Adapting Network Security for a Distributed Workforce

April 24, 2020
With the COVID-19 pandemic, securing IT networks is more challenging and more essential than ever, as social distancing lockdowns add to an explosion of end users and connected devices.

Network managers are grappling with an explosion of users and devices, a trend that has intensified with the widespread shift to a distributed workforce during social distancing lockdowns. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, securing the network is more challenging and more essential than ever.

In this hyperconnected world, many IT teams are turning to automation and machine learning to help secure their growing networks. Network security focuses on more than protecting the infrastructure from external attacks. It also involves implementing adequate access control for employees and ensuring a company has the IT talent it needs to remain resilient as new threats emerge.

The financial cost of poor network security is increasing. Research from IBM in 2019 found the cost of a data breach has gone up 12% over five years, with some organizations keep incurring costs for years after discovering an issue.

In its 2020 Global Networking Trends Report, Cisco reported that 53 percentof cyberattacks cost more than half a million dollars in damage. Collectively, the data points from Cisco and IBM make clear that network security must play a prominent role in your IT operations.

Prioritizing Remote Access and Network Control

One of the trends discussed in the Cisco report relates to how network users are no longer consistently be in the same place – such as their offices – when accessing files or handling workloads. Cisco cautions that IT professionals can no longer rely on manual access for network operations as users become increasingly mobile.

Using a software-based approach across all network domains allows managing and administering consistent access control across all networks, regardless of a person’s access point. It can also recognize Internet of Things (IoT) devices added to the system and automatically apply appropriate measures – a particularly important task, as Cisco projects that there will be 14.6 billion IoT devices on networks by 2022.

Many network professionals embrace the possibility of using new, high-tech access control measures to maintain excellent management practices. This factor is especially crucial as the number of people using the network — and the devices they have — keep rising. The Cisco research cited its findings from last year’s Networking Trends Report, which showed that 72% of respondents wanted to deploy intent-based or artificial intelligence-driven access control within two years, despite only 18% doing so currently.

If companies bring those intentions to fruition, they could create and change access policies as needs dictate. Moreover, they could assess current access control to ensure it matches business intent.

Cisco’s report also discovered that 43% of network teams prioritized improving embedded network security capabilities. Also, these strategists mentioned security as a top area of investment, second only to artificial intelligence. These findings strongly suggest that network professionals understand that managing IT operations must evolve to meet current and upcoming needs.

Recommendations for the Zero-Trust Network Security Model

The zero-trust security model was another topic of discussion in the Cisco report. It takes the approach of verifying everyone on an application-by-application basis — even people who have been with a company for years or are at its highest levels. Cisco’s report advises combining the zero-trust model with network automation and assurance strategies. Doing that assists with threat mitigation across the whole system.

Of course, adopting the zero-trust model does not mean you should ease up on security at the application level. Apps exist that allow companies to manage global security policies at scale. They also include built-in artificial intelligence for continuous threat detection.

Network Security Points in Five Key Areas

As the Cisco report acknowledged the realities of the modern infrastructure, it clarified how network management professionals must keep five things in mind:

  • Visibility: Chief information systems officers (CISOs) feel concerned that this new distributed approach to applications and data may pose visibility challenges. Cisco’s research did not offer tips on how to keep visibility levels high. However, technology makes that goal easier to accomplish, especially since many tools offer single dashboards showing all network statistics in one place.
  • Zero-trust access: The report notes that “the network is an integral element for integrating a consistent trust model where all users, applications and devices are equally suspect, regardless of where they access the network.”
  • Continuous protection: The network must provide both detection and enforcement capabilities, taking automatic action to contain infected devices.
  • Trustworthy infrastructure: Due to the growing number of malicious parties looking for ways to exploit weaknesses, managers must adopt an approach that secures the network as a whole, plus provides similar protection to individual devices.
  • Streamlined workflows between Network Operations (NetOps) and Security Operations (SecOps) teams: Cisco’s report mentioned how CISOs envision NetOps and SecOps teams working together. It cited statistics whereby 95% of those polled said those teams are already very or extremely collaborative. Despite that progress, Cisco mentioned that the two groups usually do things separately when collecting or analyzing data. These teams must integrate the necessary tools for accomplishing tasks and unite around a common goal of automated threat prevention, detection and response.

Gaining ground in each of those five areas will take time and dedication. But, work and commitment should pay off. A statistic in the Cisco report confirmed that, in 2019, nearly half of CISOs (48%) identified time to remediation as a key performance indicator (KPI). Only 30% said they did so the year before.

That KPI is security-centric, but it can support others related to the network, such as those addressing latency, availability and use. Examining KPIs can help network professionals gauge their progress in the five areas above, along with others not mentioned.

What Challenges Exist in Network Security?

Challenges abound within the network security realm. Many of today’s environments are mobile-first or cloud-first and increasingly complex, making it more difficult to safeguard against attacks.

Moreover, today’s workloads don’t exist inside a well-defined perimeter. Hybrid and edge-hosted applications change the approaches network security professionals must take to keep everything locked down. There is also an increasingly diverse mixture of users and devices on the network. For example, a company may have full-time on-site staff, remote contractors and seasonal workers who all need to access a company’s data on their computers, phones, tablets and IoT devices.

Cisco also warns that hackers are more likely to target underlying switching and routing infrastructures. They do this to compromise data, eavesdrop or enter the network to orchestrate attacks on other parts of the system. Hackers are continuously innovating and engaging in increasingly advanced attacks. This ramping-up keeps the threat landscape in an ever-fluctuating state that network security professionals must monitor as closely and diligently as possible.

Managing IT Operations Effectively Requires a Proactive Mindset

The topics detailed in the Cisco report emphasize why even the most seasoned network security professionals cannot assume the same methods they used a few years ago will still suffice today. Understanding the current threats — and those on the horizon — is crucial.

Don’t overlook the prospect that it may take time to get your superiors to agree to a substantial change, such as implementing the zero-security model. If so,anticipate the process potentially taking longer than you imagined. Additionally, commit to staying abreast of network security trends not covered by Cisco. The report is undoubtedly useful, but you should not depend on it as a sole resource for recent trends.

About the Author

Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a tech journalist and blogger, whose work has appeared on websites such as VentureBeat, MakeUseOf, VICE’s Motherboard, Gear Diary, Inc.com, The Huffington Post, CloudTweaks, and others. Drawing from her interests in technology and its applications to daily life, Matthews writes about the intersection of technology and productivity.

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