Agentless vs. Agent-Based Security: How to Use Them to Stay Secure

Feb 09, 2023
6 minutes

The cloud computing industry will see a staggering compound annual growth rate of over 15% through 2028 when its market cap is expected to exceed $1 Trillion, according to a report from Facts & Factors. With 90% of organizations utilizing the cloud in some capacity, companies worldwide are opting for the power and flexibility of cloud computing. 

The risks associated with creating new products and services on the cloud, though, are also growing. A survey from Ermetic discovered that an alarming 98% of respondents had experienced at least one cloud data breach in the last 18 months. As the threat of breach rises in tandem with the popularity of the cloud, organizations must prioritize security at every level – especially where complex enterprise networks and systems are concerned.

When it comes to monitoring and securing large-scale systems, security professionals turn to two essential approaches: agent-based security software and agentless security software. But how do these approaches work? And which one is suitable for your network? We’ll break it down — but first, we need to understand what agent-based and agentless security software are.

Agent-Based Security: A Granular Approach

Agent-based security tools are specialized software installed directly onto a device to perform security scans and tasks. The crucial thing to remember is that while agent-based security is excellent at its job, it can only protect the device it’s installed on.

To better understand how agent-based security works, let's take a closer look at the cloud-native universe. If the cloud infrastructure makes up a cloud universe, think of cloud-native systems and networks as solar systems full of planets. Now, let’s zoom into one solar system in particular. We’ll call this planetary system Solar System Alpha.

Imagine that the alien species inhabiting Solar System Alpha needs to prioritize security to keep intergalactic marauders at bay. To do this, they’ve installed a security post on each planet and moon – big and small – in their home system. Each security post runs missions to ensure that their planet is safe and sends regular reports back to a massive, complex Galatic Security HQ. Galactic HQ collects information from each command center scattered across the system and lets its owners understand the security of their solar system.

Suppose a problem arises or an invasion breaks out. HQ can send out a command to each security post, instructing it to raise a protective forcefield around the planet it’s located on. With their agent-based security system, the inhabitants of Solar System Alpha get deep insights – but only into the planets on which they’ve put security posts. They’ll be completely unaware of security breaches occurring on a planet that hasn’t been secured with a security post.

Back on Earth, agent-based security operates the same way. Individual instances of a security program are installed on each machine, and they feed data back to a central location where it’s compiled for an understanding of the security status of the entire system.

Agent-based security provides users with real-time, granular security information, making it ideal for monitoring, prevention, and threat blocking. While agent-based solutions can provide excellent real-time protection, these solutions have some limits:

  • Agent-based security would require every workload to have an agent for big-picture visibility
  • Agent-based security requires resources to operate


Agentless Security: A Streamlined Approach

Next door to Solar System Alpha, we find Solar System Beta. The alien inhabitants also need security but have implemented a slightly different strategy. Rather than installing security posts on every planet, they’ve figured out how to scan their entire solar system regularly to monitor for risks and threats.

With their agentless security approach, they can quickly see the security status of their solar system, from the biggest sun to the smallest asteroid. This gives them unparalleled visibility into their system. This setup, though, does have a downside. Because they didn’t install a command post on every planet like the residents of Solar System Alpha, they can’t instantly activate forcefields to prevent incoming attacks.

Agentless security leverages the cloud to scan workloads and systems, meaning there’s no need to install an agent on every device in your network. And since it’s much more straightforward than agent-based security solutions, it can usually be fully automated. Combining simplicity and automation saves time, money, and engineering headaches. But that said, agentless solutions don’t have agent-based abilities to provide real-time protection against malware or other malicious attacks.

Agent-Based and Agentless Security: A Path Forward

Agent-based and agentless security solutions offer distinct benefits but also have drawbacks that must be addressed to create a holistic security solution. By combining the two solutions, organizations can provide full network coverage while still being able to address specific attacks and security concerns.

To visualize this, let’s head back to space once more for a look at Solar System Gamma. They’ve learned from their neighbors at Solar Systems Alpha and Beta, and have developed a security approach that combines their two methods. They’ve got a system-wide scanning tool that gives them total security visibility, and they’ve installed security posts on the most important planets in their system to protect them with a forcefield when needed.

Earth-bound security engineers could learn from the inhabitants of Solar System Gamma. Combining agent-based and agentless security tools offers several advantages for securing systems:

  • Evolving Workload Types: Many cloud systems are incredibly complex. Where agentless systems can provide security data on hosts and serverless functions, workload types, such as Containers as a Service will undoubtedly benefit from agent-based options.
  • Different Security Sensitivity Levels: Many networks and workloads will require different levels of security. Agent-based options are perfect for highly-sensitive data and critical workloads but aren’t needed in every workload. With the added benefit of automatic agentless scanning, you can constantly evaluate what needs extra security and what doesn’t.
  • Efficient Use of Resources: One of the main draws of cloud computing is the flexibility it offers. Agentless security allows you to remain nimble and protect temporary workloads without the added drain on resources caused by agent-based solutions.
  • Comprehensive Data Collection: Combining agent-based and agentless security provides unmatched data collection. Agentless scans can reveal high-level, system-wide insight, while agents can report back granular details about specific pieces of workloads.

Combining Solutions for a Secure Future

As we step into the future of cloud computing, combining agent-based and agentless security solutions represents the best path forward in securing cloud systems and workloads. Harnessing the granular scanning and real-time protection power of agent-based options means your most sensitive data and workload features will remain secure. In contrast, agentless security’s scanning functions give you unparalleled insights into the health and security of your entire system. By utilizing both together, organizations become better protected against data breaches and cyberattacks and gain deep insights into their network and cloud workloads.

You can learn more about the nuances of agentless and agent-based security tools, and when to use each, in this episode of What’s That? with Prisma Cloud, featuring cloud security expert Aqsa Taylor.


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