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SecurityTrails Blog · Apr 14 · SecurityTrails team

What is a Security Operations Center (SOC)?

Reading time: 12 minutes

Organizations have found different ways to effectively protect their infrastructure against cyber attacks. Some standard cybersecurity practices involve firewalls, antimalware software and endpoint security tools, but many of these commonly used techniques are simply not enough to make you invulnerable. Not in the current threat landscape, anyway.

Attack vectors, tools and techniques are constantly evolving. And because standard security practices have been around for a long time, crackers have been around just as long—and have figured out how to circumvent those defenses. Any unknown threat or zero-day your defenses can’t protect you from can lead to malicious actors making their way into your network.

But it’s still important to keep these established defenses in place, and to really stay on track of malicious activity within your network. There needs to be constant monitoring and detection of outside threats, as well as proper incident response protocols to prepare for, detect, contain and recover from a data breach.

One effective strategy many organizations have been turning to is the implementation of a security operations center, or SOC.

SOC definition

A security operations center, or SOC for short, is a (mostly) centralized amalgamation of people, processes and technology that work to protect systems and networks of an organization through continuous monitoring, detection, prevention and analysis of cyber threats.

SOC teams usually consist of:

  • SOC managers - who oversee and manage the team, create processes and measures; and assess incident response and quality assurance, budget security solutions, and more.

  • Security analysts - who detect and analyze threats, and respond to them quickly. They often work to implement security measures as instructed by management.

  • Security engineers - whose role is to handle the security solutions and tools being used: they maintain them, find new tools and build and maintain security architecture and systems.

There are other roles an SOC might have, depending on the size of the organization. Sometimes they take a few of the responsibilities handled by the three roles mentioned above, and specialize in them for greater productivity. They may focus on being the incident responder, threat hunter, director of threat intelligence, digital forensic investigator, compliance auditor, etc.

SOCs analyze all system activity. By detecting threats through a set of processes, tools and technology solutions, they can quickly discover and respond to any threat and/or attack.

A human, technically proficient cybersecurity team is essential. Despite the sophistication of the automated tools and technologies used to protect an organization against all types of cybercrime, having humans oversee all activity—networks, servers, databases, applications, websites, endpoint devices, and more— adds a critical layer of security to the organizations’ defenses.

Other security solutions utilized by SOC teams are:

  • Firewalls

  • Intrusion detection systems (IDSs)

  • Security information and event management (SIEM)

  • Endpoint detection and response (EDR)

  • Vulnerability scanners

  • Sandboxing tools

  • Automation tools

  • Threat intelligence feeds

  • Interpretation and response tools

Although we often see SOC teams portrayed as a bunch of people in large, dark rooms, with numerous monitors displaying abstract, flashy codes and roadmaps, the truth is a lot less glamorous or flashy.

Security operations centers can consist of only a few individuals, or even a single analyst, using no more than 10 security tools; on the other hand, larger organizations may have a team that works in shifts providing continuous monitoring 24/7 and using up to 100 solutions in total. That’s right, 100—so it’s no wonder alert fatigue is an overwhelming challenge for many SOC teams.

SOCs are beneficial to organizations in many ways. Here’s how:

  • Continuous monitoring = continuous protection - With centralized and continuous SOC monitoring, detection of potential threats occurs in real time and is more effective.

  • Improved incident response - Continuous monitoring means less time from detection to response, sometimes resulting in nearly instantaneous incident response.

  • Seeing needles in the haystack - SOCs provide an overview of the entire organizational networks and infrastructure, and all potential weaknesses that may come from parts of the attack surface you wouldn’t normally monitor.

  • Knowing what matters - By feeding threat intelligence data into their security tools, SOCs can differentiate between real and not-so-real threats, and based on that, prioritize strategy and response.

  • Easier incident investigation - Once an incident occurs, investigation can take place promptly thanks to the thorough insight into security data an SOC provides daily.

  • Reduced costs - In the long run, it’s more affordable to employ a team of experts, giving you full control of your systems and networks. This will lessen the severity of data breaches as well as the amount of data breach costs.

Security operations centers can have many variables that group them in different categories, and their architecture can vary, but there is one main distinction between two types of SOCs as well as a compromise that can satisfy some organizations’ needs. Let’s take a look.

Types of SOCs

As we’ve now learned, a security operations center is a team of cybersecurity experts involved in all stages of threat monitoring, discovery, incident response and threat intelligence, utilizing different tools and solutions for those purposes. They’re often imagined as a centralized facility within an organization, with a full complement of monitors, a large team always keeping an eye on and maintaining the organization’s security posture.

But while an SOC can be an in-house team of experts, it can also consist of an external, outsourced team. It can even be a hybrid model, with certain security practices and activities conducted in-house, and others outsourced.

Let’s examine their main differences from a strategic standpoint, to help you decide which would be more beneficial for your organization.

Internal

Many organizations prefer to keep their security operations team in-house. This is likely due to organizations just not being comfortable with entrusting their most crucial data—and the stability of their network, systems and services—to the hands of third-party teams or entities.

The advantage of having an internal SOC is that the dedicated team of employees is already familiar and invested. They hold greater accountability to the organization, their data and their systems, and are more interested in keeping it all secure. This means they’re also more attuned to their challenges and weaknesses. When it comes to processes that require a deeper understanding of internal systems, such as security administration, security engineering, incident response and remediation, they’re almost exclusively done in-house.

As a part of the organization, an SOC team has established means of communication with other departments (such as development, engineering, management and support). Therefore, in the event of an attack, the communication and correlation of data is much faster.

All data regarding activity, threat intelligence and event logs is stored right there within the organization, meaning better control over one’s assets and lessening the potential for data loss. The organization also has at its disposal the benefit of circumventing “one size fits all” security solutions, tools and strategies, having customized them to suit their own architecture.

But, as with everything, there is no black or white. There is no universal, perfect formula for coming up with a security operations center; different organizational structures require different SOCs. While accountability, familiarity and a greater feeling of trust are important benefits of having an in-house team, there are some disadvantages.

If you want to build something from scratch, such as your own internal security operations team, be prepared to pay a higher cost. Hiring a dedicated team of security experts can take time and money. Even if you want to assemble a team of existing employees, that would mean one less person in different departments and one more person to hire in their place. This is especially true if you don’t have the structure to support less staff.

Those employees would also have to be trained for their new roles. Learning and maintaining new skills needed for certain technologies and processes requires a lot of time and a substantial budget.

Additionally, if there is a high volume of heterogeneous security tools and solutions used in an internal SOC, they’re seldom integrated together. This can make any action or activity lengthier and more complicated.

External

External or outsourced security operations centers are those where some or all of an organization’s security processes are performed by a third party. As internal SOCs usually handle more processes that require operational modifications to internal systems, activities driven by outside forces and externally-focused are more likely to be in the hands of a third party. These activities include penetration testing, threat research and analysis, digital forensics and red teaming.

A benefit of having a fully or partially external SOC is that you skip the hiring and training phase and gain immediate access to expertise that doesn’t need a long deployment time. These teams also maintain integrated and managed security tools and solutions, and are well-versed in their use, further expediting the deployment timeline.

Being experienced and highly specialized, external SOC teams are also more scalable. They’re the ones who usually provide 24/7 monitoring, are able to follow the threat landscape, and innovate at the same pace as attackers to perform threat intelligence services.

All of these benefits come together for the most frequently cited advantage of having an external SOC: reduced cost. But we can’t forget about the challenges that come with outsourced teams, too.

Although they’re a team of experts in their fields, they don’t possess the same level of knowledge of an organization’s internal infrastructures, quirks, issues and business processes that a dedicated in-house team does.

And now for a really big factor: the trust they’re afforded when it comes to an organization’s security. Not only is the team outsourced, all the data that is stored and analyzed is outsourced as well, leading to the expansion of the organization’s attack surface. While internal SOCs follow established security measures and procedures as sort of a given, having “outsiders” handle your data and infrastructure is always a bit risky.

SOC processes

Now that we’re fairly familiar with the security procedures, activities and types of security solutions an SOC team employs, let’s explore their procedures and how they go through a full cycle of protection against cyber threats.

Monitoring and detection

This is the first line of defense. Here, analysts watch for and identify the alerts that are detected by security devices or reported from external sources, prioritise them based on their urgency, then investigate them, collect reports, and manage all the security tools needed for action.

Some challenges always need to be addressed for this stage of the SOC process to be effective. These include deciding how best to process the volume of alerts, and determining which alerts are real and which are false positives. The answer often lies in automating threat verification with tools that can silence the noise to help in differentiating between the two.

Incident response

At this tier, incident responders deal with real threats, analyze them further, and assess the security incident to decide on the most effective strategy for eliminating and recovering from the attack. They perform attack scope and root cause analyses, develop attack remediation strategies, and identify and develop workflow automation to decrease response time, among other activities.

In the last step of this process, all data collected provides the team with information on how to adjust and improve their incident response plan.

Threat intelligence

At this point, analysts apply their knowledge to actively search for vulnerabilities in the network and hunt for threats, collect cyber intelligence data, and improve existing SOC systems and strategies. This is all to inform an organization’s security posture through developing mitigations and countermeasures, or even to thwart the threat.

It’s here where you’ll find more specialized roles engaged, such as digital forensic investigators and compliance auditors who use advanced threat detection tools and solutions. They also analyze numerous threat intelligence feeds and incorporate them into their already existing security solutions, for cyber threat intelligence that is relevant, punctual and actionable.

Quality assurance

This stage is reserved for management and CISOs who oversee all SOC activity and conduct hiring and training. They also assess incident reports, measure performance and ensure that strategies and compliances are being met, further reporting on all operations to high-level executives.

Security operations center best practices

Security operations centers can get overwhelmed. With alerts generated by numerous security tools and most of them false positives, analysts can waste time hunting false threats and real ones can be ignored. This scenario is entirely possible and one of the SOC-related problems you can expect down the road, so it’s important to follow best practices for running a security operations center that will truly keep your organization prepared for threats:

  • Automation: To analyze more real threats and security incidents, automating the SOC process will decrease the number of alerts analysts need to address. This allows them the chance to spend more time investigating real issues rather than combing through false positives.

  • Strategy: It’s important to establish a clearly defined strategy for your SOC. You need to know what you need secured, what type of SOC you need, assess your data and more, all to devise a complete strategy to keep your perimeter secure.

  • Threat intelligence: Threat intelligence data needs to be maintained constantly and up-to-date as it directly supports incident response processes. That data is collected both internally (i.e. event logs, alerts and incident response reports) and from different external sources, such as OSINT, threat intelligence feeds, news feeds, and more.

  • Don’t miss any assets: We can’t put enough emphasis on knowing about all the assets that make up your organization’s infrastructure. This lets you know exactly what you’re defending. Investigate all weak points to stop threats before they become actual attacks.

Conclusion

The bottom line is, every organization strives to secure their infrastructure against modern threats and decrease the likelihood of data breaches—but security structures, strategies and entities are not ‘one size fits all’. Security operations centers are among the best threat detection and prevention measures an organization can make.

Once thought of as only suited for large organizations and enterprises, this idea has been time and time again refuted by the effectiveness of SOCs with a hybrid architecture, supporting small as well as medium-sized organizations.

The right solution for you is completely dependent on your security needs and structure.


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