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What Is Network Traffic and How Do You Monitor It?

By: Jasmin young
August 24, 2021

“Network traffic” is a term that describes the influx and outflux of network packets within an organization’s network. Understanding and monitoring this traffic is an important step in protecting an organization’s health. This blog post discusses what network traffic is, the different types, and how you can monitor it.

Here’s what you can expect to learn from this post:

  1. The background on understanding the workings of a network
  2. What is network traffic?
  3. Types of network traffic
  4. Monitoring network traffic

Before we dive into the details of network traffic, let me give you some background info to refresh your memory. If you are already familiar with the basics, then you can jump to the section on network traffic.

Some Background on Nodes and Networks

A network is essentially a web of interconnected computers or servers that communicate with each other to share resources. Generally speaking, organizations have their own internal networks through which all communication, document sharing, tools, and applications can be accessed.

A broader example of a network is the internet you use to surf your social media feed. The internet is a network made up of networks that interconnect millions of nodes (modems, servers, computers, printers) to share and exchange data in the form of images, texts, documents, videos, emails, and more.

Understanding Network Packets

The data—or the information that is in continuous movement between the different nodes—is broken down into smaller data bits called network packets or data packets. This is done in order to allow all the computers in the network to be able to effectively use the interconnection medium.

Each network packet carries information in two parts: the packet header and the payload. The packet header carries crucial information about the content, host address, and destination address. On the other hand, the payload contains the actual data that is being sent.

Network packets are distributed over a network via communication protocols. These protocols facilitate the transfer and sharing of data over the vast, interconnected web of nodes. The Internet Protocol (IP) is a communication protocol that uses a set of guidelines to regulate the flow of data packets to and from the various nodes within a network.

Organizations generally use the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) on top of the IP to ensure the delivery and arrival of data packets to the correct host addresses. Some communication protocols also add a packet footer to the data packets, which, like packet headers, store additional information about the packet.

That’s enough background, so let’s jump into network traffic.

network traffic photo

What Is Network Traffic?

Network traffic describes the number of network packets trying to get through an interconnected network at a given point in time. A smooth flow of data packets enables us to surf the web or share information without any issues, and it keeps the nodes in sync for further communication.

However, if you do not effectively monitor the network, the packets may get lost. Furthermore, depending on the type of traffic, an organization’s network is prone to malicious cyber attacks. Therefore, it is essential to identify the magnitude and type of traffic in order to manage it.

Types of Network Traffic

Network traffic is broadly classified into north-south traffic and east-west traffic. This classification is based on the route of the traffic flow.

East-West Traffic

East-west traffic is internal in nature. Data packets that commute within an organization’s network tend to flow within the walls of the data center. For instance, when clients request access to an application, they are requesting a resource that is within the organization’s data center.

Most companies host data privately in an internal cloud platform. Due to this, east-west traffic is growing by the day. It is necessary to design the network topology in such a way that you can control and monitor the traffic effectively.

North-South Traffic

On the other hand, north-south traffic occurs when there is a transfer of data between an internal data center and an external client that is physically present outside an organization’s network. The north-south direction implies that the data is coming in and out of the internal system.

While north-south traffic allows for effective data transfer and access to and from the outside world, it also makes the network more vulnerable to security threats. However, this does not mean that east-west traffic is secure either.

Cyber threats can also occur within the walls of an organization. To prevent such malicious attacks, it is crucial to keep a close eye on the incoming traffic and spot any abnormal activity. The following section discusses a few key tips for monitoring network traffic.

Monitoring Network Traffic

In the current Big Data era, monitoring network data is challenging. Organizations produce tons of data within their private networks, as well as over external communications. It is essential to follow a strategy to identify and monitor network traffic in order to gain protection against malicious cyberattacks.

Here are a few pointers to keep in mind while monitoring your network traffic:

  • Find where the traffic is originating from. Pinpointing the sources of your network traffic and tracking them will help identify any abnormal flow of data bits. Apart from network packets, key sources of data include WiFi data, data from connected devices, and other network applications.
  • The data center at your organization hosts many applications and tools that can be accessed within the organization’s network. Monitoring the data coming in and out of these applications can help in analyzing key network traffic metrics.
  • Mapping out the network topology is a crucial factor in understanding the behavior of your overall network. Using monitoring tools to keep track of the origin and destination points can help you recognize the magnitude of traffic that comes in or out of each node.
  • Curating regular network traffic monitoring reports is key to keeping track of the life of your network. One can make live reports using many tools available on the market. It is essential to invest in such applications because they can assess the security of your network.
  • Give graphical monitoring tools a try. Sometimes visualizing your network traffic can make things more apparent. Graphical monitoring tools provide an interactive dashboard that helps you form a picture of how the packets in your network are flowing.

Wrapping Up

Apart from the above-mentioned tips, organizations should look into several available traffic monitoring tools that provide live data, interactive dashboards, and reporting equipment. Additionally, it is common to have a network infrastructure that is external in nature. Companies often use a service provider’s cloud platforms to house their network, such as AWS. In such scenarios, it is best to get your service provider on board for the monitoring process. Such companies provide tools that specifically tailor to their infrastructure design.

Monitoring network data is one of the most essential steps in protecting and securing an organization from cyberattacks. With this, we come to the end of this blog post. I hope this was insightful in helping you understand what “network traffic” means and the different types of traffic that exist. By knowing the ins and outs of network traffic, you can start to effectively monitor your organization’s traffic. Stay tuned for additional informative blog posts to come.

This post was written by Zulaikha Greer. Zulaikha is a tech enthusiast with expertise in various domains such as data science, ML, and statistics. She enjoys researching cognitive science, marketing, and design. She’s a cat lover by nature who loves to readyou can often find her with a book, enjoying Beethoven’s, Mozart’s, or Vivaldi’s legendary pieces.

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