Network Access Control: Bridging the Network Security Gap
by Graham Cluley - Senior Technology Consultant at Sophos - Monday, 03 February 2008.
Network Access Control - helping companies to take control back

Organisations of all sizes are now considering Network Access Control (NAC) as part of a holistic security strategy. NAC not only gives businesses the power to simply and swiftly create and enforce security policies, it can also block or quarantine non-compliant or unauthorized computers that are seeking to gain network access. An effective solution can also determine whether all endpoints are compliant with the organization's security policies; not only prior to granting permission to access the network, but on an on-going basis once these users have been allowed to log on. In this way, companies can rest assured that if a user acts out of line with the security policy, they will be banned from the network until the matter has been dealt with. Furthermore, systems administrators can grant individual employees or guests specific levels of network access, which dictate which resources they can use. These levels are set by looking at a combination of factors, including the user's department, internal role and their level within the company, as well as the status of their endpoint's security solutions.

Replicating physical security measures online

The need to secure sensitive data on business networks, and the NAC method of achieving this, can be compared to the constraints many businesses put in place to ensure the physical security of their buildings. Let's take the example of a pharmaceutical company, which needs high levels of security in order to protect drugs patents worth billions of pounds, and to ensure compliance with strict legislative standards. In this kind of environment, a receptionist would meet all employees and visitors at the front desk. Once their reason for wanting to move forward has been established and the receptionist has accepted that it is in line with the company's security policies, they will then be either authorised or refused entry.

Those employees and visitors that have been approved, will be granted further access to specific areas of the building, depending on their requirements and position within the company. For example, while the managing director may have 'access all areas' clearance, a temp may only be able to access the parts of the office that they will directly be working in. By giving physical access to the right people in this way, the company has dramatically reduced the associated security risks. You would not let a masked man through business doors, but it's a bit more complicated to prevent them gaining access to the business network - without the right solution in place.

The risk of intelligent users

A common trap that many businesses fall into is only considering to implement NAC if they have remote and mobile workers and frequent visitors, but while these casual users certainly pose a significant threat to company networks, it is equally critical to protect their infrastructures from users within the corporate walls. Indeed, in a recent Sophos poll, which asked more than 200 companies who they thought exposed their networks to the greatest IT threats, 44 percent believe standard employees to be the most dangerous.


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