As your enterprise's network grows and diversifies over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to track the efficacy of your network's systems and the potential threats they face. The network audit is an essential part of maintaining a growing network, especially in enterprises working with a wide variety of hardware, software, operating systems, data sets, and users.
Whether you are the managed service provider (MSP) conducting an audit or a member of the leadership or IT staff that wants to examine the results, what makes for a successful network audit? How can you make sure your audit covers all of the criteria to withstand internal and external threats that accompany growth? Read on to learn more about what a network audit looks like, a basic checklist that you can reference for your audit, and what happens after the audit is complete.
What is a network audit?
A network audit is a formal or informal inventory, assessment, and analysis of your network's hardware, software, operating systems, servers, and users. Organizations of any size and industry should complete network audits on a regular basis, at least annually. Regular audits can help your IT team and your leadership team to keep up with your network's needs and threats as your enterprise and its daily operations change over time.
What is the general process for a network audit?
Your internal IT or auditing team can complete an internal network audit, especially in larger enterprises where IT resources and expertise abound. But for smaller companies or companies that want an unbiased outside perspective, an MSP can conduct the audit and deliver the results to your team. Once you have your auditor or auditing team in place, they will need widespread access to all nodes within the network, so that they can manually assess or use a network auditing tool to assess the network. Assessment is not the only key phase in the process; it is also important for your auditing team to present the results and for internal teams to make the necessary changes to your network.
How do network audits affect your cybersecurity?
Even with the most meticulous employee or tracking procedure, your enterprise will occasionally miss necessary hardware and software updates, as well as potential breaches and unauthorized users or actions. Network audits are designed to help your organization do a routine health check of the network, specifically the efficacy of your cybersecurity measures. Here are just a few ways that regular network audits can help you prevent cybersecurity threats across your network:
- Audits help you to spot patches that are no longer working and other software that needs patches or updates to prevent possible breaches.
- You can identify hardware that is near the end of its life or that is too outdated to keep up with needed security measures.
- You can compare permissions and actions that you think your users and programs have versus the actual permissions and access that they currently have.
- You may discover software and programs that you didn't know were running and perhaps have not been appropriately vetted via your cybersecurity policies.
- You can find other vulnerabilities across your network, such as weak or nonexistent passwords and firewall or encryption issues.
Network audits help you to determine the current status of your cybersecurity measures and if any additional action (or cost) needs to be applied to cybersecurity efforts.
Read More: Steps to Building a Zero Trust Network
What should you include on your network audit checklist?
The most important part of your network audit is the planning stage. Without proper planning and setting the parameters and goals for your network audit, your auditing team may apply undue focus on certain areas or miss others that you wanted to analyze in the audit, leading to misalignment in time and cost. Before your enterprise embarks on a network audit, use this checklist to help you plan:
Determine if you need a network auditing tool and/or a third-party auditor.
Even at large enterprises where they have the IT team and resources to conduct an internal network audit, it may be useful to gain the outside perspective of a third-party auditor (an MSP). You will have to either put together an internal team with set expectations for the audit or hire an MSP within your scope and budget to get started.
Many steps in the audit can be or have to be conducted manually, but many others, such as creating a network diagram, storing access information, and creating the final report, can be automated through a network auditing tool. Once again, it depends on your timeline and budget if your enterprise should select a network auditing tool.
Inventory your network's hardware and software.
If your enterprise has experienced quick growth or is spread across multiple physical locations, it becomes a challenge to keep up with the hardware and software at each location and with each user. Many network auditing tools can automate this inventory process, but it's important to document each device's properties, location, user access, permissions, age, model, and overall physical condition. When it comes to inventorying software, check for versions, speed, use cases, and power users across departments.
Review your security policy AND security architecture.
Who in your enterprise is supposed to have access to what systems and when do they need that access? What programs, operating systems, and software are supposed to be running and when? Your existing security policy should cover these expectations in detail. If it does not, create a security policy that delineates security protocols for all nodes across your network.
Now that you've reviewed or created a security policy that outlines ideal security measures across your network, how closely does your network resemble that policy? Build a network diagram to review your actual security architecture. Do additional people, software, or systems have unaccounted for or risky permissions? Do some software have weak or nonexistent authentication processes? Are certain systems so out-of-date that they are not operating as expected in your security policy? This map will help you determine how everything is connected and where some of your network's weaknesses lie.
Check that you are meeting compliance requirements if an external audit occurs.
Does your industry have specific compliance requirements that you will be judged on during an external audit? Healthcare is a strong example of a highly regulated industry, with HIPAA requiring very specific protection surrounding protected health information (PHI).
What regulatory rules have and have not been applied to your organization's devices and software that store sensitive information? How many of your users have gone through the appropriate compliance training and are following standard processes and procedures in their use of sensitive data?
Your audit should focus on compliance weaknesses across platforms and users, in order to address problems and avoid future security breaches. Catching these problems during an internal audit can also ensure that you pass surprise external audits that put your enterprise's business license on the line.
Present your network audit report and make audit suggestions to appropriate stakeholders.
Once your auditing team has completely diagrammed your network architecture and found potential weaknesses in security, compliance, and efficient operations, it is time for that team to produce their final network audit report. In this report, they will need to identify both high stakes and low stakes threats to the network, as well as the easy and more complex fixes that the enterprise can apply to improve the network. It's important to include action items in this final report so that stakeholders can create a plan of action to address network changes.
Restart the network audit process frequently.
Enterprises and their needs change frequently, so it's important to conduct network audits regularly. This makes sure that hardware is updated, software is running efficiently, and potential security threats are recognized before they become major issues. When is a good time to restart the network auditing process? Here are just a few examples of enterprise changes that should initiate a network audit:
- If nothing else prompts an internal audit, an annual audit is a good way to refresh your knowledge of how the network functions.
- Conduct an audit when a power user leaves or joins your organization.
- Conduct an audit when your physical working model changes, whether through an expanded work from home model or moving toward multiple offices.
- Conduct an audit when your organization acquires another business or digital property that needs to be assessed based on your network policy.
Why are network audits important for your enterprise?
Enterprise growth is an exciting prospect for your stakeholders. It becomes less exciting if that growth is left unchecked by network security policies and other best practices, leading to operational inefficiencies or preventable data breaches.
Regular network audits support structured growth without slowing the growth process. In an enterprise that sprawls across physical locations, time zones, departments, daily routines, and technology uses, it becomes increasingly difficult to check in with all users and systems at the moment a network misstep occurs. Regular network auditing can catch these missteps before they become major problems — allowing you to replace old hardware, remove unauthorized or unnecessary software, and recognize users who are either unwelcome to the network or require additional training or changed permissions.