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Security information and event management systems collect security log events from numerous hosts within an enterprise and store their relevant data centrally. By bringing this log data together, these SIEM products enable centralized analysis and reporting on an organization's security events.
SIEM benefits include detecting attacks that other systems missed. Some SIEM tools also attempt to stop attacks -- assuming the attacks are still in progress.
SIEM products have been available for many years, but initial security information and event management (SIEM) tools were targeted at large organizations with sophisticated security capabilities and ample security analyst staffing. It is only relatively recently that SIEM systems have emerged that are well-suited to meet the needs of small and medium-sized organizations.
SIEM architectures available today include SIEM software installed on a local server, a local hardware or virtual appliance dedicated to SIEM, and a public cloud-based SIEM service.
Different organizations use SIEM systems for different purposes, so SIEM benefits vary across organizations. This article looks at the three top SIEM benefits:
- streamlining compliance reporting;
- detecting incidents that would otherwise not be detected; and
- improving the efficiency of incident handling.
1. Streamline compliance reporting
Many organizations deploy the tools for these SIEM benefits alone, including streamlining enterprise compliance reporting efforts through a centralized logging solution. Each host that needs to have its logged security events included in reporting regularly transfers its log data to a SIEM server. A single SIEM server receives log data from many hosts and can generate one report that addresses all of the relevant logged security events among these hosts.
An organization without a SIEM system is unlikely to have robust centralized logging capabilities that can create rich customized reports, such as those necessary for most compliance reporting efforts. In such an environment, it may be necessary to generate individual reports for each host or to manually retrieve data from each host periodically and reassemble it at a centralized point to generate a single report.
The latter can be incredibly difficult, in no small part because different operating systems, applications and other pieces of software are likely to log their security events in various proprietary ways, making correlation a challenge. Converting all of this information into a single format may require extensive code development and customization.
Another reason why SIEM tools are so useful is that they often have built-in support for most common compliance efforts. Their reporting capabilities are compliant with the requirements mandated by standards such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
By using SIEM logs, an organization can save considerable time and resources when meeting its security compliance reporting requirements, especially if it is subject to more than one such compliance initiative.
2. Detect the undetected
SIEM systems are able to detect otherwise undetected incidents.
Many hosts that log security breaches do not have built-in incident detection capabilities. Although these hosts can observe events and generate audit log entries for them, they lack the ability to analyze the log entries to identify signs of malicious activity. At best, these hosts, such as end-user laptops and desktops, might be able to alert someone when a particular type of event occurs.
SIEM tools offer increased detection capabilities by correlating events across hosts. By gathering events from hosts across the enterprise, a SIEM system can see attacks that have different parts on different hosts and then reconstruct the series of events to determine what the nature of the attack was and whether or not it succeeded.
In other words, while a network intrusion prevention system might see part of an attack and a laptop's operating system might see another part of the attack, a SIEM system can correlate the log data for all of these events. A SIEM tool can determine if, for example, a laptop was infected with malware which then caused it to join a botnet and start attacking other hosts.
It is important to understand that while SIEM tools have many benefits, they should not replace enterprise security controls for attack detection, such as intrusion prevention systems, firewalls and antivirus technologies. A SIEM tool on its own is useless because it has no ability to monitor raw security events as they happen throughout the enterprise in real time. SIEM systems use log data as recorded by other software.
Many SIEM products also have the ability to stop attacks while they are still in progress. The SIEM tool itself doesn't directly stop an attack; rather, it communicates with other enterprise security controls, such as firewalls, and directs them to block the malicious activity. This incident response capability enables the SIEM system to prevent security breaches that other systems might not have noticed elsewhere in the enterprise.
To take this a step further, an organization can choose to have its SIEM tool ingest threat intelligence data from trusted external sources. If the SIEM tool detects any activity involving known malicious hosts, it can then terminate those connections or otherwise disrupt the malicious hosts' interactions with the organization's hosts. This surpasses detection and enters the realm of prevention.
3. Improve the efficiency of incident handling activities
Another of the many SIEM benefits is that SIEM tools significantly increase the efficiency of incident handling, which in turn saves time and resources for incident handlers. More efficient incident handling ultimately speeds incident containment, thus reducing the amount of damage that many security breaches and incidents cause.
A SIEM tool can improve efficiency primarily by providing a single interface to view all the security log data from many hosts. Examples of how this can expedite incident handling include:
- it enables an incident handler to quickly identify an attack's route through the enterprise;
- it enables rapid identification of all the hosts that were affected by a particular attack; and
- it provides automated mechanisms to stop attacks that are still in progress and to contain compromised hosts.
The benefits of SIEM products make them a necessity
The benefits of SIEM tools enable an organization to get a big-picture view of its security events throughout the enterprise. By bringing together security log data from enterprise security controls, host operating systems, applications and other software components, a SIEM tool can analyze large volumes of security log data to identify attacks, security threats and compromises. This correlation enables the SIEM tool to identify malicious activity that no other single host could because the SIEM tool is the only security control with true enterprise-wide visibility.
Businesses turn to SIEM tools, meanwhile, for a few different purposes. One of the most common SIEM benefits is streamlined reporting for security compliance initiatives -- such as HIPAA, PCI DSS and Sarbanes-Oxley -- by centralizing the log data and providing built-in support to meet the reporting requirements of each initiative.
Another common use for SIEM tools is detecting incidents that would otherwise be missed and, when possible, automatically stopping attacks that are in progress to limit the damage.
Finally, SIEM products can also be invaluable to improve the efficiency of incident handling activities, both by reducing resource utilization and allowing real-time incident response, which also helps to limit the damage.
Today's SIEM tools are available for a variety of architectures, including public cloud-based services, which makes them suitable for use in organizations of all sizes. Considering their support for automating compliance reporting, incident detection and incident handling activities, SIEM tools have become a necessity for virtually every organization.