The SIEM is dead Part Duex

by Admin 13. July 2013 11:20

Long Live the SIEM


So my last post on this subject was full of doom and gloom. All of the good reasons to have a SIEM were lying in the dust, our dreams in taters, our hope shattered. All because the technology which had been invented to solve our problems had been too limited, too stuck in the 20th century. So are we just chasing a pipe dream or is this actually possible? Let’s take a step back and remind ourselves of what it is we, as security management professionals want:

  • To be able to see the entire security context of our organization in its entirety, in real time – A big ask this one.
  • To be able correlate events together to generate real-time alerts for our security operations teams.
  • To be able to produce metrics and KRI’s (Key Risk indicators) which update in real-time.
  • Enrich our data with information about our organisations so that we don’t just see IP addresses but we see the machine name, which application and service it supports and which manager owns it. Similarly we don’t just see usernames we see who the actual person is, which department they work in and who they report to. Even when users have many different username across platforms.
  • We can go back to our historic data and ask complex questions and we don’t just get summaries of the number of times someone did something but we can see the detail and context of actual individual events.
  • The ability to build workflows within the tool or better yet interface with external tools like ServiceNow or Remedy to allow trackable actions to be initiated.


I’m sure many of you reading this can think of other things you want from a SIEM tool, but those for me are the headlines. Writing them out like this gives us an opportunity to stop blindly buying a tool which claims to give us security monitoring but to look to see what is available. And perhaps we should broaden our horizons a little and stop thinking purely of the packaged toys which our security vendors push at us.

Well having done that at Barclays the answer came in a very unexpected place. The world of Big Data has many of the same problems and the guys who work in that space are solving them in a very different way to that which security vendors are currently taking. Instead of concentrating all of the data into a data warehouse they had a distributed map reduce approach. Data was distributed across many servers and when you query it your query is broken down and distributed as well. What a very simple but very good idea. In one fell swoop the key SIEM restriction is removed. Now we can scale horizontally almost indefinitely. We can also decide on what level of performance we need and simply scale the hardware to provide it. There are also some unexpected benefits, like the data can be kept close to the source, which takes a lot of strain away from WAN. Fantastic let’s get started!

Disaster! My chief requirement is not met; Hadoop and all these big data solutions are batch driven and not real time. Bang goes my alerting in real time. And my metrics and dashboards will update periodically not in real time. I’m a security guy, I need to react NOW! Not tomorrow… Oh well, back to SIEM I guess.

Enter the hero. Splunk; yes that’s right, that isn’t a misspelling, Splunk! Splunk does everything that I need my new Big Data security solution to do but it does it in real-time. I’m back in business. At this point I have to confess that a couple of members of my team told me I should be using Splunk and I resisted that call for a very long time before actually looking at it. What a fool I was because once I saw it running in a proof of concept with my data in it I knew that I had found the Information Security Holy Grail. To be honest if Splunk had solved half of my problems I would have bought it but it solved them all and some I didn’t know that I had.

Splunk’s Schema-on-the-fly approach meant that all of my frustrations about getting data in were gone as I just sent the data to it and let Splunk worry about everything else. This removed all of my problems around throwing data away that I later needed and it also meant my team could be a lot more agile about bringing new feeds in. I also cared far less about data format changes as in most cases Splunk just coped, particularly when new fields were introduced and a complete data format change just meant a new query, nothing on the front end needed to change. Oh and the ability to correlate data… I have seldom been so happy and finding that I can do it with historic data and not just the data passing through the system in real-time meant going back to see what I had missed was easy. I also had huge flexibility in rolling data out of my system which meant I actually needed less storage than with my old SIEM solution. Oh and bringing all that context data in to enrich my queries was as simple as bring the security feed in in the first place!

But far and away the best part was the powerful search language and the ability to build dashboards and analytics on top of that. With SIEM you tend to get what you are given when it comes to analytics and reporting but with Splunk you are only limited by your imagination. And because you can easily build on top of Splunk, everyone is, which means that there are about 450 ‘Apps’ you can download which are bundles of data extractions, searches and visualisations for a whole range of technologies  and scenarios. And get this, they are distributed as source, so if you have a particular problem which is almost but not quite met, download the Apps closes to it and adapt them. Splunk even has an App to make it look like a traditional SIEM.


Splunk had all of the Big Data advantages of scalability and size with all of the real-time promise which SIEM had never quite lived-up to.  It isn’t a security specific product, despite being propelled at high speed into the top right portion of the Gartner magic quadrant for security management. Splunk is The Platform for Machine Data, which means you can do anything with it. That in itself brings some interesting opportunities, because if you are an information security manager you have a pretty powerful remit to collect data. That data has a security context but it also has other contexts, most notably Infrastructure and application management. Once you have met you own requirements why don’t you invite your colleagues in Enterprise Management over to see what they could do with that data. I’m willing to bet they will have that ah-ha moment you did and then you have a friend for life. The days of begging them for their data will be over and they will be queuing up to give you data feeds.

The more eagle-eyed of you will have spotted that having left Barclays I now work for Splunk and will be tempted to cry foul; I’m just promoting the company I work for. Those of you with a more analytical mind might be tempted to wonder why I moved from a very senior, pensioned and secure role in a global bank to a small software company. Perhaps, just perhaps it was because I saw something which was such a game changer that being part of it was more important than being the Group Head of Security Services at one of the world’s largest banks. What do you think?

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