SIEM vs SOAR – two security tools for protecting your organization

Security information and event management (SIEM) tools collect, store, and correlate logs and events to detect, investigate, and report security incidents within an organization. They are also needed to provide information to ensure regulatory compliance and act as the monitoring and detection centers.

Gartner defines security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) as solutions that combine incident response, orchestration and automation, and threat intelligence platform management capabilities into a single solution. They connect separate security devices to respond to cyber-incidents quickly and by following the correct sequence of operations. These systems also reduce manual intervention, leading to decreased incident response time and reduced effort.

Although SIEM and SOAR tools have common capabilities, they cover the need for different functions in the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. SIEM tools focus on the Identify and Detect functions, while SOAR emerged to address the Respond function, which was lacking in SIEM tools. This means that SOAR tools do not replace SIEM tools; they complement them.

This article aims to show the areas where SIEM and SOAR are either similar or different and how they can be used together.

Summary of key SIEM and SOAR differences

The following table shows the key differences between SIEM and SOAR applications.

Dimension SIEM SOAR
Scope Identify and Detect Respond
Security information management Core functionality Not focused
Security event management Creating alerts via log correlation Receiving alerts for incident response

Ensuring visibility to case management

Incident response Can inform SOC personnel and provide limited automation Core functionality
Automation Limited automation Core functionality
Forensic analysis Done through logs Done via API with forensic tools
Threat intelligence  Updates IOC databases Triages alerts

Feeds security devices

Creates alerts

Machine learning  Used for detection Used for process automation, playbook creation, and workflow enhancement 
Organizational fit Most organizations can use it Having a mature security posture provides the most benefits

SIEM vs. SOAR in-depth

In this part of the article, we will compare SIEM and SOAR tools and provide examples to illustrate the differences.

Scope

SIEM tools focus on the Identify and Detect functions of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. Continuous monitoring and detection capabilities make SIEM a significant part of the detection function of the framework. Collecting and maintaining the log information also helps the organization with information governance.

NIST Cybersecurity Framework functions and categories

NIST Cybersecurity Framework functions and categories

SOAR tools focus on the Respond function of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. With core functionalities like orchestration, automation, and incident management, it is an essential part of the response function of the framework.

Security information management

Security information management is the collection of security-related logs in a central repository for long-term storage to provide analysis and reporting. This process is required for observability and compliance requirements and is one of the core functions of SIEM. SIEM tools collect logs from various sources and store them to provide confidentiality, integrity, and availability.

SOAR tools are not focused on the collection of data for such purposes. SOAR tools receive alerts from SIEM and other security applications and then collect security logs applicable to these alerts.

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Security event management

Security event management is the real-time analysis of security-related logs to detect security anomalies. SIEM tools correlate and analyze the collected logs with rule-based and machine-learning functionalities to detect security incidents. Detected incidents are reported to related personnel. The security incident is investigated within the SIEM or through a third-party ticketing system manually.

SOAR tools receive real-time alerts to respond to them. They enrich incoming alerts with additional information before creating a response or directly respond to an alert from another security tool, such as a SIEM. They run a defined playbook prepared for the incident, and notify related personne with a clear view of what has been done, and what will happen next..

Incident response

In general, SIEM focuses on the Detect part of the cybersecurity framework. When SIEM tools detect the incident, they can notify the related personnel. In addition, they can also trigger other security tools through API or scripting in a limited way. 

The lack of response capabilities in SIEM led to the creation of SOAR tools. Because automation and incident response are the core abilities of SOAR, these solutions can interact with various security tools through both APIs and scripting. You can create a playbook with many steps, where one step triggers the next. You can see the results of the steps and observe the status of the process; you can also trigger a step or the whole playbook manually if required.

Automation

SIEM has limited automation capabilities after an alert triggers. SIEM tools can create and execute scripts, but this capability can be useful only for one-step automation. 

In contrast, SOAR adopts automation as a core ability and provides built-in API support, advanced scripting capabilities, and visibility through automation processes. With SOAR, orchestrating security devices and ensuring fast incident response is accomplished with reduced manual intervention.

Forensic analysis

After a security incident, it is necessary to determine the root cause. SIEM can be used to conduct historical analyses through logs. You can search the network connection, user interaction, and other security events related to the incident through the logs that SIEM collects.

SOAR can gather information through several sources, such as forensic tools, threat intelligence platforms, and SIEM tools, and it can automate the data collection part of forensic analysis. You can collect log information, memory and disk images, and the reputation scores of several components concurrently–reducing data collection time significantly.

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Threat intelligence

SIEM uses threat intelligence to update its indicator of compromise (IOC) databases to detect recent malicious activities. SIEM tools analyze logs to find those IOCs and create alerts if malicious activity is detected.

SOAR tools use threat intelligence in different ways. 

First, they can use threat intelligence platforms for triaging alerts. Sometimes IOCs are detected maliciously in some, but not all, detection engines. For example, an alert may be triggered for an IP address, and you can double-check the IP address to see if it is malicious. To reduce false positives you could decide for example, that if a score of an IP address is under 10/87 in a VirusTotal query, to mark it as a false positive and do nothing. You can also check the IP address from different threat intelligence providers in a single playbook and decide what to do based on a combination of the results.

Playbook example for double-checking an IP address before feeding security devices.

Playbook example for double-checking an IP address before feeding security devices.

SOAR tools can use threat intelligence platforms to feed other security services that can consume those IOCs. 

SOAR tools can also automatically respond to threat intelligence feeds. Credential leakage (username and password) alerts for your company can be received from threat intel, and you can automate disabling the user as soon as the credential info arrives.

Machine learning

SIEM tools use machine learning to enhance their detection capabilities. They can use shallow and deep learning models to detect or predict malicious activities or anomalies that rule-based correlations cannot detect. They also detect anomalies through user behavior analytics. They can use machine learning on a single log source, a collection of the same or different log sources together.

SOAR tools use machine learning to optimize processes, detect incident similarities, and enhance their triage capabilities. A new alert can be compared to similar alerts that happened in the past and can be marked as a false positive due to the actions taken on the past incidents. An alert can be assigned to the most appropriate analyst, and incident response time can be optimized. SOAR tools can also use Natural Language Processing (NLP) algorithms to extract entities from structured or unstructured data.

Organizational fit

The most important factor determining cybersecurity effectiveness is the quality of the security team. Security devices do not work effectively by default: Tools must be fine-tuned to meet the organization’s needs and culture, and some security tools can be adopted more easily than others.

SIEM tools can be adopted more easily than SOAR. Installing SIEM agents to log sources, creating connections between clients and servers, parsing the logs, and creating correlations for the organization’s needs are not easy. However, this is still easier than it is with SOAR tools. 

SOAR tools need a cybersecurity culture that is mature both in terms of processes and personnel. You cannot automate a scenario without defining it. Defining an incident response scenario depends on the security personnel’s situational awareness, inventory knowledge, workflow definition capability, and creativity. Default playbooks and API integrations help reduce the need for preconfiguration, but as mentioned before, SOAR benefits are positively correlated with personnel and process maturity.

When to use SIEM vs. SOAR

While SOAR needs a mature cybersecurity environment to get the most of it, there is no clear dividing line indicating when it does or does not make sense to use either. Organizations can determine the right approach based on their own individual use cases.

Needs hierarchy for SIEM and SOAR

Needs hierarchy for SIEM and SOAR

When to use SIEM

SIEM resides in a more fundamental place within security architecture; its duty as the monitoring center in SOCs preserves its importance. The need to provide the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of security logs is effectively accomplished by SIEM tools. Organizations with the need for this functionality require SIEM.

When to automate SIEM

The need to automate tasks and processes emerges after establishing SIEM efficiently. SIEM tools provide limited automation through scripts that are effective in one-step automation(for example blocking an IP from a firewall and disabling a domain user). It is possible to create multiple automations in a row using a script. However, the visibility of each step, the dashboard requirement for the automation process, and information regarding each step make multi-step automation inapplicable for SIEM tools.

When to use SIEM and SOAR

Once an organization determines when to use SIEM and how to set up SIEM automation, a need may arise for multi-step automation. This is the right time for using SIEM and SOAR together. Getting the correlation results from SIEM, triaging them, removing false positives, taking actions for each scenario, visualizing them through dashboards, and seeing the next step in the playbook is made possible through SIEM and SOAR collaboration.

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Effectively automate alert triage and response

Expedite repetitive security tasks and focus on high-priority threats

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Conclusion

As cybersecurity threats continue to grow more complex, new tools and solutions are emerging to mitigate those threats. The need for continuous monitoring led to the creation of SIEM, and the need for fast response necessitated SOAR tools. They are complementary tools. As an organization’s cybersecurity posture matures, SOAR and SIEM become fundamental parts of its cybersecurity architecture. You can learn more about the capabilities of a cloud-based SIEM solution here, and see specific examples of SOAR functionality on this page.

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