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📄 Contents

  1. Reporting
  2. Historical Analysis
  3. Real-Time Monitoring and Analysis
  4. Summary
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Real-Time Monitoring and Analysis

Thus far, our focus was on forensic or historical analysis of security data. Let's shift our focus slightly and take a look at how data on systems, and applications, can be monitored in real time (or near real time, to be accurate). The focus for real-time monitoring is to understand the current state of systems and applications, and presently ongoing tasks or events of interest. These events will obviously directly impact the current state and change it consequently. To communicate these properties, the current state, as well as current events, we use dashboards.


You have definitely seen and possibly used a dashboard before. Stephen Few in his book on information dashboard design10 defines a dashboard as follows:

  • A dashboard is a visual display of information needed to achieve one or more objectives which fits entirely on a single computer screen so it can be monitored at a glance.

This is a lot crammed into one sentence. However, all the individual components are important. I show you a little later how to put all the components in the definition to work. One of the key points that is not explicitly mentioned in the definition, but is implicitly covered under the topic of an objective, is the focus on building a dashboard for a specific audience. In other words, a dashboard should always have the exact use-cases and people looking at it in mind. In computer security, three main groups or types of dashboards are needed:

  • Operational: A dashboard used to track core processes, metrics, and status. It communicates low-level information at a glance and is used for real-time monitoring. The audience is security analysts in need of accurate real-time information.
  • Tactical: Used for tracking processes of departments, networks, states of machines, and so forth. It helps analyze exception conditions and summarizes data to analyze the root case of a problem. Managers of security operations or supervisors are often the audience for this dashboard.
  • Strategic: A dashboard that helps monitor the execution of strategic objectives. Trend visualizations are commonly found in these dashboards. The need for real-time information is relaxed. These dashboards are used to improve coordination and collaboration, and the audience generally includes the CISO, CSO, and other executives.

No matter what type of dashboard, one of the most common and important concepts is the concept of comparison. It is the capability to see trends and changes over time that should attract the attention of the viewer. This does not mean that only changes should be shown in dashboards. Often, it is the fact that some measure has not changed that makes it noteworthy. Table 5-2 shows some examples of comparative measures. Also shown in the table are examples of how these measures can be used and what type of dashboard would generally employ this measure.

Table 5-2. Dashboard Comparative Measures



Dashboard Type

Comparison against the same measure in the past

Number of attacks last year compared to today


The current state of a measure

Number of exposed vulnerabilities at present


The relationship to a future target that the measure should meet

Percentage of unpatched machines


A prediction of the measure established sometime in the past

Forecast of the cost to keep antivirus signatures current


The relationship to a future prediction of the measure

Percent of machines updated to a new operating system this quarter


A value reflecting the norm for this measure

Average number of failed logins per person, or the normal time ranges when people log in to their desktops, or the number of hours it takes on average to patch critical systems


Future prediction for a measure

Number of machines that need replacement in a year or the size of the user population in a month


A different version of the same measure

How the risk posture compares to other companies in the same industry


A related measure to compare with

Cost of running in-house security monitoring compared to the security and risk posture that would result if security monitoring were outsourced


As can be seen from Table 5-2, most comparative measures are useful for strategic dashboards. Tactical and, especially, operational dashboards more commonly use fixed measures to convey a state of a measure. Communicating states of a measure, as opposed to a comparative expression, can be done in many different ways. However, it is not only measurement or comparison that a dashboard is used for. A dashboard can help address a number of other objectives and goals. I mentioned aggregation and summarization of information in previous chapters. This means that various heterogeneous data sources are possibly combined into one single measure. The indicators from these devices are generally summarized to represent one single value or measure that presents the big picture. A more complicated process than simple summarization is the process of correlating information. We have discussed correlation at length in different places throughout this book. It is one of the main methods for helping to reduce the base information into manageable pieces that help trace and monitor the state of security. These are both passive means, but dashboards are also used for active tasks such as alerting. The dashboard should have the capability to quickly communicate measures that are out of their norm. It should alert and help focus the attention on the most important areas.

The consumer or viewer of a dashboard is often using it to predict future states. As always with predictive analysis, however, you have to really understand all the factors that can change a measure and weigh them against known or possible future changes of those. How are they going to change, and how in turn are they going to change the measure?

What is of utmost importance when designing a dashboard is that it is designed for the target audience. A CISO is not interested in the same measures as a security analyst. The analyst is likely interested in much more technical and operational detail, which the CISO generally doesn't have much interest in. He or she is going to be interested in aggregate measures and higher-level metrics. As a case study, let's identify what a CISO dashboard could look like.

The CISO Dashboard

I talked to a few CISOs about what they want to see on their dashboard. Interestingly enough, I got as many different answers as I interviewed people. On the other hand, there was definitely a common theme: "Show me when my crown jewels are at risk." Every company has a different set of crown jewels. For example, for the private bank in Geneva, Switzerland, it is the list of numbered accounts along with the information as to who their owners are. The other common theme is risk management. Ideally, they would like to see how much risk their information is exposed to. However, the way to measure and display the risk differs among all the CISOs. I got the many different answers mainly because every CISO has a slightly different role and corresponding responsibilities. Some of them are fairly technical and have no problem in engaging in detailed discussions about network devices and such. Those people usually tend to want more technical details on their dashboards. In contrast, some CISOs are not technical at all. They come more from the business side. For them, a dashboard that shows TCP port numbers and such is useless. You will find all possible profiles of CISOs between the two extremes I have outlined.

A CISO's job, no matter how technical he is or what his exact job description looks like, is to keep an organization's information secure. He is generally situated more on the business side than the technical side, although most people working for him are fairly technical. This has the effect that he will need a dashboard that aggregates and translates the technical details of information security into business metrics. Terms such as mean time to repair (MTR), threat, and exposure will definitely play an important role. So what does the CISO's dashboard look like? What information does it convey? Before we can answer these questions, we have to think about the goal, the purpose of such a dashboard. As mentioned previously, the CISO needs a knowledge management dashboard. He needs a way to see the current state of information security in his organization. The dashboard needs to aggregate and report on some key performance indicators (KPIs) that enable him to make informed business decisions based on facts and hard numbers, not on feelings and unfounded indicators. A dashboard needs to enable the CISO to take action so that security is managed to business expectations. More and more, the security organization is not viewed as a cost center but instead as a service that has to show business value. This clearly means that the technical inputs, the technical data collected by systems and devices, need to be translated into business, policy, and compliance requirements.

The information flow should not be unidirectional. The technical indicators are not only aggregated, summarized, and reported up to the CISO's dashboard, but the flow also works the other way around. The indicators collected will (or should) result in policy adjustments, process improvements, and new IT controls. The information flow should be a learning process that helps track exceptions to then improve security architectures and policies and enable management processes to be tuned.

These requirements merely give us a high-level idea of what the CISO will be interested in. It should be clear at this point that we should not list metrics such as the number of vulnerabilities on a host or the amount of free disk space on our critical servers. These are measures that are important for operational and technical dashboards. What are some measures that a CISO would find interesting? Compliance is one of the areas. This includes compliance with regulations, such as Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA, PCI, and so on, but it also means compliance with company policies. Another area is strategic risk management. What is the risk landscape surrounding critical company information? How efficient is the security department? Where is potential for improvement to simplify processes and make them more effective?

An important factor to always keep in mind is that a CISO has reporting responsibilities, too. He needs to justify his budget with the finance department and the board of directors. The board in turn would like to see how well the company complies with regulations and how risk is distributed across the organization. Although IT or informational risk is only a part of the total risk, it is an important factor in the overall risk equation.

So what does a CISO's dashboard look like? Figure 5-33 shows you!

Figure 5-33

Figure 5-33 A sample dashboard for a chief information security officer.

Note that for the dashboard in Figure 5-33, I am not going to discuss how to calculate the individual indicators. The risk calculation, for example, is not the topic of this chapter. It is the way the data is represented that is important. On the top left, you find an indicator of the overall current status of information security. If this traffic light is red, a critical incident is currently happening. This could be that a router absolutely critical for financial trading is down. Whether this is indeed a security problem is not important at this point. Every minute such a device is down costs the company a lot of money in lost productivity. It is important to investigate the possibility of a security breach at this point. The second traffic light indicates the risk associated with the "crown jewels." This light should always be green. If it starts turning orange or even red, the crown jewels are being exposed to a significant risk. In some cases, this means that the information is being accessed anomalously. This is important if you have, for example, a recipe for a beverage that is highly confidential. It could be that the integrity is at risk for information such as chemical compositions of materials or it could be that the availability of the core customer service is not guaranteed anymore, resulting in significant monetary losses for the company. However you map the most significant risk, this traffic light should represent the state of that risk.

On the top right of the dashboard, the dashboard shows how risk has developed over time. The same trend information is shown for the state of compliance. Compliance means how well the policies are implemented, assuming that the company actually has meaningful policies that also map to the regulatory mandates to which the company has to adhere, such as Sarbanes-Oxley for companies that are traded on the U.S. stock market. Again, I will not discuss how to map data into this chart. I am assuming that there is a way to map the compliance state into a number between 0 and 10, where 10 indicates perfect compliance.

An interesting way to use these two trends is to analyze the impact of external factors on the measures. For example, suppose you are running a security-awareness program. What effect does that program have on the risk exposure and the compliance behavior of your network? You will hope that the program has the effect that the risk decreases and the compliance measure increases. The nice thing about having a way to measure these indicators is that it suddenly is possible to document an impact on or an improvement in specific measures. This is incredibly useful when trying to justify investments or show how investments manifested themselves in the network.

The last graph in the CISO dashboard indicates the external threat. The three differently colored bars indicate the average threat year to date (light gray), month to date (dark gray) and today (black). We can see that this instance shows that generally there is a high threat level. This month was higher than the average year to date, but fortunately today seems to look slightly better than the rest of the month. Finally, the bottom part of the dashboard shows the top four critical problems that need companywide attention. Not all of them are pure security problems, but they do potentially have a security aspect to them. The color indicates the assessed impact of these incidents. All the other data about the incidents helps prioritize the mitigation efforts.

One other indicator that would be interesting for CISOs is a comparison of certain measures with other companies, either in the same industry or even across industries. For example, if a financial services company could compare its compliance state with other players in the industry, the outcome could be used to either justify the security budget or, if all the other companies are doing better, could be a means to get a bigger budget to catch up. The comparison is not at all an easy task because the measures need to be normalized. Merely comparing the number of critical incidents does not work. It starts with defining what a critical incident is. Each company would probably define this in a slightly different way. After defining critical incidents, the measure must be normalized based on the size of a company. Protecting 10,000 machines is a completely different endeavor than protecting 100. The number of incidents will likely differ significantly. However, having a capability to compare measures across companies would be interesting and useful.

Figure 5-33 is an example of a generic strategic dashboard. Independent of the company and its exact business, the dashboard can look the same. The definition of a tactical or operational dashboard, on the other hand, is dependent on the user of the dashboard, technical controls deployed, regulatory drivers, and so forth. I therefore refrain from defining such dashboards. If you are going to define your own dashboard, or you have a chance to influence how your own dashboard looks, here are some dashboard design principles that you might find interesting and helpful.

Dashboard Design Principles

The design of the dashboard in Figure 5-33 adheres to some simple design principles for dashboards. These design principles are universal, and all dashboards should follow them. The principles are as follows:

  • Use a single screen: As soon as the viewer has to scroll around to see all the information, he needs to interact with the dashboard, which is not desirable and is not always possible. Just think of the case where the dashboard is projected on a wall. There is no way of interacting with the display. Furthermore, scrolling makes the user lose focus and get lost. Also, make sure that there are no more than five elements on a dashboard. Users generally find more than five elements hard to digest.
  • Show the right amount of detail: Often, rounded numbers and values are easier to read and remember than exact values. Exact values might clutter and obfuscate important information.
  • Use simple graphs and designs: Make the dashboard visually attractive, but without unnecessary decorations, such as backgrounds, gauges, and so on. Use visual design principles so as to not overuse color and other visual properties (see Chapter 3).
  • Use the right graphs and charts for the information at hand: Use simple graphs and keep the variety to a minimum. The more of the same types of graphs that can be used, the simpler it is to read the dashboard. It is not just the choice of graphs but also how data is put in context and mapped to the graphs that is important. It is, for example, deceiving to start a bar chart at a value other than 0.
  • Provide enough context for the data: Showing a number that indicates 100 attacks year to date does not communicate much. What is it compared to? Is this a lot? What is the trend? All sorts of contextual information could be added such as the data for the previous year or industry numbers.
  • Highlight important data effectively: The most important data should be on the upper left of the dashboard. Use visualization theory to design the graphs. For example, the color red draws attention. You can use color to highlight exceptions.

These principles will ensure that a dashboard is not cluttered with unnecessary information and does not deteriorate to an expensive tool that nobody uses (because of difficulty interpreting it).

Unfortunately, I am not aware of a free tool that enables you to easily implement such a dashboard. One option is to use a library such as ChartDirector and build a dashboard from scratch. Some commercial solutions can help in this area, such as RTView from SL.11 The problem with most of these solutions is, however, that they need quite some tuning and they do not necessarily implement all the previously listed principles.

We have touched on a few interesting topics in this section. I alluded to security metrics a lot. How do you measure security or aspects of it? To keep the focus on visual analysis, I did not go into detail about how to measure individual components and have refrained from defining too many metrics. If interested, take a look at Andrew Jacquith's book Security Metrics (Addison-Wesley, 2007). It is a great book for those interested in the topic of security metrics. For in-depth discussions of dashboards and the visual design aspects of them, I can recommend Stephen Few's book Information Dashboard Design (O'Reilly, 2006).

Situational Awareness

One topic often mentioned in the context of dashboards is situational awareness or situation awareness. The term has its origin in the military and intelligence world. It often has a connotation of real time and geographical views. However, in the end, a situational awareness view is nothing other than a dashboard. An example is shown in Figure 5-34. Here, the geographic location of intrusion detection sensors is encoded on a map. Each intrusion detection event is painted as a little square block, stacked on top of each other. Different colors are used to encode the severities of the alerts.

Figure 5-34

Figure 5-34 A sample situational awareness dashboard showing the distribution of intrusion detection events across sensors deployed all over the United States.

The graphs in a situational awareness display are near real time to provide a current situational picture. This is useful when decisions need to be made based on the actual state at the very moment. The display in Figure 5-34 helps manage a set of IDS sensors, deployed all across the United States. An analyst can quickly make decisions based on which site is currently under attack and shift his focus and attention accordingly.

When do you use these types of dashboards, and why are they useful? Have you ever been in a position to make a decision and you wished you had a view into your data to know how all your individual business areas are doing? Does your boss keep asking you about the compliance status of all the machines in Europe? Or did you have to decide where in your network you wanted to introduce a new Web service first? All these scenarios and many more are in support of a situational picture of certain aspects of your data. Situational awareness is about being able to make better decisions based on available data. If you know that currently a lot of security incidents are being investigated in your New York location and the Munich office shows absolutely no activity, it is probably smart to introduce a new Web service in Munich first.

Situational awareness screens are frequently used in command centers and projected on the wall where everyone can see them. These screens are also useful for communicating certain properties to upper management. Imagine, as another example, a traffic light type of view that indicates whether all the vital services of your business are running correctly. This can be broken down into lights that represent each individual service. Those can be further broken down to show the supporting infrastructure that enables the service to work. Again, this is all familiar turf for us. It follows the paradigm of generic dashboards.

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