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SIEM History & The Power of Next-Gen SIEM Tools, Part 1

Sebastian Fazzino
Oct 29, 2020

With the growth of cybersecurity and an ever-changing marketplace, there’s been an explosion of acronyms in the tech industry. Here, we will begin a discussion of how SIEM (Security Information and Event Management) and SOAR (Security Orchestration, Automation and Response), have evolved over the decades and how they continue to adapt to today’s cybersecurity challenges.

SIEM and SOAR are causing substantial confusion in the IT community. The high signal-to-noise ratio of traditional SIEM security solutions combined with a systemic lack of staffing shortages has impelled a new generation of SIEM tools complemented by SOAR (Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response) functionality.

What’s the difference between next-generation SIEM solutions and SOAR, and how do the new requirements of NG SIEM compare or contrast to the capabilities of a SOAR platform?

It’s imperative that we first define what capabilities must be met by SIEM software to be considered next-generation (NG). From there, our team will explore SOAR and how SIEM tools can work alongside SOAR platforms. 

History of SIEM Technology

One of the first true SIEM security solutions to appear in the market was Intellitactics in the late 1990s. The product category at the time was referred to as network security management (NSM). Later, the term was replaced with the phrase SIEM, by Gartner in 2005.

The traditional, first-generation SIEM solutions quickly began to prove to challenge for talent-starved institutions. At this time, there were few internal cybersecurity professionals present and they certainly didn’t have time to sit in front of the SIEM software day in and day out tuning, creating content rules or validating false positives, while looking for false negatives.

The term “event (or alert) fatigue” became a challenge for early SIEM software, giving rise to a new market to MSSPs (Managed Security Service Providers) that followed by taking over the burden of monitoring.

MSSPs offered hope by acting as a triage for level 1 and level 2 event analysis for institutions unable to staff an internal security operations center (SOC).

First-generation SIEM security solutions started out as log aggregators powered by relational databases, therefore capping their ability to provide real-time responses. The introduction of correlation engines began to give intelligence to first-generation SIEM technology in an attempt to address the event fatigue problem caused by false positives and an effort to create the equation (A + B + C is related to the same event and = something bad).

Despite the introduction of correlation engines, first-generation SIEM tools still fell short of expectations. This form of SIEM technology was unable to aggregate and correlate all log and event data from on-premises and cloud workloads, SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) solutions, and system and network data, as well as provide the capability to perform automated responses for detected threats.

Next-Gen SIEM: A Smarter Detective

This brings us to today’s next-generation SIEM solutions.

In order to qualify as an NG SIEM technology, the SIEM solution needed to leverage NOSQL databases, such as Hadoop, Elastic, Spark, and other technologies that weren’t available in the early part of the 21st century. Data warehouses that were used by first-generation SIEM solutions included MySQL, PostgreSQL, MSSQL, and even Oracle. They overwhelmed the backend and rendered them unusable over time, preventing institutions from sending any new raw event data to their SIEM unless it was absolutely necessary.

During the last two decades, data science has matured at an evolutionary pace, removing the need for false positive-prone pattern-matching engines, also referred to as signatures. Next-gen SIEM solutions incorporate machine learning (ML) capabilities into their software to leverage supervised and unsupervised models that help them cluster similar events together and identify anomalies from learned behavior. This helps prevent overwhelming the analyst by deafening them with too much noise.

One of the most prevalent themes to become part of the daily narrative in SecOps (security operations) is the concept of applying context to security to determine if an event should be considered a true positive. This is the idea that the NG SIEM solutions should be able to take their understanding of a given asset and apply context to an event affecting that asset if it is indeed relevant.

For example, an event may trigger from an NDR (network detection and response) solution that an Apache buffer overflow attack was detected that may be real, but the target IP address is running Windows and the IIS web server. Context, in this case, would not apply, despite it being a real attack, saving an analyst time in having to further investigate.

Incorporating more intelligence into the traditional SIEM software, which makes it aware of not just asset information but also the learned behaviors of users in the environment, provides NG SIEM with the capability to apply UEBA (user entity behavior analytics). NG SIEM technology doesn't simply identify an event as being “bad or good.” Using ML models, next-gen SIEM tools assign a type of score to an event and when that score exceeds a specified threshold, it’s presented to the analyst for further analysis.

Improved ML Awareness for Next-Gen SIEM Security

Early SIEM solutions typically presented events by categorizing them into tables of high, medium, or low severity without much more context than the potential severity of the event. Using UEBA, an NG SIEM can quickly identify anomalous behavior when, for example, an employee suddenly demonstrates behavior not previously seen by the SIEM software (such as logging onto the corporate VPN on Sunday at 2 a.m. when the individual has never previously logged into the VPN outside of work hours).

Because early SIEM software solutions didn’t have much in the way of asset and infrastructure awareness, they were incapable of identifying lateral movement following a foothold by cybercriminals. Conversely, NG SIEM security is now capable of tracking the lateral movement of cybercriminals as they pivot from one asset to another in an on-premises or cloud network.

Just like in the investigation of a crime scene, the primary job of an investigator is to piece together the events against an established timeline. Timeline generation of related events is a hallmark capability of NG SIEM solutions that previously had to be reconstructed manually by analysts in a legacy SIEM.

The most powerful capability added to a Next-Gen SIEM tool is the capability to perform automated responses to known threats that are predefined by incident response playbooks.

Unlike their first-generation SIEM solutions, NG SIEM technology can pull event data from applications and systems, as well as stacking workflow automation on top of orchestration, such as pushing response actions to devices like firewalls or IPSs (intrusion prevention systems) in response to detected threats.

This makes Next-Gen SIEM tools similar in capability to SOAR technology. And this is why there’s the current confusion in the market.

Finally, Next-Gen SIEM solutions feature integrated threat hunting capabilities, allowing analysts to uncover suspicious activity and vulnerabilities in their environment, as well as monitor threat intelligence, feeds to uncover potential issues, adversaries, and indicators of compromise.

In Part 2, we'll discuss SOAR and how NG SIEM and SOAR can work together to form a powerful partnership in stopping threats while keeping operations running smoothly. In the meantime, check out the resources below for more cybersecurity content.

Cybersecurity Resources

Learn the latest on keeping your bank or credit union safe from cyberattacks with these free resources:

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