“Automation” and “orchestration” are terms that frequently appear within the same sentence – which is unsurprising, because they are closely related. In fact, they’re so similar in meaning that it can be easy to confuse their meanings or assume that there is basically no real difference between security automation and orchestration.
But, as with many concepts in the world of IT and security (“observability” vs. “monitoring” is another good example), it would be a mistake to treat automation and orchestration as synonymous terms. Understanding the nuanced differences between them is critical for leveraging automation and orchestration effectively alongside each other within modern IT and security operations.
To that end, let’s compare the definitions of orchestration and automation, using the context of security and SOAR platforms (which, as you may know, deliver both orchestration and automation features) to illustrate the point.
What Is Automation?
Automation is what happens when you use software or other tools to complete a task without intervention by humans. Automation saves time and effort. It can also increase consistency and reduce the risk of mistakes due to human error.
Automation can be partial, meaning that a human plays some role in completing a process, while automation tools handle other parts of the task. This type of automation is known as “human in the loop” automation.
You can also have end-to-end automations, where tasks are completed entirely by automated tools. Humans may configure or deploy those tools, but the tools do their work autonomously once they are running.
What Is Orchestration?
Orchestration is the management of multiple automated workflows.
When you orchestrate something, you are not automating just a single task. Instead, you have multiple related automations running at once, and your orchestration process is what ensures that all of the processes remain in sync.
Orchestration is important because, in many cases, automation processes are interdependent. One automated task may need to complete before another can begin, or data may need to be shared between processes. Orchestration ensures that the various tasks within an automated system proceed smoothly.
Differences Between Automation and Orchestration
The main difference between automation and orchestration is simple: whereas automation focuses on completing a single task with help from an automation tool, orchestration focuses on completing multiple tasks using automation tools across applications.
What this means is, you can have automation without orchestration. In that case, you’d oversee and coordinate each of the automation workflows within your organization by hand.
However, you can’t have orchestration without automation. If you don’t have automations in place, then you’d have nothing to orchestrate.
Orchestration vs. Automation Example: SOAR
To contextualize all of the above, let’s consider the example of Security Orchestration, Automation and Response, or SOAR. As you probably know if you follow cybersecurity developments, SOAR platforms have become critical to helping IT and security teams to streamline complex security workflows over the past several years.
A SOAR platform can automate tasks such as:
- Collecting data from various sources (logs, metrics, user behavior patterns, and so on) that are relevant for security purposes.
- Analyzing the data to detect anomalies that may be signs of a security issue.
- Generating alerts that tell the security team about a potential risk.
Each of these is a discrete type of process. Each one can be automated separately.
However, because these processes are interdependent, you’d also typically want a way to orchestrate them. A SOAR platform would provide this orchestration by, for example, ensuring that individual automated tasks take place in a certain order. You need to collect data before you analyze it. And you can’t generate alerts until you have analytics results. Without a security orchestration solution, then, you’d run the risk that your automation tools would complete tasks in the wrong order, mucking up the whole process.
Orchestration can also help to ensure that humans are plugged into security automation processes at the right times and places. This is important because not every security workflow can be fully automated. For example, while some response operations (like blocking malicious endpoints) could be performed using automation tools, others (like fixing a vulnerability that requires changing an application’s source code) will require human intervention. The orchestration functionality of a SOAR could help a team identify which security workflows that begin with automation tools need to be handed off to humans to complete.
Given the complexity of modern workflows, automations on their own often no longer suffice for allowing teams to operate efficiently and at scale. Organizations also need orchestration, which helps to coordinate and manage multiple automation processes to ensure that they proceed as expected. Tools like Torq bring these together though automated workflows and flexible pre-built templates.