What is a SOC (Security Operations Center)?
A security operations center (SOC) is a centralized facility that unifies an organization’s security monitoring across all IT infrastructure. SOCs function as a hub for information security personnel and the processes and technology needed to detect, monitor, and remediate cyber threats through real-time data analysis.
How Does a SOC Work?
SOCs generally work through a hub-and-spoke model. A SOC relies on a Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) system to correlate and aggregate event data generated by applications, security devices, data centers, cloud resources, and other systems in an organization’s IT ecosystem.
The SIEM system gathers such data from several different technologies that use methods, such as machine learning and data analytics to provide meaningful insights.
In a hub-and-spoke SOC, the ‘spokes’ feed data to the SIEM, usually consisting of the following components:
- Firewall: Prevents malicious intrusions from accessing a network via the Internet by blocking unauthorized access.
- Intrusion Detection System (IDS) / Intrusion Prevention System (IPS): An intrusion detection system (IDS) monitors a specified network and sends alerts when malicious network/system activity and policy violations are detected. An intrusion prevention system (IPS) offers the same monitoring and detection capabilities but can also prevent intrusions as they occur.
- Governance, Risk, Compliance (GRC) Tool: Ensures an organization’s operations are complying with applicable rules and regulations, like GDPR, CPAA, HIPAA, PCI DSS, etc.
- Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) Tool: An Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) tool provides endpoint security for devices connected to the network.
- Log Management System (LMS): Centralizes data from various network endpoints by aggregating and storing log files into one location.
- Vulnerability Scanner: Helps with vulnerability management by checking networks, computers, and applications for known vulnerabilities, and identifying new vulnerabilities.
- Penetration Testing: Penetration testing reveals existing system, network, and application vulnerabilities and the method by which a threat actor could exploit them.
- Application Security Tool: Provide software applications with full lifecycle protection against external threats.
- Asset Discovery Tool: Monitors active and inactive network assets to identify any undetected vulnerabilities.
- Data Monitoring Tool: Tracks and analyzes data across networks, systems, and applications to ensure adherence to data security standards.
- Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR) Tool: Uses automation and digital workflows to streamline incident analysis and response procedures.
- User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA): Identifies regular network usage trends to establish a pattern of expected behavior and detects anomalous behavior to highlight suspicious activity, especially insider threats. UEBA is also used to reduce the number of false positives that are detected.
- Threat Intelligence Platform (TIP): Gathers and organizes threat intelligence data from a variety of sources and formats.
SOC staff will leverage some or all of these tools, depending on their role in the SOC team.
SOC Team Roles
SOC staff also work to improve an organization’s security posture, using the various security tools available to identify and remediate any vulnerabilities.
SOC staffing follows a hierarchical structure, determined by the level and area of expertise of each team member. In a typical SOC hierarchy, there are four tiers of team members:
Tier 1 - Analysts
Tier 1 analysts are the frontline responders to SIEM alerts, performing triage to determine the priority of any security issues that need to be escalated to Tier 2 analysts. They are also responsible for managing and configuring security monitoring tools.
Tier 2 - Analysts
Tier 2 analysts manage security alerts escalated by Tier 2 analysts, such as security breaches. They have a higher level of expertise than Tier 1 analysts, including experience with advanced forensics, threat intelligence, and in-depth malware detection. After identifying the root cause of any cyber attacks, Tier 2 analysts then plan and execute remediation efforts.
Tier 3 - Analysts
Tier 3 analysts have additional skills responsibilities to Tier 2 analysts. For example, threat hunters are highly competent in identifying any network vulnerabilities using advanced threat detection tools. Other Tier 3 analysts include:
- Forensic investigators
- Compliance auditors
- Cybersecurity analysts
Tier 4 - SOC Manager
Tier 4 is the highest level of the SOC hierarchy. SOC managers have the specialized knowledge of a Tier 3 analyst, with additional leadership and management skills. They are responsible for practices such as:
- Overseeing the entire SOC team’s activities, performance, and training
- Leading the response plan during major security incidents
- Facilitating communication between the SOC team and broader organization
- Upholding regulatory, industry, and operational compliance
The SOC manager reports directly to the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), who then reports to either the Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
Types of SOCs
There are 7 different types of SOCs, which are classified based on their location and staffing.
- Dedicated (Self-managed) SOC: Located on-premises and run by in-house staff.
- Distributed (Co-managed) SOC: Hybrid model consisting of a mix of in-house SOC analysts working in conjunction with a third-party managed security service provider (MSSP).
- Managed SOC: Fully managed by a third-party MSSP.
- Command (Global) SOC: Operates with other SOCs in a global network to provide intelligence information and other security guidance.
- Multifunction SOC (SOC/NOC): A dedicated SOC, employed with staff who perform both SOC and NOC (Network Operations Center) functions.
- Virtual SOC: No dedicated on-premise facility, usually managed by part-time employees or an MSSP who respond to major security incidents and alerts.
- SOCaaS (SOC-as-a-service): An outsourced cloud-based SOC service that organizations can use for complete or partial SOC functionality.
SOCs allow organizations to optimize many of their cybersecurity practices and offer many benefits, including:
1. Faster incident response times
As SOCs operate from a central location, staff can detect and prevent cyber threats in real-time across all endpoints.
As SOC alerting is streamlined through a SIEM system, SOC analysts receive meaningful event data that they can immediately act upon.
2. Reduced costs
The establishment costs of a SOC may deter executive buy-in, but the cost of a data breach is much more expensive. For example, ransomware attacks and third-party data breaches are both cause organizations significant financial losses. Regulatory fines and recuperation costs add to these already hefty damages.
All industries should prioritize the protection of sensitive data like Personally Identifiable Information (PII), and the health and financial sectors must also protect additional data types like Protected Health Information (PHI) and Payment Card Industry (PCI) data, respectively.
3. Operational efficiencies
As SOCs operate from a centralized location, information security teams can detect and respond to incidents much more effectively than siloed structures.
The close collaboration between all SOC team members allows organizations to enact their cybersecurity practices much more efficiently. For example, many SOCs operate 24/7 - allowing for continuous security monitoring and real-time detection and response capabilities.
The use of an attack surface management solution also helps provide real-time insights and rapid response times through automation.
4. Enhanced visibility
As an increasing number of organizations turn to SASE models that facilitate secure cloud computing, remote work, and bring your own device (BYOD) policies, gaining granular visibility is now much more complicated.
SOCs allow organizations to assess the security posture of their entire infrastructure from a single vantage point by collating insights from disparate security tools.
SOC Best Practices
Building a SOC involves implementing the new operations, functions, and roles - which are inevitably resource-intensive tasks. Every organization will have a unique set of requirements and challenges to consider.
Below are some universal best practices for establishing a SOC at your organization.
Establish a ‘human-first’ approach
While many innovative security tools now exist to help identify and prevent cyber attacks, sophisticated intrusion methods are now emerging at rapid rates and such technologies simply cannot keep up on their own. Organizations must prioritize human involvement in IT risk management and monitoring to ensure all major security incidents, such as data breaches, are handled effectively.
Keep up-to-date on security trends
SOCs require a significant amount of in-depth threat intelligence to detect and defend against threats. SOC monitoring tools can only operate effectively if they are regularly updated with the latest intelligence by SOC team members.
The use of automated cybersecurity tools, like an attack surface monitoring solution, helps improve threat detection and remediation speed and capabilities. Such technology allows SOC teams to better allocate their time and resources to more specialized tasks.