If data centers, or even just a computer or two, are part of your business, then you need to protect your network security. Although all the details of this topic could easily fill a book or two, you can still guard your company’s IT assets by learning a little about network security and what you must do to thwart attacks. Even if you outsource your security tasks, you can still benefit from an awareness of the threats your company faces and the systems designed to keep it safe.
If your network—be it a data center or just an office computer—is connected to the outside world (meaning, more or less, the Internet), you face a number of threats to your system. Even if you severed all connections to the outside, however, you can still be susceptible to attacks from locations on site. Although this article focuses on threats from the Internet, remember that proper screening of employees, authentication procedures and physical-security measures are all important as well.
Threats to your network include everything from denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, which seek to flood your network with bogus packets and thus prevent legitimate users from accessing your servers, to malware, break-ins (perhaps to steal or delete data) and various other sophisticated attacks. Security, however, is not something you can simply implement and ignore; new threats arise almost daily, requiring you to constantly update your security apparatus to keep pace with the changing landscape.
The Human Factor
The key to maintaining network security isn’t the firewall (although that’s important), nor is it antivirus software (although that is important too); it’s your personnel—specifically, their behavior in using the network. One blog (“Network Security Basics for Businesses”) cutely states, “A user who honestly believes that the bank of Nigeria wants to offer them 12.6 Million US Dollars will click their way through every ‘Are you sure?’, ‘Allow access?’ or ‘Confirm security exception?’ popup that the operation system, browser or virus scanner throws at them to get it. By doing this, the user has effectively invited trouble into the network.” One inattentive user can throw a monkey wrench into an otherwise exceptional security implementation. Thus, part of your task—even if you have hired a security consultant—is to inculcate your employees with an awareness of how important a security-conscious mindset is to protecting your network, and your business.
The Usual User-Level Stuff
One way an attacker might seek to gain access to your system is by exploiting weak passwords. Requiring strong passwords (a combination of letters and numbers—preferably with punctuation and a mix of cases, but no real words) can thwart “brute-force” attacks. Multifactor authentication can also improve access control, although this approach has its own difficulties, such as potential loss of authentication tokens by employees. Also, avoid other obvious no-nos, like storing passwords in obvious places (in unsecure files on a computer or handwritten in a place that is easily accessible). Ensure that software is updated regularly to fix potential vulnerabilities that could give attackers an open avenue into your network. Network security at this level is largely a matter of ensuring that employees do their part to protect the network.
The category of anti-malware covers a spectrum of measures designed to protect your network from malicious software. Antivirus is perhaps the most well-known of the bunch, but you also need anti-spam (to stop the deluge of poorly written notices regarding your need to “update” your information at one bank or another, among other things) and anti-spyware, for instance. Anti-malware programs, however, can only protect against known threats. New malware is being written and deployed continuously, so you must be sure to regularly update the definitions.
Although this aspect of security is important, however, it should not be the total extent of your effort. Anti-malware software and devices protect against some threats, but not all.
One of the best steps you can take toward protecting your network is to use a firewall. Firewalls are a layer of protection that separates your internal company network from the outside world (the Internet). Different firewalls may be configured differently, and depending on your situation, you may opt for one type over another. Another important security measure is an intrusion prevention system (IPS), which monitors the network for signs of malicious activity and, if it detects such activity, logs and attempts to stop it. Firewalls and similar systems may come in the form of software or hardware, whether as a dedicated device or integrated in some other broader device.
Virtual Private Networks
Given the high cost of leased lines for connecting remote company sites, a less expensive alternative is the virtual private network (VPN). A VPN uses the existing infrastructure of the Internet, but it adds encryption to prevent third parties from gaining access. As the name indicates, a virtual private network offers the benefits of a dedicated network interconnecting remote sites, but it avoids the high cost of leased lines. VPNs are therefore a good option for cost-conscious companies that need to communicate among different sites, but it provides a means of doing so that is almost as secure as a dedicated connection.
If you use any wireless networks, then others can potentially connect remotely, even from beyond the boundaries of your company site. Fundamentally, this is no different from the fact that others can connect remotely over the Internet, but in the same vein, you must be sure to secure that part of your network. The Wi-Fi WPS vulnerability, for instance, is one case that demonstrates the need for care in deploying these networks, and for care in securing them with strong protection measures.
The above is a high-level overview of some of the aspects of network security that you must consider to protect your business’s IT assets. Obviously, many of the technical aspects have been glossed over. One nontechnical, but equally important, measure in your security arsenal is a strong policy. As discussed previously, the key to good security is employees that know and perform their roles in protecting the network. To that end, proper guidelines are important. Employees should be aware of your security policy and should be diligent in sticking to it; the alternative is a network open to attack, which apart from just causing an annoyance can cost your company lots of money. And like the various technical aspects of your network security, your policy should be reviewed regularly to determine if an “upgrade” is needed. The security-threat landscape is constantly changing, so you need to be flexible enough to meet the challenge by making your own changes accordingly.
Threats are out there, and chances are, you’ll be the target of attacks—whether directed broadly at whomever will bite or particularly at your company. Although you may not always be successful in staving off every attack, a good security implementation will help by thwarting many of them. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the many different aspects and variations of security systems, consider hiring an experienced security consultant to help you.
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