Enterprise

Cybersecurity hype keeps building around XDR. So does confusion.

Proponents say that extended detection and response services have huge potential for improving security for customers – if only top industry players could agree on what XDR actually is.

An illustration of a shield deflecting a ray of light

XDR is now a focal point for virtually every major vendor in the security industry.

Illustration: Golden Sikorka/iStock/Getty Images Plus

In mid-2018, Nir Zuk, the founder and CTO of Palo Alto Networks, took the stage at a company event and introduced the world to a new type of cybersecurity product. In the four years since, his concept, which he dubbed "XDR," has swept through the industry. It's now a focal point for virtually every major vendor in the security industry.

In a recent interview, Zuk did not sound happy about the whole thing. Not at all.

XDR, which stands for "extended detection and response," revolves around the premise that security is most effective when all the data from across a customer’s IT environment can be correlated and analyzed together as a whole. It aims to accomplish this feat by bringing together all of a customer's systems and cybersecurity tools into a unified, integrated platform.

Certainly, the cybersecurity industry is notorious for its buzzwords and acronyms. But XDR is not your average security acronym: If you believe the leaders of many top players in the industry, XDR could be the architecture of the future for cybersecurity.

XDR is "the way to actually prevent damage from breaches, and the way to scale and deeply automate security with a scarce talent pool," said Wendy Thomas, president and CEO of Secureworks, which heavily focuses on XDR.

According to proponents, embracing an XDR-based approach can address many of the pressing issues that security teams face: the overload in alerts, difficulty in prioritizing threats, tool sprawl. As IT gets more complex, "it's becoming harder and harder for humans to operate cybersecurity," Zuk said.

However, he is far from thrilled with how others have adapted his idea. There are too many varying uses and misuses out there right now for “XDR” as a term — and in many cases, it's just a new label slapped on old products, Zuk argued.

"I think XDR, today, is just a term that different vendors use differently," he said, acknowledging that XDR has joined a long line of enterprise tech terms that have devolved into nebulous buzzwords.

Still, the high level of attention around XDR makes the confusion in the market a bigger issue than it might normally be. XDR is expected to see surging adoption in the coming years, with Gartner forecasting that 40% of organizations will be deploying the technology by 2027, up from 5% as of last fall.

"XDR is definitely something that we recommend organizations look into," said Patrick Hevesi, a vice president and analyst at Gartner, thanks to its ability to integrate more data feeds into detection and response efforts.

Thinking like a hacker

XDR aims to detect security issues across entire IT environments because that's how attackers operate: Hackers get inside one system operated by an organization, then move around to others during the course of an attack.

As the thinking goes, if you just look at the endpoint — or network, application or cloud infrastructure — you're only going to see a slice of what an attacker is doing. If you can view everything together, as XDR seeks to, then you have a better shot at stopping attacks such as ransomware at an early stage.

In other words, XDR is the security industry's answer to many of the questions that customers are asking as they grapple with an increasingly complex set of environments in 2022.

Most XDR vendors agree on all these reasons for why the approach is so promising. But from there, the question of how to define XDR gets more contentious.

"I firmly believe it's one of the most misused or abused terms in the industry," said Michael Sentonas, CTO at CrowdStrike, which made its name on endpoint detection and response (EDR) and announced its expansion into XDR last fall.

It's notable that so many of the biggest players in the industry are moving aggressively to offer some version of an XDR platform. In addition to CrowdStrike and Secureworks, Microsoft, SentinelOne, Mandiant, Trellix, Sophos, Cisco and VMware are among those who've joined Palo Alto Networks on the list of XDR platform vendors.

As of this writing, Protocol has identified 34 security vendors that are marketing XDR products, and there are likely many more. (The figure also excludes providers of managed XDR services.)

But at this stage, there is little agreement among industry players about what constitutes a "true" XDR — leaving it up to customers to figure out what's what.

"It's hard to talk about the term ‘XDR,’ because every organization defines it the way that they want. And industry analysts have not yet solidified, as a group, what the definition of XDR is," said Mandiant CTO Marshall Heilman.

Extending to new areas

When Zuk first revealed his notion of XDR four years ago, he chose the terminology to make a specific point: EDR, or endpoint detection and response, is not sufficient because attackers don't just target the endpoint. The same problem applies to detection tools just focused on the network, cloud or applications. In Zuk's original definition of XDR, the "X" stood for "anything" — as in, any type of system that a threat actor might leverage in an attack.

However, according to the consensus today, the “X” stands for "extended." As in, detection and response that extends past any one environment.

The industry's conception of XDR has also evolved in ways that are more consequential. For one thing, many vendors now offer XDR-branded products that also leverage data from third-party tools.

Platforms that use data from multiple vendors' tools are now commonly referred to as "open" or "hybrid" XDR. Offerings that use data from a single vendor's tools — such as Palo Alto Networks, Microsoft or Cisco — have come to be known as "native" XDR.

Both native and open XDR approaches can have their advantages, though much depends on how the vendor sets things up, said Forrester Analyst Allie Mellen. Open XDR is touted as offering the flexibility to leverage existing security tools, bringing together data feeds from the products that customers have already invested in.

But that apparent advantage of open XDR could actually be a downside if the third-party tools are not integrated effectively, Mellen said.

"I question whether or not the detection quality is going to remain high, if they're just developing integrations willy-nilly and trying to support as many as possible," she said. The purpose of XDR is to better tailor and curate the experience for the security team, so managing integrations well is critical. "It has to be done with intentionality," Mellen said.

Ultimately, she is hesitant to say that open XDR is generally superior to native XDR. Some native XDR vendors have gained reputations for providing high-value detections, "because they know and understand everything in the environment," Mellen said. "They know all of the telemetry that's coming in. And they choose what telemetry is coming in. So I think it's a bit of a trade-off."

A related issue with open XDR is that, essentially, no single vendor is accountable for the security outcome from the use of the platform, said Frank Dickson, group vice president for Security and Trust at IDC.

If a customer chooses to secure their environment with an XDR platform that ties together tools from disassociated vendors via APIs, then the customer is accountable, Dickson said.

"That's one of the shortcomings of open XDR," he said. "By open XDR, what that fundamentally says is, the customer owns the outcome. The vendor doesn't own the outcome."

'Not being honest'

Zuk argues that there's an even bigger problem with open XDR. Such platforms give the impression that they can leverage data that they don't actually have, he says.

For instance, Palo Alto Networks is among the largest network security vendors, but "none of these [open XDR] vendors is using our data," Zuk said.

Ultimately, open XDR vendors "are not being honest when they say that they have the third-party data," he said. All of which means that the results for attack detection and response are inevitably going to be "sub-optimal," according to Zuk.

Wall panels reading "Singularity XDR Platform" "[The XDR] buzz is outpacing the market," said Andrew Maloney, co-founder and COO at cybersecurity firm Query.AI.Photo: Kyle Alspach/Protocol

An executive at another prominent native XDR vendor, Microsoft, made a similar point. Rob Lefferts, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365 Security, said that to be effective with XDR, "you have to actually deeply know the tool that you are investigating — you can't just dump in a bunch of data."

To Lefferts, the concept of open XDR seems to be no different than that of security information and event management (SIEM). And indeed, analysts have noted that a number of SIEM vendors have simply rebranded their products as XDR.

"I look at open XDR, and I'm like, 'Oh, you mean a SIEM? Is that what an open XDR is?'" Lefferts said.

Not surprisingly, executives at major providers of open XDR platforms would disagree.

While some open XDR platforms do have their origins as a SIEM, that's not universally true, said Secureworks Chief Product Officer Steve Fulton. His company touts its open XDR platform as being "purpose-built" for running detection and response across multiple environments.

Open XDR recognizes that most customers do not have tools from just one vendor in their environment and will prefer to leverage their existing investments, Fulton said. Most customers do not want to have to "rip and replace" their security tool set just to use XDR, according to Fulton.

"If you're a native XDR vendor and you're saying, 'You have to have our stack in order to get value out of XDR,' you're going to be pretty narrow in your scope. You're going to miss some things with that approach," Fulton said. "My view is, that approach is going to die away over time."

With an open approach to XDR, on the other hand, "we firmly believe it drives the best security outcomes for our customers," he said. "It's going to give you the widest possible aperture."

Endpoint advantage

At Trellix, the company formed through the merger of McAfee Enterprise and FireEye, CEO Bryan Palma pointed to XDR as the vendor's biggest opportunity looking ahead. The company's core strategy following its rebranding announcement in January has been seeking to become the leading player in XDR, in fact, by integrating both native tools and an open XDR approach.

XDR is "not next-gen SIEM. It's not next-gen endpoint [security]. It's broader. It's a platform,” Palma said. "It's bringing together your capabilities to create a next-level architecture — which is very different than, 'This is the next SIEM.’”

That being said, there are certain elements that any XDR provider should be expected to offer, namely, endpoint detection and security operations capabilities, according to Palma.

"I just don't know how you're a viable player [in XDR] if you don't have an endpoint," he said. "I think to be a true XDR, you've got to have endpoint capabilities."

In terms of security operations, XDR should be able to automatically correlate security issues detected across different environments and present the findings to security analysts for further investigation, Palma said.

CrowdStrike's Sentonas goes a step further in his criteria for what constitutes true XDR: Not only should XDR be able to cut across all of a customer's environments, but there should be essentially no difference between the data coming in from different vendors' tools, allowing for detections that work effectively regardless of the data source.

"The problem we believe we should be solving with XDR is not to just bring in third-party data, but to actually do something meaningful with it, and that is to focus on automated detections," Sentonas said.

Doing this entails a concerted effort around ensuring that the security data "all works the same. It all looks the same. The language between all the vendors, if you will, is exactly the same," he said. The benefit is that machine learning models "should work the same way on another vendor's data as it does on ours."

Many XDR vendors, however, are not treating the data in this way, so they can't extend all of their native detection and response capabilities to third-party tools, Sentonas said.

Automated response

A number of XDR vendors fall short when it comes to the "response" portion of extended detection and response, according to Nicholas Warner, president of Security at SentinelOne.

"That is the difference between XDR and SIEM," Warner said. "Anyone can generate an alert. Not just anyone can actually orchestrate a response — and then make that an automatic response and an effective response."

And that is where endpoint detection and response vendors have a natural advantage over "pure-play" XDR vendors, he said.

"In which way could a pure-play XDR vendor do execution control on a system as a response? And the answer would be, they wouldn't be able to," Warner said. "And that's pretty big. Because that is the 'R' in XDR."

Marketing about XDR was ubiquitous at the RSA Conference in San Francisco earlier this month. The only serious rival for the biggest buzzword at the conference was "zero trust" — which, like XDR, lacks an agreed-upon definition by the security industry.

But compared to zero trust, which is widely understood to be more of an architectural concept, XDR is actually a product in some cases. Increasingly, it's also being offered as a managed service, given the shortage of available security professionals to operate an XDR platform.

Andrew Maloney, co-founder and COO at cybersecurity firm Query.AI, which does not offer an XDR platform, said he thinks the idea of taking down silos between data and tying all systems together is the right goal for cybersecurity as a whole.

But whether you're talking about a "native" or "open" approach to XDR, "the buzz is outpacing the market," Maloney said.

"Now every big player claims an XDR capability,” he said, “whether they have it or not."

Every day, millions of us press the “order” button on our favorite coffee mobile application. When we arrive at the coffee shop, we expect that our chosen brew will be on the counter a few minutes later. It’s a personalized, seamless experience that we have all come to expect. What we don’t know is what’s happening behind the scenes. The mobile application is sourcing data from a database that stores information about each customer and what their favorite coffee drinks are. It is also leveraging event-streaming data in real time to ensure the ingredients for your personal coffee are in supply at your local store.

Applications like this power our daily lives, and if they can’t access massive amounts of data stored in a database as well as streaming data “in motion” instantaneously, you, and millions of customers, won’t have the in-the-moment experiences we all expect.

Keep Reading Show less
Jennifer Goforth Gregory
Jennifer Goforth Gregory has worked in the B2B technology industry for over 20 years. As a freelance writer she writes for top technology brands, including IBM, HPE, Adobe, AT&T, Verizon, Epson, Oracle, Intel and Square. She specializes in a wide range of technology, such as AI, IoT, cloud, cybersecurity, and CX. Jennifer also wrote a bestselling book The Freelance Content Marketing Writer to help other writers launch a high earning freelance business.
Policy

How the internet got privatized and how the government could fix it

Author Ben Tarnoff discusses municipal broadband, Web3 and why closing the “digital divide” isn’t enough.

The Biden administration’s Internet for All initiative, which kicked off in May, will roll out grant programs to expand and improve broadband infrastructure, teach digital skills and improve internet access for “everyone in America by the end of the decade.”

Decisions about who is eligible for these grants will be made based on the Federal Communications Commission’s broken, outdated and incorrect broadband maps — maps the FCC plans to update only after funding has been allocated. Inaccurate broadband maps are just one of many barriers to getting everyone in the country successfully online. Internet service providers that use government funds to connect rural and low-income areas have historically provided those regions with slow speeds and poor service, forcing community residents to find reliable internet outside of their homes.

Keep Reading Show less
Aditi Mukund
Aditi Mukund is Protocol’s Data Analyst. Prior to joining Protocol, she was an analyst at The Daily Beast and NPR where she wrangled data into actionable insights for editorial, audience, commerce, subscription, and product teams. She holds a B.S in Cognitive Science, Human Computer Interaction from The University of California, San Diego.
Fintech

How I decided to exit my startup’s original business

Bluevine got its start in factoring invoices for small businesses. CEO Eyal Lifshitz explains why it dropped that business in favor of “end-to-end banking.”

"[I]t was a realization that we can't be successful at both at the same time: You've got to choose."

Photo: Bluevine

Click banner image for more How I decided series

Bluevine got its start in fintech by offering a modern version of invoice factoring, the centuries-old practice where businesses sell off their accounts receivable for up-front cash. It’s raised $240 million in venture capital and about $700 million in total financing since its founding in 2013 by serving small businesses. But along the way, it realized it was better to focus on the checking accounts and lines of credit it provided customers than its original product. It now manages some $500 million in checking-account deposits.

Keep Reading Show less
Ryan Deffenbaugh
Ryan Deffenbaugh is a reporter at Protocol focused on fintech. Before joining Protocol, he reported on New York's technology industry for Crain's New York Business. He is based in New York and can be reached at rdeffenbaugh@protocol.com.
Enterprise

The Roe decision could change how advertisers use location data

Over the years, the digital ad industry has been resistant to restricting use of location data. But that may be changing.

Over the years, the digital ad industry has been resistant to restrictions on the use of location data. But that may be changing.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, the likelihood for location data to be used against people suddenly shifted from a mostly hypothetical scenario to a realistic threat. Although location data has a variety of purposes — from helping municipalities assess how people move around cities to giving reliable driving directions — it’s the voracious appetite of digital advertisers for location information that has fueled the creation and growth of a sector selling data showing who visited specific points on the map, when, what places they came from and where they went afterwards.

Over the years, the digital ad industry has been resistant to restrictions on the use of location data. But that may be changing. The overturning of Roe not only puts the wide availability of location data for advertising in the spotlight, it could serve as a turning point compelling the digital ad industry to take action to limit data associated with sensitive places before the government does.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins