IT. The model we used for the architecture provides every user with a security profile tailored to their access privileges and uses a Zero-Trust approach to identify and authenticate users and devices before allowing a direct connection between the cloud and the access edge.

Ultimately, SASE is the convergence of networking and security functions in the cloud to deliver reliable, secure access to applications, anywhere users work. The Cisco SASE model works by combining SD-WAN for network, with cloud-based security capabilities such as Secure Web Gateway, Firewall as a Service, Cloud Access Security Broker, and Zero Trust Network Access into one, single, integrated cloud service.

CloudPort and the evolution of SASE at Cisco 

Cisco’s SASE journey started with CloudPort, which was a hardware-based, on-prem, self-managed Cloud Edge platform, delivered at Colocation data centers around the world. While CloudPort provided a single platform that delivered network and security, it also brought cost challenges, used a traditional perimeter security, and required both agility to scale up/down as well as specialized skillsets.

To address these challenges, we first modernized the on-prem CloudPort solution, and put in motion a plan to move from on-prem to as a service or hosted SASE capabilities. The Customer Zero team, which deploys emerging technology in real life environments to provide critical feedback to the BU early in the product lifecycle, created a strategy to move to SASE, testing do-it-yourself and as-a-service models. The findings from the Customer Zero internal testing have guided our external offering strategy.

During this testing period, Cisco IT has moved from a ‘do-it-yourself’ model to a Cisco hosted/managed solution. Learn about the evolution of these solutions and Cisco’s future SASE vision by staying tuned for parts II and III of this blog series.

Learn more about Cisco IT: Cisco IT Blogs

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