How to analyze network traffic: a step-by-step guide


Network traffic is the data that passes through on-premises, cloud, and hybrid cloud networks. Traffic consists of larger files divided into data packets. Packet data flows between network nodes before being put back together at destination devices.

Network traffic is crucial because it enables users and applications to communicate. Traffic carries data files and queries, extracting data from cloud resources for employees to use. It connects users with devices like cameras and printers, facilitates video streaming, and links local workstations to internet resources.

Understanding and managing network traffic includes learning how to analyze network traffic effectively. This analysis helps monitor and interpret these data flows to optimize performance, ensure security, and manage resources effectively. One method to model and understand network traffic relates to network topography, which illustrates how data moves through the network.

  • North-south data passes from data centers to connected devices on a hub and spoke model. This data class includes web browser traffic originating outside the network.

  • East-west traffic travels inside a data center, such as communications between on-premises workstations.

Another method models network traffic based on priority.

  • Real-time network traffic includes high-priority packet data requiring instant transmission and high levels of accuracy. For instance, voice-over-IP can't work well without high fidelity, instant transfers.

  • Non-real-time traffic includes routine email transfers and FTP downloads that are not operationally crucial.

Network traffic types also relate to how we inspect data.

  • Flow data aggregates simple information about network traffic. Examples include packet origins and data quantities.

  • Packet data involves granular analysis of individual packets through techniques like deep packet inspection. This level of analysis assists security investigations and micro-level performance optimization.

Engineers must consider how these network traffic types interact. Monitoring systems must take account of network topography and implement solutions to capture relevant, high-value data about network traffic.

What is network traffic analysis (NTA)?

Network traffic analysis applies continuous monitoring of network traffic. This has two main functions: ensuring network availability and securing network assets.

NTA determines the availability of network assets. Tools detect anomalies and performance issues, alerting IT teams to enable prompt responses. For instance, monitoring may identify and suppress high-volume data transfers or bursts of inbound traffic.

Network monitoring tools also have a critical security role. Tracking tools enforce security policies by detecting and blocking threats. They scan for suspicious activity and flag potential issues before data breaches or system outages result.

Monitoring systems check for vulnerable protocols or encryption ciphers, informing administrators if data becomes insecure. Tools also identify blind spots in network architecture. Technicians can plug gaps in the attack surface created by new devices or user activity.

Good reasons to adopt network traffic analysis

Analyzing network traffic is a wise move for all companies. Modern business depends on constant data flows and reliable network performance. Measuring how data travels empowers IT managers to make improvements and optimize network performance

Understanding and implementing strategies on how to improve network performance can significantly enhance the efficiency and reliability of data flow. It will also ensure that business operations remain smooth and uninterrupted.


Beyond that general benefit, network traffic analysis has the following advantages:

#1 Better network visibility

Network visibility tools create inventories of devices connected to the network. Companies can add new devices securely and secure network traffic to existing devices.

#2 Compliance

Businesses that monitor network traffic are well-placed to detect threats and safeguard customer data in line with GDPR and HIPAA regulations.

#3 Robust performance

Continuous monitoring identifies technical problems with the availability of applications and data centers. IT teams can troubleshoot issues before downtime occurs.

#4 Capacity planning

Engineers can model future network traffic loads and plan for smooth change management.

#5 Network analysis

Engineers can leverage monitoring logs to analyze performance and find fixes to improve speed or reliability. Monitoring provides network context to investigate security incidents.

#6 Cost reductions

Monitoring network traffic identifies redundant components and suggests efficient ways to route data, cutting networking costs.

How to get started with network traffic analysis

The benefits of network traffic analysis are clear. However, analyzing network traffic is harder to grasp. Businesses need monitoring systems that cover relevant data sources. Monitoring must be accurate and deliver usable outputs, but analyzing network traffic must not affect speeds or general performance.

Follow the step-by-step guide below to analyze network traffic in a way that meets those core conditions.

1. Assess your data sources

Before analyzing network traffic, you must understand what data flows through your network. Traffic monitoring can only track visible data flows. A thorough data assessment is essential.

On the device side, data sources include routers, servers, and switches that facilitate data transfers. Firewall appliances and proxy gateways may also be relevant if you use them. User workstations lie inside the scope of network traffic monitoring, as do remote work devices and IoT accessories.

Data sources also include the applications that process or store network data. Include applications stored on-site alongside cloud services that users rely on.

Automation helps you discover connected devices and apps and model device dependencies. Application and network discovery tools scan endpoints, and data flows to assess network topography.

Manually assessing network maps is also possible but time-consuming. Maps also become outdated without regular updates, while automation tools adapt as network traffic changes.

The outcome of this exercise should be a clear map of critical data flows, including a list of device and application dependencies.

2. Decide how to collect network traffic

Now, we need to create systems to extract information from data sources. There are two basic approaches: agent-based collection and agentless collection.

Agent-based systems deploy agents on devices. Agents are tiny apps that continually collect data about performance, availability, traffic volume, and inbound or outbound communications.

Agents are essential to monitor network traffic at the level of network packets. However, they can interfere with network speeds or lead to storage problems.

Agentless collection does not rely on agents to gather information. These solutions generally use protocols like the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) or APIs supplied by data source vendors.

Agentless systems send monitoring queries to apps or devices. Targets respond, supplying data about their availability and security status. Agentless collection is a slightly less detailed way of analyzing network traffic. However, network traffic data is still sufficient for most monitoring purposes.

3. Configure context-based network visibility

Now, set the rules for network traffic analysis. Robust network visibility is not just about collecting masses of network traffic. IT teams must also consider network context to understand the reason for data spikes or speed issues.

Contextual information includes user authentication requests, app usage, or threat intelligence. This information may explain why traffic is spiking on particular devices. The absence of contextual data could indicate an imminent threat.

Combining raw network traffic data with situational knowledge empowers security teams and technicians. The more you know about your network environment, the easier it is to identify problems and avoid security incidents.

Choose a traffic analysis solution that integrates with threat detection and response systems. Even better, opt for a network visibility solution that blends threat detection and performance monitoring.

4. Check network restrictions

Before turning on network traffic monitoring, engineers must check local network restrictions and verify that monitoring will function properly.

For example, encrypted traffic may not be visible to tracking systems without key sharing. Bandwidth restrictions may apply, and some ports may be inaccessible to monitoring protocols. Monitoring cloud data can also be challenging. Providers operate their own data restrictions, potentially compromising network visibility.

Legacy systems often co-exist with cloud implementations. Engineers should ensure traffic monitoring covers all data sources and replace applications or devices you cannot monitor. Firewall appliances and network traffic segmentation can also influence data collection.

Compliance is another consideration. Privacy regulations prohibit the unauthorized collection of private data. Network traffic collection should not extend to user or customer identities without consent.

Finally, network traffic analysis must consider malicious threats. Can monitoring tools identify suspicious traffic and work around obfuscation techniques? If not, alternative solutions may be preferable.

5. Decide how to collect tracking data

Collecting network traffic is useless without a secure and accessible storage solution. This storage facility guards your collection tools and is a reliable destination for harvested traffic.

Separating tracking systems from general network traffic is advisable. Separation protects data from external attacks or outages. The best solution is using a secure cloud-based provider to store tracking data or building separate on-premises hardware.

Virtualized storage solutions suit multi-cloud or single-cloud networks with low on-premises involvement. Hardware is ideal for traditional office networks with few cloud components.

6. Put in place traffic analysis tools

IT teams need the ability to view, analyze, and use network traffic data. Beware: not all monitoring systems include visualization panels and ways to aggregate tracking logs.

Without visualization features, engineers face libraries of text files, and it takes hard labor to extract data from tracking logs. Unless you are comfortable with those processes, choose a tracking partner that makes analysis easy.

Effective solutions allow users to generate reports for audits and investigations. They enable application and user-level traffic analysis. Automating routine security tasks and network traffic map generation are also helpful features.

Don't forget: Systems for analyzing network traffic also need alert functions to trigger user responses. Choose network traffic analysis solutions with customized alerts and robust measures to detect false positives.

7. Test network traffic analysis before going live

Deploy network traffic analysis gradually. Measured deployment gives you time to check components are functional and deliver the data you need. Rushed implementations waste resources and may lead to inadequate long-term coverage - giving you a false sense of security.

Begin by tracking a small group of data sources. Start with a single data server or cloud-based application. Only expand network traffic analysis when you know that everything works as designed.

How NordLayer can help you achieve network visibility

Network traffic analysis identifies performance and security problems before they impact business operations. In a world of constant data breaches and evolving cybersecurity threats, visibility is everything. Companies that remain in the dark will eventually suffer.

Fortunately, effective network visibility solutions are available for all business contexts. NordLayer's network visibility tools track relevant traffic and simplify analysis - putting you back in control of network data flows.

Our tools let you dive deep into network activity. Device posture monitoring, server usage analysis, and user activity tracking deliver invaluable insights to guide security teams. Detect suspicious connections, only admit compliant devices, and keep track of network availability.

Network traffic analysis is the key to understanding performance and improving network security

Share article


Copy failed

Protect your business with cybersecurity news that matters

Join our expert community and get tips, news, and special offers delivered to you monthly.

Free advice. No spam. No commitment.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.