Security Manager's Journal: Giving thanks for SIEM

This tool helps with a lot more than telling you at a glance about the threats you face

The holidays are upon us once again. Traditionally, this means it's a time to be thankful for what we have. I, for one, am thankful for my SIEM.

Some (such as AT&T and EMC/RSA) say that "SIEM" stands for security "incident" and event management, others (like Unisys and McAfee) say it's security information and event "monitoring," and others (e.g., Qualys and FishNet) go with security "incident" and event "monitoring." I call it security information and event management, and it's at the core of my security strategy.

What's in a name? The one word that's common to the various nomenclatures is "security," because these technologies are used by security professionals to gain visibility into many disparate data sources that form a complete picture of what's happening on the network. And as the saying goes, you can't secure what you can't see. I prefer the description with "information" in the name, rather than "incident," because all those data sources allow us to see more than just alerts. Like the dashboard of a car, we can observe how our network and computer resources are being used at any given time and make predictions about what could happen next. And in the same context, I prefer the term "management" versus "monitoring," because we use the information to govern our actions and decisions. Thus, to me, SIEM is all about security information and event management.

Earlier this year, I mentioned that I was looking into upgrading my SIEM. The inexpensive product I had been using up to that point had reached its end of life, so I was more or less forced to move to a new platform. My search led me to a wonderful product that is very affordable and yet very powerful. I wasn't the only one to discover this diamond in the rough -- it's the highest-rated SIEM product in both feature performance and overall vendor performance in reviews by well-known organizations. Other products are also good in other respects, but they require more money upfront or more work to configure, and I needed something that worked right out of the box within my limited budget.

After sending my IDS alerts to the new SIEM, I added additional information like firewall logs (including allowed and denied traffic). I also sent my server logs to the SIEM (including things like login successes and failures). Combining these with network flow data and other statistical information, my SIEM grew very powerful indeed.

I'm very pleased with the result. I now have a fully operational security management platform with a dashboard that lets me see at a glance what threats I need to be concerned about, and whether I'm at risk at any given time. Now that my SIEM has been in operation for several months, I've become completely dependent on it, not only for security monitoring, but also for overall awareness of my network. Now, when system administrators complain that "the network is slow" or "traffic is being blocked," I can quickly prove whether my firewalls and security devices are at fault, or the problem lies elsewhere. For example, last week I had to contend with a disgruntled network administrator who was certain that my firewall was slowing down the network. A quick search on my SIEM led me to the real culprit -- a branch office in which several employees were downloading streaming video of a sporting event. That's real power -- having the right information at your fingertips.

I love my SIEM, but I don't have a large staff to monitor it and I don't have a 24/7 operation. So what do I do about off hours? Last year around this time, I wrote about how I was considering signing up with a managed service to manage my SIEM alerts. I did end up signing up with a monitoring service, initially on my previous SIEM platform and subsequently on the new one. However, it really didn't measure up to my expectations. So I traded it in for a new monitoring service, which is slowly improving, with lots of input and guidance from me and my staff. But so far, I haven't found a professional monitoring service that can emulate the performance of me and my team. I guess that goes to show you really need to care about something to be good at it.

In any case, I've found that there's no substitute for good information and visibility into the network, when it comes to security. And for that, I'm grateful.

This week's journal is written by a real security manager, "J.F. Rice," whose name and employer have been disguised for obvious reasons. Contact him at

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