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Firewalls and other simple boundary devices lack some degree of intelligence when it comes to observing, recognizing, and identifying attack signatures that may be present in the traffic they monitor and the log files they collect. Without sounding critical of such other systems' capabilities, this deficiency explains why intrusion detection systems (often abbreviated IDS) are becoming increasingly important in helping to maintain proper network security.


Whereas other boundary devices may collect all the information necessary to detect (and often, to foil) attacks that may be getting started or already underway, they haven't been programmed to inspect for and detect the kinds of traffic or network behavior patterns that match known attack signatures or that suggest potential unrecognized attacks may be incipient or in progress.


In a nutshell, the simplest way to define an IDS might be to describe it as a specialized tool that knows how to read and interpret the contents of log files from routers, firewalls, servers, and other network devices. Furthermore, an IDS often stores a database of known attack signatures and can compare patterns of activity, traffic, or behavior it sees in the logs it's monitoring against those signatures to recognize when a close match between a signature and current or recent behavior occurs. At that point, the IDS can issue alarms or alerts, take various kinds of automatic action ranging from shutting down Internet links or specific servers to launching backtraces, and make other active attempts to identify attackers and actively collect evidence of their nefarious activities.


By analogy, an IDS does for a network what an antivirus software package does for files that enter a system: It inspects the contents of network traffic to look for and deflect possible attacks, just as an antivirus software package inspects the contents of incoming files, e-mail attachments, active Web content, and so forth to look for virus signatures (patterns that match known malware) or for possible malicious actions (patterns of behavior that are at least suspicious, if not downright unacceptable).


To be more specific, intrusion detection means detecting unauthorized use of or attacks on a system or network. An IDS is designed and used to detect and then to deflect or deter (if possible) such attacks or unauthorized use of systems, networks, and related resources. Like firewalls, IDSs may be software-based or may combine hardware and software (in the form of preinstalled and preconfigured standalone IDS devices). Often, IDS software runs on the same devices or servers where firewalls, proxies, or other boundary services operate- an IDS not running on the same device or server where the firewall or other services are installed will monitor those devices closely and carefully. Although such devices tend to operate at network peripheries, IDS systems can detect and deal with insider attacks as well as external attacks.


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