What is a Security Operations Center (SOC)?

A security operations center (SOC), also called an information security operations center (ISOC), is a central location where an information security team monitors, detects, analyzes, and remediates cybersecurity incidents, typically around the clock, 365 days a year.

The security team, comprised of security analysts and engineers, monitors all activity on servers, websites, databases, networks, applications, endpoints and other systems for the sole purpose of detecting potential security threats and averting them as quickly as possible. In addition, staff monitor relevant external sources (e.g., threat lists) that could have an impact on the organization’s security posture.

The scope of a SOC is not limited to detecting threats, but also extends to analyzing them, investigating the source, reporting on vulnerabilities discovered, and preventing similar incidents in the future. In other words, the team handles issues in real time while continuously looking for ways to optimize the company’s security posture.

There are also GSOCs (Global Security Operations Centers) that coordinate security offices located all over the world. If your company has offices across the globe, it may make sense to establish a GSOC (rather than SOCs at each location) to avoid repetitive tasks and functions, reduce overhead, and give the security team a comprehensive view of what is happening across the enterprise.

Below, we discuss the basic functions of a SOC or GSOC, as well as important considerations when setting up a SOC.

What is the significance of a SOC?

Cyberattacks are causing more and more damage to businesses. In 2018, billions of people were affected by data breaches and cyberattacks, and consumer confidence in companies’ ability to protect their privacy and personal data declined. Nearly 70 percent of consumers believe companies are vulnerable to hacking and cyberattacks and also say they are less likely to start or continue business relationships with companies that have already experienced data breaches.

Simply put, SOCs provide assurance that threats are detected and averted in real time. Broadly speaking, SOCs can:

  • Respond faster: The SOC provides a centralized, complete, real-time view of the security status of the entire infrastructure, even with multiple sites and thousands of endpoints. Problems can be detected, prevented, and resolved before they cause too much damage to the business.
  • Build consumer and customer trust: Consumers are already skeptical of most companies and concerned about protecting their data. By establishing a SOC to protect consumer and customer data, your company can gain trust. Then, if it succeeds in preventing data breaches, that trust will be maintained and strengthened.
  • Minimize costs: For many companies, there is a perception that setting up a SOC is prohibitively expensive. Yet a security breach – with data loss, corrupted data and customer churn – costs a company much more. What’s more, SOC staff ensure that your company is using the right tools and realizing their full potential. Wasting money on ineffective tools becomes a thing of the past.

These benefits are invaluable because they literally keep your business running. But is a SOC really absolutely necessary? If your company is subject to government or industry regulations, has suffered a security breach, or stores sensitive data such as customer information, the answer is a resounding yes.

 

Which tasks does a SOC have?

The SOC provides leadership in real-time incident response, promotes ongoing security improvements, and protects the organization from cyber threats. Using a complex combination of appropriate tools and personnel to monitor and manage the entire network, a well-functioning SOC can perform the following tasks:

  • Proactively monitor networks, hardware and software around-the-clock for threat and breach detection and incident response
  • Provide expert knowledge of all tools used in your organization, including third-party tools, so that security issues can be resolved quickly
  • Installing, updating, and troubleshooting software
  • Monitor and manage firewall and intrusion prevention systems
  • Scanning and troubleshooting antivirus, malware, and ransomware solutions
  • Email, voice, and video traffic management
  • Patch management and whitelisting
  • In-depth analysis of security log data from multiple sources
  • Analysis, investigation and documentation of security trends
  • Breach investigation to determine the root cause of attacks and prevent future breaches
  • Enforcement of security policies and procedures
  • Backup, storage and recovery

 

The SOC uses a number of tools that collect data from across the network and from various devices, monitor for anomalies, and alert employees to potential threats. However, the scope of the SOC goes beyond simply responding to acute problems that arise.

What is the function of a SOC when it is not detecting threats? The SOC is tasked with uncovering vulnerabilities inside and outside the organization through ongoing software and hardware vulnerability analysis, as well as actively gathering threat intelligence on known risks. Even when there are no active threats at the moment (which is rare given that a hacking attack occurs about every 39 seconds), SOC staff proactively look for ways to improve the security posture. Vulnerability assessment also includes actively attempting to penetrate one’s own system (penetration testing). In addition, security analysis is a core task of SOC staff. This involves the optimal use of suitable security tools in the company. It is determined what works and what does not.

Who works in a SOC?

The SOC is staffed by highly qualified security analysts and engineers, as well as managers who ensure that everything runs smoothly. These are professionals who have been specially trained to monitor and manage security threats. Not only are they trained to use a variety of security tools, but they also know the specific procedures to follow in the event of an infrastructure breach.

Most SOCs prefer a hierarchical structure for handling security issues, ranking analysts and engineers based on their qualifications and experience. For example, a typical team might be structured as follows:

  • Level 1: In a sense, the first line of defense in incident response. These security professionals watch for alerts, determine the urgency for each alert, and determine when to escalate to Level 2. Level 1 staff may also manage security tools and run regular reports.
  • Level 2: Staff at this level typically have more expertise, so they can quickly get to the bottom of a problem and assess which part of the infrastructure is under attack. They follow established procedures to troubleshoot problems, eliminate negative impacts, and flag issues that need further investigation.
  • Level 3: Employees at this level are highly skilled security analysts who actively search for vulnerabilities in the network. They use complex threat detection tools to diagnose weaknesses and make recommendations to improve the overall security posture of the organization. This group may also include specialists such as forensic investigators, compliance auditors and cyber security analysts.
  • Level 4: This level is composed of high-level executives with years of experience. This team oversees all SOC activities and is responsible for hiring and training staff, as well as evaluating individual and overall performance. Level 4 staff intervene during crises and, in particular, act as a liaison between the SOC team and the rest of the organization. They are also responsible for compliance with corporate, industry, and government policies and regulations.

What is the difference between a SOC and a NOC?

While the SOC focuses on monitoring and analyzing a company’s security status and detecting any threats around the clock, 365 days a year, a NOC, or Network Operations Center, primarily ensures that the network’s performance and speed meet requirements and that downtime is minimized.

SOC engineers and analysts keep an eye out for cyber threats and attack attempts so they can respond before a company’s data or systems are compromised. NOC staff, on the other hand, look for problems that could throttle network speeds or cause downtime. Both aim to use proactive, real-time monitoring to prevent problems before they affect customers or employees. In addition, both are looking for ways to make continuous improvements so that similar problems don’t occur again.

SOCs and NOCs should work hand-in-hand to manage major incidents or crisis situations. In some cases, SOC functions also reside within the NOC. NOCs may well be able to identify and respond to some security threats, especially related to network performance, if staff are properly trained and looking for those threats. Conversely, a typical SOC would not be able to detect and address network performance issues without investing in different tools and skills.

First steps

What are the best practices for building a SOC?

Best practices for running a SOC include: developing a strategy, creating enterprise-wide visibility, investing in the right tools, hiring and training the right people, maximizing efficiency, and designing your SOC to meet your specific needs and risks.

Develop a strategy: a SOC is a significant investment because so much depends on your security planning. When developing a strategy that meets your security needs, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What needs to be secured? A single local network or a global one? Cloud or hybrid? How many endpoints? Do you need to protect highly confidential data or customer information? What data is most valuable and therefore most likely to be the target of attacks?
  • Should the SOC be integrated into your NOC or should two separate departments be created? As a reminder, the functions differ significantly and integrating the two departments requires different tools and staff skills.
  • Do your SOC staff need to be available 24/7, 365 days a year? This has implications for staffing issues, costs and logistics.
  • Should all SOC tasks be performed in-house or do you want to outsource some or all functions to a third-party provider? A careful cost-benefit analysis will help you weigh the options.

 

Create visibility across your entire enterprise: Your SOC must have access to all elements that could impact security, even if they seem small and insignificant at first. In addition to the larger infrastructure, this includes device endpoints, systems controlled by third parties, and encrypted data.

Invest in appropriate tools and services: When building your SOC, focus on the tools first. Without proper automated tools to reduce the “noise” and bring the most important threats to the forefront, you will struggle to manage the flood of security events. Specifically, you should invest in the following tools:

  • SIEM (Security Information and Event Management): This single security management system provides a complete view of activity within your network by collecting, parsing and categorizing machine data from a variety of sources across the network, then analyzing that data so you can respond in real time.
  • Endpoint security systems: any device that connects to your network is vulnerable to attack. An endpoint security tool protects your network when said devices access it.
  • Firewall: A firewall monitors incoming and outgoing network traffic and automatically blocks access based on security rules you create.
  • Automated application security: Automates the testing process of all software applications and provides real-time vulnerability feedback to the security team.
  • Asset discovery system: Tracks the active and inactive tools, devices, and applications used on your network, enabling risk assessment and vulnerability remediation.
  • Data monitoring tool: Allows you to track and evaluate data to ensure its security and integrity.
  • Governance, Risk and Compliance (GRC) system: Assists you with required compliance with various rules and regulations.
    Vulnerability scanner and penetration testing: Enables your security analysts to search for vulnerabilities and identify hidden weaknesses in your network.
  • Log management system: Enables logging of the numerous messages from all software and hardware elements and endpoints running on your network.

 

Hire and train qualified professionals: Hiring qualified employees and providing them with ongoing training is a key component of success. The market for safety professionals is highly competitive. Once you have succeeded in hiring qualified employees, you should continuously invest in their further training. In doing so, you will ensure greater safety, higher motivation and strengthen employee loyalty. Your team needs to be knowledgeable in the following areas: Application and network security, firewalls, information assurance, Linux, UNIX, SIEM, and security engineering and architecture. For the highest level security analysts, the following qualifications are desirable:

  • Ethical Hacking: you need someone who will attempt to hack your system to uncover vulnerabilities.
  • Cyber forensics: analysts conduct investigations and apply certain analytical techniques to unearth and preserve evidence. Should a case go to trial, the security analyst must be able to provide a documented chain of evidence that can be used to understand what events occurred and why.
  • Reverse engineering: this is the process of decompiling or deconstructing or rebuilding software to understand how it works and, more importantly, where it is vulnerable to attack so the team can take preventative measures.
  • Expertise regarding intrusion prevention systems: Monitoring network traffic for threats would not be possible without proper tools. Your SOC personnel must be well versed in their proper use.

 

Review all of your options: The following are the most common types of SOCs.

  • Internal SOCs, usually with full-time employees who all work on-site. The internal SOC is located in a physical space within the company where employees go about their business.
  • Virtual SOCs are not on-site and are staffed by part-time employees or independent contractors who work together in concert to resolve issues as needed. The SOC and the business establish parameters and guidelines for the relationship. The support provided by the SOC can vary based on business needs.
  • Outsourced SOCs, where some or all functions are managed by an external MSSP (managed security service provider) that specializes in security analysis and response. Sometimes these companies provide certain services to support an internal SOC, and sometimes they perform all tasks.

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