Introduction

Synapse is a “batteries included” intelligence analysis platform designed to help analysts and algorithms answer complex questions which require the fusion of data across different disciplines. It was developed as the successor to a proprietary graph-based analysis platform named Nucleus which was used within Mandiant to produce the APT1_Report. While Synapse was initially designed for use in the cyber threat intelligence discipline, the built-in data model has expanded into including a wide variety of subject matter areas such as geopolitical, geospatial, human behavior, and even the physical world. For an analyst’s perspective see the Background - Why Synapse? section of the Synapse User Guide.

Within a Synapse Cortex, knowledge is organized as a hypergraph. Access to the unified Cortex data model allows subject matter experts to perform and record detailed analysis within their area of expertise and answer inter-disciplinary questions facilitated by other analyst’s annotations. Each assertion made by an analyst or algorithm may be recorded to build toward higher-level assertions, such as cyber threat actor attribution, which require extensive supporting evidence. The “decomposability” of higher-level assertions allows peer review and decision-maker confirmation. This helps to prevent analysis predicated on “because so-and-so said so” and helps analysts collaborate and learn from each other’s work.

Features

High Performance / Streaming

A Synapse Cortex uses the high-performance key-value store LMDB for indexing and storage. Additionally, the Storm query engine is designed to produce results as a stream rather than a set. This means a query will begin returning results as soon as they are available rather than waiting for the complete result set. Streaming results means that even a complex multi-pivot query which will eventually return millions of nodes will begin producing results immediately. API interfaces facilitate streaming “back-pressure” which allows a query consumer to incrementally read result sets no matter how large they are.

Rich Built-In/Extensible Data Model

The Synapse data model has been battle-hardened over 5 years through the lessons learned during intelligence analysis and production. See the Synapse User Guide for extensive details.

Simple/Powerful Query Language

The Storm query language was designed with analysts in mind. Storm seeks to strike a balance of simplicity and power to provide analysts a lightweight syntax to quickly express the desired data and relationships of interest while also making it possible to perform complex analysis. Years of analyst use cases and observations have gone into creating an efficient way to not only perform analysis, but record the resulting assertions. See the Synapse User Guide for details on the Storm query language and Cortex-based analysis concepts.

HTTPS API

An HTTPS API allows stream-based access to the Storm query language through HTTP chunked-encoding results. Additionally, REST APIs may be used to configure and control additional subsystems and components.

Granular Access Controls

Individual users and roles may be configured with permissions to restrict changes to the Cortex based on areas of expertise.

Automation/Triggers

Analysts may configure Cortex Triggers which execute additional Storm queries when particular changes occur within the Cortex.

Scheduled Queries

A Cortex provides a cron-like interface for scheduling background execution of one-time or recurring Storm queries.

Change Auditing / Provenance

A Cortex produces a stream of potentially reversible changes called splices which can account for every change to the hypergraph. Additionally, provenance tracking for splices records the cause for individual changes, even in the event of firing Triggers or other automation that could make it difficult to understand the cause for a splice.

What’s New?

The release of Synapse 2.0.0 represents a large leap forward in performance and scalability. Please see the Synapse 2.0.0 Changes for a full accounting of changes and the reasons behind them.

FAQ

What’s the state of interface stability for 2.x.x?

Within Synapse, backward-incompatible changes are made at major release numbers. For example, the newly released 2.0.0 version of Synapse does contain some backward incompatible changes. However, these types of changes are not made lightly and are only undertaken for tangible benefits to performance, scalability, and data modeling. See Synapse Changelog for a detailed breakdown of backward incompatible changes and the reasoning behind each. Where possible, interfaces will be marked as deprecated in the previous minor release to provide situational awareness to developers. Additionally, any backward incompatible changes to the Synapse data model will only occur at a minor release. As such, minor releases may require Synapse components, such as a Cortex, to undergo a migration process.

Within the Synapse 2.x.x release line, we are committed to maintaining a stable and backward-compatible release process. Public-facing interfaces such as Storm, the HTTPS API, and the Telepath API will not be changed in any way that will break existing deployments. The data model will only be updated with additions which do not change existing property names or relationships.

Performance, big-data, scalability, and best use?

A Synapse Cortex is a knowledge system which must deconflict each new piece of information received to determine if the knowledge is already present. This makes it ideal for creating a permanent record of relevant observations and analysis results. However, the deconfliction required for a knowledge system is fundamentally at-odds with the idea of an infinitely scalable stream of instance/temporal data. A Cortex may easily grow to billions of nodes, but is not designed for use cases involving billions of records per-day. In a typical big-data/data-lake architecture, a Cortex is optimally used to analyze data resulting from queries to existing platforms and fuse data relevant to an analyst’s investigation.

We currently operate several Cortex instances in production use that contain on the order of billions of nodes on a single server. Additionally, a Cortex may also be configured to fuse data from a remote Cortex into a single view. This allows for simple sharding based on data ingest sources. To parallelize read-performance and maximize availability, a Cortex may have one or more mirrors configured. Additional information on advanced configurations will be available shortly in the Synapse DevOps Guide.

What kind of server(s) should I spec out?

The performance profile and system requirements for a Cortex are very similar to a typical large RDBMS such as PostgreSQL. For high performance, use low-latency (flash style) storage and a RAM optimized server build. A Cortex must deconflict each new node it adds, which means that RAM availability and storage latency directly effect throughput.

Did you consider SPARQL/GraphQL/etc rather than Storm?

The short answer on this is yes. After extensive review of the data languages and query languages available on several platforms, none met the ambitious requirements for simultaneously providing a terse analyst-friendly syntax and the expressive power needed for analysis within a hypergraph.