Life after SIEM. Situational Awareness is next.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the death of SIEM technologies. But isn’t the question less about a legacy technology dying and more about the dimensions on which the next mass adopted security capability will be born? Clayton Christensen first described a model for disruptive technology in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma and his follow on The Innovator’s Solution. Christensen describes a theory about how disruptive technologies over take sustaining technologies by delivering value on new dimensions that established vendors overlook as unimportant, low end or just don’t think about because they’re too busy improving their legacy. Christensen’s work offers an interest framework to think about what’s taking place in the market for SIEM security management solutions.

Any enterprise trying to secure their IT infrastructures knows the state of the art in SIEM security approaches falls short. And trends like virtualization are making things even more difficult. System and security administrators and analysts are inundated with too many potential incidents and its too difficult and time consuming to investigate even a fraction of them. Achieving a greater comprehension of the meaning of potential incidents and the projection of their status in the near future is the real goal. The idea, called “situational awareness” is often, however, impossible to achieve. We are so dependent on pre-programed rules in our SIEM solutions that we lack the ability to perform our own analysis because the original raw data has been filtered out, thrown away or we have no practical way to make sense of it.

Observation: If the technology is sufficiently complex as to allow the vulnerability to exist, can we really build complex technology to catch all the possible issues or scenarios?

As a reference point see David Hazekamp, Security Architect at Motorola, talk about the importance of retaining all security data across the Motorola global SOC infrastructure and integrating access to all this data into existing SIEM solutions.

Of course reaching this understanding requires one suspends their disbelief about the effectiveness of current SIEM security technologies. Usually this means you’re not a vendor or you’re a vendor with little or no vested interest in current approaches. So with this let’s examine the typical enterprise deployment of security technologies.

Defense in Depth

This is where every good enterprise security architecture starts. In order to begin securing your environment you’ve got to have data, raw data. In most data centers this takes the form of syslog from network devices and servers, SNMP traps, OPSEC or LEA interfaces for firewall events, WMI for Windows desktop and server events, IDS and IPS signature scans and application level firewall examination of common services like FTP, HTTP, SFTP, SCP etc. The thinking is you need to look at everything. Perhaps you’ll even want to pull in information from physical security systems like badge readers.

Security Information Management (SIM)

The next step in the process is to manage all this raw data and filter it down to a manageable number of events, traps and alerts. Collecting, storing and providing some basic analysis on all this data is the job of a SIM. Typically, as Raffy points out, the data is parsed, normalized and stored in a structured RDBMS. Parsing, normalizing and structuring all this data is great if the data doesn’t change or you don’t have too much of it. But if you’re dealing with data formats that aren’t static or you’re trying to store terabytes of this data an RDBMS won’t be your friend.

Security Event Management (SEM)

Once a SIM has done it’s job you’re ready to aggregate, correlate and start reporting on potential incidents using a SEM to do the job. SEM’s usually consist of lots of rules that look for combination and patterns of events indicating that a possible attack or breach may be underway. Essentially the SEM rules attempt to codify what we humans know about vulnerabilities in our IT systems and possible ways to exploit them. The goal is to provide some real-time information usually in the form of reports, dashboards and visualizations to operations and security analysts who work to keep the infrastructure secure.

Situational Awareness (SA)

SIEM correlation can be interesting for discovering a pattern or related event but the ability to work an issue outside of these “canned” rules and events becomes the real problem. Unfortunately, what all to often happens is there are so many possible attacks, operations and security staff are overwhelmed with potential incidents to investigate and not every event or pattern of interest is going to be discovered via the pre-built rules. Situational awareness is the attempt to perceive environmental elements within a volume of space and time. Comprehension cannot be achieved if the data being bubbled up is filtered according to a set of rules and the technology does not allow a human to perform their own analysis of the raw data as generated by the environment itself. All technologies have their weaknesses and those that perform correlation are no different.

Thus whilst canned SIEM correlation provides value in bubbling things up — we still need the ability to dig into the raw data to fully perceive and comprehend what is taking place. Now mind us all SA is not a new concept. It has been applied rather robustly by decision-makers in complex, dynamic areas from aviation, air traffic control, power plant operations, military command and control — to more ordinary but nevertheless complex tasks such as driving an automobile or motorcycle. And yes it has been mentioned before in security operations, particularly in government agencies.

Situational awareness is a simple as, “I discovered a problem and need context.” Whether discovery comes from a operational log, a security event log, a SIEM correlated events or aggregated events, a telephone call or something read on a blog. The ability to access and quickly analyze the raw data from the far reaches of your IT environment is the only true path to situational awareness. The idea extends well beyond log and event management and is an enabler for Operations and Security best practices alike where questions are answered by attaining context around an event. It should not be limited by the structure of the data or the structure of the queries and reports that the vendor provided.

I’m not sure if Raffy is right and SIEM is dead yet, but for certain it will eventually become just one part of a more comprehensive, flexible and human enabled ways of securing our IT infrastructures.

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