In today’s rapidly evolving cybersecurity landscape, businesses face a multitude of threats ranging from traditional malware to sophisticated, multi-vector attacks. As organizations strive to safeguard their digital assets, extended detection and response (XDR) and antivirus software are often security solutions they consider. While both aim to protect against cyber threats, they serve distinct purposes and employ different methodologies. XDR vs. antivirus, what’s the right solution?

In this blog, we explore the key differences between what you can expect from XDR and antivirus, highlighting their functionalities, capabilities, and effectiveness in combating today’s cyber threats. By understanding the differences between these two cybersecurity solutions, you can make informed decisions to strengthen your organization’s security posture.

Understanding Antivirus

Antivirus software, also known as anti-malware software, is designed to detect, prevent, and remove malicious software from end-user devices, like desktops of laptops. Traditional antivirus solutions primarily rely on signature-based detection methods. These methods involve comparing files and programs against a database of known malware signatures. The antivirus engine calculates a hash value for executable files in a machine and compares it with its database of known malicious hash values. If a match is found, the antivirus software flags the file as malicious and takes appropriate action, such as quarantining or deleting it.

Antivirus limitations

While antivirus software has been a staple of cybersecurity for decades, it has significant limitations, particularly in addressing advanced and evolving threats. Signature-based detection is ineffective against zero-day exploits and polymorphic malware, which can evade detection by altering their code or behavior. If the malware is not identical to known malware, the hash value will be different, and it will go undetected. Malware authors understand this, so perform superficial tweaks to malware strains to ensure the hash value is always changing. Additionally, traditional antivirus solutions may struggle to detect sophisticated attacks that employ multiple vectors or techniques, such as fileless malware or targeted phishing campaigns.

Understanding XDR

Extended detection and response represents a more holistic approach to cybersecurity that goes beyond end-user devices with detection capabilities beyond traditional antivirus. XDR integrates multiple security technologies, including endpoint detection and response (EDR), network detection and response (NDR), and other telemetry sources, into a unified platform. By applying threat intelligence through active analytics, XDR can correlate data across various security layers and endpoints. XDR provides enhanced visibility into potential threats and enables security professionals with threat detection and response capabilities.

Differentiating features of XDR

Behavioral analysis

Unlike signature-based detection used in antivirus software, XDR employs behavioral analysis techniques to identify suspicious activities and anomalies across the entire IT environment. If we compare this capability against antivirus, the antivirus needs to know that the file has been flagged as malicious in its database, whereas behavioral analysis waits to see how the file behaves. This approach enables XDR to detect previously unknown and emerging threats based on their behavior rather than relying solely on predefined signatures.

Cross-layer visibility

Effective XDR solutions offer comprehensive visibility across the entire IT estate, including endpoints, networks, identity, and cloud environments. By aggregating and correlating data from multiple sources, XDR platforms provide security teams with a unified view of potential threats, detecting multi-vector threats, allowing for faster and more accurate incident response.

Automated response

XDR solutions often incorporate automation and orchestration capabilities to streamline incident response processes. In addition to detecting threats, XDR solutions can automate containment, remediation, and response actions, reducing the burden on security teams and accelerating threat resolution for common use cases such as host isolation.

Threat intelligence integration

XDR leverages threat intelligence feeds and data from external sources to enrich its detection capabilities and enable analysts to identify unknown and emerging threats. While antivirus also makes use of threat intelligence, the scope is much narrower and limited to high fidelity detections intended to trigger prevention, suitable for only obvious and known threats. By incorporating global threat intelligence into its analysis, XDR can identify emerging threats and patterns, helping organizations stay ahead of evolving cyber threats.

Choosing the Right Solution: XDR vs. Antivirus

While antivirus software and XDR solutions share the common goal of protecting against cyber threats, they differ significantly in their scope, approaches and capabilities. Antivirus relies primarily on signature-based detection and is best suited for identifying known malware variants on end-user devices. In contrast, XDR provides a more comprehensive and proactive defense by integrating multiple security technologies, offering cross-layer visibility, leveraging behavioral analysis, covering the entire attack surface, and automating response actions.

Learn how Fortra XDR delivers a fully managed service that provides the technology, security experts and intelligence to meet your desired security outcomes. Schedule an XDR demo today!

Additional resources:

Fortra XDR | Solution Brief

Extended Detection and Response (XDR) 101: An In-Depth Overview

Fortra's Alert Logic Staff
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Fortra's Alert Logic Staff

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