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Network security vs. application security: What's the difference?

Different tools protect different assets at the network and application layers. But both network and application security need to support the larger security plan.

When evaluating network security vs. application security, the two areas have distinct differences. At the same time, however, their commonalities and connectedness are just as obvious.

Network security is the protection of systems and information assets at the network level, typically involving areas such as routers and switches, servers, workstations and wireless networks. Technologies such as firewalls, intrusion prevention systems and data loss prevention (DLP) are put in place to keep these systems protected. Additionally, patch management tools, vulnerability scanners and secure web gateways are used to discover and prevent security weaknesses at the network level.

Application security is the protection of application front ends, source code and information assets at the software level, involving systems such as websites, databases, mobile apps, and client and server applications. Technologies such as web application firewalls, source code analyzers and cloud access security brokers (CASBs) are used to secure applications.

Operating systems, such as Windows, macOS and Linux, technically fall into both categories but would typically be considered a part of network security.

Network security vs. application security -- finding common ground

In smaller organizations, IT staff and outside developers are typically in charge of network security and application security, respectively. For medium and large enterprises, individuals -- or, sometimes, teams of people -- are in charge of both network security and application security.

When evaluating IoT, cloud computing and everything in between, most network systems have some sort of software functionality. And, vice versa, most applications require some sort of underlying network system in order to run. Even with their differences, network security and application security do share some commonalities.

Both network security and application security are components of an overall information security program that includes policies, procedures, incident response and disaster recovery. Regardless of the specific threats and vulnerabilities associated with network systems and application environments, both network and application security work to support the greater good of the business and overall IT risk mitigation.

In terms of ongoing oversight -- whether it's network security or application security -- the process is the same:

  • You must understand your environment.
  • You must understand the weaknesses in each of the areas.
  • You must ensure the proper visibility and controls are in place to minimize the chances of a security event and maximize the value of security and how it supports the business in positive ways.

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