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The Rise of NetFlow Analysis Over Packet Capture

February 1, 2024

The Rise of NetFlow Analysis Over Packet Capture

In the fast-paced world of modern networking, gaining profound insights into data flows is crucial for both optimizing performance and enhancing security. As networks evolve rapidly, the traditional method of packet capture encounters challenges due to higher speed interconnects,  storage, and processing capabilities.

This blog explores the advantages of NetFlow over packet capture, especially in the context of escalating network speeds.

The Challenges of Packet Capture (PCAP)

Packet capture, a method of recording all packets passing through a specific network point, has been a staple in network monitoring. This technique offers granular visibility, allowing administrators to inspect each packet for detailed analysis. However, packet capture faces scalability challenges, particularly in high-speed networks.

As data rates soar to multi-gigabit and terabit levels, capturing every single packet becomes increasingly impractical. The process is hampered by limitations in disk write speeds and the vast storage requirements, leading to potential data loss or incomplete captures.

The requirement for specialized hardware in large-scale packet data storage is a major consideration for organizations dealing with extensive network traffic. To efficiently capture and store packet data at scale, equipment such as packet brokers, network taps, and custom-built servers is often necessary.Implementing this specialized hardware infrastructure is costly, and often leads to packet payloads being dropped in favor of writing at higher speeds, thus only actually giving the same level of information as NetFlow.

What is NetFlow?

Cisco developed and released NetFlow in 1996, a network protocol designed to offer a more streamlined and scalable approach to network traffic monitoring. Unlike packet capture, NetFlow does not store each packet. Instead, it aggregates information about network flows, including details like source and destination IP addresses, ports, protocols, and timestamps.

NetFlow is supported by most enterprise-grade network equipment already in place and therefore doesn’t require any specialized hardware. NetFlow summarizes network activity,  addressing the scalability issue by significantly reducing storage requirements, particularly vital in the era of accelerating network speeds.

NetFlow's Advantages Over Packet Capture

NetFlow's rise over packet capture is primarily due to its efficient utilization of resources and its ability to provide a condensed view of network traffic. This efficiency is crucial in environments where traditional storage systems are overwhelmed by the volume of data generated by PCAP.

NetFlow's ability to provide unsampled data also enables real-time analysis, which is essential for the timely detection and response to security threats and performance issues. The sampling of network traffic, a technique by which only a subset of the overall traffic is observed and which is often done by network observability solutions which struggle at large scale, can significantly hinder forensic investigation of security incidents - see this ElastiFlow blog post for more detail.

The real-time capability of NetFlow, combined with reduced storage demands, makes it an increasingly preferred choice for routine monitoring and analysis. It offers clear visibility into network behavior, anomaly detection, and proactive cybersecurity measures.

Conclusion

In the constantly evolving landscape of networking, the choice between NetFlow and packet capture hinges on scalability, efficiency, and analytical requirements. As networks accelerate in speed and complexity, NetFlow emerges as a pragmatic solution for capturing actionable insights while overcoming challenges associated with storing and processing packet data.

While packet capture remains an indispensable tool for specific scenarios like forensic analysis and deep packet inspection, NetFlow stands out for general monitoring and high-speed network environments. As networks continue to grow in speed and complexity, the adoption of NetFlow for efficient and scalable network monitoring becomes more crucial.

For organizations looking to stay ahead in network management and security, embracing NetFlow's streamlined approach is a strategic step forward. To explore how NetFlow can enhance your network monitoring and security strategies, we invite you to delve deeper and read this ElastiFlow blog post that explains why NetFlow is the foundation of Network Observability. 

ElastiFlow offers a comprehensive NetFlow analytics, with a free trial and flexible pricing options. Start your trial today!