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Even SMBs Should Look To Log Management For Security

A firewall, patch procedure, anti-malware and, possibly, an IDS are a good start. But to detect breaches, small and medium businesses should focus on logging activity and looking out for suspicious behavior

For small and midsize businesses, having the basics of security in place is important: Every business, no matter what size, should have a firewall, a patch- or vulnerability-management process, anti-malware software, and possibly an intrusion detection -- or prevention -- system.

Yet those technologies aim to make the company's network more difficult to compromise. To detect actual breaches, companies need to turn to the logs. While log management has not historically been a major focus for SMBs, analyzing log data can help companies detect and investigate breaches, and are mandated by many compliance requirements.

Retaining and analyzing logs is about knowing what transpires inside the business' network, and companies of any size should look for ways to use that information, says Tim Mather, CISO for Splunk, the maker of the eponymous data-analysis tool.

"You have to have good log management because that is the definitive record of all the interactions between machines and humans," he says.

Companies need to make the most out of the security data they produce or else find themselves oblivious of any breach of their network. Yet most are. While more than two-thirds of attackers exfiltrate business data within hours, it take nearly two-thirds of companies months to detect the breach, according to the 2013 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report. And in seven out of 10 cases, the company is not the one to detect the breach -- an outsider does.

The problem for most companies is the time required to set up a reliable logging system and the knowledge needed to cull information from the log files, says Barry Kouns, president of Risk Based Security, a security consultancy and service provider.

"The systems can collect data really nicely, but the problem is how to interpret that information," he says.

While the largest companies have the security expertise to tailor their systems to their security needs, smaller firms generally do not. More often then not, compliance mandates -- especially the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) -- require that a company implement log retention and review them daily.

"These firms have to meet a requirement to capture their logs, yet a lot of these customers do not have a dedicated security team," says Andy Leach, product manager at AlertLogic, a maker of log-management products and services.

Small and midsize businesses should start by determining what systems need to be protected and what their log management policy will be, says Mark Seward, senior director of security and compliance marketing for Splunk. Most often, companies will be driven by compliance requirements, but they should not limit themselves, he says. While compliance requirements are a good way to spur the adoption of log management technologies, companies should focus on gaining awareness of the security events happening on their network.

[Straight-shooting advice -- and some out-of-the-box thinking -- on how smaller companies can save money on security while doing it better. See 5 Ways For SMBs To Boost Security But Not Costs.]

"Good security breeds good compliance and not the other way around -- compliance is the low bar," he says.

Next, business managers should determine whether they have the in-house expertise to run their own log management process. Playing around with Splunk, which is free for limited use, can be a good way to determine whether the collection and analysis of logs can be done with company staff, says Michael Gough, a senior security specialist at a 500-employee gaming company, which he asked not to be named. Gough uses the software to analyze the company's security data for signs of problems.

"Logging is an art and needs to be set up by someone who understands what to look for -- a security consultant -- so outsource this if you don't have in-house staff," he says.

Security information and event management (SIEM) products -- such as those from AlienVault and SolarWinds -- can help companies track information from logs, highlight security issues, and prioritize necessary fixes.

Finally, for the large number of SMBs whose information technology group does not have the time or in-house expertise, a cloud or managed service can help them develop a log-management strategy and then maintain the logs and report on security incidents.

"The critical part is that these systems don't run themselves, and there needs to be a level of care and maintenance to get information out of the service," says Risk Based Security's Kouns.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Robert Lemos is a veteran technology journalist of more than 16 years and a former research engineer, writing articles that have appeared in Business Week, CIO Magazine, CNET News.com, Computing Japan, CSO Magazine, Dark Reading, eWEEK, InfoWorld, MIT's Technology Review, ... View Full Bio

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