The Evolution of Threat Detection: Why XDR is Outpacing EDR and Signature-Based Systems

Extended detection and response (XDR) tools.

They’re a top choice at the moment, with many preferring them over endpoint detection response (EDR) or signature-based detection.

Why this preference? Is it time to completely ditch your EDR or signature-based detection systems? Let’s take a step back first and look at what each has to offer.

Signature-based detection relies on known patterns of malware to identify threats. As you may have guessed, it’s ineffective against new threats and against polymorphic malware that will change its code to evade detection.

EDR tools continuously monitor and respond to threats on endpoints—laptops, desktops, mobile devices, etc. They detect anomalies using behavioral analysis and they offer capabilities for incident response, like forensic analysis and remediation.

EDR tools are powerful, but since they’re limited to endpoints, they can leave your systems with a pretty big blind spot, as they don’t offer security across the entire network.

This gets us to XDR tools. They are similar to EDR tools but cover multiple security layers, including servers, networks, and the cloud. Usually, these tools will provide advanced analytics, cross-layer threat correlation, unified data collection, and automated threat response, so that you’re always one step ahead of potential attacks.

They may not be infallible—sadly, no security measure truly is—but their broader visibility and detection and higher efficiency make them a better solution in most cases.

Despite the pros and cons, each method may still find its place in the right context. Let’s explore them one by one.

Signature-based detection tools

Signature-based detection is the foundation of intrusion detection systems (IDS). But is it also dead? Not quite, though most systems will require something more complex.

Signature-based detection identifies threats by comparing data against known malware signatures.

They’re simple to use and can detect threats rather quickly. Each malware comes with a unique string of data. When that string corresponds to a known malicious code, the detection system can easily block it. Because of this, signature-based methods are also highly accurate.

Plus, they consume little resources, so if you’re working with a system with limited processing power, signature-based detection systems can be a good solution.

However, these detection systems also have serious limitations.

They can’t detect unknown threats or polymorphic malware. Given the speed at which cyber threats evolve, this is a huge blind spot that can leave your systems vulnerable to attacks.

Signature-based detection tools provide no behavioral analysis. They work strictly by comparing the files at hand with the database of known threats, but don’t look at how these threats behave. That means they can’t spot patterns of an incoming attack, like unusual file access or network activity.

Signatures may require little system resources, but they require a lot of effort to maintain. You need to constantly update them with new threats to ensure their effectiveness, which can often become a significant burden on your security team.

Finally, these methods are generally limited to files and cannot help with network or endpoint security.

EDR tools

Endpoint detection response (EDR) tools provide an answer to the severe limitations of signature-based methods.

They continuously monitor end-user devices to detect and respond to cyber threats. The term was coined by Anton Chuvakin in 2013, with EDR tools becoming increasingly popular in 2014.

Before, most companies relied on classic antiviruses or signature-based solutions. What changed? In 2014, a Symantec executive explained in an interview in the New York Times that antivirus solutions were about 49% ineffective. That admission from one of the biggest companies in this sector led many to make the switch to EDR.

So, how exactly do EDR tools help?

  • They can automatically detect stealthy attackers. By monitoring endpoints, they can detect an attack right as it happens, before it does any damage to your systems. This may not seem like a lot now, but back then it was a huge improvement compared to signature-based tools that scanned the system at pre-defined intervals.
  • They apply behavioral analysis, which means they can detect zero-day threats and sophisticated attacks signature-based tools may miss.
  • They have incident detection and response capabilities and can isolate compromised endpoints and facilitate quick remediation.
  • They can be integrated with other security tools for even broader protection.

Despite all these benefits, EDR tools are slowly but surely being replaced with XDR tools. Here’s where EDR is failing.

  • They only protect endpoint devices. Anything beyond that is past their visibility point. That means your network, cloud, and email are vulnerable if you only use EDR tools.
  • Their threat-detection rules are static. While they can detect attacks in real time, they are still limited to a known set of rules, which leaves them vulnerable to newer attacks.
  • They often send a high volume of low-fidelity alerts, which can overwhelm security teams, leaving real attacks undetected.
  • They process and store large amounts of data. That comes with a need for increased storage capacity. But it also brings data privacy concerns, as you’ll need to make sure the processing is compliant with privacy regulations like the GDPR.
  • EDR tools are expensive. From software licensing, to initial setup and maintenance, the costs of using EDR tools will add up quicker than you’d expect.

XDR tools

Extended detection and response tools (XDR) can monitor threats across multiple layers, such as networks, servers, the cloud, emails, and, of course, endpoint devices.

Gartner defines XDR tools as a “unified security incident detection and response platform that automatically collects and correlates data from multiple proprietary security components.”

They close the many gaps left by both signature-based and EDR tools and can reduce the risk of cyber-attacks significantly.

They offer visibility across your entire IT environment. This holistic view makes it easier to detect threats and respond accordingly.

XDR tools use machine learning, advanced analytics, and AI to look at your data. This makes them perfect at finding sophisticated threats that would most likely evade single-layer security solutions.

They have a lower volume of false positives, reducing the alert fatigue your security team would likely experience with EDR.

XDR tools respond to threats faster, blocking malicious traffic, isolating compromised systems, or applying patches. And because everything is centralized on one platform, the security team doesn’t need to waste time switching between tools, which again reduces the response time in case of an attack.

Another huge advantage XDR tools offer is scalability. Nobody wants to invest in a new security solution every time they upgrade their systems. Previous tools would have often needed serious upgrades to keep up with your company’s growth. XDR tools, on the other hand, offer much-needed flexibility and can meet a wide range of security requirements.

Last but not least, XDR tools can detect hidden tools and have improved forensic capabilities. They analyze detailed logs and contextual data and can find the root cause of an incident faster and minimize its impact than any other tool.

Switching to XDR—dos and don’ts

XDR may offer amazing benefits compared to EDR. Sadly, switching from one to the other may be easier said than done. You need to do a lot more than “push a button” or install some new software.

Done wrong, this transition can cause huge disruptions to your workflow and provides the perfect opportunity for cyber attackers to get a hold of your data.

What to do to ensure a smooth transition? These are some best practices.

  • Assess readiness and the current security level. Start with an inventory of your EDR deployment—policies, use cases, integrations, and anything else that comes into play. Identify gaps and think about how XDR may cover them.
  • Define your requirements and start designing the ideal architecture. Determine what the most important use cases for XDR are for your company and which data resources you’ll need to access.
  • Select an XDR platform. There are many options to choose from, but factors to consider should include integration capabilities, ease of use, performance, compatibility with your existing systems, and even vendor reputation.
  • Deploy incrementally. Don’t try to do it all at once or you’ll create more problems than solutions. First, use your XDR tool alongside the EDR one. This will give you better visibility and you’ll make sure your new tool doesn’t leave any blind spots. Then, start shifting towards exclusive XDR usage, one use case at a time, until you can safely retire your old EDR system.
  • Before you can switch 100%, don’t forget to redefine any policies and procedures in place. Define the responsibility of each person on the team clearly, without leaving anything to chance.

Once everything is in place, don’t forget to monitor continuously, monitoring against KPIs, and providing sufficient training for your team.

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