NC city mixes remote access with authentication control

Gastonia improves visibility and simplifies network access

The city of Gastonia, the seat of Gaston County in southern North Carolina, supports network connectivity for various emergency and administrative services throughout the county, and was using two different Remote Authentication Dial In User Service (RADIUS) products to manage network access.

There was a Cisco Wireless Access Control server for wireless connectivity and a Juniper Steel Belted Radius sever for virtual private networks.

When administrators for the two products left, “I inherited everything, and neither product did everything we wanted it to,” said Robert Loveland, the city’s network and security engineer.

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What was missing was an adequate level of granularity in setting policy for network access. This was critical, given the number and variety of departments being supported throughout Gaston County, which lies west of Charlotte along the border with South Carolina. In addition to the city administrative offices, the 911 call center, the ambulance service, city fire department, the city and county police departments, and the county sheriff’s department, the city provides remote connectivity for eight other police departments and 26 volunteer fire departments throughout the county.

There also were issues with compatibility in the access controllers. “Both products sat on a Windows platform,” Loveland said. “For some reason, neither one would talk to one of my three domains.”

He switched to a solution from a company called Identity Engine. “It worked great, but they went out of business,” he said.

The city now has settled on the eTIPS authentications server from Avenda Systems to provide authentication, authorization and accounting. “I had the initial setup doing both wireless and VPN connectivity up and running within a day,” and communication with the problem domain no longer was a problem, Loveland said. “Right out of the box it has been talking to everything.”

The eTips is an appliance running on a hardened Linux box. eTIPS works offline, handling only access requests, and not passing traffic, and the appliance’s scalability depends not only on the number of users on a network but the number accessing it remotely and what the patterns of access are. An environment in which users are frequently coming and going requires more capacity than one in which there were fewer requests.

The city uses two low-end boxes, for redundancy, to support about 1,500 users. Most of the county’s users are not accessing the network remotely, however. Most of the connections are coming from the 370 mobile laptops supplied to police cruisers, plus another 30 used by public works personnel in the field.

“The VPN is usually for workers when they are accessing from home,” Loveland said. “Most of it is wireless.”

Gastonia maintains 110 wireless access points within the city and also maintains wireless access from all police departments in the county, so police do not have to be inside the city to connect to the network.

eTIPS uses the 802.1x protocols for authentication. It checks identity through credentials, in this case a user ID and password that are validated against Active Directory. Authenticated users are granted access based on role-based policies established by the administrators using the eTIPS policy engine.

In addition to role-based access, eTIPS also enforces policy on device security status and configuration, scanning connecting devices before they are authorized. The proper device configuration is pushed to users with Active Directory. A temporary agent is downloaded to the client when requesting access to scan for compliance before the device is authorized.

Using a temporary agent reduces the amount of management required for the system because permanent agent software does not have to be installed on clients before accessing the network. But a permanent agent is available that gives a more detailed look at the client before it is authorized on the network. A permanent agent also can monitor compliance during the session, terminating a connection if policy is violated after authorization, something not possible with a temporary agent. Gastonia uses the temporary agent because of its simplicity.

“I want something as hands-free as possible,” Loveland said.

The city is planning further upgrades to its network and is testing a mobile VPN from NetMotion Wireless to provide VPN security for wireless connections. The Mobility XE product not only provides a secure connection but manages connections over a variety of protocols and systems, including cellular, Wi-Fi and WiMax, selecting the best path and maintaining a session while switching from one to another.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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