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Packet Capture (PCAP)

With increasingly saturated volumes of network traffic, IT teams need to be able to ensure that their network can handle the demand. Packet capture is an effective networking tool for IT professionals to obtain comprehensive information about their network traffic. IT teams are then able to use the data obtained in order to optimize network and application performance.

Before getting into packet capture, it may be helpful to understand what IT teams are actually capturing.

What is a Data Packet?

When data is sent over a network, it is broken down into smaller structures and reassembled into the original form of data at the end point. These broken-down structures are typically known as data packets. These small bits of information are seen in action when you have a slow internet connection and a picture loads piece-by-piece. As the picture appears on your screen one pixel at a time, the data packets are being delivered to your device.

Data packets typically contain control information and user data. This information helps data packets reach their destination. For example, IP data packets may contain an IP address of origin and the intended receiver’s IP address. Information in data packets ensures the reliable and efficient transmission of data across a network. The data contained within certain data packets make them invaluable for network analysis.

What is Packet Capture?

Packet capture is a powerful analysis tool for IT teams. It is used for analyzing, troubleshooting, and optimizing network performance. Due to the structural nature of data packets, these bits of data are easily intercepted along specific points throughout a network. Packet capture refers to a method where IT teams intercept packet data at a certain point along the network.

It may sound like the original packets are taken completely off the network, however that is not the case. Packets are not taken away from their original destination when packet capture is performed. Instead, the packet data are copied and subsequently stored. Network administrators then can review and analyze the information contained in the copied packet data.

Packet capture can be performed utilizing multiple methods, including through the use of a virtual machine or a standalone hardware device. Each method has potential benefits and drawbacks. To reap the most benefits, organizations should fully understand their IT infrastructure and implement the proper packet capture method.

Why Do I Need to Use Packet Capture?

Packet capture is an effective way for IT teams to solve various networking issues and optimize performance. This IT tool gives you data on all the traffic that has traveled through your network. NetOps will be able to drill down into the traffic details to analyze and fully understand what is happening in your IT environment. Depending upon available disk space, packets can be saved for as long as needed for your team to properly analyze them and draw conclusions.

Packet Capture Benefits

IT teams have access to in-depth information about their IT infrastructure with packet capture. Your organization will be able to utilize packet capture to achieve some of the following benefits:

Optimize Network Traffic

Packet capture gives your team a complete roadmap of the traffic your network experiences. This allows your team to access detailed information about the state of your network. Packets also help identify traffic bottlenecks throughout your network. Network administrators then can take appropriate action and ensure that your network traffic is optimized.

Reduce Network Outages

Identifying network issues can be a slow, cumbersome process. Inspecting network traffic is an effective method for diagnosing network problems. Packet capture gives your team instantaneous access to network information in real-time. For example, data packets can be used to identify a broken link or verify an IP address. Packet capture enables your team to keep your network up and running more efficiently.

Improve Cybersecurity

Packet capture is used to identify hackers that have infiltrated your network. Network administrators can track the flow of potentially malicious traffic and determine the point of intrusion, and outside agencies can also be brought in to investigate the source of the issue. Packets reveal valuable information—such as whether the attack came from an internal or external location—and that information empowers your team to better prevent cyber-attacks.

Network Mapping

With hundreds of thousands (or even millions!) of devices connected to your network, identifying all endpoints is a difficult task. Luckily, packet capture can be used to discover and fingerprint devices that are connected to your network. Your team will as a result be able to identify devices that were previously unknown, which in turn further optimizes your network.

As beneficial as packet capture is, there are some inherent risks that organizations should be aware of.

Potential Pitfalls of Packet Capture

Data Security

Storing data packets on servers for long periods of time makes IT security staff squirm in their seats. After all, packets contain large amounts of data on network activity—thus making them an attractive target for hackers. Packet capture applications need to have built-in security features to prevent unauthorized access to data packet contents. If packet data are not secured properly, companies may find it difficult to justify the additional security risks of using them.

Data Overload

Packet capture provides teams with a large amount of data to sift through, meaning IT teams could lose track of the most relevant information. Additionally, storing large amounts of data packets could amplify existing storage costs—which could be cost-prohibitive in the long run. Preparation is key to avoiding these headaches. Organizations can plan for these considerations by utilizing the right packet capture applications and implementing proper policies.

LiveAction provides our clients with packet capture technologies, LiveWire and LiveCapture. Our network protocol analyzer gives you packet insights and analysis for faster action. We work with clients to implement packet capture technology that works for their specific IT environment. If you’re interested in learning more about LiveAction packet capture solutions, reach out to our team to schedule a demo today!