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Endpoint security vs. network security: Why both matter

As the security perimeter blurs, companies often debate the merits of endpoint security vs. network security. However, it shouldn't be an either-or decision.

When it comes to developing a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy, no single architecture type or product can protect against all threats. Instead, an assortment of security tools must be deployed -- many of which will have overlapping capabilities. This is known as a defense-in-depth strategy.

Case in point: endpoint security vs. network security. Each set of tools identifies and provides alerts on similar threats for its intended coverage area, and each offers advantages and disadvantages depending on the use case. And, while their capabilities overlap, they both contribute to a defense-in-depth security program.

Let's look at why enterprise IT departments often deploy endpoint and network security in tandem, as well as how the technologies work together to better protect users, data and assets from cybercriminals.

Endpoint security vs. network security: Architectural differences

As their names imply, endpoint security is deployed and operated directly on endpoints, while network security tools protect against threats traversing the corporate network. Ideally, network security products will find, block and alert on threats prior to them reaching endpoints connected to the corporate network. Endpoint security products often serve as the last line of defense against threats seeking to compromise end devices, such as desktops, servers, mobile devices and IoT devices.

Network security tools vary widely and often are purpose-built for a specific type of threat or to protect certain corporate network assets. For example, a network firewall monitors incoming and outgoing network traffic between trusted and untrusted networks. Traffic is permitted or denied based on administrator-configured rules. A secure web gateway (SWG) also monitors traffic as it traverses networks. It differs from a traditional firewall in that it only focuses on permitting or denying web-based traffic. An SWG can be configured to be far more granular with its web-focused security policies compared to a traditional firewall.

Endpoint security products also vary widely. A software-based firewall, for example, permits or denies traffic on the specific device it is installed on. Traditional endpoint antivirus scans an endpoint's local applications and files searching for known signatures indicative of malware. More recently, endpoint detection and response (EDR) tools have gained popularity. Instead of looking for threat signatures -- which bad actors can mask in traditional antivirus -- EDR monitors device behavior over time and alerts administrators when a device or group of devices deviates from baseline normal behavior.

It's important to note that network security tools are designed to cast a wider net to protect multiple corporate assets, while endpoint tools focus on protecting individual endpoints. IT teams must consider, however, that, though these security tools differ in what they protect, they often complement one another.

Endpoint and network security integrations

Network security tools used to operate in silos. For modern tools, this is no longer the case. Vendors today enable tools to share information on emerging threats, identified threats and the scope of a security breach or malware infestation on a network. These integrated tools often receive the same global threat intelligence feeds so they can automatically detect and defend against new attack types.

In addition to global threat feed sharing, modern tools also share threat information collected and analyzed locally. Thus, an endpoint security tool can notify network security tools of an identified threat -- or vice versa. The security mechanisms receiving this information can then use the shared data to automatically create security policies to protect against the identified threat, for example.

In some instances, an overarching tool can gather information from and distribute information to network and endpoint tools. SIEM and security orchestration, automation and response platforms, for example, collect relevant data from network and endpoint security tools to analyze and correlate data from multiple sources across the corporate infrastructure. Such multifeed tools can better identify where threats are occurring and the effect they have on the business.

Where endpoint and network security tools excel

Though, in many instances, endpoint and network security tools should be deployed in tandem, there are some scenarios in which one is preferable over the other.

The major advantage endpoint security tools have over network security tools is that they are installed directly on the endpoint and follow devices wherever they go. This is beneficial to secure employees working in hybrid or permanent work-from-home scenarios. That said, endpoint security software is generally designed for deployment on certain hardware and OSes. An IT security team can install endpoint security software on PCs, Macs and Linux devices, but there are many purpose-built hardware and OS devices that may be incompatible with the team's selected product. This is becoming increasingly common with the adoption of IoT. In this scenario, it is advisable to place network security tools in front of IoT devices, instead of on the IoT endpoints themselves, so they receive the proper protection.

Public cloud security is another common topic in the endpoint security vs. network security debate. Cloud platforms, such as AWS, Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure, integrate multiple network security tools within third-party infrastructure. Security teams can then choose to deploy virtualized instances of their preferred network security tools or use security tools built into their IaaS platform. Either way, network security tools monitor traffic between end users, applications and data, no matter where they are located.

This was last published in March 2021

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