December 13, 2022

What is Network Traffic Analysis (NTA)?

  • Cybersecurity
  • network detection

In the present-day cyberthreat landscape, threat actors can come from anywhere, and attack an organization at any time. One effective way to keep these adversaries is to monitor the enterprise network and analyze its traffic. Such monitoring and analysis enables cybersecurity teams to spot anomalous or suspicious activities and act early to protect the network and organization. Here’s where network traffic analysis (NTA) comes in.

What is Network Traffic Analysis and How NTA Solutions Work

NTA solutions monitor and analyze enterprise networks to differentiate “normal” traffic patterns from “abnormal” traffic patterns. By comparing what is with what should be, NTA enables security teams to identify if something unusual or potentially dangerous is happening on the network. They can then act appropriately in order to thwart attackers before they can cause too much damage.

The best NTA solutions monitor both north-south traffic (traffic that crosses the enterprise perimeter) and east-west traffic (internal traffic) on networks. This enables security personnel to get continuous, real-time visibility into the network, keep an eye on traffic behaviors and patterns, and improve their threat detection and response capabilities.

Traditional NTA Solutions vs. Modern NTA Solutions

Traditional NTA solutions define a baseline for normal behavior on the enterprise network, analyze traffic, and compare it to the pre-defined baseline. While such comparisons enable security staff to identify anomalous and potentially dangerous behaviors on the network, these older solutions also generate a lot of noise, which make it harder for teams to separate real threats from false positives.

Advanced NTA solutions operate more intelligently than traditional NTA solutions. They analyze network data, such as telemetry or flow records using rule-based detection, behavioral models, and machine learning technology, so security teams can more effectively detect and counter potential threats. Plus, these solutions yield few false positives, so teams don’t have to waste time reviewing alerts that are not really threats. Some newer tools can also initiate automated responses to detected threats based on pre-defined workflows.

Key Benefits of Network Traffic Analysis

Modern NTA solutions based on machine learning and other advanced technologies provide enhanced and ongoing visibility into the network based on real-time, contextual information. Such visibility is crucial for the growing, interconnected, and increasingly complex networks of the modern digital era where threats can come from anywhere and at any time. Advanced tools can even analyze encrypted network traffic, and alert teams to threats hiding in this traffic.

An NTA solution can alert security teams to an infection early, thus reducing its dwell time. Early indications and automatic anomaly detection allow them to act quickly to avoid costly and possible devastating damage to the organization, such as the compromise of IT resources or the theft of business-critical data.

Modern NTA solutions can monitor and ingest telemetry from all the devices and entities on the network, including traditional TCP/IP traffic, routers, switches, firewalls, IoT devices, cloud workloads, and even virtual networks. More importantly, they analyze this telemetry to determine what normal behavior looks and raise alerts if a behavior veers from this normal. The insights about security and network operations generated by NTA solutions also enable security teams to:

  • Troubleshoot and optimize network performance

  • Detect malware, a vulnerable protocol, and any other vulnerability or threat on the network

  • Create an accurate inventory of the network’s devices and services, thus minimizing the threats created by Shadow IT

  • Better manage network resources

  • Meet relevant data privacy compliance requirements

  • Generate reports about network and user activity for senior management or auditors

  • Conduct detailed and contextual forensic analysis to understand how a threat has moved laterally on the network and which devices it has infected

Ultimately, NTA platforms empower security staff to strengthen enterprise cyber defenses and minimize the organization’s attack surface.

What to Look for in a NTA Solution: Important Features and Capabilities

Various types of NTA solutions offer varying degrees of anomaly detection, network visibility, and threat response. But when choosing one solution, organizations must first understand their own network and its various elements, including devices, policies, users, integrations, and vendors. Such self-awareness can reveal current blind spots and select the right NTA tool to address those blind spots. It’s also vital to assess solutions based on these key capabilities:

1. Unified, contextual visibility

The NTA tool should provide rich detail about network traffic and additional context, so security teams can understand the entities, users, devices, and services on the network, where users are accessing the network from, which files they are accessing, and what kind of data they are sharing or exfiltrating.

Such contextual visibility is essential to better monitor the entire digital enterprise. It also allows staff to implement zero trust strategies in order to strengthen enterprise defenses beyond the traditional security perimeter.

2. Visibility into every endpoint

In enterprise networks, many endpoints are not monitored, creating blind spots that attackers can take advantage of to attack the organization. The NTA tool should monitor every device to provide ongoing and continuous visibility across the entire environment.

3. Compare agentless vs agent-based NTA solutions

Agent-based NTA solutions usually yield more detailed data from systems. However, installing agents on multiple servers can quickly become complex as the network grows. With agentless solutions, there’s no need to install software agents on servers to monitor the enterprise network, reducing complexity during deployment and use. Agentless NTA tools also make it easier to maintain the network monitoring infrastructure. Moreover, they scale well and are therefore suitable for growing networks.

4. Advanced and automated threat detection and response

The NTA platform should be able to analyze all network behaviors and payloads, eliminate meaningless alerts, and provide proof of actual infections. It should use machine learning and behavioral models to detect advanced threats and threats that might have bypassed the security perimeter.

It should also include a threat intelligence database that enables comparisons of network behaviors with previous DNS requests, malware samples, IP addresses, and domains. The database should enable the security team to correlate an existing threat with a previous event so they can respond quickly and effectively. In addition, automated response can ensure immediate remediation to minimize damage.

5. Analyze encrypted traffic

In Q2 2021, over 90% of malware was hidden in encrypted traffic. Moreover, 80% of organizations are at risk of missing this malware that could be hitting their networks daily. Cybercriminals often use encrypted traffic to obscure their presence in a network and evade detection by traditional security tools. To keep them out, the NTA solution must be able to analyze encrypted traffic and detect the threats that may be hiding in this traffic, such as ransomware, DDoS attacks, and cryptomining.

 

Conclusion

Your network management and security teams require detailed and contextual visibility to protect the enterprise network from threat actors. However, it can be difficult to maintain this level of visibility, even with an NTA solution.

Managed Detection and Response (MDR) can ease this difficulty, particularly for organizations with limited resources and expertise. An MDR provider like ForeNova can provide agentless visibility into your entire network and packet-level granularity so you never miss any anomalous or suspicious behaviors and can act early to keep threats out.

ForeNova provides 24/7/365 MDR to detect and respond to all kinds of cyberthreats, including sophisticated ransomware, advanced persistent threats (APTs), zero-day exploits, and software supply chain attacks. Get the complete visibility, advanced threat detection, and intelligent response you need to protect your organization from the bad guys. Click here to learn more.