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SOAR vs. SIEM: What's the difference?

When it comes to the SOAR vs. SIEM debate, it's important to understand their fundamental differences to get the most benefit from your security data.

It's not easy to understand the key differentiators between SOAR vs. SIEM because they have many components in common. But, as businesses continue looking for ways to streamline incident response processes with the hope of faster security incident resolutions, those differences become far clearer. This is especially true when looking at factors such as mean time to detection (MTTD) and mean time to respond (MTTR).

Let's take a look at each technology and the key differences between the two.

What is SIEM?

Security information and event management (SIEM) tools are a way to centrally collect pertinent log and event data from various security, network, server, application and database sources. SIEMs then detect and alert on security events.

A common example of a SIEM in action is when a system identifies an abnormal amount of login attempts on a particular system. After detection, the SIEM alerts the SecOps team about the incident so they can investigate the potential of a compromised system or compromised user credentials.

SIEMs collect data from firewalls, intrusion prevention systems, antivirus and antimalware software, DNS servers, data loss prevention tools and secure web gateways.

Aggregated data is analyzed by the SIEM in real time to spot potential security issues. Because multiple data sources are analyzed, the SIEM identifies threats by correlating information from more than one source. The SIEM then intelligently ranks the events in order of criticality.

Security administrators are commonly tasked with sifting through various event data to track down and remediate the source of a potential threat or simply acknowledge it and tune the analysis engine to mark the event as a benign occurrence. Doing this helps the SIEM software learn what is considered a true threat versus an event that merely looks suspicious.

When looking at SIEM from an MTTD and MTTR perspective, the tool excels at threat detection as it ingests security-related data from several sources. The problem, however, is that SIEMs are notorious for creating so many incident alerts that it becomes difficult for SecOps teams to know where to start. This can also lead to alert fatigue. Thus, from an MTTR view, SIEMs falter unless tools are continuously tuned to eliminate alerting glut.

What is SOAR?

While SIEM tools have been around for years, security orchestration, automation and response (SOAR) is the newer kid on the block. This security technology was designed to help businesses better organize internal and external threats and to help speed up the process of triage and incident resolution. SOAR uses AI to better prioritize incident alerts so that SecOps teams know which threats to work on first. SOAR also uses a concept known as playbooks -- prebuilt and automated remediation steps that initiate when certain thresholds are met.

An example of where SOAR can provide value is in malware containment. Unlike a traditional SIEM that can only detect and alert on a malware incident within a corporate network, a SOAR can use malware automation playbooks to identify and quarantine compromised devices without any human intervention.

In terms of MTTD and MTTR, SOAR does relatively little to improve on what SIEM can achieve from an MTTD perspective. With advancements in alert prioritization and AI-backed incident response playbooks, however, MTTR can be reduced significantly.

When looking at SOAR vs. SIEM, both aggregate security data from various sources, but the locations and quantity of information being sourced are different.

SOAR vs. SIEM: Key differences

When looking at SOAR vs. SIEM, both aggregate security data from various sources, but the locations and quantity of information being sourced are different. While SIEMs ingest various log and event data from traditional infrastructure component sources, SOARs do that and more. Plus, SOARs focus more on prioritizing alerts that are identified by various security tools, including SIEM. The other aspect is the use of AI and automation that SOARs use to resolve or contain issues, whereas SIEMs simply identify them.

SOAR systems pull in information from external emerging threat intelligence feeds, endpoint security software and other third-party sources to get a better overall picture of the security landscape inside the network and out. SOARs take analytics to a different level by creating defined investigation paths to follow based on an alert. The intelligence benefits gained through superior analytics can then be translated into automated tasks to resolve issues on the security team's behalf, augmenting human analysts' efforts.

How SOAR and SIEM improve SecOps

Again, when comparing SOAR vs. SIEM, traditional SIEMs only provide the alert. After that, it's up to the SecOps team to determine the path of an investigation. SOARs that automate investigation path workflows can significantly cut down on the amount of time required to handle alerts. They also provide lessons about the security admin skill set required to complete an investigation path.

That said, SIEMs are good at aggregating and analyzing data for threat alerting purposes. For this reason, many enterprises choose to deploy both SIEM and SOAR. Combined, the two technologies deliver far lower MTTD and MTTR results.

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