system logs (whiteMocca/


Security fundamentals: Log management

The majority of security practitioners and experts alike agree that establishing foundational security controls will give agencies the biggest security bang for their buck. So where should agencies or departments focus their efforts to ensure that strong foundation?


File integrity monitoring

Agencies that can shift their risk management perspective from a piecemeal approach to a holistic one focusing on integrity management will start seeing benefits that span security, compliance and IT operations. Read more.

Policy compliance

Policy compliance isn’t about the utility or value of what’s actually implemented; it’s about the process of assessment. Read more.

Vulnerability management

The process of reducing risk from vulnerabilities involves discovery, reporting and remediation. Read more.

There are four fundamentals at the heart of effective security: log management, file integrity monitoring, policy compliance and vulnerability management. In the first of a four-part series, we address log management.

The role of log management

Fundamentally, a log is a way for humans to see what a system has  been doing and are used by IT operations teams when troubleshooting an incident.

Log management for government agencies must be viewed within the broader context of security incident and event management  because SIEMs are rooted in log management. As the SIEM market has grown from collecting log data and correlating it with other data sources to delivering more analytical capabilities, it is powering the security analytics market, which in turn is driving new capabilities such as user behavior analytics and big data analytics tools.

The growing demand for analytics has created several very real challenges. Agencies where the centralized SIEM has traditionally been the single destination now must determine how to deliver the right data to the right destinations. Additionally, centralized analytics functions such as data access and expertise pose an internal challenge for individual departments that must retain access to detailed data for analysis, while simultaneously supporting delivery of data to centralized functions. Lastly, from a cost perspective, customers can find themselves paying for data that doesn’t need to be in the SIEM or paying for log storage instead of analytics.

These dynamics surrounding security analytics have placed new focus on the foundational control of log management -- specifically log collection, storage and forwarding -- and the need to reconsider best practices of log management as a critical security control.

There are three primary drivers for collecting log data in an agency: security, compliance and IT operations.

Security:  Security logging and analysis can help IT teams determine the location of attackers, identify malicious software and track activities on victim machines. "Even if the victims know that their systems have been compromised, without protected and complete logging records they are blind to the details of the attacks and to subsequent actions taken by the attackers," according to the Center for Internet Security. "Without solid audit logs, an attack may go unnoticed indefinitely and particular damages done may be irreversible."

In other words, if IT managers are not collecting, storing and analyzing log data for every asset in the organization, they will  have significant gaps in their cyber situational awareness.

TIP: While there are multiple frameworks that provide guidance on what controls to implement, any framework that references the National Institute of Standards and Technology's SP 800-53 has log management on its list of required controls.

Compliance:  In many cases, a log management investment is initially driven by compliance requirements, rather than by security. Most regulations including the Federal Information Security Management Act require some component of log management. In FISMA’s case, log management is defined by NIST in SP 800-53.

NIST 800-53 provides the most detailed exploration of log management requirements available, and it’s certainly the most applicable to government agencies. NIST 800-53's requirements for logging are listed in the Audit and Accountability section and include defining a process for collecting logs, what log events need to be captured, what detail needs to be included in captured events as well as retention guidance and response processes.

TIP: When looking at compliance standards, it’s valuable to consider not only which requirements are fulfilled by a log management tool, but also which are supported by those same tools.

IT operations:  The production of log data wasn’t originally intended for compliance or even security consumers, but for IT operations staff to let them know what a system (or many systems) have been doing. Without a log management system, IT staff must manually review the log data from each machine. A centralized log management system ensures those logs are all available in a single place and that they’re indexed and searchable, saving time and increasing accuracy.

A log management system can facilitate proactive identification of issues by alerting users to errors or degrading performance before the situation escalates. In order to do this, the log management system must be able to identify patterns over time and across systems that indicate an impending issue.

TIP: IT Operations teams that effectively use log management can reduce their manual effort and decrease outages and other incidents. 

Regardless of the initial driver (security, compliance or IT operations), log management plays a central role in facilitating effective cyber situational awareness across an agency or department and should be viewed as foundational to government security.

About the Author

Tim Erlin is VP of product management and strategy at Tripwire.

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