What Is a Security Operations Center (SOC)?

A traditional security operations center (SOC) is a physical facility that houses an information security team. The SOC team protects against security breaches by monitoring and analyzing security systems, continuously working to identify, analyze, and respond to cybersecurity threats. Typically, SOC teams consist of various roles, including management, analysts, and security professionals working with other teams like IT operations and development.

SOCs strive to improve threat detection and decrease the likelihood of security breaches. These teams isolate abnormal activity in various areas, including databases, servers, networks, applications, and endpoints. Using monitoring data and tools, the SOC team identifies security threats, investigates them, and responds to incidents as they occur.

In the past, only large organizations could afford an in-house SOC. Today, smaller organizations can set up lightweight SOCs using new models. For example, the hybrid SOC employs outsourced experts and part-time in-house personnel, and a virtual SOC works outside the scope of a physical facility providing remote but in-house services.

Why Do Organizations Need a SOC?

A SOC provides the continuous monitoring and analysis needed to improve security incident detection. The team analyzes activities across the organization’s network, servers, databases, and endpoints, ensuring timely detection and response. It minimizes the gap between attackers’ time to compromise and enterprises’ time to detection by helping organizations defend against intrusions and incidents, regardless of the time of day, attack type, and source.

How Does SOC Cyber Security Work?

The Security Operations Center (SOC) team continuously monitors networks, servers, computers, endpoint devices, operating systems, applications and databases for signs of cybersecurity incidents. The SOC team sets rules, identifies anomalies, triages events to see if they represent real security incidents, analyzes forensic data about events, and most importantly, responds and eradicates threats when they are found.

Because technology systems in modern organizations operate 24/7, SOCs typically operate in rotating shifts to ensure response to security incidents at all times of day, including non-business hours. In smaller organizations there may not be enough full-time dedicated staff for 24/7 availability, but staff participating in the SOC will be on-call in case a severe incident occurs.

At the core of SOC teams are security experts, but they often collaborate with other departments and staff, such as IT, legal, compliance, and PR, as well as outsourced security providers.

What Is Security as a Service?

Security as a Service (SECaaS) is a business model that delivers outsourced security services to organizations, inspired by the Software as a Service (SaaS) model. SECaaS works by integrating the provider’s services into the organization’s infrastructure, providing security services on a subscription basis.

SECaaS offers a cost-effective solution for organizations, mainly because it does not require investment in on-premises hardware and solutions. Common SECaaS include antivirus, authentication, anti-malware, penetration testing, security event management, and intrusion detection. It can help protect against various threats and attacks, such as Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS).

SOC as a Service

SOC as a Service (SOCaaS) providers offer managed threat detection and response. This business model enables organizations to leverage the benefits of a SOC without having to set up and maintain an in-house team. It eliminates the complexity and costs of building an in-house team and solves cybersecurity talent shortages by providing access to skilled experts.

SOCaaS vendors provide 24/7 threat detection and response, utilizing advanced technologies and expert personnel. Using a cloud delivery model, SOCaaS makes SOCs accessible to organizations of all sizes, ensuring they can achieve continuous monitoring and detection at scale.

Learn more in our detailed guide to SOC as a service

CISO as a Service

CISO as a Service (CISOaaS) is a business model that provides organizations with outsourced access to chief information security officer (CISO) skills and technologies. It helps organizations protect and cover information security requirements.

A CISO serves as the first line of communication. This role is responsible for information security tasks in the organization. Organizations that do not have access to a full-time CISO due to budgetary constraints or a talent shortage can employ a CISO as a Service to cover this gap.

Learn more in our detailed guide to CISO as a service

What Is a Security Operations Center Framework?

A SOC framework defines the components that deliver SOC functionality and how they interoperate. It employs a monitoring platform to track and record security events and an analytics platform to analyze this data and identify combinations of events indicating a probable incident. The framework can employ manual and/or automated analytics.

Detection and monitoring tools typically serve as the main components in a SOC framework, alongside other functionality like threat hunting. Additionally, these components are integrated with ongoing threat intelligence services to ensure timely analysis, detection, and response to threats. Here is an example of core SOC framework components:

Monitoring

Monitoring tools form the basis of a SOC framework. The goal is to timely and efficiently identify new and emerging threats. It usually involves using automated tools to increase efficiency and coverage, such as security information and event management (SIEM) solutions, behavioral threat analytics, and cloud access security brokers (CASB).

Analysis

Monitoring provides visibility, and analysis provides insights. Analysis tools and professionals analyze enterprise activity to identify vulnerabilities and breaches. It involves reviewing alerts and alarms generated by monitoring tools to identify known patterns of attack or vulnerability exploits.

Incident response and containment

Organizations need to act on SOC insights. The framework needs to define this component if the SOC is responsible for incident response and containment. It involves defining how the SOC handles incidents according to their scope, type, and severity. The SOC may use automated responses for quick remediation and human response for handling the rest. It also requires changing processes and policies as needed to prevent future similar incidents.

Auditing and logging

The SOC must perform logging and auditing to document incident responses. It is critical for compliance purposes and post-mortem assessment. It often involves using security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) functionality like timestamped documentation.

Threat hunting

A SOC should perform proactive actions to detect threats. Threat hunting helps catch security issues, vulnerabilities, and threats missed by security tools and human analysis. The goal is to assume there are already threats and hunt them by reviewing threat intelligence to find internal or external threats.

Learn more in our detailed guide to security operations center framework

What Is a Security Operations Center Framework?

A SOC framework defines the components that deliver SOC functionality and how they interoperate. It employs a monitoring platform to track and record security events and an analytics platform to analyze this data and identify combinations of events indicating a probable incident. The framework can employ manual and/or automated analytics.

Detection and monitoring tools typically serve as the main components in a SOC framework, alongside other functionality like threat hunting. Additionally, these components are integrated with ongoing threat intelligence services to ensure timely analysis, detection, and response to threats. Here is an example of core SOC framework components:

Monitoring

Monitoring tools form the basis of a SOC framework. The goal is to timely and efficiently identify new and emerging threats. It usually involves using automated tools to increase efficiency and coverage, such as security information and event management (SIEM) solutions, behavioral threat analytics, and cloud access security brokers (CASB).

Analysis

Monitoring provides visibility, and analysis provides insights. Analysis tools and professionals analyze enterprise activity to identify vulnerabilities and breaches. It involves reviewing alerts and alarms generated by monitoring tools to identify known patterns of attack or vulnerability exploits.

Incident response and containment

Organizations need to act on SOC insights. The framework needs to define this component if the SOC is responsible for incident response and containment. It involves defining how the SOC handles incidents according to their scope, type, and severity. The SOC may use automated responses for quick remediation and human response for handling the rest. It also requires changing processes and policies as needed to prevent future similar incidents.

Auditing and logging

The SOC must perform logging and auditing to document incident responses. It is critical for compliance purposes and post-mortem assessment. It often involves using security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) functionality like timestamped documentation.

Threat hunting

A SOC should perform proactive actions to detect threats. Threat hunting helps catch security issues, vulnerabilities, and threats missed by security tools and human analysis. The goal is to assume there are already threats and hunt them by reviewing threat intelligence to find internal or external threats.

Learn more in our detailed guide to security operations center framework

SOC Challenges

Skills Shortage

The cybersecurity industry is experiencing a global skills shortage. If an organization cannot hire new staff to fill a gap in security skills, existing staff must fill the gap. If those staff are not trained and certified in threat monitoring and management, they will have difficulty responding to threats. They will also have limited time to review and react to all high priority alerts.

Lack of Adequate Tooling

It is common in a modern SOC to lack appropriate monitoring and management tools for the changing IT environment. Systems migrated from the data center to the cloud, edge computing, internet of things (IoT), and remote work need new security tools. Applications developed and deployed in containers need protection, but the SOC may not have tools to visualize the system or the means to intervene in the environment.

Alert Fatigue

SOC security systems, primarily the SIEM, generate a large number of alerts, many of which are false positives. Tools that correlate alerts across systems to help identify false positives, deduplicate, and effectively detect threats are critical to limit alert fatigue and maintain sustainable SOC operations.

Budget Not Planned According to Risk

Many organizations set SOC budgets according to a fixed percentage of IT spend or other criteria not related to risk. This can result in insufficient budgets that do not allow the SOC to address risks facing the organization. It is critical to perform a risk assessment, understand the financial impact of high priority risks, and allocate SOC budget appropriately to address those risks.

Process Latency

IT environments are rapidly changing, which requires many changes to SOC processes. Process latency is the time it takes for an organization to adapt to changes in process. This has two aspects:


  • Security systems can create latency because SOC processes do not evolve fast enough to keep up with changes in the IT environment (for example, existing tools might be insufficient to monitor the scale and complexity of cloud environments).

  • Humans can create latency because of difficulty adapting to new technologies and processes, both in terms of advanced security tooling and the changing IT environment.


The result is that SOC processes are not a comprehensive framework for action. SOC staff waste time creating ad hoc processes, which are sometimes ineffective, and quickly become out of date.

Building a Security Operations Center

There are five important aspects to building an SOC.

Service Model

Organizations can choose to set up a dedicated internal SOC or an outsourced SOC:


  • Internal SOCs are ideal for large enterprises where data integrity and compliance are primary concerns. Larger companies also have the resources and expertise to build their own SOC with dedicated full time staff.

  • An outsourced SOC is an attractive option for smaller businesses. It is less capital intensive and can provide security expertise on demand.

  • A hybrid SOC combines in-house staff with outsourced expertise.

Location

The location of the SOC is a point from which security staff can monitor and defend against cyberattacks against applications, databases, data centers, servers, networks and endpoints.

SOCs can be deployed both on-premises or off-site, depending on whether the team is employed in-house or outsourced as a service. A SOC can also be virtual, meaning that there is no dedicated facility for the SOC, but the organization provides infrastructure that security and IT staff can access from their workstations. Together, these staff form a virtual SOC.

Technology

SOCs include a variety of security tools such as firewalls, SIEMs, vulnerability scanners, endpoint protection solutions, intrusion prevention and detection (IPS/IDS) systems, mobile device management (MDM) systems, and cloud security tools. All these make it possible to monitor, control, and secure the IT environment.

People

A successful SOC requires a team of IT security experts proficient in a variety of areas including:


  • Alert triage and prioritization

  • Incident response and escalation

  • Digital forensics

  • Advanced cyber threats and malware analysis

  • Relevant compliance standards like HIPAA, GDPR, and PCI DSS

Due to the global cybersecurity skills shortage, many organizations outsource at least some of these fields to fill in-house gaps in expertise.

Processes

When building an SOC, it is important to define a consistent and repeatable process. This process determines how SOC teams classify and investigate cybersecurity incidents.

One well established process is the NIST Computer Security Incident Handling Guide, which provides a 4-step framework for incident response in a SOC. The steps are:

  1. Preparation

  2. Detection and analysis

  3. Containment, eradication and recovery

  4. Post-incident activity

Security Operations Center Best Practices

Here are best practices you can use to make your SOC more effective.

Go Beyond Traditional On-Premise Environments

Cloud-based systems are becoming ubiquitous at organizations, and more mission critical systems are moving to the cloud. Organizations need to properly visualize and continuously monitor new environments such as the public cloud, Kubernetes, and serverless applications. SOC professionals must understand the security aspects of these environments and take responsibility over them, rather than being confined to the traditional “network perimeter”.

Collect as Much Data as Possible

SOC processes require visibility of all events that occur on servers and networks, and must enrich these events with the proper context (using threat intelligence, behavioral analysis, and other methods). This contextual data can help identify unknown and evasive cyberthreats that might be missed by traditional security tools.

Leverage Advanced Analytics

In modern IT environments it is no longer possible to mainly sift through all alerts to identify threats. All SOCs use some degree of automation for prioritizing, analyzing, and even responding to alerts. Modern security technologies such as user and entity behavioral analytics (UEBA), extended detection and response (XDR), and security automation and orchestration (SOAR) can help augment human intelligence with advanced analytics based on machine learning.

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