McAfee ESM Review

One of the biggest strengths of Nitro is the underlying database but stability has been a problem.

At Infosecnirvana, we have quite a number of posts dedicated to SIEM. We have done a detailed comparison of SIEM products in a post titled – SIEM Comparison along with providing a detailed check list for SIEM evaluation. We have also posted about SIEM products from time to time as reflected by our post on IBM QRadar and ArcSight. Following up with those posts, this blog is our take on McAfee Nitro SIEM. So let’s get started


McAfee in 2011 purchased Nitro Security to enter into the SIEM space and subsequently were taken up by Intel. This period of 2011 actually saw a few things happen in the SIEM market space. This included HP buying ArcSight, IBM buying QRadar and McAfee buying Nitro etc. etc. Each of those SIEM products have taken a different route over the last 3 years. Nitro security was one of those niche players in the market which had an IPS portfolio as well a SIEM portfolio, remnants of which still linger in the overall McAfee ESM product suite. The McAfee ESM product suite is basically a combination of a few components like:

  • ESM - Enterprise Security Management, which serves as the Management Interface for all SIEM components, Reporting engine capable of generating compliance and policy reports.
  • ACE - Advanced Correlation Engine which is interesting a dedicated engine to perform Risk Based (rules based) Correlation, Historical Correlation, Asset Based Risk Scoring and Custom risk scoring based on combinations of fields.
  • DBM - Database Monitor. One of the products McAfee has as standalone for Database Log Generation, Session Auditing etc, is called the DBM. This is a Database IPS kinda product that monitors network traffic via SPAN, port mirror or taps and does not create any impact on database. So for all the legacy databases that don’t have Audit trail enabled or the auditing is not detailed enough, DBM is the perfect fit. Apart from the monitoring audit trail of all transactions from login to log-off including all session queries and commands, it also provides Auto discovery of database instances including unauthorized or rouge databases. The DBM comes in both a network sensor as well as a host agent footprint.
  • ADM - Application Data Monitor. This is again a Application IPS kinda product capable of performing Layer 7 Protocol detection, Full meta-data collection, traffic monitoring via SPAN, port mirror or taps. Full session data capture and visibility into all application traffic is also provided by this sensor along with Advanced Threat detection capabilities. Again, it can be deployed as a sensor or a host agent.
  • ELM - Enterprise Log Manager. This is akin to any log management solution in SIEM and provides Log storage both Local and Network based.
  • Receivers - These are nothing but Parsers, Netflow Collectors, VMWare Collectors and anything that is able to parse and normalize logs.

Strong points for Nitro SIEM:

After careful evaluation of Nitro SIEM, we would like to highlight these few points as the core Strength of Nitro SIEM:

  1. Architecture: One of the reasons for Nitro SIEM’s popularity is the Architectural flexibility. As a Security administrator, you can pick and chose how you want to architect your solution. If you want to be as modular as possible, then all the above mentioned components can be deployed standalone and integrated using the ESM (Remember EPO architecture for McAfee Endpoint solutions!!!). Say you prefer a smaller footprint, then you can build something called “Combo Boxes” which as the name mentions combines several components in a single box. This helps administrators starved of resources or budget to effectively deploy Nitro SIEM.
  2. Powerful Data Management: One of the biggest strengths of Nitro is the underlying Database – The SAGE DB aka NitroEDB (Nitro Embedded Database) developed by Idaho National labs (the founder of Nitro was a researcher there). NitroEDB is a relational database that supports huge volume, VLDB applications as well as extremely fast in-memory processing. This is the core reason why Nitro SIEM is able to have a High Ingest Rates and extremely fast query speed. This is a killer benefit compared to the other products like ArcSight with its below par implementation of MySQL and PostgreSQL and IBM QRadar with its proprietary EDB (updated based on comments from JC). Splunk is the closest in competition to Nitro with its GFS like implementation.
  3. High Ingest Rates: As mentioned above, NitroEDB enables SIEM to have a high event ingestion rates @ 300K EPS. We don’t think any SIEM in the market today scales up to this number. ArcSight SIEM is the closest with a 100K maximum with its Logger platform and a pure play Syslog-NG server can do 300K EPS.
  4. Network Based Threat Detection: As with QRadar Intelligence Platform, the Nitro platform also uses Network Packet Analysis for DBM and ADM (as mentioned in the components) to perform Database monitoring and Application monitoring. Both QRadar and Nitro are comparable in the Application monitoring space but when it comes to Database Monitoring, Nitro wins it hands down. ArcSight and the others are poor in this space, something they will have to start looking at.
  5. Database Monitoring: As mentioned above, the DBM is the stand out as it provides excellent auditing capabilities for DB auditing and log collection. This is irrespective of DB version, OS, Auditing capability etc. The monitoring can be done off-box using a sensor in the network or using an agent. Again, this is one of the differentiators compared to ArcSight or QRadar as both of them rely only on JDBC connectivity to pull audit logs (provided Auditing is enabled on DB)
  6. Historical Correlation: Nitro has the ability to perform historical correlation better than the others in the market. One of the reasons for that is the capability to run complex queries and computations (for risk score correlation) against a large data set. This is primarily attributed to the NitroEDB as mentioned above which is really powerful in terms of query performance. QRadar and ArcSight are not as good at historical correlation and pale in comparison with NitroEDB performance for historical queries. Splunk is better at historical queries, but correlation is not as mature in Splunk as the others.
  7. SCADA Device Support: Apart from ArcSight, arguably the only other product in today’s market that has extensive support for SCADA is Nitro SIEM. This is definitely useful in penetrating the Utilities industry, Manufacturing industry etc. and is one of the key differentiators compared to the others.

Weak points for Nitro SIEM:

  1. Stability: In our testing and real-life deployments, one of the recurring problems we have faced with Nitro SIEM is stability. It is rare to have all the components working without issues at any given point in time. One of the reasons for this we think is the integration tier that has to interact with the various components to perform Security monitoring. There are just too many points of failure and troubleshooting is a nightmare. This is essential in organizations where in-house monitoring is performed. In case of outsourcing, even though this is still an issue, the risk is transferred to the outsourced vendor. Hopefully, McAfee realizes this and fixes these teething issues of stability in future releases.
  2. Correlation: Even though Risk based correlation is a great value add in Nitro, the overall capabilities fall short when compared with the others in the market. We might be a bit biased with this piece as we always compare Correlation capabilities of any SIEM tools we evaluate against HP ArcSight. In our opinion, ArcSight Correlation is by far the best in the industry and no product can match it in terms of flexibility, power of customization and advanced computing. That said, Nitro does compete hard and we would definitely be keen to see them take the Risk/Rules based correlation to the next level.
  3. Event Parsing & Custom Event Support: Even though the support for Events generated by Third Party vendors is excellent, we feel that more devices and vendors can be supported as does ArcSight. However, custom parsers or receivers are not intuitive to create in Nitro SIEM as with QRadar. Nitro is not as good as the Super-Easy QRadar Custom Mapping feature or Splunk with its Field Extraction where it’s a breeze to develop any custom connector. Nitro, thus has some room for improvement in this area.
  4. User Interface: Although the UI reminds you of all things McAfee (EPO, NSM etc), we feel that a flash driven UI is not the best for SIEM. This is not to take away anything from the capabilities of the product in terms of data presentation, but Flash driven UI proves to be a dampener on the overall experience. As a general opinion, we are keen to see anything other than a Java or Flash UI because we feel that both of them are the most vulnerable software out there and both are clunky when it comes to event analysis, visualization etc. This is where we feel QRadar has a refreshing interface. It does use Java for some parts of the console, but otherwise, the Browser console is so light and so simple that working with QRadar is a delight. Even Splunk has a wonderful UI and is really easy to use compared to ArcSight and Nitro which feel clunky and heavy.


Overall, McAfee Nitro SIEM is a very good product that scales up against the Industry leaders – ArcSight and QRadar toe to toe. However, as with all acquisitions, they have a few chinks to work out before they truly are ready to lead the pack. Gartner ratings, if anything to go by, consistently rate McAfee in the leaders quadrant but they have been in the 3rd position for quite some time now. With HP ArcSight not doing anything new in the last two releases, QRadar is the only competitor to look forth and emulate. Hope McAfee rises above the competition with a more stable and mature SIEM product thereby shaking the Industry up.

So that’s it folks. Feel free to comment on what you feel about McAfee Nitro SIEM and what its benefits and weakness are.

**Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.
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