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What is a Security Operations Center (SOC)?

The modern Information Technology environment has many threats that may have catastrophic consequences on the daily running of organizations. Resultantly, more organizations are embracing the idea of reinforcing their cybersecurity departments. Specifically, the development of a Security Operations Center is of great importance in preventing and solving security issues.

In this article, we have provided insights on the meaning and importance of the Security Operations Center. Moreover, we have provided extra information to justify the value of a SOC within an organization.

A Security Operations Center (SOC) is an operational center handled by cybersecurity experts with the responsibilities of surveying, evaluating, and protecting an organization’s data and network from cyber-attacks. Some of the systems monitored for cybersecurity incidences in a Security Operations Center include the internet, desktops, internal network infrastructure, servers, databases, IoT devices, servers, and endpoint devices. A SOC is usually fully staffed with professionals capable of detecting and mitigating potential cybersecurity threats. Also, the operation of a SOC is non-stop and round the clock for continuous cyber threat mitigation.

Nevertheless, a Security Operations Center (SOC) should work with other systems for optimal and proactive cybersecurity. Subsequently, any organization can set up its internal SOC or outsource from third-party service providers. Eventually, an effective SOC should continuously deal with real-time security problems to improve an organization’s security posture.

Types of Security Operations Centers

There are different SOC models an organization can apply. These include:

  • Self-managed SOC. This model is an on-premise facility with internal staff.
  • Distributed SOC. A co-managed model with part and full-time employees who work along with an external service provider.
  • Managed SOC. A full third-party managed model.
  • Command SOC. This model only provides intelligence insights and leaves actual security operations to other SOCs.
  • Fusion SOC. Fusion centers coordinate security initiatives among SOCs and other organizational departments.
  • Multifunctional SOC. This model uses in-house personnel who are also dedicated to other responsibilities such as network operations.
  • SOCaaS model. This model outsources all or partial SOC services to a cloud provider on a software or subscription basis.
  • Virtual SOC. Lastly, this SOC model applies a cloud facility, and it is run by a mix of in-house, on-demand, and cloud security teams.

Security Operations Staffing and Organizational Structure

While understanding the essence of a SOC, it is highlighted to be a self-sufficient department. Therefore, let’s also understand the staffing and basic organizational structure of a SOC. In its round-the-clock operation, a Security Operations Center (SOC) applies a lean structure for easier collaboration and coordinated efforts in threat management. Below is a hierarchal structure that categorizes cyber experts based on their experience and skillsets and is used in many organizations :

  • Tier 1: Composed of first incident responders who play the role of detecting threats and determining the urgency level and when to pass it to the second tier. At tier 1, personnel also have the capacity to run standard security reports and manage security tools.
  • Tier 2: This second level has more skilled staff capable of getting to a root problem and assess the specific infrastructure under attack. Subsequently, personnel in this tier follow repair procedures and flag any extra issues for further investigation.
  • Tier 3: With the advancement in operational tiers, the more skills and experience the respective personnel has. Specifically, this third level has highly skilled security analysts who actively search for network vulnerabilities. In addition, to help in the early detection of advanced threats, third-tier personnel apply advanced tools for detecting cyber threats, diagnosing a system’s weakness, and providing recommendations for overall security improvement. Other personnel in this level include a forensic investigator, security analysts, and compliance auditors, among other specialists with expert-level response capabilities.
  • Tier 4: This is the highest level of cyber-security mitigation and consists of chief officers and top managers with the highest experience levels. Staff from this category oversee the training, hiring, and evaluation of overall structure performance. Additionally, tier 4 plays the role of liaising the SOC with the rest of the organization during major incidents. Overall, tier 4 has the responsibility of meeting compliance requirements by government, industry, and organization.

These four security tiers work from a hub-point of Security Information and Event Management for correlating and aggregating collected security data. The secondary supportive systems include database and server scanners, intrusion prevention systems, GRC (Governance, risk and compliance system), EDR (endpoint detection and remediation), TIP (threat intelligence platform), UEBA (User and entity behavior analytics), and vulnerability analysis solutions.

Generally, a SOC manager coordinates the prevention and responses of cybersecurity incidents. Subsequently, at each of the three first tiers, there is a threat hunter who reports any security incident to the incident response manager. Finally, the fourth tier in communication with the rest of the organization reports to the CISO, who consequently reports to the CEO directly.

Having identified the organizational structure and staffing of a SOC, let’s identify the functions of SOC.

Functions of a Security Operations Center

The primary role of any SOC is to maintain optimal network security by preventing and resolving data breaches. Other important functions fulfilled by SOC include:

  • Round-the-clock behavioral monitoring. This function ensures equally effective proactive and reactive security breach measures to detect looming or existing attacks early. Accordingly, a security team will be able to distinguish between true and false positives.
  • Defense innovation and evolution. SOC staff do any malware analysis and develop long-lasting security solutions based on reactive and proactive security measures. However, most cyber threats evolve rapidly with the increasing potential of new threats. Therefore, SOC staff should be innovative to evolve security measures for readiness all the time relevantly.
  • Alert prioritization. Any organization’s cyber systems are faced with numerous threats. In that case, the role of a SOC team is to order and handle threats depending on severity to allocate the limited resources effectively.
  • Incident Recovery. A Security Operations Center should also recover lost or compromised data through backup systems, updates, and reconfigurations.
  • Asset management and Discovery. Any SOC should collect data on all tools, hardware, software, and technology of an entire organization. Subsequently, SOC’s function is to maintain and repair these identified assets through regular updates and patches.
  • Log management.  In the role of a data insider and security management, a security team should maintain user logs for easy pinpointing of actions that contribute to breaches. Essentially, all activity and communication logs should be maintained by Security Operations Centers.
  • Compliance management. Finally, a SOC has the function of ensuring all SOC personnel and the company as a whole follows organizational and regulatory standards during operations. Additionally, SOC has the primary role of educating organizational members.

Other subsidiary functions a SOC might perform include forensic analysis, cryptanalysis, reverse engineering, and network telemetry depending on an organization’s needs.

How to Optimize an Organization’s Security Posture

Understanding the functions and structure of the Security Operations Center should be accompanied by best practices for optimal security outcomes. Ideally, any organization should adopt a SOC model that suits its needs. Secondly, the identified SOC model should be staffed with the best-skilled specialists equipped with the appropriate technologies and tools.

It is also critical that an organization synchronizes the automation tool with technical skills for a quicker incident response time for a more effective SOC functionality. Such synchronization should be supported with continuous training on the latest threats, vulnerabilities, and solutions for effective security analysts. Similar, the tools used by a SOC team should always be up-to-date for optimal functionality.

Furthermore, any SOC should have effective, updated, and relevant strategies for fast, consistent, and successful responses. Eventually, a Security Operations Center should maintain full visibility of the whole organization through intensive maintenance and data analytics. Fundamentally, data will foster a healthy security posture together with convenient and appropriate business processes.

What are the Tools Included in a Security Operations Center?

Tools and technology have been identified as key components of an effective SOC. This section will identify some of the diverse tools cybersecurity analysts apply to maintain optimal IT security within organizations. These essential tools include:

1. Intrusion Detection Tools

These are intrusion detection systems (IDS) that play the role of early attack detection. Such tools employ the known attack patterns and intrusion signatures to pick out any potential security threats.

2. Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) Tools

SIEM tools provide the foundations for SOC through the capacity to identify threats within large data amounts. These tools apply threat intelligence systems to identify and prioritize potential dangers.

3. Vulnerability Assessment Tools

Besides detecting potential threats, there are tools for identifying potential gaps that can be used to infiltrate a system. For example, vulnerability assessment tools help security personnel spot system gaps. Accordingly, some regulations and certifications require period vulnerability evaluations as proof of compliance.

4. Asset Discovery Tools

This category of tools works to identify and maintain a directory of an organization’s IT assets. In addition, these tools help manage security controls depending on the security needs of the different organization’s IT assets.

5. Behavioral Monitoring Tools

In addition to other security tools, SOC team members should be equipped with a User and Entity Behavioral Analytics (UEBA). These SOC monitoring tools employ user behavior and machine learning patterns to identify security risks.

Benefits of a Security Operations Center

Primarily, SOC enhances security incident detection through continuous monitoring and evaluation of organization’s networks and cyber intelligence realizations. Besides detection, SOC teams also help in early responses to security incidents.

Other key benefits of SOC include:

  • Enhanced incident response time and management practices
  • A decreased time gap between compromise and detection
  • Uninterrupted security monitoring and evaluation
  • Pooling of security resources, software, and hardware assets for holistic approaches
  • Optimized collaboration and communication for effective reactive and proactive responses
  • Cost-saving by preventing damage that could have been caused by security incidents
  • Increased security transparency and control
  • Enhanced security for sensitive data
  • Compliance with government regulations and industry standards

Challenges of a Security Operations Center

Despite the benefits of a Security Operations Center, it continues to face increasingly complex responsibilities. Some of the challenges that organizations face while setting up a SOC include:

  • High volumes of security alerts, creating possibilities of missed threats and SOC overwhelming. Subsequently, an organization might need the application of both advanced systems and advanced monitoring tools, which might come at hefty prices.
  • The increasing complexity of many organizations. Subsequently, organizations should employ automation capabilities for easy management of complex systems.
  • Increased costs due to intensive workforce investments and resources required for effective threat aversion. Setting up an internal SOC can be expensive, making companies opt for third-party SOC providers and cloud technology that are not cheap.
  • The shortage of cybersecurity professionals also hampers SOCs in many organizations. Due to the increased demand for limited cybersecurity professionals, there is a skills shortage building a sufficient in-house security solution.
  • Finally, many Security Operations Centers face the challenge of compliance with government and industry regulations. This challenge is imminent, especially with the constant changes in regulations due to the dynamic current threat landscape.

Security Operations Center (SOC) vs. Network Operations Center (NOC)

A Security Operations Center and Network Operations Center function on the common principle of investigating, identifying, prioritizing, and fixing problems. These two systems apply teams of personnel for effective network and security maintenance. However, the individual teams of SOC and NOC are skilled different in cybersecurity and networking, respectively.

Additionally, a NOC is distinct from a SOC because it relates to network performance. Subsequently, a NOC will require network monitoring, configuration, and checking for device malfunctions. Another significant difference between SOC and NOC is that security issues under SOC are intelligent and are mostly caused by external sources, while network issues occur naturally. As a result, SOC handles virtual cybersecurity incidents, while NOC handles physical equipment and hardware.