Hackers have discovered a new, target-rich market in the form of small and midsize businesses. Over the past two years, they've lifted more than $1 billion from these companies, according to Inc. What's driving malicious actors toward small business networks? Often, they take advantage of the misplaced confidence that small business data isn't worth enough for them to steal. To defend against these kinds of attacks, small business owners need to adopt more than a "wait and see" IT attitude. Here are three of the best tools to get started with effective network monitoring:

1. Ping

One of the simplest network monitoring tools is the Ping utility, notes TechTarget. Available to administrators, it can help companies quickly identify host connectivity issues — a great starting point for small businesses. Although the number of malicious attacks on smaller businesses has ramped up over the last few years, it's always worth eliminating basic issues first. It may be more worthwhile to discover and solve connectivity problems than to spend time and money searching for hackers where none exist.

2. Microsoft Message Analyzer

One of the most widely used network monitoring tools is Microsoft Message Analyzer. This free utility analyzes packet traffic on a network to give companies a high-level overview of network issues. With support for more than 300 protocols and guaranteed compatibility with Windows-based systems, Microsoft's tool is an easy way for small businesses to capture and view network traffic oddities. For example, one common attack precursor is a sudden spike in network traffic. In some cases, this extra traffic is used to deflect business attention from secondary and more sophisticated attack vectors. When armed with knowledge of traffic patterns and continuous network status updates, companies can seize the upper hand from attackers.

3. Digging Deeper

Small businesses can dig deeper and discover more about their network by using more-robust tools. For example, traditional monitoring tools use sensors, also called agents, to collect and transmit network data. While effective, these agents can impact network speed; newer tools are "agentless" and have little to no impact on overall performance. Other options include application-aware tools that allow companies to determine if problems stem from the network at large or from a single piece of software. An emerging feature in the monitoring space is the ability to spot and categorize behavioral trends, which allows businesses to examine previous data for specific patterns and to predict future network performance.

Small businesses can't afford to ignore network performance dips and spikes; while it's possible that these issues are benign, they could also be the hallmarks of a malicious attack. Investment in network monitoring tools, whether basic or advanced, provides much-needed visibility into these key processes.

Tags: data security