Understanding Network Metadata: Importance and Benefits

March 25, 2020
Stephen Malone
Senior Product Manager
Understanding Network Metadata: Importance and Benefits

Data, data everywhere, but what to keep and use? In the era of near-total data, security operation center (SOC) teams and analysts can become swamped by the sheer volume. And that’s before we even get to the cost of data ingestion and storage! In this blog, we will explore the value of network metadata, and why we just can’t get this level of visibility elsewhere.

Defining Network Metadata

Network metadata is a comprehensive record of all communications occurring within a network, capturing essential details about these interactions. It specifically logs the what, when, where, and whom of network communications, offering a holistic view of network activity. This metadata differs from network captures (pcaps), which are full-fidelity data streams capturing both connection and payload information. While pcaps provide a detailed account, their large size makes them cumbersome and less practical for widespread use, often restricting them to highly targeted scenarios.

In contrast, network metadata, while offering a similar level of visibility to pcaps, is significantly more scalable. This scalability is crucial as it facilitates monitoring across the entire network, rather than limiting observation to selected areas or instances. By focusing on key communication details without storing the actual content of the data packets, network metadata allows for efficient analysis and real-time monitoring. This makes it an invaluable tool in cybersecurity, enabling organizations to detect anomalies, track network behavior, and respond promptly to potential threats while efficiently managing network resources.

> Why PCAP solutions are no longer enough

The Benefits of Network Metadata

Challenging the Firewall-Only Approach in Network Security

The common belief that firewall logs are sufficient for network security is a misconception. Firewalls, while critical, primarily serve as a perimeter defense mechanism. Their scope is limited to monitoring traffic that passes directly through them. This approach leaves a significant blind spot: once the traffic moves beyond the firewall, visibility is lost. Furthermore, firewalls are not equipped to monitor internal network traffic, which is a crucial aspect of comprehensive network security.

Integrating Whole Network Metadata for Enhanced Monitoring

To address these limitations, whole network metadata solutions are increasingly vital. These solutions utilize network TAPs (Test Access Points) or SPANs (Switched Port Analyzer) to capture and analyze traffic within the network. This method allows for a more thorough observation of network activity, tracking traffic not only as it enters from external sources but also as it moves within the internal network, whether it's outbound, inbound, or lateral (intra-network) traffic.

Achieving Comprehensive Network Visibility with Metadata Solutions

This comprehensive approach ensures that all traffic, regardless of its origin, is visible as it traverses through the network. By doing so, whole network metadata solutions provide a level of visibility that firewalls alone cannot achieve. They offer a more nuanced and complete picture of network activity, essential for detecting sophisticated cyber threats that might bypass traditional perimeter defenses. With whole network metadata, organizations gain a powerful tool to enhance their cybersecurity posture, allowing them to identify and respond to potential security incidents more effectively and maintain robust network health.

Moving Beyond Endpoint Detection: The Role of Network Metadata

While Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) systems and event logs are invaluable tools in the cybersecurity arsenal, they fall short in providing complete visibility into internal network traffic. EDR systems are adept at monitoring and responding to threats on managed devices, and event logs offer insightful data on system activities. However, this coverage is limited to devices that are actively managed and integrated into the EDR system. This leaves a significant gap in network visibility.

Unmanaged Devices: The Overlooked Gateway for Network Intrusions

Unmanaged devices, such as Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets, network printers, IP cameras, and even connected thermostats, often operate outside the purview of EDR systems and event logging. These devices can be easily overlooked, yet they are frequently the vectors through which network intrusions occur. Attackers can exploit these unmonitored and unprotected devices to gain persistent access to the network, moving laterally to compromise critical systems and data.

Moving Beyond Reactive Security: The Need for Comprehensive Network Monitoring

The reliance solely on EDR and event logs from managed devices creates a reactive security posture, akin to playing a game of whack-a-mole. Security teams find themselves in a constant battle to identify and neutralize threats, often without a clear understanding of the attacker's entry point or movement within the network. This situation underscores the need for a more holistic approach to network monitoring, one that includes the surveillance of unmanaged devices and offers a broader, more integrated view of the entire network. Such an approach ensures that all potential entry points and pathways within the network are under surveillance, enabling more proactive and effective security measures.

> Why Endpoint detection is no longer enough

Vectra AI: Enhancing Security with Network Metadata

Comprehensive Monitoring Across All Devices

Vectra AI finds attack behaviours in your network across managed and unmanaged devices.Our network metadata compliments our full-network behavioural detections by enabling you to fully investigate and take decisive action in rooting out the attackers.

Seamless Integration with Zeek-Formatted Metadata

Vectra AI network metadata is Zeek-formatted (aka Bro) so you can quickly and easily migrate your existing Zeek workloads. Starting from scratch with Vectra AI network metadata is also quick and easy since you can easily leverage content created by the large Zeek community.

AI and ML Enhancements in Vectra AI’s Network Metadata

Vectra AI has substantially enhanced the network metadata through the addition of concepts such as Hosts. We also incorporate AI and ML enrichments to better understand and contextualize the data. Vectra continuously invests in these enhancements in conjunction with our world-class security researchers and data science teams.

Advanced Network Metadata Management

Vectra Stream is a data-pipeline product that enables you to store this data in your SIEM, data lake or cloud storage. Vectra Recall is a hosted data platform that guarantees availability and operability of data and unlocks additional value from that data. Leveraging Recall and/or Stream enables you to investigate, hunt, analyse, and fulfill compliance and audit scenarios.

Proactive Cybersecurity with AI-Enhanced Network Metadata

Vectra’s tremendously powerful, AI- and ML-enhanced network metadata enables you to:

  • Conduct detailed and thorough investigations tracking attackers as they move through your network.
  • Hunt for attackers within your network using your own experience or domain-specific knowledge.
  • Monitor attack surface and maintain compliance requirements by finding deprecated protocols, weak ciphers, and known-bad configurations.
  • Retain a data record for your audit and compliance evidentiary requirements.
  • Ensure your business stays online by monitoring in-use certificates that are close to expiry.

In addition, you can leverage Vectra Recall to:

  • Create automatic detections for the things you care about in network metadata, leveraging extensive Vectra content to give you a leg-up.
  • Accelerate your investigations with Vectra-curated in-context insights from network metadata, getting faster, better results for any security investigation.

Ready to elevate your cybersecurity strategy with Vectra's advanced network metadata solutions? Watch our demo videos to learn more and take the first step towards unparalleled network visibility and protection.


What is network metadata?

Network metadata provides descriptive information about network traffic, including packet origins, destinations, and protocols.

Why is network metadata important?

Network metadata is crucial for visibility into network activities, aiding in identifying anomalies and potential threats.

What are common formats of network metadata?

Common formats include NetFlow, IPFIX, and sFlow, which provide structured data for network analysis.

What role does Vectra AI play in network metadata analysis?

Vectra AI uses network metadata to enhance threat detection through machine learning and behavioral analysis.

How does network metadata help with compliance?

Network metadata aids in compliance by providing visibility into network activities and ensuring adherence to security policies.

How does network metadata enhance security?

Network metadata improves security by offering insights into traffic patterns, enabling faster threat detection and response.

How can network metadata be used in threat detection?

Network metadata helps in detecting threats by analyzing traffic patterns, anomalies, and connections that indicate suspicious behavior.

How can organizations collect network metadata?

Organizations can collect metadata using tools like NetFlow collectors, network probes, and packet brokers.

What is the difference between network metadata and packet data?

Network metadata summarizes traffic flows without capturing the full content of packets, while packet data contains detailed payload information.

What are the challenges in managing network metadata?

Challenges include handling large volumes of data, ensuring data accuracy, and integrating metadata with other security tools.