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Observability vs. Monitoring: A Security Overview

Mark Stone

As more IT hardware, software and functionality move to the cloud, gaining insight and visibility into that massive cloud activity is critical for security. But that insight is not achievable without proper logging: setting metrics, efficiently capturing the data, and processing and parsing the information into usable formats. 

If an organization has enough insight and visibility into its cloud activity, how can it take things to the next level from a security perspective? 

One process that’s gaining traction in the cyber security industry is observability. Observability is not a new concept for the developer world, as they’ve been leveraging it to monitor their code to measure:

  • How it runs in production
  • How it works or fails
  • How it impacts the user experience

But what does observability mean for security? And how do we differentiate observability from monitoring?

Observability – what does it really mean from a security perspective? 

Observability is the process of clearly assessing a system’s internal state based on its external outputs. Observability leverages logs, metrics, and traces — three critical components of a complex system. 

In the development world, observability determines:

  • What was the output?
  • Has the application maintained consistency? 
  • What path was taken to get there?

By applying these concepts to security, it’s easy to understand why observability can play a critical role in threat detection, prevention and remediation (or response). 

With observability, an organization can not only determine when an incident or attack occurred but also gain insight into what attackers did while inside. Plus, that information can be used to further improve security posture in the future.

Knowing what happened before, during and after an incident is a potential game-changer for security. 

Observability vs monitoring: key similarities and differences

While observability and monitoring are similar concepts, they each serve a different purpose. However, they complement each other quite well, as both rely on data collection. 

Monitoring is considered a subset of observability and plays a key role. 

In the simplest terms, monitoring can indicate if something is wrong, while observability helps you understand why. After all, a system is only observable if it’s monitored.

Where the two concepts are different

As noted above, observability is based on what happens (events), not just on what is known. Observability takes actions and behaviors into account, relying on more than just log data. 

Morgan Willis, a Senior Cloud Technologist at AWS, has a great explanation on how to differentiate between monitoring and observability in his “Building Modern Python Applications on AWS” online course:

“Monitoring is the act of collecting data. What types of data we collect, what we do with the data, and if that data is readily analyzed or available is a different story. This is where observability comes into play. Observability is not a verb, it’s not something you do. Instead, observability is more of a property of a system.”

In a security context, monitoring allows you to think about what the data in your systems is telling you, while observability allows you to strategize about how that connects to security, operations, and business goals.

Benefits of observability 

Observability provides security analysts and IT teams the knowledge required to address problems within their environment that could negatively impact their business. Many of the advantages apply to incident management and response, which are highlighted at the end of this section.

When it comes to benefits, however, it’s equally important to discuss the three key goals an organization should strive for with observability.

The first is reliability. For any IT infrastructure to meet the demands of the business and its customers, performance must be measured. An observability platform software tool allows an organization to monitor all the critical performance factors such as network speed, availability, user behavior, capacity, and other key metrics to ensure reliability.

Security and compliance is another key observability objective that is skyrocketing in importance. Securing confidential and sensitive data is not only critical for business, but also for meeting regulatory or compliance requirements. Observability solutions should provide clear visibility into cloud computing environments through event logs to detect threats, intrusions, and attacks before an incident occurs.

Finally, observability brings about the potential to reduce costs. With clear and straightforward network event data to analyze, an organization can develop actionable insights for optimizing its network, applications and services to lower operating costs.

For incident management and response, here are just a few benefits of developing observability: 

  • Faster time to detect, isolate, and alert on critical incidents and events
  • Faster time to fix and remediate incidents 
  • More efficient and accurate investigation into problem root causes
  • More accurate incident reviews and post-mortems
  • Accelerated cloud transformation endeavors
    Decreased feedback loops

Observability is transforming into a critical security tool and could represent a shift in the cybersecurity industry. Anyone involved in security operations or detection and response should not overlook the concepts presented here.

How Panther enables observability 

Panther empowers security teams to build world-class threat detection and incident response operations at scale by adopting developer-centric approaches. 

With Panther, your security teams can: 

  • Dramatically reduce SIEM costs 
  • Detect threats in real-time
  • Retain petabytes of data cost-effectively 
  • Improve detection efficacy 
  • Enhance the agility of incident response

Panther’s observability enables your security team to achieve the ultimate goal of focusing more on security and less on operations. 

To learn more about how Panther can make security monitoring fast, flexible, and scalable for all security teams, book a demo with us or check out our platform overview.