Systems Architecture Security & The Battle of Britain

Mitchel Parish
Oct 28, 2019

Following the defeat of the French Ground Army and the occupation of Paris in the summer of 1940, the German military began a systematic and sustained effort to force Britain into a peace settlement that would all but obviate the strategic importance of the Western Front. Under constant attack by air and sea, the British response was contingent upon a set of defensive tactics that strengthened resilience through mitigation planning. If properly understood and implemented, these lessons learned from the siege of Britain can bolster the security posture of modern-day systems architecture by creating a unified system of defense.

Systems Architecture Security: Understand the Threat

In the summer of 1940 British intelligence services had grossly overestimated the size and capability of the German Luftwaffe. While an initial failure, this provided for the allocation and positioning of resources that would eventually become necessary for success. As the German strategy changed from day-time raids on infrastructure to sustained night-time terror bombings, the British Royal Air Force was able to successfully pivot their defensive mechanisms.

As critical infrastructure, information systems must be well resourced for defense. In calculating these future needs, an understanding and appreciation of the current threat landscape is vital – but as the above example provides, an exaggerated viewpoint can provide a buffer for any possible gap of understanding.

Unlike the Battle of Britain, however, there is no single and identifiable threat actor in systems security. The cost of entry is low and no longer prohibitive – from script kiddies to state actors, we are faced with a constant barrage of threats from a multitude of angles. Add to this the complexity of identifying both overt and covert threats. An assumption should be made that the threat is always more capable, always more dangerous. 

Identify and Minimize Your Architectural Vulnerabilities

The British knew they were vulnerable on all fronts – the Luftwaffe in the air, the Kriegsmarine on the sea, and following the fall of Paris, even the threat of invasion by the German army seemed possible. Outnumbered and outmatched they took advantage of their geographic separation from Europe by concentrating the Royal Navy in the English Channel and the North Sea, effectively neutralizing the threat of a land or naval attack. This narrowed the German offensive strategy to the air, allowing the British to focus resources in defense of a singular domain.

In systems architecture, threat vectors represent a vulnerability, a basic point of entry where an attacker can retrieve or inject data. The totality of threat vectors within a system is considered the attack surface. Similar to how the British limited the Wehrmacht to one plane of attack, those tasked with systems security must identify and understand individual threat vectors in order to minimize the attack surface as much as possible. The result will allow for the smart targeting of available resources to prioritized vulnerabilities

Focus on Resilience with Systems Architecture

In the end, the British won the Battle of Britain due to their resilience. By understanding the threat and minimizing vulnerabilities, they were able to focus resources on hardening and protecting key infrastructure. At the same time, they recognized the importance of shared responsibility: the British government gave citizens ownership of their own well-being by relaying the threat picture and giving them instructions to take care of themselves. 

Above all, organizations must be resilient, systems architecture and users alike must be continually hardened. This idea of shared responsibility requires all stakeholders to carry the burden of securing a system. Only together can they create a unified system of defense.


View a related article about IT and devops.

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