Expert security tips: How to protect networks without security overkill

An expert offers tips for increasing network -- and hence organization -- security. Find out how to identify security threats, assess security problems, develop security strategies.

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Under the avalanche of network security products and information available, the most important check list item doesn't cost a dime. It's time, said Mike Mychalczuk, senior product manager for NetIQ's security products group.

He recently shared with TechTarget a few steps to increase network – and hence organization – security. Mychalczuk and NetIQ will host two upcoming workshops, called Digital Crime Prevention Labs, where IT Pros can learn to identify security threats, assess security problems, develop security strategies and strengthen networks in an on-site technology lab. The workshops will be at Microsoft Technology Centers Sept. 16- 20 in Redmond, Wash., and Sept.30-Oct. 10 in Boston. Participants of all levels will be asked to secure a network that on-site hackers will attack. They'll be able to ask hackers how they break into networks.

Network break-ins are a hot topic in corporate America, Mychalczuk said.

In this year's Computer Crime and Security Survey by the Computer Security Institute, 40% of respondents said their systems had been penetrated from outside the network. Five hundred and three corporations, mostly large, participated in the survey, and 89% had firewalls; 37% were financial services and high-tech firms.

Prioritizing different levels of network security, streamlining the implementation of software patches and devising reasonable security policies are three steps that can go a long way to protect networks and company data, Mychalczuk said.

A security policy that treats every corner of a network as business-critical is impractical, too complicated and destined to be ignored by employees and even IT staffers, Mychalczuk said.

That's why the most first step is to rank the importance of various segments of a network. An example of a network area that's business critical is a customer database application; an example of a non-critical area is a printer server. The level of service required for certain network areas can help develop network hierarchies. IT Pros should poll their supervisors and executives to help determine what is business critical.

This takes time, but hours spent ranking network segments will save days of hassle when security breaches occur.

"Prioritizing costs you time, but you'll get it back 10 fold down the line," Mychalczuk said.

The next step in securing a network is to streamline the handling and implementation of software patches.

IT Pros that manage many applications can receive more than one software patch a week. With its service packs, Microsoft is a particularly egregious offender.

Implementing every software patch available without suffering tech snafus is impossible. Patches are notorious for breaking applications and networks, and lab testing can take weeks. "You want to try to minimize the time lag," Mychalczuk said.

With a network hierarchy in place, administrators can quickly determine which patches deserve immediate attention.

"IT Pros can say, 'I got this patch, and they effect these servers, so I have to fast track this thing,'" Mychalczuk said.

The third step is to devise security policies that are reasonable for internal staff. "Those who implement security have a tendency to overreact," he said.

If policies and procedures are too complex, employees will find ways around them. For instance, users will dream up ways to get around a 14-character password, and this makes security failures inevitable.

"Automate it as much as you can, and remove as much responsibility from users as possible," Mychalczuk said.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Expert advice: Five ways to stop hackers.

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