Botnet App for Splunk

It’s only taken me two years, but I’ve finally answered a question that I was asked by Derek King“Can we use ML to detect botnets?” Thanks Derek, that was a pretty heavy question to be asked in your first week at Splunk, especially when you have no Splunk experience… 

You can judge the results here using the Botnet App for Splunk.

It’s not quite the BotSniffer or BotMiner technique that Derek requested – you’ll have to wait another two years for that the way I’m going so far – but if you read the research paper 'Pattern Extraction Algorithm for NetFlow-Based Botnet Activities Detection' by Rafał Kozik and Michał Choraś you could come to the conclusion there are better methods out there. And to be honest I’ve pretty much followed their approach to detecting botnets on the CTU-13 dataset in the app.

For those of you less familiar with Machine Learning techniques and concepts the app should help you learn a little bit about Machine Learning as well!

Botnet App for Splunk

Detecting Botnets Using NetFlow Logs

The CTU-13 dataset contains roughly 20 million NetFlow logs (plus a load of PCAP data that I have just ignored for the sake of my sanity) that contain a mix of normal, background, and botnet generated traffic. Like the best and most responsible academics, the awesome folks at the Czech Technical University essentially set off a load of bots on some of their servers and labelled up the flow logs, which makes it a great dataset for classifying botnet generated traffic.

[As a brief aside, if you want to know more about classification algorithms there’s a great blog here that presents some of the concepts and algorithms that are available.]

Using the approach suggested by Rafał Kozik and Michał Choraś the raw NetFlow logs have been aggregated into 60-second windows where statistics are calculated in each window for: 

  • The number of flows; 
  • The sum of transferred bytes; 
  • The average sum of bytes per NetFlow; 
  • The average communication time with each unique IP addresses; 
  • The number of unique destination IP addresses; 
  • The number of unique destination ports; and 
  • The most frequently used protocol (e.g., TCP, UDP).

All six million of these aggregated records are contained in the app if you want to explore them yourself.

With this data the app will then walk you through a few steps:

  • Data analysis and pre-processing
  • Anomaly detection
  • Classification

I’ll be taking you through these steps in this blog.

Data Analysis and Pre-Processing

In this section of the app, you can explore the aggregate NetFlow records, generate a sample dataset and select the pre-processing options that you want to apply to the data. 

Analysing the dataset is pretty self-explanatory, but from a machine learning point of view, you are trying to see if there are any relationships between the features of the data – the statistics that were calculated for each 60-second window – and the class of the data (botnet or not botnet). In particular, on the Exploratory Data Analysis dashboard, you should be able to see a clear separation between normal and botnet traffic on the Feature Analysis by Bot and Normal Traffic panel. 

Another conclusion from the data analysis is that the proportion of non-botnet records to botnet records is extremely high. This is likely to produce models that are biased toward predicting non-botnet NetFlow traffic. Therefore, a dataset needs to be generated containing a more even split of botnet and non-botnet records. The app allows you to generate a sample dataset using undersampling that has a better balance of records.

At this point, we want to make a few decisions on how we are going to pre-process our data before applying an algorithm. There are several options:

  • Scaling: scaling data to remove disparity between the scale and range of different variables can improve the performance of some algorithms
  • Principal component analysis: reducing the number of features in a dataset can also improve algorithm performance by reducing the risk of overfitting – if there are too many variables in a dataset some algorithms can apply to much significance to unimportant variables
  • Anomaly detection: there is an option in the app to calculate an anomaly score feature in the data by using the baseline behaviour of the botnet traffic – so the more anomalous the data the more ‘normal’ it is likely to be in this case. In production you might want to consider calculating this anomaly score on normal traffic for your environment rather than botnet traffic from the app.
  • Train/test split: for classification you should always train your model on a different dataset to the one you use for testing. This is to make sure that you aren’t overfitting a model on the training set, i.e. creating perfect predictions for that data, but awful predictions for any other data.

It’s up to you how you choose to pre-process the data, make some selections and select save once you are happy.

Botnet App for Splunk

Anomaly Detection

As mentioned above we are training an anomaly detection model on the botnet traffic in this instance, which isn’t how I would do this in production – you’d want to find a good set of flow logs that represent normal for your environment to train an anomaly detection model on. 

Regardless of this, the dashboards in the app present a workflow for training and testing a set of anomaly detection models. You should see that anomaly detection alone is a good technique for detecting botnets, but can produce a vast number of false positives – normal traffic that has been incorrectly flagged as anomalous. Feel free to explore the differences in the results by changing the threshold and save the threshold that you think is the most accurate.


Now we’ve done our analysis, selected some pre-processing options, and found some anomalies it’s time to train our botnet classifier. You should be able to see the most recent selections made for model training and the most recent selections saved on the pre-processing dashboard – if they differ feel free to train a new model!

Once trained you can view the statistics about accuracy for each of the algorithms used in the app: Logistic Regression, Decision Tree, Random Forest, Support Vector Machine, Stochastic Gradient Descent, or Multi-Layer Perceptron. A recommendation will be made for the most accurate algorithm and for the algorithm that has the highest number of true positive results. Pay attention to the false positive number as well – this is effectively the number of false alarms you might get.

Botnet App for Splunk

Once you’re happy with the results and want to productionise the models there is another dashboard – Next Steps & Productionisation – that can help you generate the SPL to apply the models in production. 

Over to you now to implement a botnet detection algorithm on your infrastructure…

Happy Splunking.

Greg is a recovering mathematician and part of the technical advisory team at Splunk, specialising in how to get value from machine learning and advanced analytics. Previously the product manager for Splunk’s Machine Learning Toolkit (MLTK) he helped set the strategy for machine learning in the core Splunk platform. A particular career highlight was partnering with the World Economic Forum to provide subject matter expertise on the AI Procurement in a Box project.

Before working at Splunk he spent a number of years with Deloitte and prior to that BAE Systems Detica working as a data scientist. Ahead of getting a proper job he spent way too long at university collecting degrees in maths including a PhD on “Mathematical Analysis of PWM Processes”.

When he is not at work he is usually herding his three young lads around while thinking that work is significantly more relaxing than being at home…