Network management was once the process of engineers deciphering how to establish and maintain a connection between two devices. Yet as enterprise networks grew more complex and sophisticated, so did the threats against them. An ongoing concern of network engineers is that network complexity is evolving at a faster rate than most security processes. Given what is at stake from a business perspective, this is a priority area in need of a course correction.

As networks continue to grow more complex, the expectations for network security have not been lowered, but are rising. Maintaining network vigilance continues to be a core challenge of network security. Even when users are constantly on the go, networks are constantly changing and new threats are emerging daily. Given that today’s cyberattacks are more sophisticated and better funded than ever before, staying in front of determined hackers in an ever-changing world of technology is no easy task. Yet a failure to do so is leaving organisations vulnerable.

The Issue Starts With Visibility

Identifying threats is the first step to any network protection plan, but most network organisations still rely on tedious manual processes to document the network and identify potential vulnerabilities. An engineer’s limited understanding of unauthorised network devices and software could be the downfall of a team’s ability to protect its network from attack. The inability to visualise the network in real-time and understand the existing design (e.g. access control lists, firewall policies, etc.) will keep organisations a step behind a hacker when threats arise.

Unfortunately, most teams live without this critical end-to-end visibility because it can take weeks or months to document a network manually. Not to mention, once the project is complete, the diagrams are already out of date.

The second shortcoming of most organisations is the inability to automatically respond to an attack at any time of day. Collaboration and instant response is critical as networks are constantly at risk. Again, this requires manpower and time to ensure that both network and security teams can work together, share findings and mitigate the problem.

And, what if this attack happens at 2 a.m.? Most organisations have network monitoring tools that will alert everyone to the risk, but manual processes and tribal knowledge can prevent engineering teams from jointly diagnosing and mitigating the attack at the necessary speed. It’s no secret that every second matters when there’s a threat to the network, and manual responses are costing organisations.

In the world of automation, almost anything is possible. Just as engineers taught cars to drive themselves and robots to run a production line, networks will soon get to the point where they will be able to troubleshoot themselves. While this may not be a reality today, continuous network security is not as far away as many might think.

Automating Security

Right now, many network teams are coding scripts that automatically trigger responses to network changes. This helps automate key portions of the security process, usually to ensure that all devices are adhering to network policies. The problem with these scripts is that they are not typically portable, and require a level of expertise that not all network engineers possess.

To improve this process, some organisations are automating their playbook processes. Instead of relying on static playbooks like checklists and guides for troubleshooting, many organisations are digitising their knowledge and best practices into lightweight, programmable apps to help ensure every engineer is on the same page with how to respond to a specific security issue.

Through an application program interface (API), which at its simplest form is a set of routines or protocols detailing how different areas of the software should interact with one another, networks can begin the process of securing themselves.

In the event of a DoS attack, for example, an API can be triggered and automatically set in motion a series of appropriate responses to defend the network—for instance, dynamically mapping the attack path and automatically diagnosing the threat. This can arm network and security teams with the data that matters—at the time that it matters—so appropriate defence mechanisms can be implemented.

While this can begin the process of continuous network security, most networks will probably still rely on engineers to perform more specific tasks for problem resolution. In the near-term, this hybrid approach is what will make the most sense for networks. However, as organisations adopt more automation techniques and as network teams work with smarter networking tools, these forces will help drive the change to more continuous network security, and potentially self-healing networks.

Engineers need to maintain this realm of thinking now and in the future as network security continues to evolve. Think about it from the perspective of an organisation that’s leveraging automation today. Through dynamic maps, they can automate the existing network in detail to not only provide end-to-end visibility, but offer details asset reports and more.

To validate security along critical application paths, they can execute runbooks to visualise access lists and firewall policies, and share their findings across network and security teams. Some of these processes can be set into motion when triggered by an API. The time-savings on analysis, mapping and finding the source of a security issue can be drastically reduced, but engineers are still involved in the problem solving.

The Self-Healing Network

As machine learning improves and networks get smarter, we will eventually be at a point where networks can self-heal. Much like the challenges of self-driving cars, there are still hurdles to clear.

Still, it’s time that organisations begin moving away from world of manual processes when it comes to the network. These methods are outdated and will crumble in the face of advanced security attacks. The landscape of networks today calls for an approach to security that embraces network automation at its core, that not only will protect the overall network but set it up for future success and changes. Rest assured that hackers are constantly evolving their tactics and methods of attack. The time to act is now.