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As intrusion detection systems (IDSs) become increasingly essential to enterprise security, IDS vendors are beginning to differentiate themselves from one another by purporting to have superior detection capabilities. Seemingly shrouded in mystery, however, many of these differences can often be lost on even the most experienced IT manager.

With most vendors making similar claims to having state-of-the-art detection technology, the IT buyer is left to focus on performance numbers as the primary criteria for evaluation, and comparisons of detection capabilities are often relegated to an afterthought. This is an unfortunate outcome, and it can be detrimental to making an informed buying decision.

In this article, I hope to rectify the situation by uncovering the essential elements that define a superior detection engine. I'll also offer tips on how to assess the detection capability in an IDS product.

Beyond the common product claims of capabilities such as "protocol anomaly detection" or "TCP reassembly," a superior intrusion detection capability can be understood in terms of four fundamental attributes:

  1. Use of hybrid detection techniques
  2. Low false-positive rates
  3. Resistance to IDS evasion
  4. Trusted forensic information

These attributes form the basis of sound intrusion detection and should serve as a framework for meaningful evaluation of IDS products. Let's examine each element in more detail.

Use of Hybrid Detection Techniques

When it comes to detection techniques, the market is unfortunately fraught with confusion. Some vendors tout the merits of a large signature database with thousands of attack signatures, while others claim that a "signatureless" approach is preferable. At the heart of this confusion is an ongoing debate between vendors that favor pattern-matching detection signatures and those that promote protocol anomaly detection.

Pattern-matching signatures generate alerts based on detecting the presence of a character sequence "match." In detecting known malicious shell code, it may examine the network packets looking for a sequence of characters identical to that of the shell code. The advantage of this technique is that it tends to focus on identifying a specific malicious exploit. Because it looks for particular exploits, however, it is reactive by nature; new, previously unknown code patterns can slip through.


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