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EDR vs. antivirus: What's the difference?

Endpoint detection and response and antivirus tools both protect enterprise networks, and both have distinct advantages. Which is better for your organization?

Enterprises have numerous endpoint security tools at their disposal, but they aren't necessarily equal, and it can be confusing to know which is ideal. Take endpoint detection and response (EDR) and antivirus, for example. At first glance, the tools appear to overlap. One is more modern -- and therefore more effective against today's threats -- while the other is a legacy technology.

Let's examine EDR vs. antivirus and see how they differ.

What is EDR?

EDR tools monitor every device used in an organization, whether on-premises, remote or both. EDR products record all activities and transactions that occur on these devices and compile the data into a comprehensive real-time log file. Security teams can then analyze the log data to identify any ongoing abnormal activity or behavior. Log data also provides a holistic view of current and future security shortcomings, providing security teams with an idea of where to improve endpoint security. The data can signal, for example, if access controls need upgrading or replacing.

As EDR tools collect activity data, they can conduct automated responses based on rules created by the security team. Depending on the rules defined and the threats discovered, EDR products can take limited actions to halt or mitigate an ongoing security attack or notify security teams if the attack is too complex and requires human intervention. EDR software can also help catch insider threats using behavioral analysis of processes and actions on endpoints.

Information EDR tools collect from endpoints includes the following:

  • IP addresses to which organization endpoints have been and are currently connected.
  • End-user accounts that logged into devices, and the locations from where they gained access.
  • Password change attempts, which could highlight malicious logon attempts.
  • OS and application process executions.
  • Network activity from devices to other points of connection and vice versa.
  • File creation and storage, whether locally, in the cloud, in a physical server, etc.
  • Portable storage media use and what data was copied or downloaded.

EDR products offer the following benefits:

  1. Increased endpoint visibility. EDR tools deliver a full picture of exactly what's happening in real time across all endpoints.
  2. Record of compliance. EDR software helps organizations enforce data privacy laws, such as GDPR, CCPA and HIPAA. Because EDR tools monitor every device, IT security teams can keep close tabs on databases to see who is accessing what, and if anything is being exfiltrated. If there is a data breach, it can be stopped immediately.
  3. Reduced risk. Apart from just collecting data, EDR products can do the following:
    • Detect imminent threats, such as ransomware.
    • Contain and isolate malicious payloads that are found.
    • Support digital forensics with evidence and other clues needed to identify a security breach.
  1. Cost savings. EDR tools are deployed locally, but all information and data are transmitted to a central source, such as a SIEM platform. As a result, IT security teams can respond more quickly to imminent threats, thus reducing both mean time to detection and mean time to respond. This is a far more advantageous strategy than having to examine each device individually.

What is antivirus?

Antivirus software is a legacy tool designed to automatically and manually scan for and stop malicious software, such as viruses and malware, on endpoints. It can also help prevent pop-ups and spam. Given antivirus tools require privileged access on endpoints, some malicious actors target antivirus products directly.

Antivirus tools look for malicious software and files through the following detection techniques:

  • Signature-based detection. Antivirus software examines the suspected malware by comparing its code against known malware signatures.
  • Behavior-based detection. Antivirus tools monitor files or software for suspicious activity, such as abnormal file execution or API calls, connecting to off-site servers or unusual file system changes.
  • Heuristic-based detection. Antivirus products perform a combination of the previous two methods by statically examining code for suspicious components and allowing it to execute to monitor it for suspicious behavior.

Antivirus software benefits include the following:

  • Detection. It scans the entire device, including all directories and files, for viruses. Scans can be performed manually or automatically and run on a schedule convenient to the organization.
  • Selective scanning. A single file -- for example, an email attachment -- can be scanned.
  • Virus eradication and disablement. If anything suspicious is detected -- for example, macros in an Excel file -- antivirus software attempts to either eradicate or disable it.
  • Device health reporting. After a scan has been completed, antivirus software displays a comprehensive score to provide users with an idea of how secure the device is.

Newer antivirus tools include databases that contain vendor-provided threat signature profiles. This enables the software to evaluate files stored on endpoint devices to determine if anything suspicious is lurking.

EDR vs. antivirus: How they differ

Simply put, EDR tools provide a comprehensive detection and response suite that can connect to centralized systems, while antivirus software offers the ability to scan for known malware and stop or quarantine suspicious files from executing.

EDR software also inspects all devices in real time; antivirus software is designed to work with only local devices where each user has some control over the antivirus software.

EDR software is superior in discovering unknown threats through its use of AI and machine learning. Antivirus tools, by contrast, can only zero in on known threats. EDR software also provides real-time intelligence, while antivirus tools usually only discover threats during a scheduled automatic scan or when asked to do a manual one. Furthermore, antivirus software doesn't generate the detail necessary to help a forensic team conduct a thorough investigation.

Which should your organization use?

When comparing EDR vs. antivirus, the question remains: Which one should be used? The answer depends on your organization's security requirements. Antivirus software is a great option for consumers with limited security requirements; EDR tools are often a far better choice for enterprises, given the greater complexity of IT and network infrastructure.

Using both endpoint security tools is also an option. Organizations can use antivirus software to detect and mitigate known malware and deploy EDR tools for more proactive security. With antivirus software handling common attacks, EDR tools can focus on detecting and stopping more sophisticated attacks.

Ravi Das is a cybersecurity consultant and business specialist who specializes in penetration testing and vulnerability management content.

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