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Network monitoring is a very different beast now

(Image credit: Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock)

Although you may not think it, businesses across all sectors have become increasingly dependent on automated IT over the past few years – this applies to hotels, schools or small businesses. Whether it’s employees performing day-to-day tasks in a business or students completing assignments via online portals– we all need devices to access our networks for a multitude of reasons.

This has not only put a strain on existing IT network set-ups but has seen the role and expectations of the network administrator change beyond all recognition, in a bid to keep everything running smoothly and securely.

There was a time when those in charge of the network knew where they stood and had the time and resources to deal with reliability and unexpected security issues – which were a less frequent occurrence. But in a world where technology underpins every activity and transaction, there is now a need to spin multiple, moving plates to ensure operational efficiency.

Managing hybrid cloud networks, reacting to the overwhelming amount of big data residing on the network, the growing number of connected mobile devices all wanting to access the WiFi, and the ever-increasing risk and prevalence of cyberthreats are now the order of the day, making network monitoring a very different beast.

Facing the unknown

The biggest challenge that network administrators must deal with, is tackling new and unidentified threats that compromise the security of the network, most of which often seem uncontrollable. High profile incidents including the WannaCry epidemic in May 2017 demonstrate the sheer scale and lasting impact that cyberthreats can have on every business. Not only has this put the issue of ransomware high on the business worry list, but since the global incident there has been a 46 per cent increase in new variants – making it even more difficult for those in charge of protecting the network to keep up.

However, it’s not just these high-profile threats that cause headaches for network administrators. For example, the recent prevalence and rise in cryptocurrency use has also seen cybercriminals become more sophisticated in their attempts to attack and compromise businesses. Indeed in 2018, the Cyber Threat Alliance (opens in new tab) reported a 459 per cent increase in the rate of illegal crypto-jacking, suggesting that businesses have yet to put effective measures in place to deal with the threat, or are simply unaware that the risks even exist.

These kind of zero-day, unknown attacks are on the rise, with businesses often not realising they have been a victim until they find themselves on the end of a ransom demand, unable to access their company or customer data, and operations grinding to a halt.     

As cyberthreats become more sophisticated and targeted, so should the solutions which help defend the network against threats. But as cloud-based platforms and applications become the new normal, the distributed nature of the environment can be hard to control and keep secure. Add the recently enforceable GDPR regulations to the mix and ensuring networks are water tight and company data and integrity protected has become all-consuming for the network administrator, in a bid to reduce reputational and financial impact on the business.

In the midst of these pressures and strain on the network, just how can a business continue to successfully manage and combat everything that is thrown at it? The trusted, traditional firewall can only do so much in keeping today’s external threats at bay. The only way to maintain control over evolving and unknown risks is to take a proactive approach and move from conventional firewall to a much smarter form of defence. Enter artificial intelligence (AI).

Adopting a proactive stance

While AI might sound like an expensive, futuristic and ambiguous concept which is only utilised by innovative companies with huge budgets, its application within network security management is both vital and viable for companies of all shapes and sizes. In fact, the application of AI within a network firewall adds a layer of self-learning to the monitoring and management process. Ultimately, it provides an extra pair of eyes and ears for the already over worked network administrator. It gives them the tools they need to take a more efficient and effective approach based on real insight, rather than a purely reactive stance to threats, which could be based on outdated or static information.

AI can be used effectively within the IT network to apply self-learning to a number of scenarios, helping network administrators to deal with the demands on today’s and tomorrow network - ensuring no stone is left unturned. For example, many companies rely on and trust a conventional firewall to keep them protected and block anything that looks suspicious from entering or compromising the company network. This could range from malware and ransomware in the form of email attachments, through to stopping unknown devices connecting to the WiFi or website pop-ups from appearing.

However, with the nature of threats constantly evolving, adding a layer of machine intelligence into the process can provide the functionality to help networks stay better protected, rather than simply blocking suspicious-looking files or missing threats altogether. A firewall bolstered with a layer of AI, will be able to recognise a threat as unknown, put it into quarantine and analyse it, to help the systems effectively respond and defend against it, and future attacks. In doing this, the vulnerability window can be reduced when responding to zero-day attacks. The system can learn and become better equipped at spotting true threats immediately, to help in the fight against targeted attacks.

Embracing evolution

Since the demands and structure of the network is constantly changing, it makes sense for the management approach to evolve and scale, in order to cope with the threats of the unknown. One method of this is to adopt an AI-based firewall approach. Through this, businesses can adapt to circumstances and learn from vulnerabilities to grow with the company. It can ensure that networks operate at optimum efficiency and that the network administrator can stay one step ahead and focus on maintaining operational excellence to support future business growth, rather than spending time and money on repairing damage caused by the latest malware to infect the network.

Embracing the benefits of machine learning for network management is the next natural step for small businesses; far from dismissing AI. Machine learning and AI can provide much needed additional support while taking action based on a position of knowledge that can only be done through deep analysis of every threat that enters the network. This is particularly important in a situation where time and resources are scarce. Standing still and trusting in your faithful firewall with only get you so far. Embracing AI has the potential to transform your business once and for all; keeping it secure from whatever may be thrown at it.

Thorsten Kurpjuhn, European Security Market Development Manager., Zyxel (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock

Thornsten Kurpjuhn is the European Market Development Manager at Zyxel.