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Network Security vs. Application Security: The Complete Guide


Enterprise cybersecurity must constantly evolve to meet the threat posed by new malware variants and increasingly sophisticated hacker tactics, techniques, and procedures. This need drives the way security professionals categorize different technologies and approaches.

The difference between network security and application security is an excellent example. These two components of the enterprise IT environment must be treated separately in any modern cybersecurity framework. This is because they operate on different levels of the network and they are exposed to different types of threats and security issues.

To understand why, we need to cover what each category includes and how they contribute to an organization’s overall information security posture. IT leaders and professionals can use this information to their organization’s security posture, boost performance, and improve event outcomes.

What is Network Security?

Network security focuses on protecting assets located within the network perimeter. These assets include data, devices, systems, and other facilities that enable the organization to pursue its interests — just about anything that has value to the organization can be an asset.

This security model worked well in the past, when organizations had a clearly defined network perimeter. Since the attack surface was well understood, security professionals could deploy firewalls, intrusion prevention systems, and secure web gateways directly at the point of connection between the internal network and the public internet. Since most users, devices and applications were located on-site, security leaders had visibility and control over the entire network.

This started to change when organizations shifted to cloud computing and remote work, supported by increasingly powerful mobile devices. Now most organizations do not have a clear network perimeter, so the castle-and-moat approach to network security is no longer effective.

However, the network security approach isn’t obsolete. It is simply undergoing a process of change, adjusting to smaller, more segmented networks governed by Zero Trust principles and influenced by developments in application security.

Key Concepts of Network Security

Network security traditionally adopts a castle-and-moat approach, where all security controls exist at the network perimeter. Users who attempt to access the network must authenticate and verify themselves before being allowed to enter. Once they enter, they can freely move between assets, applications, and systems without the need to re-authenticate themselves.

In modern, cloud-enabled networks, the approach is less like a castle and more like a university campus. There may be multiple different subnetworks working together, with different security controls based on the value of the assets under protection. In these environments, network security is just one part of a larger, multi-layered security deployment.

This approach focuses on protecting IT infrastructure, like routers, firewalls, and network traffic. Each of these components has a unique role to play securing assets inside the network:

  • Firewalls act as filters for network traffic, deciding what traffic is allowed to pass through and denying the rest. Well-configured firewall deployments don’t just protect internal assets from incoming traffic, they also protect against data from leaking outside the network as well.
  • Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS) are security tools that continuously monitor the network for malicious activity and take action to block unauthorized processes. They may search for known threat signatures, monitor for abnormal network activity, or enforce custom security policies.
  • Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) encrypt traffic between networks and hide users’ IP addresses from the public internet. This is useful for maintaining operational security in a complex network environment because it prevents threat actors from intercepting data in transit.
  • Access control tools allow security leaders to manage who is authorized to access data and resources on the network. Secure access control policies determine which users have permission to access sensitive assets, and the conditions under which that access might be revoked.

Why is Network Security Important?

Network security tools protect organizations against cyberattacks that target their network infrastructure, and prevent hackers from conducting lateral movement. Many modern network security solutions focus on providing deep visibility into network traffic, so that security teams can identify threat actors who have successfully breached the network perimeter and gained unauthorized access.

Network Security Technologies and Strategies

  • Firewalls: These tools guard the perimeters of network infrastructure. Firewalls filter incoming and outgoing traffic to prevent malicious activity. They also play an important role in establishing boundaries between network zones, allowing security teams to carefully monitor users who move between different parts of the network. These devices must be continuously monitored and periodically reconfigured to meet the organization’s changing security needs.
  • VPNs: Secure remote access and IP address confidentiality is an important part of network security. VPNs ensure users do not leak IP data outside the network when connecting to external sources. They also allow remote users to access sensitive assets inside the network even when using unsecured connections, like public Wi-Fi.
  • Zero Trust Models: Access control and network security tools provide validation for network endpoints, including IoT and mobile devices. This allows security teams to re-authenticate network users even when they have already verified their identities and quickly disconnect users who fail these authentication checks.

What is Application Security?

Application security addresses security threats to public-facing applications, including APIs. These threats may include security misconfigurations, known vulnerabilities, and threat actor exploits. Since these network assets have public-facing connections, they are technically part of the network perimeter — but they do not typically share the same characteristics as traditional network perimeter assets.

Unlike network security, application security extends to the development and engineering process that produces individual apps. It governs many of the workflows that developers use when writing code for business contexts.

One of the challenges to web application security is the fact that there is no clear and universal definition for what counts as an application. Most user-interactive tools and systems count, especially ones that can process data automatically through API access. However, the broad range of possibilities leads to an enormous number of potential security vulnerabilities and exposures, all of which must be accounted for.

Several frameworks and methods exist for achieving this:

  • The OWASP Top Ten is a cybersecurity awareness document that gives developers a broad overview of the most common application vulnerabilities. Organizations that adopt the document give software engineers clear guidance on the kinds of security controls they need to build into the development lifecycle.
  • The Common Weakness Enumeration (CWE) is a long list of software weaknesses known to lead to security issues. The CWE list is prioritized by severity, giving organizations a good starting point for improving application security.
  • Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) codes contain extensive information on publicly disclosed security vulnerabilities, including application vulnerabilities. Every vulnerability has its own unique CVE code, which gives developers and security professionals the ability to clearly distinguish them from one another.

Key Concepts of Application Security

The main focus of application security is maintaining secure environments inside applications and their use cases. It is especially concerned with the security vulnerabilities that arise when web applications are made available for public use. When public internet users can interact with a web application directly, the security risks associated with that application rise significantly. As a result, developers must adopt security best practices into their workflows early in the development process.

The core elements of application security include:

  • Source code security, which describes a framework for ensuring the security of the source code that powers web-connected applications. Code reviews and security approvals are a vital part of this process, ensuring that vulnerable code does not get released to the public.
  • Securing the application development lifecycle by creating secure coding guidelines, providing developers with the appropriate resources and training, and creating remediation service-level agreements (SLAs) for application security violations.
  • Web application firewalls, which operate separately from traditional firewalls and exclusively protect public-facing web applications and APIs. Web application firewalls monitor and filter traffic to and from a web source, protecting web applications from security threats wherever they happen to be located.

Why is Application Security Important?

Application security plays a major role ensuring the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of sensitive data processed by applications. Since public-facing applications often collect and process end-user data, they make easy targets for opportunistic hackers. At the same time, robust application security controls must exist within applications to address security vulnerabilities when they emerge and prevent data breaches.

Application Security Technologies

  • Web Application Firewalls. These firewalls provide protection specific to web applications, preventing attackers from conducting SQL injection, cross-site scripting, and denial-of-service attacks, among others. These technical attacks can lead to application instability and leak sensitive information to attackers.
  • Application Security Testing. This important step includes penetration testing, vulnerability scanning, and the use of CWE frameworks. Pentesters and application security teams work together to ensure public-facing web applications and APIs hold up against emerging threats and increasingly sophisticated attacks.
  • App Development Security. Organizations need to incorporate security measures into their application development processes. DevOps security best practices include creating modular, containerized applications uniquely secured against threats regardless of future changes to the IT environment or device operating systems.

Integrating Network and Application Security

Network and application security are not mutually exclusive areas of expertise. They are two distinct parts of your organization’s overall security posture. Identifying areas where they overlap and finding solutions to common problems will help you optimize your organization’s security capabilities through a unified security approach.

Overlapping Areas

Network and application security solutions protect distinct areas of the enterprise IT environment, but they do overlap in certain areas. Security leaders should be aware of the risk of over-implementation, or deploying redundant security solutions that do not efficiently improve security outcomes.

  • Security Solutions: Both areas use security tools like intrusion prevention systems, authentication, and encryption. Network security solutions may treat web applications as network entry points, but many hosted web applications are located outside the network perimeter. This makes it difficult to integrate the same tools, policies, and controls uniformly across web application toolsets.
  • Cybersecurity Strategy: Your strategy is an integral part of your organization’s security program, guiding your response to different security threats. Security architects must configure network and application security solutions to work together in use case scenarios where one can meaningfully contribute to the other’s operations.

Unique Challenges

Successful technology implementations of any kind come with challenges, and security implementations are no different. Both application and network security deployments will present issues that security leaders must be prepared to address.

Application security challenges include:

  • Maintaining usability. End users will not appreciate security implementations that make apps harder to use. Security teams need to pay close attention to how new features impact user interfaces and workflows.
  • Detecting vulnerabilities in code. Ensuring all code is 100% free of vulnerabilities is rarely feasible. Instead, organizations need to adopt a proactive approach to detecting vulnerabilities in code and maintaining source code security.
  • Managing source code versioning. Implementing DevSecOps processes can make it hard for organizations to keep track of continuously deployed security updates and integrations. This may require investing in additional toolsets and versioning capabilities.

Network security challenges include:

  • Addressing network infrastructure misconfigurations. Many network risks stem from misconfigured firewalls and other security tools. One of the main challenges in network security is proactively identifying these misconfigurations and resolving them before they lead to security incidents.
  • Monitoring network traffic efficiently. Monitoring network traffic can make extensive use of limited resources, leading to performance issues or driving up network-related costs. Security leaders must find ways to gain insight into security issues without raising costs beyond what the organization can afford.
  • Managing network-based security risks effectively. Translating network activity insights into incident response playbooks is not always easy. Simply knowing that unauthorized activity might be happening is not enough. Security teams must also be equipped to address those risks and mitigate potential damage.

Integrating Network and Application Security for Unified Protection

A robust security posture must contain elements of both network and application security. Public-facing applications must be able to filter out malicious traffic and resist technical attacks, and security teams need comprehensive visibility into network activity and detecting insider threats.

This is especially important in cloud-enabled hybrid environments. If your organization uses cloud computing through a variety of public and private cloud vendors, you will need to extend network visibility throughout the hybrid network. Maintaining cloud security requires a combination of network and web application security capable of producing results in a cost-effective way.

Highly automated security platforms can help organizations implement proactive security measures that reduce the need to hire specialist internal talent for every configuration and policy change. Enterprise-ready cloud security solutions leverage automation and machine learning to reduce operating costs and improve security performance across the board.

Unify Network and Application Security with AlgoSec

No organization can adequately protect itself from a wide range of cyber threats without investing in both network and application security. Technology continues to evolve and threat actors will adapt their tactics to exploit new vulnerabilities as they are discovered. Integrating network and application security into a single, unified approach gives security teams the ability to create security policies and incident response plans that address real-world threats more effectively.

Network visibility and streamlined change management are vital to achieving this goal. AlgoSec is a security policy management and application connectivity platform that provides in-depth information on both aspects of your security posture. Find out how AlgoSec can help you centralize policy and change management in your network.

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