Evaluating secrets management techniques from agent-based to agentless

Itzik Alvas. Co-founder & CEO, Entro
March 14, 2024

In the shifting sands of cloud security, the choice between agent-based and agentless frameworks is more than a mere crossroad; it’s a fundamental decision that echoes through the corridors of your organization’s future. This guide cuts through the noise, bringing you a nuanced comparison rooted in the realities of compliance, operational budget, and infrastructure complexity.

We’re not just outlining the paths; we’re diving into the essence of these strategies, dissecting their strengths, exposing their vulnerabilities, and, most importantly, aligning them with the unique beat of your organizational drum.

Agent-based secrets security

Agent-based secrets security relies on software agents installed on host servers or applications. The agent once installed scans the software system and alerts on the secrets it finds without needing to connect to the security solution. This was the default method of implementing security and monitoring tooling in the pre-cloud era and still has certain valid use cases today.

Edge use cases

Due to its ability to function independently of a centralized management hub, it is useful in situations with little or no network access. An agent can remain functional and scan for exposed secrets without needing to communicate with a centralized security service.

On the flip side, agent-based secrets scanners are resource-hungry, especially as usage scales. Since they rely on the host for resources, they are not optimal for large-scale systems with hundreds or thousands of hosts.

Added control for admins

Back in the days of client-server systems, administrators preferred to have full control over an agent that they could install, customize, and uninstall if needed. This is sometimes the case in highly regulated industries like banking and finance, and healthcare. Agent-based secrets security solutions give admins this control – or at least the semblance of more control. However, this is becoming rare in today’s cloud-native world where administrators rely on cloud services that need little to no maintenance and intervention from them. It is not easy to install agents on every single cloud and on-premise host in today’s highly distributed hybrid cloud environments.

Understanding vault agents

Transitioning to a more specific element within agent-based frameworks, let’s address a common query: What is a vault agent? A vault agent is a specialized component within secret vault storage systems. It is a secure intermediary, handling requests and transactions involving sensitive data like Api-Keys and connection-strings. By managing these interactions, vault agents ensure that applications and services access secrets in a secure and controlled manner, bolstering the overall security posture of an organization.

Agentless secrets security

Agentless secrets security represents a streamlined approach to safeguarding non-human secrets, where no software agents are deployed on devices. Instead, this method utilizes cloud APIs and log file analysis to monitor and protect an environment’s integrity from a distance. Embracing agentless secrets scanning is a strategy increasingly favored in cloud-centric infrastructures for its non-intrusive nature and broad coverage capabilities.

The operational strategy

Central to agentless security is its operational strategy, where agentless secrets scanning identifies and mitigates plaintext secrets across various settings. This technique aids in rapid remediation and diminishes the risk of unauthorized access, embodying the principles of secrets management with agentless scanning​​.

Its wide-reaching protective gaze offers a comprehensive view of the security landscape, making agentless monitoring a key component in modern cybersecurity arsenals. Secrets management with agentless scanning broadens coverage and streamlines the security process, making it a strategic choice for many organizations.

What’s to gain?

One of the key advantages of agentless security is its ease of deployment and minimal impact on system resources. It’s an attractive option for organizations looking to maintain a robust security posture without the overhead of installing and managing agents on every device​​. This method is completely out of band and will provide full coverage without requiring the hassle of installing agents on every workload.

Agentless vs agent-based security

As you explore the options of agent-based and agentless secrets security, comprehending the benefits and drawbacks of each method is essential to choosing wisely and aligning with your organization’s requirements.

Pros of agent-based security

  • Detailed monitoring: Provides in-depth, real-time surveillance of each device, ensuring thorough protection and immediate response to detected threats.
  • Customizable defenses: Provides the capability to customize security protocols to match each device’s unique requirements and risks, thereby boosting the effectiveness of the protection.
  • Autonomous operation: Operates independently on each device, maintaining security even when central systems are compromised or offline.

Cons of agent-based security

  • No contextual enrichment: Agent-based secrets scanners operate as simple alert services, and do not layer on contextual metadata for each secret.
  • False positives: Because of the lack of metadata agent-based systems are plagued by false positives that they react to by failing build processes more than required.
  • Resource intensive: Requires significant system resources and bandwidth, impacting device performance and increasing operational costs.
  • Complex setup: Administrators have their hands full during setup as they need to manually install and configure agents on every single host in their system. This is cumbersome and can lead to part of the system being unsecured.
  • High maintenance: Demands regular updates and management for each agent, creating administrative overhead and potential points of failure.
  • Scalability challenges: As network size increases, the complexity and cost of maintaining and managing individual agents can become prohibitive.

Pros of agentless security

  • Enriched with context: Agentless secrets scanners add layers of metadata about secrets such as who created the secret and when, which resources it protects, who has access to it, when it was last rotated and more. This vital information is priceless in making informed decisions about secrets management.
  • Broad coverage: Efficiently scans and protects various devices and systems without needing individual agent installations, ideal for large and diverse environments.
  • Low system impact: Minimizes performance impact on host devices due to its non-intrusive nature, preserving system resources and user experience.
  • Ease of deployment: Simplifies setup and maintenance without needing individual agent installations, updates, or direct device interaction.

Cons of agentless security

  • Dependency on external resources: Relies on network connectivity and external tools for security.
  • Potential coverage gaps: While broad, the coverage might have blind spots if logs are not enabled in any part of the system.

How to choose the right approach?

Deciding between agent-based and agentless secrets security is a critical decision that hinges on understanding your organization’s unique needs. Consider these essential factors to help determine the most suitable method:

Evaluate your environment

  • Intricacy and scale: Reflect on your infrastructure’s size and needs. Agent-based might be better for smaller, more controlled environments, while agentless could be more efficient for large-scale or rapidly evolving systems.
  • Specific security requirements: Determine the level of security detail and responsiveness your assets require. Highly sensitive or regulated data might benefit more from the in-depth monitoring of agent-based solutions.

Consider operational impact

  • Resource availability: Evaluate your available resources, both in terms of hardware capabilities and administrative support. Agentless methods generally require less ongoing maintenance and system overhead.
  • Deployment and management: Reflect on the ease and feasibility of deployment. Agentless systems offer quicker setup and less maintenance.

Evaluate long-term implications

  • Scalability: Consider how your chosen method will scale with your organization’s growth. Agent-based systems may become more cumbersome as you scale, while agentless systems could offer more flexibility.
  • Adaptability to change: Consider how well the method can adapt to changing security landscapes and emerging threats. A flexible, hybrid approach might offer the best of both worlds.

Seek balance with a hybrid approach

  • Combining strengths: Sometimes, the best solution isn’t choosing one over the other but rather integrating both approaches to capitalize on their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses.
  • Tailored security posture: Use a hybrid model to provide deep security where needed while maintaining broad coverage and operational efficiency across the rest of the environment.

Beyond secrets: wider aspects of agentless and agent-based security

The choice between agent-based and agentless security strategies extends beyond secrets management and security, influencing an organization’s overall IT security framework. To understand the broader impact of agent-based and agentless security, consider their implications in compliance, data protection, and broader IT strategies. While agent-based methods excel in real-time monitoring and granular control, they can be resource-intensive and challenging to scale and maintain.

On the other hand, agentless approaches offer efficient, scalable monitoring and reduced management complexity but may lack the real-time response of their counterparts. Balancing these with your specific needs, such as compliance requirements and the nature of infrastructure, can guide a more informed, strategic choice, often leading to a hybrid model for comprehensive coverage.

Wrapping up

The choice between agent-based and agentless security shapes more than secrets management and security; it’s fundamental to a comprehensive IT security strategy. Balancing these methods offers the depth and agility needed for modern cloud environments, ensuring robust and adaptable protection.

Entro is one of the few secrets security and management solutions that can work seamlessly with either or a hybrid of these paradigms. It transcends traditional secrets management by offering comprehensive insights and proactive controls without interfering with R&D processes. Entro is agent-agnostic and provides its end-to-end service through APIs and analyzing logs. By harmonizing with agent-based and agentless methodologies, Entro ensures that your secrets are stored, intelligently managed, and monitored, keeping your infrastructure secure and compliant in the ever-evolving digital landscape.

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