More businesses are experiencing firsthand the disruptive, crippling, and costly effects of ransomware and other cyberattacks. Even if you haven’t been a target yet, you might know a customer, supplier, trading partner, or competitor who has. That has led many companies to focus on network security to prevent vulnerabilities and costly attacks.
In this article, I’ll go over what network security is, its benefits, and how it works. I’ll also discuss the different network security tools and best practices you can implement to maintain top-notch security. First, let’s start with the big question: what is network security?
What Is Network Security?
Network security combines policies, procedures, practices, tools, and expertise geared to protect IT networks. Consequently, it protects everything within a network (e.g., servers, network devices, endpoint devices, applications, and data) from various cyberthreats.
Cybercriminals are more sophisticated, so no network is 100% secure. When you implement network security, though, you can significantly increase your chances of preventing downtimes, data breaches, and data loss. You’ll also be able to maintain optimal performance and protect your company’s reputation.
Now that you understand what network security is, let’s explore its 5 major benefits.
5 Key Benefits of Network Security
Network security offers several benefits to businesses and companies using IT in their operations. Here are the top 5 benefits.
1. Prevent Downtimes
Serious network issues can cause downtimes, which, in turn, may bring your entire business to a halt. You may even suffer a complete network shutdown due to highly evolved versions of the attacks I mentioned earlier, especially massive DDoS attacks and self-propagating ransomware. A defense-in-depth network security strategy helps you address multiple vulnerabilities. When you leverage multiple advanced network security tools to mitigate the risk, you prevent attacks from succeeding and halting your systems.
2. Evade Data Breaches
Most cyber threats use your network to get to other areas of your IT infrastructure and exfiltrate personal information. This data breach targets information such as financial data, trade secrets, source codes, and more. Based on your industry, geographic location, and the type of data involved, a data breach could result in hefty regulatory fines and penalties. Your network’s security is the first line of defense against data breaches. It effectively prevents any attack from reaching your data and hence protects it.
3. Avoid Data Loss
Some cyber threats don’t intend to perform data exfiltration. They simply want to wreak havoc and sabotage your systems instead. In such cases, your data becomes collateral damage, and you may end up losing business-critical data. Regular data backups and other network security strategies prevent or mitigate the risk of data loss. If an attack is successful, you can use your backups and recover any lost information.
4. Maintain Optimal Performance
Optimal network performance is one of the key enablers of modern businesses. A slow network is sometimes a result of hardware and software issues. That said, it can also be due to Denial of Service (DoS) attacks, ransomware, and other cyber threats. Your good network security protects against cyber threats which cripple your network. It’ll also keep your business running like a well-oiled machine.
5. Protect Corporate Reputation
Good reputation and success are inseparable. Your reputation promotes brand loyalty, which, in turn, improves customer loyalty and increases customer lifetime value (CLV). A public data breach or any major cyber attack, though, can shatter your company’s reputation. Many customers may worry about their data and choose to take their business to your competition. A strong cybersecurity program will protect your organization, and consequently, improve your reputation.
Network security may be beneficial, but it still seems vague. I mean, what exactly is it? In this next section, I’ll show you the inner workings of network security so you can learn about its implementation in practice.
How Does Network Security Work?
The goal of any network security initiative is to make it economically infeasible for a threat actor to harm your network and its components. Network security is a combination of defensive policies, procedures, and tools.
Technological solutions are an essential component of network security. That’s because threat actors use different virtual hacking tools to break into your network. Luckily, using the right network security tools can help your cyber security team work more efficiently to protect you. Some tools even work with a high level of autonomy, which frees your cyber security and IT staff to focus on more pressing tasks.
Notice that I say “tools” instead of “tool”. I use the plural form to emphasize that you’ll typically have to use multiple network security tools to prevent different threats. Ideally, you’ll implement a defense-in-depth strategy with multiple layers of network security tools. If one layer fails to stop a threat, the next layer can.
In the next section, I’ll discuss 14 different types of network security tools. You must incorporate these into your defense-in-depth strategy to implement good network security in your company.
You have many network security tools to use in your defense-in-depth strategy. Some of these tools, though, are actually methods or processes you use jointly with tools to secure the network. Here are 14 types of network security tools you’ll want to include in your strategy.
1. Access Control
Access control is a method of restricting access to certain groups. In turn, that helps you prevent unauthorized access. For example, not all devices and applications should have access to some network segments and components (e.g. servers and network devices). Some examples of access controls include setting usernames/passwords, public/private key pairs, digital certificates, PINs, and one-time passwords (OTPs).
You can use access control solutions to prevent threat actors from reaching certain areas in your network. This is important for when a threat actor manages to sneak past your outer security layer, say your network perimeter firewall. Your access control mechanisms will still prevent that threat from breaking into an internal component in your network, say a server.
2. Anti-Malware Software
Malware is one of the main tools in a threat actor’s toolbox. Depending on its type, malware can:
- Exfiltrate personal, login, and financial data
- Lock up or corrupt files
- Drop additional malware
- Assume control of an infected system
- Force an infected machine to participate in spam or DDoS attacks
Malware accompanies almost all sophisticated cyber attacks. This creates a need to use anti-malware software in your defense-in-depth network security strategy. Some anti-malware solutions use signature-based detection to identify known malware. Others utilize more advanced techniques like sandboxing to perform dynamic malware analysis and detection. As soon as malware is detected, the solution can quarantine or remove the threat, as well as log the incident. Anti-malware software will help you mitigate business-impacting malware infections.
3. Anomaly Detection
Anomaly detection is the main process behind IDS and IPS. Often relying on machine learning, the primary function of anomaly detection is to discover abnormal patterns or behavior. These abnormal behaviors are often symptoms of malicious activity. Some examples are excessively voluminous remote logins or spikes in traffic. Anomaly detection-based solutions can generate a lot of log data and alerts, and many of them can just be false positives and false negatives. You’ll then need another tool—usually a SIEM—that can consolidate IDS data and information from other data sources.
You might also need a threat analyst who can sift through the noise, analyze the data, and determine if the signals are in fact indicative of a potential threat. This tool helps you identify a malicious cyber attack before your company encounters any damage.
4. Data-In-Motion Encryption
Encryption is a method that renders data unreadable to those without a valid decryption key. Data-in-motion encryption, on the other hand, is encryption focused on data moving across a network. It ‘scrambles’ the transmitted data until it becomes unreadable to whoever might eavesdrop on the network.
Examples of solutions that provide data-in-motion encryption include Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). They also include secure file transfer protocols like Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS), File Transfer Protocol Secure (FTPS), and Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP). You can use these solutions to transfer files and data securely over insecure networks.
5. Data Loss Prevention (DLP)
DLP refers to a class of solutions designed to detect certain pieces of data. It also prevents the data from being illegitimately transferred, whether intentionally or accidentally, to a destination outside your network. DLP tools can detect credit card data, social security numbers, and intellectual property. They can also detect financial data and other sensitive data using pattern matching and/or content analysis techniques.
For this reason, DLP tools are popular in companies that data privacy/protection laws and regulations govern. These laws are the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). A DLP solution helps you prevent sensitive information from leaking out of your network.
6. Email Security
As the weakest link in network security, users are often the first targets of a cyber attack. Emails are one of the most common ways to get to the users through the Internet. Phishing, trojans, and spam, all go through email. You can’t rely on your users to stay on guard, so you need to employ an email security solution to thwart these attacks.
An email security solution can scan email content and attachments and identify potential threats. It then prevents these threats from being downloaded or forwarded. Some examples of email security measures are strong passwords, spam filters, secure email gateway, password rotations, etc. That means, when you implement email security, you can protect your end-users. You can also prevent a threat from propagating.
7. Endpoint Security
Just like email, endpoint devices are also closely associated with end-users. That’s why threat actors often abuse them. Threat actors usually gain access to an endpoint through a phishing attack or malware infection. Although endpoint devices may contain valuable data, some threat actors are more interested in bigger fish—complete control of your corporate network.
These threat actors will merely use your endpoints as launch pads into your network. Endpoint security tools stop threats where they initially land to protect your network. IoT security, network access control, URL filtering, etc. are all examples of endpoint security. If you have a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy or if you simply have endpoint devices with access to the Internet and your corporate network, you should definitely apply endpoint security.
Firewalls are the gatekeepers of your network. They block or allow certain traffic from passing through. You can also use network security firewalls to implement network segmentation. Traditional firewalls provide a decent level of protection. That said, they only operate on a few layers (usually the Data Link Layer and Transport Layer) of the OSI model.
If you want a firewall that can handle more OSI layers (and more granular filtering) and can support additional security features, you should go for a more advanced Next Generation Firewall (NGFW). Many NGFWs can handle OSI layers 2-7 and come with additional features. Some of these features are deeper packet inspection, improved packet-content filtering, and even IDS/IPS capabilities. You would also typically use a firewall as your first line of defense.
9. Intrusion Detection System
An Intrusion Detection System (IDS) is a tool that monitors network traffic for either specific patterns (signature-based detection) or anomalous behavior (anomaly-based detection). It then sends out alerts to a designated responder. Generally speaking, an IDS only detects and records potential threats. It doesn’t prevent them. For that, you’d need an Intrusion Prevention System.
Someone has to respond to the alerts sent by an IDS, so ensure you have a capable responder if you decide to purchase one. This capable responder can perform threat analysis and, more importantly, act on the threat. That responder may also be an IT administrator or a member of your security team who can analyze IDS data and take appropriate action. These actions include identifying, containing, and eliminating the threat, performing backups, notifying higher-ups, etc. This system will ensure you’re aware of any potential threat.
10. Intrusion Prevention System
Like an IDS, an Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) also detects signatures or anomalous traffic. That said, it does more than just log potential threats and send out alerts. It can also block threats without human intervention. This means it can significantly reduce the chances of a threat infiltrating your network.
Cisco NGIPS is one example of an intrusion prevention system. For maximum effectiveness, you should place an IPS behind a firewall. That way, the firewall can already block the unwanted traffic you specifically defined in your firewall rules. The IPS will then only have to monitor the remaining traffic that was allowed to pass through. This is a perfect example of defense-in-depth.
11. Network Segmentation
Network segmentation is a method of dividing a network into segments or subnets to localize issues and implement appropriate levels of security for each segment. When you apply network segmentation, you can isolate systems that process or store sensitive data from those that don’t. You can then apply security controls accordingly.
One example of network segmentation is the use of a demilitarized zone (DMZ) to separate a company’s internal network from untrusted networks like the Internet. Network segmentation allows you to restrict only the sensitive systems with highly secure controls and allow the rest to operate more freely.
12. Security Information and Event Management (SIEM)
SIEM is a system that collects real-time log, alert, and event data from various network security tools and even regular network devices like servers and routers. It then aggregates all that data, eliminates false positives and false negatives, and presents the processed information on dashboards for threat analysis. Due to these capabilities, SIEMs are integral to Security Operations Centers (SOCs).
You can ingest log and alert data that all your IDS/IPS systems, email security tools, web security solutions, firewalls, and any network security solution generate in a SIEM. In turn, this provides you with a comprehensive view of your network. You’ll need threat analysts though to make sense of all that information. If you like to have that capability but can’t afford it, you should consider hiring a third-party SOC.
13. Web Security
Web security involves both the security of end-users when they browse the web and the security of company-owned websites. When your users aren’t careful when browsing the web, they can disclose user credentials or personal information. They can also have their endpoints infected with malware. Unsecure company-owned websites, on the other hand, are at risk of threat actors hijacking and turning them into malicious websites themselves.
Web security is a blanket term that encapsulates software and hardware solutions, policies, and procedures. They aim to address the insecure practices and vulnerabilities I mentioned earlier. As end-users and company-owned websites are two different entities, you’ll need to secure them separately.
14. Wireless Security
Wireless security protects wireless networks from various cyber threats. It’s a critical aspect of cyber security due to the rise of BYOD and the increased entry of unmanaged endpoint devices that guests and third parties bring in. Security is also more difficult with a wireless network than it used to be with a wired one. Your attack surface can extend to your parking lot, adjacent streets, or properties.
To secure your Wi-Fi, you first should disable WEP and, if possible, even WPA, on your wireless routers and access points. You should then enable more advanced and secure wireless protocols like WPA2 and WPA3. Implementing wireless security will help you double up your security, as it’s harder to bypass and work around.
The network security tools I mentioned above are just one element of network security. You need to combine them with policies, procedures, tools, expertise, and user cooperation, to truly secure your network. Allow me to give you an overview of the best practices you should consider.
5 Best Practices for Implementing Network Security in Your Organization
Other than the tools I discussed earlier, you’ll need to consider certain practices when implementing network security. Here are 5 of them:
1. Get Senior Leadership Buy-in
Unless your senior leadership supports your network security initiatives, it’ll be difficult to get things done. Network security solutions can be quite expensive. Sometimes, you’ll need management or board approval to purchase certain equipment. That mainly depends on your company dynamics.
Thus, you’ll have to educate your senior leaders about the importance of network security and the business risks of not implementing it. This will make it easier for you to get the green light every time you request approval for your security initiatives.
2. Make Document Policies Accessible to Users
Policies serve as guidelines for your employees, guests, consultants, and even senior leadership to follow. These specifications will also establish network security in your company. Policies may, for example, include rules for using email, browsing the web, connecting an endpoint device to your Wi-Fi, and so on.
For policies to be effective, you should make sure users are actually aware of them. You can start by documenting your policies and orienting your users about them. In some cases, you might have to display certain policies in a conspicuous place, so users can easily see them. In doing so, you can make it easy for users and implementers to refer to the policy as they play their part in keeping your network secure.
3. Draw Up Procedures for Your Policies
Like almost anything related to cybersecurity, network security policies can be quite technical. You’ll often need to handhold users to ensure they get things right. This is where procedures come in. Compared to policies, procedures are more specific and presented as a series of steps. For example, you might have a policy that says: Use WPA2 or WPA3 in wireless networks at all times.
The corresponding procedure (addressed to your IT admin) may go like this:
- Launch your web browser and connect to your wireless router
- Enter your login credentials
- Navigate to the wireless security page
- Choose WPA2 or WPA3
- Specify a strong password (refer to our rules on strong passwords in our policy handbook)
- And so on…
To make sure users understand your procedures, you’ll want to conduct training to demonstrate how certain procedures are carried out. Such procedures make it easier for your employees to adhere to your security policies. In return, this will help strengthen your network security posture.
4. Tap Experts in Cybersecurity
If you’re serious about network security, you’ll need a team to monitor your network and respond to threats as they come. In large enterprises, this may entail putting together a dedicated security team or perhaps even what’s known as a Security Operations Center (SOC). This is a command post dedicated to defending your organization against cyber threats. For smaller enterprises, you’ll want to hire a third party, perhaps a cybersecurity-capable managed service provider (MSP) or a SOC-for-hire, to do the job for you.
In all likelihood, cybersecurity isn’t part of your core business. At that, you should seek assistance from people who really know security. They’ll also help ensure you do your network security implementation optimally and cost-effectively.
5. Foster User Buy-in
As I’ve indicated earlier in this post, users are the weakest link in network security. Having the most advanced network security tools, policies, and procedures, and even the best security team out there isn’t enough. You also need your users to play their roles.
That’s why it’s very important to get user cooperation or buy-in. Educate your users and help them appreciate your security policies.
The Bottom Line
Network security isn’t a single solution. Rather, it’s the policies, procedures, expertise, and tools, in conjunction with leadership and user participation, working together to secure the network. You should also combine the strengths of these different tools in a multi-layered strategy. That way, if a threat manages to defeat one tool, others can step in and block its path.
Lastly, you can never achieve 100% protection in any network security undertaking. Your goal is to simply make it economically infeasible for a threat actor to break into your network and carry out its malicious intentions.
In this guide, I showed you 14 tools for network security. I also explained other implementation best practices. If you keep these tools and guidelines in mind, you’ll have robust network security.
Have more questions on network security? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below!
What is self-propagating ransomware?
Self-propagating ransomware doesn’t need human intervention to rapidly spread from one victim machine to another. Examples of these types of ransomware are WannaCry and NotPetya. These were able to spread from Ukraine to other parts of the globe in just one day.
What is a PCI DSS?
The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is a set of standards governing companies that deal with credit and debit card data. It includes a detailed set of requirements defining how this data should be secured. For example, it has requirements about firewall configurations, use of encryption and anti-malware, and many others.
What is WEP?
Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) provides access control and data-in-motion encryption to wireless networks. Although it’s technically a secure wireless protocol, it’s no longer considered secure. It also has already been replaced with WPA, WPA2, and WPA3.
What is WPA?
Like WEP, Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) also provides access control and data-in-motion encryption. It was supposed to address the vulnerabilities of WEP but unfortunately fell short. Instead of WPA, you should use its more recent versions—WPA2 and WPA3.
What is the difference between FTPS and SFTP?
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