IT systems routinely play host to sensitive information, intellectual property, and vital applications in any business, big or small. So the need for access control methods in computer networks is critical for safeguarding this data and ensuring its security.
The process of policing access to private or corporate networks is known as Network Access Control or NAC. It’s a combined approach that merges the efforts of human network administrators with the work of monitoring and administrative systems and software.
NAC implementation may therefore involve network access control open source or proprietary software, in-house network managers, and external network management services.
What is Network Access Control?
Network Access Control (NAC) is a centralized approach to network management whose primary aim is to prevent unauthorized users or devices from gaining access to a private network. It is also known as Network Admission Control (NAC).
NAC is a comprehensive approach that generally uses pre-defined rules, operating procedures, policies, data transfer protocols, applications, and tools to set the limits and conditions for what individual users and network components can and cannot do while on the network.
The ideal objective of network access control is to ensure that only authorized, authenticated, and trusted devices or users are able to access the network infrastructure and assets — and that they operate on the network in a manner that is in line with all the obligations that the network owner must observe in terms of regulatory compliance and industry standards.
NAC solutions typically employ network security software platforms in conjunction with specialized hardware appliances. These components monitor network usage and enforce rule- and policy-based restrictions to protect sensitive information. A number of security and networking capabilities may be part of the package. These include network monitoring, incident response, and authentication protocols for devices and users.
The Need for Network Access Control
The importance of network access control really cannot be over-stressed in today’s IT environment. Present-day networks have evolved far beyond the localized and wired systems of the earliest network deployments. Large computer networks now often include more traditional data centre hardware, together with wireless devices, cloud services, mobile infrastructure, and the Internet of things (IoT). Besides the mechanisms required for physically connected hardware to communicate, there are communications protocols that span local networks, corporate intranets, and the internet at large.
As a result of this heterogeneous mix, the traditional network perimeter no longer exists as a discrete physical entity. Network endpoints can exist pretty much anywhere that has an Internet Protocol (IP) address. For administrators, this greatly complicates matters by introducing a proliferation of potential entry points to the network, each of which has to be guarded. Network complexity is a positive advantage for infiltrators and saboteurs, giving many new avenues for a potential attack.
Network access control for today’s IT infrastructure must therefore extend beyond traditional perimeter monitoring. Its remit must expand to include threat monitoring, device authentication, and the policy-based management of network resources and infrastructure. There is a requirement for NAC in several areas, including:
With Work From Home (WFH) likely to evolve into hybrid working models having some employees home-based and others rotating between corporate premises, networks will continue to host a mix of personal devices and infrastructure owned by the enterprise. The perennial issue of “Shadow IT” — unsanctioned applications and devices or resources that fall out of the IT department’s range of visibility — also remains. Network access control is therefore necessary for preventing unauthorized devices from operating on the network.
External contractors and guests may occasionally require access to parts of the organization’s IT network. NAC has a role to play in monitoring these third parties’ activities and preventing them from straying into parts of the network to which they should not have access.
Compliance and Data Privacy Requirements
Organizations operating in certain industries or sectors of the economy may be subject to special rules governing how they must handle personal data or business information. Existing legal statutes may also impose requirements for the handling of data in storage and in transit. A Network Access Control solution can give administrators the visibility they need into each network resource — and enable them to determine whether network components are operating in line with these legal conditions.
Capabilities of Network Access Control (NAC)
Network access control addresses a number of network administration and security needs. These include:
Managing Network Administration Policies
Once the organization has established policies to regulate the network access and activities of various users and devices, NAC can enforce these policies. Solutions can also adjust to them as operating and market conditions change, and users or devices enter or leave the network.
Creating and Tracking User and Device Profiles
A properly configured NAC solution can create profiles for each individual device or user on the network. Network Access Control authenticates and authorizes each network component, monitors activity, and prevents users with unrecognized profiles from gaining network access.
Increasing Network Visibility
By establishing the identity of each device or user and monitoring their behavior on the network, NAC provides administrators with a detailed picture of what is actually occurring. It also provides visibility into the access and usage patterns of participants on the network, which assists in configuration and resource allocation.
Enhancing Network Security
NAC solutions can enforce Role-Based Access Control or RBAC — a security system that assigns roles and access rights to network users based on their position within an organization. This enables administrators to segment the workforce into groups based on their job roles and grant access to network resources on an as-needed basis. This helps in enforcing a more global policy of Zero Trust security for the enterprise as a whole.
Should a cyber-attack actually occur, NAC also has the power to limit the scope of its damage. Authorization protocols and user/device authentication at each stage of operation on the network can prevent unauthorized users from moving to different parts of the network. This provides effective safeguards for sensitive information, intellectual property, and mission-critical applications.
Automating Incident Response
Automated routines and rule sets allow NAC solutions to create and enforce policies governing the behavior of network participants. This includes automatically blocking suspicious activities and isolating suspect users or devices — without the need for IT personnel to become directly involved.
Limitations of Network Access Control
While it offers numerous advantages, there are some limitations to what Network Access Control can do. They include:
NAC Design Complexity
Implementing a network access control solution across an enterprise network requires considerable planning and expertise and can be a complex and possibly expensive endeavor. This complexity can increase, depending on the nature of the network — especially if it incorporates many disparate elements, hardware/device types, communication protocols, and points of access.
Difficulties in Monitoring IoT Devices and Personal Hardware
NAC excels in managing registered or identified devices on a network. However, remote working and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies can introduce personal hardware that is harder to track and can expose the network to malware infiltration and/or data leakage. The same holds for Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors, which may not support the authentication protocols and security controls imposed by the NAC system.
Use Cases for Network Access Control
A number of network access control use cases exist, which advances in NAC solution technology have made possible. They include:
Managing BYOD Policies
Modern NAC solutions can impose security protocols and authentication procedures for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) implementations. Administrators can customize these systems to create policies that provide access controls for a variety of personal devices and hardware.
Managing IoT Devices
Contemporary NAC systems can effectively govern resource allocation and access permissions for specific Internet of Things (IoT) devices or classes of hardware. This allows Network Access Control systems to provide IoT deployments with the network availability they need while minimizing the exposure risk they can pose to the enterprise.
Regulating Third-Party Access To The Network
For guests or external contractors, NAC systems can provide limited access to the network resources that they need to fulfill their missions or do their jobs. Security controls minimize the risk of exploitation of third-party devices by external cyber-attackers.
Maintaining Regulatory Compliance
Network Access Control solutions can provide the data governance rules and authentication controls needed to maintain compliance with relevant industry standards and data privacy rules. They can also provide protective measures to safeguard sensitive personal information on a network incorporating multiple users and device types.
CG Technologies believes in custom solutions geared to your business’s specific needs and budget. Our goal is to bring our partners into a proactive IT model. With this approach, we can prevent and address issues and threats before they pose a risk to your business.
If you’d like to know more, get in touch with us.