I was asked to comment on Paul Proctor's new article in the August 2005 Information Security magzine, titled A Safe Bet?. Paul is an analyst at Gartner now, but years ago he wrote an excellent book -- The Practical Intrusion Detection Handbook, which I reviewed five years ago.
Paul's article introduces network anomaly detection systems, shorted by the wonderful acronym NADS. Paul describes NADS thus:
"NADS are designed to analyze network traffic with data gathered from protocols like Cisco Systems's NetFlow, Juniper's cFlow or sources that support the sFlow standard. Data is correlated directly from packet analysis; and the systems use a combination of anomaly and signature detection to alert network and security managers of suspicious activity, and present a picture of network activity for analysis and response."
I find Paul's opinions to be sound:
"Despite vendor claims to the contrary, NAD is primarily an investigative technology. While it has the potential to detect zero-day and other stealthy attacks, confidence in its results remains a problem in enabling automated response mechanisms.
This isn't unlike the early versions of IDS/IPS products, which weren't reliable enough to enable automated responses. In this light, NAD is best used to detect, investigate and manually address suspected incidents and problems...
NADS may not be able to automatically detect and block with the confidence of an IPS signature, but neither can an IDS/IPS help an organization if the enabled signature set misses something."
I am glad to see someone defending a product for its investigative value and not for its preventative value. It appears someone else realizes that prevention eventually fails, anyway.
Paul also says:
"NAD devices are powerful knowledge tools for expert network operations people with enterprise-specific contextual knowledge. These systems can help enterprises learn about the traffic and behavior of their network."
That's exactly right. NADS improve network situational awareness. However:
"Even though they can catch detailed events, such as a new service opening up, a new protocol appearing or a new machine connecting to the network, these events are too common to have value in larger enterprises.
NADS shine where obvious behaviors — like when a worm-infected machine spewing attack traffic or a DoS attack — are under way."
Here is the true root of the problem. If one cannot define normal network behavior, perhaps due to the size of the network or an inherently dynamic nature, then a NADS won't be much help. In those cases, it will only detect "obvious behaviors," for which existing detection and prevention systems may be adequate.
Paul concludes the article by recognizing the importance of skilled operators:
"The value these systems offer for addressing more subtle behavior is dependent upon the knowledge and experience of the operator. Under the right circumstances, NADS provide a wealth of network behavior information (protocols, ports, services, throughput, latency, etc.) that can be used to understand what's really going on in your network."
This is another reason why network security analysts are not going to lose their jobs. Networks are only becoming more complex. There is no chance that an expert network or security administrator can be coded into a software appliance. If IPv6 is widely deployed, the need for skilled operators will only grow.