Keeping an Eye on the Network: Campuses Deploy Network Access Control to Protect Users and the Network

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UNLIKE CORPORATIONS, HIGHER education institutions face unique challenges with IT security. As students arrive each semester with their own computers, many times their security devices are off, their anti-virus software is gone or simply outdated, and odd configurations abound.

"The challenge has always been how to take student laptops and bring them to a certain minimum level of health," says Steve Hanna, distinguished engineer at Juniper Networks and co-chair of the Trusted Network Connect Work Group, part of the nonprofit industry standards organization Trusted Computing Group. "It's important to identify machines whose defenses aren't up to snuff and get them fixed so you can have a stable network." Not to mention, the open information-sharing environment of a university encourages all kinds of people outside the campus to access the network as well.

The business driver for Network Access (or Admission) Control (NAC) focuses on protecting information resources on the network, which face growing security risks. It involves policies such as preadmission endpoint security policy checks and post-admission controls over where users and devices can go on a network. NAC in the education world primarily focuses on dealing with student-owned assets and access control issues on an open network. Hanna says NAC relieves the "first-week phenomenon" when students move in by automating the health check and remediation process. The NAC approach aims to keep student laptops healthy and maintained throughout the year. For that reason, Hanna believes it's easy to justify the purchase of an NAC tool in a campus environment.

"The burden placed on the IT staff in the first week of school--it's just impossible to meet successfully," Hanna says. "You can't take thousands of students through a manual process checking their machines ... but yet you also can't feasibly deal with the situation when the network becomes unstable or too dangerous to use because infected machines are coming back on campus."

Hanna says the growing trend in the last few years toward using NAC on college and university campuses is partly related to the availability of more commercial products. Going back 10 years, NAC campus pioneers created their own tools. Today IT folks can purchase off-the-shelf products from vendors with support, which makes the deployment much easier from an administrative standpoint.

One emerging trend in NAC for colleges, Hanna says, is integrating other security functions with NAC, which after all is a combination of technologies mixed together to increase the level of control. It's not just a product to purchase. Rather than maintaining isolated silos for intrusion detection, firewalls, and such, the trend is integrating the security component by moving to open standards. Increased maturity and broader endpoint integration are two other trends affecting the future of NAC in education, Hanna says.

Three Approaches to NAC

Experts recommend that NAC deployment be used for the right reasons. Executives at Juniper Networks point out that institutional leaders must understand the problem and goals before deploying an access control solution. Is the goal to protect the network from malware, such as worms, viruses, Trojan horses, and spyware introduced by managed or unmanaged devices? To increase the flexibility of the network to safely allow access for a variety of user types? To restrict access to specific data and applications based on user roles? To gain visibility into network activity and correlate to specific users? All of these needs can require unique solutions and approaches to deploy NAC tools. Technology research and advisory firm Gartner defines three NAC common approaches as infrastructure-based, endpoint software-based, and network security appliance-based.

Infrastructure-Based NAC

Infrastructure-based NAC focuses on upgrading the network or operating system infrastructure to garner integrated NAC functionality. …