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What Is Network Traffic Analysis? Definition, Importance, Implementation, and Best Practices

Network traffic analysis is defined as a method of tracking network activity to spot issues with security and operations, as well as other irregularities. This article elaborates on the working, importance, implementation, and best practices of network traffic analysis.

What Is Network Traffic Analysis?

Network traffic analysis is a method of tracking network activity to spot issues with security and operations and other irregularities.

Network Traffic Analysis

Network traffic analysis solutions are used to monitor enterprise networks. Companies leverage network traffic analysis to record and analyze patterns in network traffic and inter-asset communications. This data is then used to spot and counter security threats. Network traffic analysis tracks network availability and activity and identifies irregularities in operations and security.

Traditional network traffic analysis works by defining a baseline for ‘normal’ network operations. This information is then used to alert users about anomalies such as connections from a foreign country or an unrecognized device type. However, such an approach could lead to too much noise, especially in the post-pandemic era where business IT is constantly evolving to keep up with a dynamic, more remote work environment. Therefore, cutting-edge network traffic analysis solutions are built to operate intelligently by accounting for past trends and entity behavior.

Present-day network traffic analysis solutions constantly analyze network telemetry and flow records like NetFlow. Additionally, machine learning (ML) and behavioral analytics are becoming more common for generating a baseline for normal network behavior. Modern network traffic analysis combines all collected information to detect irregular network activities or abnormal traffic patterns. It then either initiates an automated response or alerts enterprise security teams.

Monitoring network communications for unusual activity enables the timely detection and thwarting of cybersecurity threats. Network traffic analysis focuses on overall traffic observation rather than monitoring specific parts of the network or assets connected to the network. This means that network traffic analysis constantly monitors and analyzes the network traffic and creates a reference for expected traffic patterns in different situations. 

These patterns are then used as a baseline for detecting anomalies. Any unusual blip is flagged by network traffic analysis tools and can be examined for possible security issues, i.e., a thorough threat investigation. In this process, the network traffic analysis solution analyzes the detected blips to determine the likelihood of a threat to the network.

Network traffic analysis is ideal for organizations looking to keep up with the dynamic modern IT environment. This is because network traffic analysis solutions monitor the unique behaviors of the individual, group and collective assets in a network environment. The analysis data is immediately available for security teams to view and take action on, as necessary. 

Additionally, baselines generated using machine learning are updated in response to real-time changes in network behavior. Network traffic analysis also leverages entity tracking to understand the source and destination assets better, thus providing more detailed reports to users.

Network traffic analysis solutions go ahead of other network security tools such as intrusion detection systems (IDS), intrusion prevention systems (IPS), and firewalls. While these tools primarily focus on the traffic within the network perimeter, network traffic analysis analyzes all types of network communications, including traditional TCP/IP packets, cloud traffic, virtual network traffic, and API and SaaS interactions. 

Additionally, network traffic analysis provides insights into the network operations associated with the internet of things (IoT) networks and similar operational technology. Without network traffic analysis, these assets can be a blind spot for the security team. Advanced network traffic analysis tools are even capable of analyzing encrypted network traffic.

Network traffic analysis products account for every entity on a network, from users and devices to destinations, applications, and more. ML-enabled network traffic analysis records the operations and relationships at all points and analyzes them at both micro and macro levels. This provides immense value compared to static IP address lists and other traditional network security methods.

See More: What Is Network Access Control? Definition, Key Components and Best Practices

Importance of Network Traffic Analysis

Organizations rely on network traffic analysis to enhance network management and bolster their security posture. Below are five reasons network traffic analysis is important for enterprises in 2022.

Importance of Network Traffic Analysis

Importance of Network Traffic Analysis

1. Automatic anomaly detection

Older network management tools simply inform users whenever a new device connects to the network or the typical behavior seems abnormal. However, they do not account for the reasons for these changes. On the other hand, network traffic analysis solutions attribute behaviors to specific assets. This provides ample context for security teams to decide whether an alert merits a human response.

The right network traffic analysis tool removes the need for cybersecurity professionals to manually monitor DNS and DHCP logs, directory service infrastructure, configuration management databases, and other data sources for gaining a comprehensive view of network operations. Rather, security personnel can rely on network traffic analysis to detect anomalies swiftly, determine the root cause with the help of the context provided, and react within a matter of minutes instead of days.

2. Stellar network availability

A network with high availability is the aim of every organization. Along with its numerous other benefits, network traffic analysis provides in-depth insights into the availability and uptime of enterprise networks. Network traffic analysis detects downtime caused by faulty network interfaces and subnet unavailability, as well as other obstacles to stellar availability, promptly. With network traffic analysis, IT teams can swiftly troubleshoot these problems, thus reducing the likelihood of negative user experiences.

3. Strong network performance

A network with high availability is not necessarily one operating at peak performance. Network traffic analysis helps IT teams track network performance by providing an overview of resource usage, thus facilitating efficient capacity planning. This solution also assists personnel in identifying network connections that require upgrades by locating bandwidth bottlenecks. Finally, network traffic analysis can identify network resources that can be decommissioned, thereby helping reduce IT costs.

4. Robust visibility

The post-pandemic corporate world has witnessed widespread adoption of cloud computing, IoT, and DevOps. This, combined with the increasing prevalence of remote work environments, has made the maintenance of effective network visibility a highly complex process. Network traffic analysis prevents tech teams from being overwhelmed by this lack of visibility by serving as the single source of truth for enterprises. Simply put, network traffic analysis generates insights that other data sources might not be able to accomplish.

Today, more and more organizations are relying on network traffic analysis to gain visibility into previously unmonitored enterprise network communications. This is because network traffic analysis can monitor TCP/IP packets, vSwitch-based virtual network traffic, cloud workloads, API calls, serverless computing instances, and other forms of network communications in real-time.

Network traffic analysis also provides granular visibility into the operations of network components, thus helping resolve problems more efficiently. By identifying the network locations and sites that specific devices belong to, IT personnel can create accurate topology diagrams that enhance network visibility, prevent the creation of blind spots and silos, and make troubleshooting a breeze.

5. Enhanced security posture

Since the 2020 pandemic, cyberattacks have become a more persistent threat than ever before. Cybercriminals are constantly upgrading their attack vectors to ‘strike hard and fast’ while striving to avoid detection whenever possible. They often use legitimate credentials gained through phishing and other nefarious means to access trusted network resources. This makes it difficult for IT teams to identify and counter security risks.

Network traffic analysis offers enterprises an efficient way to combat creative attackers by instantly recognizing erratic asset behavior. This helps spot a compromised but otherwise ‘normal behaving’ operation, minimizing infection dwell time. Network traffic analysis also helps IT departments spot and correct human error before it causes a security incident, for instance, an insecure port being enabled by mistake. Additionally, the real-time collection of network traffic helps network traffic analysis solutions detect anomalies that are masked according to the rules of enterprise firewalls, thus being missed by them.

Finally, network traffic analysis improves the efficiency of security operations by minimizing the need for personnel required for round-the-clock monitoring and investigation of security systems. It achieves this by automating threat detection, thereby allowing security personnel to focus on threat removal rather than threat detection.

See More: Top 10 Network Access Control Software Solutions in 2021

Network Traffic Analysis Implementation

When it comes to network traffic analysis solutions, one size does not fit all. Listed below are the steps you need to follow to implement a network traffic analysis solution that works best for your enterprise.

Network Traffic Analysis Implementation Steps

Network Traffic Analysis Implementation Steps

Step 1: Identify data sources within your organization

Before setting up an analysis tool, you need to determine the types of data sources within your organization. Start by identifying and categorizing the types of data sources that you can use to collect data for traffic analysis, such as applications, servers, desktops, switches, routers, and firewalls. Each of these data sources provides different metrics that can be collected and analyzed.

Data sources can be identified either in an automated or manual way. The latter involves poring over documentation such as topology maps, which can be tedious in the case of large networks. Therefore, opt for an automated approach that leverages application and network discovery, including SNMP, flow-based protocols, Windows Management Instrumentation (WMI), and transaction tracing. This approach will allow you to find network and application dependencies and boost visibility into your network infrastructure.

Step 2: Choose the best approach to tap data sources

Once all data sources within the enterprise are identified, it’s time to choose the best approach to tap them and collect the information you need. The two broad approaches to network traffic data collection are agent-based and agentless collection.

  • Agent-based collection: Data collection using an agent involves deploying software at the identified data sources. Agents collect data about active software processes, track the performance of system resources, and monitor inbound and outbound network communication. Agent-based collection is ideal for collecting granular information, but it might lead to issues with storage and processing.
  • Agentless collection: Data collection without agents entails protocols, processes, and APIs already supported by existing data sources within your enterprise. You can engage in agentless collection using methods such as WMI on Windows servers and SNMP on network devices. Enabling syslog on firewalls aids in the identification of security events, while the analysis of flow-based protocols allows traffic flows to be identified. While agentless collection isn’t always ideal for granular information, it provides a sufficient overview of the system and user data to enable you to analyze network traffic properly.

Note: Account for restrictions

Before implementing a network traffic analysis solution, it is critical to account for the rules and restrictions on infrastructure management to avoid hindrances in network traffic analysis. For instance, you might need to authorize access to a few secured ports to enable hassle-free data collection. Some data might also be too sensitive to allow for unregulated access, in which case, it either needs to be excluded or secured before being linked to the network traffic analysis solution. Finally, regulations in industries such as finance and healthcare might require additional steps before data can be processed using network traffic analysis.

Step 3: Start with a diverse data sample

Once all the data sources are identified, a collection method is chosen, and restrictions are accounted for, it’s time to enable data collection from a subset of your organizational data sources. Pick different sources that provide diverse datasets, especially if your organizational network is vast. This allows you to identify systemic issues at a smaller scale before the network traffic analysis is expanded across your network.

Step 4: Set up continuous monitoring and choose the appropriate destination for collected data

Analyzing network traffic continuously allows you to spot security breaches, detect failures in specific parts of the network, and get more useful long-term insights from your network traffic analysis solution. Enabling real-time and historical traffic data collection allows your IT team to analyze network traffic swiftly and efficiently and solve a host of organizational issues.

Network traffic analysis solutions usually require separate storage space to collect and analyze enterprise data. You can either choose a dedicated hardware setup or virtual database for this purpose or install a monitoring solution on your physical and virtual devices.

Consider the current state of your organization’s network—if a large part of it includes virtual devices, virtual appliances might be more appropriate. On the other hand, a network that primarily hosts on-premise hardware might fare better with hardware-based storage. Finally, choosing a destination with an easily accessible web UI can make analysis easier.

Step 5: Configure the right alerts for your IT team

Too many alerts can overburden your IT team, while too few can lead to essential network problems being missed. If you have a big IT team and can allocate a few resources to constantly monitor alerts and insights, configure your network traffic analysis solution to increase sensitivity. If you have a smaller IT team, setting alerts to only buzz if something goes wrong would be a smarter move. The end goal is to use custom thresholds to get just the right mix of notifications without causing alert fatigue.

See More: Top 10 Network Management and Monitoring Tools in 2022

Top 10 Best Practices of Network Traffic Analysis

Once you understand the importance of network traffic analysis and implement this solution for your organization according to your use case, keep the following best practices in mind to ensure a smooth, long-term experience for all stakeholders.

Best Practices of Network Traffic Analysis

Best Practices of Network Traffic Analysis

1. Know your network

Do not treat the network traffic analysis solution as a replacement for good, old-fashioned knowledge. Knowing the devices, policies, people, vendor integrations, and other network elements within your enterprise is always helpful. Being familiar with your security applications (network traffic analysis or otherwise) is a critical part of this step, as these hardware and software regulate network traffic and protect the organization from threats. Understand all the entities on your network, their locations, what they do, and their configurations.

2. Set cybersecurity policies correctly

Simply having a robust network traffic analysis solution is no guarantee that your organization’s network is completely protected. Human resources are the weakest link in the security surface for many companies. Therefore, begin the enterprise security process on paper. Craft well-thought-out and relevant security policies that define the activities allowed on the organizational network. 

Consider setting access privileges according to team, rank, and requirement. Define restrictions and exceptions clearly. Ensure robust implementation and enforcement of the policies. Keep your policies dynamic to meet the needs of an ever-evolving post-pandemic corporate landscape—policies that are not in sync with day-to-day operations risk becoming irrelevant. Finally, keep in mind that those policies that work for other companies will not necessarily work for your organization.

3. Go for comprehensive, context-driven visibility

Visibility is one of the primary benefits of network traffic analysis. However, the network traffic analysis solution should also be configured to provide the correct context in terms of the users on your network, the devices they use, their access location, the types of data they are sending and receiving, and so on. Context-driven visibility of the entire network helps security teams formulate and execute effective risk management strategies and monitor everything from private networks to multi-cloud environments.

4. Embrace automation

Advanced network traffic analysis solutions allow you to automate malicious intent detection processes. This helps reduce the resources required to protect critical enterprise assets effectively. Opt for a network traffic analysis solution that comes with rule-based detection capabilities, which will allow your company to counter specific attack procedures, techniques, and tactics. These rules are generally easy to define and are automatically implemented and correlated across relevant parameters such as assets, periods, and protocols.

5. Don’t skimp on threat detection

Some network traffic analysis vendors might offer configurations that only focus on the analytics side of things. Unless your organization does not need network traffic analysis-based threat detection, make sure you opt for a solution that can swiftly and accurately detect threats to your network. Remember, network traffic analysis solutions are capable of detecting threats that might have bypassed your organization’s perimeter security or originated from within your network. 

They can also be combined with threat intelligence and correlate local threats to worldwide security data. Consult with your security stakeholders and leverage network traffic analysis to secure your enterprise and meet regulatory obligations.

6. Opt for encrypted traffic analysis

Today, nearly every communication (enterprise or otherwise) is encrypted. Naturally, cybercriminals are in on this too, and many threats are transmitted through encrypted lines. Cutting-edge network traffic analysis tools can analyze encrypted data-in-motion for threats. Opt for a network traffic analysis solution to analyze encrypted traffic without breaking any applicable data privacy regulations.

7. Adopt integrations to boost response time

Integrate the network traffic analysis solution with existing cybersecurity measures. This will allow you to extend your security personnel’s investigation and response capabilities to span across the network, encompassing the cloud, endpoints, and applications. Combining context-driven visibility into the entire enterprise network with advanced analytical techniques will also help ensure accelerated response times to threats. 

8. Leverage optimum sensor placement

Sensors monitor network traffic and help network traffic analysis create reports. Do not place your sensors only at the perimeter of your network. This will give you limited insights, reporting only on the communications that come into and leave your network. Opt for sensors between business units and intra-network locations as well. This will allow the network traffic analysis solution to collect more data and generate beneficial insights.

9. Put people before the process

A network traffic analysis-enabled security team still needs a well-defined mission and vision. Train security analysts to be familiar with their extended roles and responsibilities. Teach them the priority rankings of services, assets, and business functions. 

Simply training your security personnel to operate the network traffic analysis solution would lead to them falling back on previous experience or theoretical knowledge in cases where granular human intervention is required. This could lead to an inadequate response in a crisis. Make sure your team is much more than just individuals who know how to use security tools such as network traffic analysis.

10. Focus on other security solutions

network traffic analysis is a robust analytics and security solution, but it is rarely the only one your organization will need. Ensure that you secure your network perimeter with a strong, correctly configured firewall. Adopt a VPN so that only those who require access to your company intranet can gain it. 

Keep regular backups and other redundancy measures in place to account for ransomware and other critical system failures. Encrypt all communications with the correct protocols. Whenever in doubt, consider hiring an external cybersecurity consultant to ensure that your security posture is fortified and all your regulatory requirements are being fulfilled.

See More: What Is a Content Delivery Network (CDN)? Definition, Architecture and Best Practices 

Takeaway

Network traffic analysis monitors network availability and tracks activity to identify irregularities, optimize performance, and thwart attack attempts. When choosing the right network traffic analysis solution for your enterprise, account for the current blind spots in your network and the databases that you would like to glean insights from. Network traffic analysis adds another layer to your cybersecurity environment and gives you enhanced visibility into the enterprise environment. Use network traffic analysis along with other security solutions for maximum effect.

Will network traffic analysis be a mainstay in all enterprise networks in the future? Share your views with us on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook. We’d love to learn from you!

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