Application security

Social networking, IM and P2P traffic present new challenges for schools, SMBs

The popularity of online streaming videos, social-networking and shopping sites have created new attack vectors for hackers to spread malicious code that could wreak havoc on company networks. Small to mid-size businesses (SMBs) across a variety of industries not only have to deal with everyday IT issues, but also face the challenge of securing and managing employee Internet access.

For example, with accelerated internet connections, sports websites have become popular online destinations for employees during work hours. Employees can download and view streaming video clips of their favorite game highlights right from their desktops. This type of unmonitored internet surfing exposes companies to potential negative IT and managerial consequences, such as lagging internet connections or a decrease in employee productivity.

With recent live online broadcasts of the NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament, a global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc estimated that for every 13.5 minutes workers spent on the internet watching the games, the cost to employers in lost wages exceeded $237 million.

SMBs often work with limited IT budgets and minimal resources. They are more sensitive to losing money due to problems caused by unmanaged employee internet-surfing habits. Also, when networks are compromised by a security breach, it can be devastating to the overall business. Combined with an acceptable use policy (AUP) for the internet, filtering can give SMBs the peace of mind that their employees are using the internet for work-related activities and the network is not being accessed by outside sources.

Many companies have developed security protocols to protect their networks from internal and external threats. Web filters are intended to give IT administrators total control of corporate internet usage. Some businesses deploy software, while others look to firewalls and hardware-based products.

Internet-filtering appliances encompass both hardware and software, combined into an efficient and comprehensive security system. This provides the best of both worlds by stopping malicious threats on the outside and monitoring and enforcing AUPs from the inside. The purpose of this technology is to give companies control over the type of web content that is accessed by employees, protect workers from hidden online dangers and make sure the corporate network is secure.

By deploying internet-filtering appliances, IT administrators can instantly eliminate many of these concerns. These products also provide transparent protection, blocking phishing and spyware sites that could exploit employees, PCs or corporate networks.

When deciding to purchase an internet-filtering appliance, companies need to look for reputable vendors with strong partner and customer relationships. Vendors should be able to provide enterprise-class features that require limited participation from the business owner during installation, management and daily administration.

On the other hand, IT managers need a solution that provides robust internet filtering and monitoring of web-based threats, including spyware, IM and P2P. With its speed and accuracy, kernel-level filtering adds an extra level of protection by ensuring that no packets of data are missed for HTTP, IM and P2P traffic. With busy schedules and many additional IT issues, appliances are a perfect choice for an SMB, as these products are virtually plug-and-play.

One of the biggest advantages of a dedicated internet-filtering appliance is that it doesn't require any additional hardware, software or server purchases, eliminating additional costs associated with licensing software. With a hardened and optimized operating system, hardware-based internet-filtering solutions encompass the best of both worlds in one, dedicated solution. Finally, an in-depth reporting system with drill-down capabilities is extremely important for many companies in vertical markets, specifically education.

Nowadays, kids are tech-savvy and quickly find ways to access inappropriate sites through schools' web filters. For example, with an increase in online social networking activity, IT administrators find themselves constantly updating their databases with new outlets such as MySpace, as well as blogs and wikis that children are logging into.

In addition, schools are required to deploy a security solution in order to meet regulatory requirements of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Because of this, educational institutions need internet-filtering appliances which provide

in-depth activity reports on use of specific workstations, such as length of time used, web sites visited, which users are logged in, etc. With these products, schools also capture all HTTP, IM and P2P traffic on the network without introducing latency or missing packets.

Regardless of the industry, SMBs need to regulate internet use during business hours. Whether it is used to manage employees' online shopping and video viewing habits, or to block access to IM, P2P and social-networking sites for children during school hours, web-filtering appliances are a must-have technology in today's organizations. SMBs need to carefully investigate solution providers and go with the vendor who has the most experience in their industry.

- Brett Schechter is senior product manager at St. Bernard.

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