September 21, 2021

How to Safely Integrate Networks During Mergers and Acquisitions

I recently published a piece in Dark Reading covering the network security challenges of M&A activity.  As we ease the restrictions put in place to combat COVID-19, we’re expecting to see business activity including M&A pick up speed, it’s important that the implications of integrating networks are fully understood to ensure that the expected business benefits are achieved as soon as possible. 

Economists from JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and more are predicting that the U.S. is about to enter an economic boom, with estimates ranging from 4.5% to 8% expected economic growth. With the economy recovering, Deloitte found that many companies and enterprises expect their M&A activity to return to pre–COVID-19 levels within the next 12 months – and are starting to eagerly eye the market. But today’s M&A’s are more complicated than ever, with the involved organizations needing to account for vital cybersecurity, privacy, and data management practices during this process. 

In fact, recent analyst research uncovered that the biggest hurdle to effectively managing the integration phase of a deal in today’s environment is technology integration. 20% of businesses noted effective integration was the most important factor in achieving a successful M&A – and 28% identified execution/integration gaps as the primary reason their M&A transactions didn’t generate expected value. As I mentioned in the Dark Reading article, a company being acquired is also a target for bad actors, as they look for openings and vulnerabilities in smaller companies that can later give them access to the larger enterprise’s network – Deloitte found that the top concern in executing M&A deals for U.S. executives and private-equity investor firms is cybersecurity (51%).

With technology integration being one of the most important and most difficult factors for a successful M&A – how can companies set themselves up for success?  

The secret is to have a full understanding of the IT infrastructure. Unless you know how everything is connected to everything else, you really can’t make any good architecture decisions to change things. And the starting point is always the network. But this is a herculean challenge in and of itself. Every network is uniquely crafted by the company’s distinct needs and the personal approaches of the network engineers involved. Each network with its specific devices, firewalls, and configurations is going to operate and function differently – nothing can be assumed.

To drastically accelerate and de-risk M&A integration, IT needs to have a detailed understanding of all of the network topology and behavior. But it’s very hard to discover, most network maps and inventories are incomplete or very out of date, as manual processes for these issues are near impossible. Trying to write down a device list, map out the data paths, note all the configurations, figure out the operational processes, and enforce the network-wide security postures would take a full network team months or years depending on the complexity. For businesses that find themselves in this predicament, it is vital that they invest in solutions that can analyze their digital infrastructure to discover existing assets and to map the network.

Depending on the particular pain points, network analysis solutions range from network monitoring and visualization, to intent-based capabilities like network verification and prediction. Network and application dependency mapping tools can inform teams how the various applications and devices act with and rely on one another. Even something as simple as a help desk ticketing system can provide useful data for these ends. 

With a live network map, the companies can then evaluate the infrastructure for cybersecurity compliance and for future integration. Tools like port scanning, network configuration checks, and path verification allow IT to see if the network is operating consistently and is compliant with company policies. IT will especially want to focus on solutions that root out existing liabilities, such as vulnerability assessments, penetration testing, and compliance assessments. For instance, a network digital twin allows enterprises to overlay security policies on other networks – allowing for identification of network compliance issues, flagging outdated configurations, locating forgotten equipment, proactively unveiling security violations, and alerting operators of unpatched vulnerabilities. 

It’s ideal if the chosen solutions can also normalize the network data (present the data in a vendor-agnostic manner), making it much easier for IT to quickly read and understand the various infrastructure devices and configurations. This is particularly helpful for network operations staff addressing help desk tickets – who are dealing with tickets and issues across both networks at the same time after having merged. With a normalized dataset, IT can then efficiently merge both companies’ data together to jointly analyze the infrastructure – allowing for a much faster, more simple and comprehensive examination of the networks. This is impossible to do without a comprehensive view of existing data, so many enterprises look to data management tools and platforms to help locate and consolidate their critical data. 

Connecting and integrating the network infrastructure is the moment of truth for the M&A – businesses need to ensure that everything will continue to operate properly before internal operations can actually be merged. Having a normalized and accurate network map gives the IT team a scope of the two company’s networks – allowing for the identification of conflict areas that need to be worked out before merging networks together to ensure that there is no risk to the production and client services. With the right software, the process can be automated, so it’s faster and more accurate, and intent checks can also make sure that traffic is doing what it should or pinpoint the problem for immediate resolution.

Using this information, IT can identify critical network and application paths that need to be preserved in isolation and potential points where the two companies’ infrastructures can be connected. This has several key security and financial purposes. It allows for a check of whether the network architectures are compliant with one another, and it also lets the companies see where there is excess infrastructure that can be removed. Network path verification tools can also allow IT to preemptively see any potential integration holes by visualizing what the new data paths will be, so the team can address any lack thereof ahead of time with stop-gap solutions. 

When encountering different regulatory hurdles, it’s usually best to make the higher bar the standard across both organizations – simplifying the security and compliance policies. Services like next-generation endpoint protection, next-generation firewalls, and other solutions that protect data and applications from attack — are important for securing the IT environment after a merger. 

The risk involved in merging the digital infrastructures of major enterprises is simple to summarize: if you don’t know what it is and how it works, you can’t ensure it will continue to work if changes are made – like integrating it with another network. Even worse, it can aggravate the already existing security flaws or holes that are wrapped into your security paradigm. By integrating new devices and data paths to parts already able to be compromised, IT is increasing vulnerability and risk.

In today’s world of digital transformation, it’s more important than ever that enterprises engaging in M&As both empower and protect themselves by properly approaching network integration and adopting services where needed to support network analysis.

Forward Networks

Mathematically-accurate network modeling trusted by the world's largest networks.
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