Microsoft Defender for Endpoint Review

Enables ingestion of events directly into your SIEM/SOAR, but requires integration with all Defender products to work optimally


What is our primary use case?

Our use cases, and the way we deploy it, depend on the different situations we encounter.

There may be a company that is already using the Endpoint Protection solution and we have to do a migration.

Another scenario is that a company may be migrating away from another endpoint threat protection solution.

And there are some companies that are already using SCCM, and we may have to go through one of two scenarios. One is to co-manage with what they call Microsoft Endpoint Manager and Configuration Manager. If they are already using SCCM, and only SCCM, we will typically have to go through a process where we integrate SCCM into Endpoint Manager and then they'll usually bring some endpoints into Intune and they'll do a PLC. They have to Azure AD-join or register a device into that so it can be managed through Intune. They may even co-manage it for a while until they fully onboard into Intune only. A lot of people are looking to get away from co-management and managing through Endpoint Manager. But there are some prerequisites to accomplish that.

The endgame for most companies is they want to manage things from Intune only. There are different paths to get there, depending on what they already have in place.

How has it helped my organization?

Overall, Defender for Endpoint has created a better security posture, particularly in these COVID times where no one is on-premises anymore and they're working remotely.

What is most valuable?

More than anything, what I find most valuable is the holistic integration with all Defender products and MCAS. You can not deploy this in a vacuum. It's like most Microsoft technology. If you want to do a Zero Trust model and framework, you have to deploy things in a holistic solution.

Among the new features I like is that you can ingest your Defender events directly into your SIEM/SOAR product, particularly Azure Sentinel, although not a lot of people are using that and you don't have to be using it. You can ingest them into any SIEM/SOAR product directly.

There are features that have helped improve a company's security posture, now that remote work has come into play. Microsoft had to come up with a solution because identity is the new security plan. The largest attack surface is going to be your endpoints, so you have to be able to control your endpoints. There is malware that can collect IDs and it doesn't have to be from privileged accounts, it could be from any account. Once they get in, then they can start looking around to see if there are any security holes, move laterally, and get a hold of a privileged account. And if they get a hold of a privileged then they can just turn off all your security controls and get to your data and you've got a ransomware attack. With Defender for Endpoint, it's the combination. Every one of the features in it is equally important, but the most important thing is integrating it with the other Defender products, to create a holistic solution.

The best feature is the fact that for certain mobiles you can control your corporate profiles versus your personal profiles. That is amazingly important. Apple just supported the separation of corporate and personal profiles, whereas Android has been doing that for quite some time. You are better off as an organization, when it comes to BYOD—because Apple just now started supporting separation of corporate and personal profiles—to start with the version that supports that feature. If you go below that level, you don't get that feature, and it makes it very difficult to separate corporate and personal profiles. Because Android supports that, if an Android phone is lost or stolen, I can wipe out all the corporate-related information from that phone and not touch the personal side. I can separate the apps and I can separate the ability to cut and paste between apps. I can cut the ability from sharing files between apps between the personal and corporate profiles. From a data loss prevention standpoint, I can completely segment corporate apps and data from personal apps and data.

Another feature is that it is now supported across multiple platforms, where it was regulated at one time for just Microsoft-supported operating systems. That development is very important.

What needs improvement?

There are a few caveats, things we have run into. It's not easy to create special allowances for certain groups of users. It can be a little heavy-handed in some areas where Microsoft has decided to lock a feature out, meaning they make it hard to make an exception. I'll give you two examples. One company we work with needed to use about 20 different thumb drives for about 20 users. To make that exception for them was very difficult. In fact, you can't really make an exception. But what you can do is allow them to use it and, while it will still alert, you can actually suppress those alerts. Another example was where a group needed to be able to go in and manipulate their PC ERP settings. To make an exception for them was also a difficult process. A lot of people have suggested that Microsoft should not, by default, make it so difficult by locking your ability to make exceptions.

Another issue is that when you implement this it is not a single solution in and of itself. You have to implement what are called security baselines for each platform. But Microsoft does not have security baselines, other than for its own products. That means that when you want to do a security baseline for say, iOS or Android, you have to depend on other security organization's recommendations and set the security controls to create those security baselines for other platforms. You would typically use CIS. But when it comes to iOS, it's a real pain. iOS requires you to create a security baseline for every version of iOS. Android does not.

For how long have I used the solution?

I've been using Microsoft Defender for Endpoint since it first came out. They bundled it into M365 licenses, particularly E5 licenses or the equivalent, around 2019.

What do I think about the stability of the solution?

Like every other security product out there, the stability of Defender for Endpoint is a work in progress. The solution is trying to address a tough problem and anybody will tell you that cyber security is not a fair fight. It's just incredibly hard to defend against the bad actors. Everybody is scurrying right now to come up with different ways to stop the problem and it's just not there yet.

What do I think about the scalability of the solution?

In terms of scalability, we have run into organizations that are very large and that have said it doesn't scale well. I'm part of MISA, the Microsoft Intelligence Security Association, and we did a review of all their products and they all had scaling problems, including SIEM/SOAR, MCAS, Endpoint Manager, et cetera.

There are two "fronts" for anybody who is using a SIEM/SOAR: one is how fast they can ingest, and the other one is how fast they can make decisions. You want to do this in real-time, or near real-time.

The ingestion problem is that you're ingesting a bunch of stuff from everywhere: from the network, from identity, from all your services, and your apps. It's a crazy amount of data. Some organizations are doing on the order of 5 billion events daily. How do you ingest all that in a timely manner and correlate it? You have to do it in a distributed way. There will be a top-level SIEM/SOAR and several underneath it that are collecting data for a particular location or a set of users. You trim that down and eventually ingest stuff to the top so that you can see things from the holistic viewpoint. Or you decentralize it, where office A and all its users have their own, and office B has its own, and you don't necessarily roll it up into a single, corporate-wide solution.

There are products out there that are addressing this by not storing the events directly onto disk, but into flash drives, so they're super-fast. They never put it on a disk and save it. You can have the option of saving it to disk for long-term retention. But the immediate ingestion of events is happening through flash drives. It sits in fast memory, never gets written to disks, and that's how they're speeding things up. And there are AI/ML engines pulling that stuff in and they can act much faster.

In addition, some AI/ML engines are more mature than others. There is a lot of work being done on that front. When it comes to Endpoint Manager there are a bunch of events coming from a ton of endpoints. It's no different than ingesting events from a thousand database servers. Or they could be from your whole application reference architectures, and your data analytics reference architectures. Everybody sees the problem coming, the problem of big data. That's what we are really talking about. There is a whole lot of stuff coming in and we have to make sense of it, figure out what's relevant, have a scoring system and prioritization system to make decisions fast. For example, the bad guys are able to get into your systems and, within 20 minutes, they've already done an assessment. Usually, if you're lucky, you can respond to that in 30 minutes. And if you're a huge enterprise, you may not even be able to respond that fast.

That's the reason everybody says it's not a fair fight. We don't have the tools right now to react fast enough.

As for how extensively it's being used by our clients, anyone who is going to use it plans to use it as a one-stop solution. They won't be using multiple solutions and they will roll it out to every endpoint. It makes perfect sense to do so because you don't want to have multiple products and require your staff to have knowledge of multiple products.

For big corporations, it takes a little while to get there. It's something that has been evolving for 30 years now. Organizations want to settle on a standard desktop and want to be able to do configuration control that allows them to control the apps and the usability from a security standpoint. It used to be, "Let's make it easily usable." But now the industry is flipping that over to, "It has to be secure." The vendors have finally come to the point where the balance between usability and security is leveling out.

Which solution did I use previously and why did I switch?

I've used multiple solutions in the past. We switched based on our customers' requests. Some do it for solution architecture reasons and some of them do it for enterprise.

The enterprise customers say, "Oh, we know we need Endpoint Manager, but we need to align a solution with our business requirements first. Before you even select a solution we are going to look at our business requirements, then do a bake-off possibly, and then select a solution." Or they'll just look at industry ratings of the solutions and say, "Oh, this is the best one," not knowing that those ratings don't necessarily look at every new solution out there. There are so many. We are a VAR and we resell hundreds of security and regulatory compliance products. Usually, unless they bring us in at the early stages of the process, our clients have already picked a solution.

How was the initial setup?

The initial setup is very complex. To me, it's one of the more complex solutions because it touches so much. I have to know every platform and every platform version, when I create security baselines. As I mentioned, certain versions of iOS don't support the separation of corporate and personal profiles, and then you run into the scenario where they're already using some other endpoint protection and they want to migrate it to Microsoft Defender for Endpoint.

Or there is the scenario where they are using SCCM and to then use Microsoft Defender for Endpoint you should really require Endpoint Manager, meaning that you have to transition to that. And as I noted, making exceptions is hard. 

And when you integrate it across all the Defender products, and are managing a project like that, you have to get to a point where they're ready to be integrated, which is an issue of timing. So it's one of the more complicated things to roll out, compared to Defender for Identity. Defender for Office 365 is pretty large too, but Endpoint is the hardest of the three.

It even touches identity, because there are Azure Active Directory conditional access policies, and those are connected with Endpoint Manager. You've literally got to look at what policies and what setup within Endpoint Manager can apply to different versions of iOS. You have to dissect so that if you're going to do BYOD, for example, and allow a version of iOS from some early version and up, you have to understand that there may be some options that you can use with one version that you can't with others. It's much easier to do with Android than it is with iOS.

When you start heading down that path, it's a maturation process. You have to roll things out in phases. It's a very complicated product. Like with SIEM/SOAR products, when you start getting events, you could be flooded with them. You have to learn to tune it, so that you can differentiate the trees from the forest. You have to correlate things and automate your responses. That type of tuning process is a long process one to get the clutter out.

A product like Sentinel is pretty cool because it has predetermined workbooks, and predetermined manual and automated responses. It has playlists. They are making it very much easier to trim that clutter and to get to the nitty-gritty, and they have done so with Defender for Endpoint.

The deployment time, with fine-tuning, depends on the size of the organization. If it's a small or medium business, it could take three months to deploy and tune, and it could take longer; up to six months. It depends on many factors that I've mentioned, such as if they're migrating, or if they have an integration between SCCM and Intune. It also depends on the expertise level of the organization, its maturation level, and skill sets. All of that comes into play.

It also depends on their starting point in terms of some of the prerequisite services. You don't generally roll out Defender for Endpoint until you've got identity governance and protection. That's the first thing you do because everything is dependent upon that. After that, the prerequisite is rolling out Endpoint Manager, and then Defender for Endpoint. If it's a hybrid situation, you may roll out Defender for Identity so you can cover your Active Directory controllers and provide threat protection for them, although you can do all the "Defenders" in parallel; you just have to time them correctly so that when you integrate them together they're ready to go.

For large organizations, it could take a year or two. For example, if there are half a million endpoint devices—and that's possible if you have an organization with 200,000 employees and contractors, and each has a laptop and a mobile—it can take some time.

In terms of an implementation strategy, I have developed work-breakdown structures for just about every Azure service and almost every Azure M365 service. They look at working with them holistically, but they are broken down into each individual service and mention the other services within the work-breakdown schedule, and how you integrate them. The first thing I do is a current-state assessment and that gives me an indication of the readiness for deployment. The next steps are plan, design, deploy, manage, secure. There are strict sets of security controls and I have to gather every single one of those per platform. It's quite a long process. It follows the saying, "If you fail to plan you plan to fail."

As for staff required to maintain Defender for Endpoint, once you get it set up and tuned it's not too bad. It depends on the size of the organization again. If a business has 100 people, one person can do it easily. If there are a few thousand people, you may need two or three people. It often depends on your getting all the features rolled out. In IT it often happens that we roll stuff out and we always intend to get to that other piece but we just never get the time to do it. Many organizations are going to a lean staff and bringing in consultants to help roll things out. For us, as a contractor, it's great. Our business is booming.

What's my experience with pricing, setup cost, and licensing?

Most organizations that we have come to want to replace their current endpoint protection solution for Defender. A reason many of them do that is that they aren't pleased with whatever they have. They may not know what features are relevant and just don't know how to roll them out. They realize, "Oh, I bought M365/E5 licenses, and Defender comes with them already. Why not use it?" 

Most people don't realize M365/E5 licenses are an amazing deal. They think "Oh, it's expensive," and I'll ask, "Compared to what?" If you don't have it you will have to buy licenses for multiple products to fill the same security space that you would have gotten with the Microsoft product. Go figure out how much it costs you per product, per user, and then come back and tell me how things add up financially.

Which other solutions did I evaluate?

If our client brings us into the process at the right time, we evaluate products for them, since we're evaluating products constantly. That's part of what we do. We have to know, through a deep-dive, the pros and cons of each. We are constantly being updated by our vendors about how they're addressing a particular security area.

Is Defender for Endpoint the best product out there? No, it's not. I can think of several others that are pretty amazing. It's still a product that's evolving, but it does a really good job for the most part. It does the best job when it is integrated with the whole Microsoft holistic solution. If you look at Microsoft's site, you will see what capabilities Microsoft has. They will show you how these products integrate and work together to give you a holistic solution to develop a Zero Trust model framework.

And while it's not the best solution overall, some of the pieces are. There are several areas where Microsoft is good or better than most, and then there are some weaknesses when you do Zero Trust. They don't have a secure web gateway product. Their MCAS or CASB product leaves a little bit to be desired. There are other solutions, in those two components of a Zero Trust model, that do a much better job. Zscaler probably has the bulk of the business but I'm a big fan of Netskope. There is Crowdstrike, and Forcepoint may be making some inroads because they just developed a new anti-malware technology. But none of them are going to be perfect because malware is a hard problem to solve.

There is also a new product I just reviewed for M365 Security that is pretty amazing on paper. Although I haven't actually kicked the tires on it yet, it looks really good and it's from one of the fastest-growing companies out there.

Think of it like this: If you don't buy E5 licenses or the equivalent with M365, you don't get Defender for Office 365. People don't realize that product is a kind of a split product. It's a multi-function product. It has some DLP pieces that work with MIP and it has some pieces that work with the Office 365 outlying suite. It's a little bit of a funky product.

But one of the things it has is a part of your Exchange Online protection. Without it, you don't get the features like anti-spam, anti-virus, safe links, and safe attachments. That combination addresses what is called a combined attack. You get an attachment and the attachment may have a link in it, or you get an email that has a link in it. They all look legitimate. If someone clicks on it, it takes them to a malware site, and bam! You just downloaded it into your computer and now endpoint protection comes into play.

Eighty percent of malware is still spread via email today. That's how they attack you. They're trying to penetrate your apps and they're even trying to penetrate your M365 online apps. This product works inline and they've already proven that, even with Defender for Office 365, there are still malicious messages getting through. The bad actors figure out how. They actually buy the product and figure out where its weaknesses are and they attack it. Because it's such a popular product it's the one they're going to target. It has the biggest attack surface. They've been attacking the weaknesses of M365, particularly the Exchange Online protection and all the weaknesses in Defender for Office 365. They've just been clobbering it. We're having a lot of people say to us, "Do a security assessment on our M365". All I can tell them is that it's not their problem as much as it's the product's problem right now.

Microsoft is trying to address things as fast as it can, but it's going to take months to get there. But here is another product you can add on that can help you fill those flaws. What this other company has done is that they've said, "We'll fix those flaws for you and we'll make it an easy process to do so." Usually, the circumstances in which you need an email security gateway is when you don't have an E5 license. But now they're even attacking that. And when that happens you have to change the MX record. With this new product that I've read about, you don't have to do that. It just supplements the weakness of M365, not only in Exchange Online protection but throughout all the other apps, like Sharepoint, Teams, and OneDrive. That's pretty impressive. And it works with all those products easily, without change in administration or training. It installs in minutes. I was floored when I saw that.

What other advice do I have?

The organizations I have worked with that are using Microsoft Defender for Endpoint are mostly small- and medium-sized businesses. Our larger customers are generally not using it.

There was a service built within our organization, a service that is very much hooked in with CrowdStrike. If you've ever seen the CrowdStrike products, you'll understand why. They are pretty impressive products. They do some things that help them see malicious activity in near real-time. Can they react to it in near real-time? No. But like everybody, they are trying to find a way to be able to react faster. They just bought a company called Humio, which is a SIEM/SOAR product I referred to earlier that does not store events directly to disk, so it can act on things much faster.

Used alone, I would rate Defender for Endpoint a seven out of 10. When integrated with other Microsoft products, I would give it an eight. It really depends on other pieces of the solution for Zero trust to work properly. It won't work well if you deploy it by itself. If you're going to use Defender for Endpoint, you should also use Defender for Identity, Defender for Office 365, and the full gamut, including MCAS and MIP, and then you will need your SIEM/SOAR. It's a long journey. And you had better have done your identity very well. If you haven't, it won't really matter what you throw in place, once they breach your identity plane. That's the most important one. I can put every possible safeguard in place, but if someone gets the keys to the kingdom, I might as well just turn them off.

**Disclosure: My company has a business relationship with this vendor other than being a customer: Partner
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