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What is the difference between a host-based intrusion detection system and a network-based IDS? In which scenarios...

would each be best deployed?

Host-based intrusion detection systems (IDSes) protect just that: the host or endpoint. This includes workstations, servers, mobile devices and the like. Host-based IDSes are one of the last layers of defense. They're also one of the best security controls because they can be fine-tuned to the specific workstation, application, user role or workflows required.

A network-based IDS often sits on the ingress or egress point(s) of the network to monitor what's coming and going. Given that a network-based IDS sits further out on the network, it may not provide enough granular protection to keep everything in check -- especially for network traffic that's protected by SSL, TLS or SSH.

IDS technology is relatively old, and the newer intrusion prevention system (IPS) is often a better enterprise fit. IPS, be it at the host or network level, can help prevent an attack rather than merely report on it.

The interesting thing I've seen regarding host-based IPSes is that they're rarely used. This is likely because of the complexity and frustration involved; they're challenging for IT and security staff to configure properly without creating bottlenecks or negatively impacting network traffic, and it can be frustrating if they're set up in a way that prevents the user from getting his or her work done. Furthermore, the last thing that users want to deal with is a bunch of annoying pop-up windows asking if it's okay to allow unknown traffic to communicate to and from the computer. This brings up another interesting caveat: Users are often in control of their local security policies, which can actually negate any perceived benefits of the host-based IPS.

In the end, it's up to the individual enterprise to determine what's best, given its technologies, culture and business needs. IPS is often the way to go; both network- and host-based IPS can provide high levels of security if designed, implemented and managed properly.

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This was last published in November 2014
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