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Cybersecurity Fundamentals

The Modern Security Operations Center (SOC) Explained

Your organization's security operations team performs a vital role protecting users, applications, and assets from cyberattack. It uses a variety of highly specialized tools to monitor for signs of unauthorized activity and investigate security events when they occur.

Specialist security tools require specialist expertise. Centralizing security workflows in a single facility makes it easier and safer to coordinate complex security workflows without exposing sensitive tools or data to non-security personnel in the process.

Your Security Operations Center (SOC) is a purpose-built facility designed to protect your organization from security threats. There are many different types of SOC facilities in use today, but they all serve the same basic goal — detecting and responding to unauthorized activity.

Introducing the six sore SOC models

In 2017, Gartner distinguished between six core SOC models. Most SOCs fall into one of these categories:

  • Virtual SOC. This is a small-scale virtualized security enviroment usually staffed by part-time team members. It is typically only activated after a security incident occurs.
  • Dedicated SOC. This is a dedicated in-house facility staffed by in-house team members dedicated exclusively to security operations. This allows organizations to address security threats proactively. In-house dedicated SOCs can provide 24/7 coverage, but come with high costs.
  • Distributed SOC. This model includes both dedicated security personnel and semi-dedicated team members. When used with managed security service provider, it is called a co-managed SOC. It does not always provide 24/7 alarming and response coverage.
  • Command SOC. This is a specialized security operations center that coordinates with other operations centers, providing additional insights and expertise on an as-needed basis. It is rarely involved in day-to-day security operations.
  • Network Operations Center (NOC). This is a dedicated facility with a dedicated team that also conducts other critical IT operations apart from pure security. This is usually done to enable 24/7 network monitoring while reducing costs.
  • Fusion SOC. This model integrates multiple security functionalities into a single facility. For example, it may include operational technology (OT), computer incident response team (CIRT), and threat intelligence functions as well.

Many of these models can be built in-house or outsourced to managed service providers. The costs involved can vary considerably, especially for organizations that need 24/7 detection and response coverage.

How the SOC works

Security analysts

Security Operations Centers are staffed by security engineers who bring a wealth of unique training and expertise to their role. Security analysts are responsible for detecting unauthorized activity, launching investigations, and acting on their findings.

Most SOCs divide their analysts into three levels based on their experience and qualifications:

  • Tier 1 security analysts receive and investigate security alerts daily. They are responsible for triaging alerts and categorizing them based on their severity. When they encounter and verify a high-severity alert, they usually escalate the issue to a higher-tier analyst.
  • Tier 2 security analysts address security incidents according to operational security playbooks. This includes analyzes affected processes, carrying out in-depth investigations, and pinpointing affected systems.
  • Tier 3 security analysts usually deal with system-wide configurations and rulesets. They may conduct vulnerability assessments and manage penetration tests while carrying out long-term strategies for improving operational security performance.

In some SOC environments, analysts are directly involved in responding to security incidents. They may launch incident response playbooks that leverage advanced security technologies to isolate unauthorized processes, block malicious executions, and quarantine impacted assets.

SOC tools and technologies

There are thousands of cybersecurity tools and services available on the market, and no two SOCs use exactly the same tech stack and infrastructure. However, most SOCs focus on at least one of the core capabilities defined by the SOC Visibility Triad:

  • Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) platforms ingest log content from across the organization and analyze them in real-time. This gives analysts a single, centralized solution for security event data correlation across users, endpoints, applications, cloud workloads and more. Advanced SIEM solutions also provide User Entity and Behavioral Analytics (UEBA) that can detect insider threats and credential-based attacks.
  • Network Detection and Response (NDR) tools provide deep visibility into network traffic, identifying and analyzing anomalous traffic patterns to generate security insights. This enables analysts to detect lateral movement, block suspicious traffic, and prevent potential threats without giving attackers space to hide.
  • Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) solutions analyze and respond to security events taking place on endpoint devices like mobile devices, laptops, and computer workstations. Extended detection and response (XDR) enhances this protection to include cloud-hosted applications and identity-based monitoring, while enabling third-party security integrations.

Many SOCs include additional solutions on top of these core capabilities. For example, Lumifi offers curated threat intelligence, email security, and data observability solutions to customers as add-ons through its ShieldVision™ SOC service.

10 standard operations SOC personnel carry out

  1. Itemize IT assets and security resources. Your SOC manages the security configurations of the devices and applications your organization relies on every day. It also manages the resources your team relies on to secure these assets. This is achieved by establishing full visibility into your organization's IT infrastructure and updating it every time it changes.
  2. Prepare for security incidents and conduct preventative maintenance. Preventing threats costs much less than remediating them. SOC personnel constantly research new threats as they emerge and create new detection rules and incident response playbooks that mitigate the risks involved. They also update security tool configurations according to the latest threat intelligence data and ensure the SOC is in perfect working order.
  3. Continuous monitoring and threat detection. Round-the-clock security monitoring is crucial for quick, decisive incident response. Achieving 24/7 alarming and response coverage is an important goal for most SOC implementations, ensuring the SOC team is ready to launch response playbooks whenever attackers strike, day or night.
  4. Alert triage and investigation. SOCs process an enormous volume of system-generated alerts. The team must filter and categorize these alerts so they can process the most important ones first. Alert fatigue can set in if time and resource-intensive investigations are expended on every incoming alert and false positive.
  5. Incident response. When SOC analysts detect and confirm a threat, they must then launch a coordinated response to address it. This may involve quarantining assets, isolating endpoints, terminating malicious processes, and more. Highly automated SOCs are able to accomplish these complex tasks much faster than ones that rely on manual response workflows.
  6. Recovery and remediation. Once the immediate threat is addressed, your security team has to assess the damage and begin the recovery process. This process can involve lengthy investigations, verifications, and backup restoration. The more complex an attack is, the more challenging recovery may be.
  7. Root-cause analysis. After a security incident occurs, SOC managers must provide in-depth information about why it occurred, how it occurred, and what steps the organization can take to prevent similar incidents in the future. Root-cause analysis and incident reports help organizations continuously improve their security posture and response capability.
  8. Log management. Many security teams feed log data directly to their SIEM and store it there at great expense. When they run out of storage space, they have to decide between expanding storage or deleting logs. Efficient SOCs reduce costs and improve performance by implementing separate log management solutions like Lumifi Shieldvision™ SLM
  9. Proactive fine-tuning. Cybercriminals are constantly refining their operations and coming up with new ways to launch attacks. It's up to SOC personnel to make continuous improvements to their security measures and stay ahead of these developments, address false positives, and improve security architecture over time.
  10. Compliance management. The SOC is of critical importance to demonstrating and maintaining regulatory compliance with standards like GDPR, HIPAA, PCI DSS and others. In many cases, it's the SOC that has to implement compliance frameworks and conduct audits proving those regulations are being adhered to.

Three elements of a successful SOC strategy

Implementing a SOC is no small feat — especially if you want 24/7 coverage against suspicious activity. You'll need to carefully assess your organization's security strategy and come up with solutions for some of the challenges you'll face on the way to achieving your goals.

1. Alignment between security goals, capabilities, and budget

Your SOC plays an important part helping your organization reach its overall business goals. Aligning your security strategy with those goals is vital to ensuring your SOC deployment actually aligns with the organization's broader needs.

Simply building a SOC to improve your security posture isn't enough. This approach can easily result in misalignment that turns security processes into high-cost, low-impact tasks that don't address your real-world security needs.

Instead, you should focus on the size and scope of your security needs and the core functions that meet those needs. For example, consider the following:

  • Achieving 24/7 detection and response coverage requires hiring at least 7-8 security analysts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a tier 1 security analyst earns more than $110,000 per year.
  • SIEM, EDR, and NDR implementations are complex, resource-intensive projects that require specialist expertise. In-house analysts may not have the experience necessary to build a SOC from scratch.
  • Your existing technical infrastructure will need to be integrated seamlessly into your SOC. That might mean purchasing additional licenses and developing programmatic connections between multiple toolsets.

This means that building a small in-house SOC and achieving 24/7 coverage will cost more than $1 million in the first year alone. That puts dedicated SOCs out of reach for many organizations — and even so, many large enterprises still choose to outsource core SOC functions to managed security vendors.

2. Equipment that provides for optimal performance

Deploying an in-house dedicated SOC doesn't mean building everything from scratch. Even if you choose to exclusively staff your SOC with in-house analysts, you'll still need to equip them with the tools they need to detect and respond to threats.

As mentioned before, thousands of cybersecurity vendors are competing to sell you their tools and solutions. You'll need to select a security tech stack that meets your organization's needs, stays within budget, and corresponds to your analysts' skill sets.

While it's true that there open-source solutions exist for almost every kind of security tool you might need to implement, most security leaders prefer to work with reputable, best-in-class technology vendors they trust. This improves the quality and efficiency of security operations and makes it much easier to get expert support when needed.

Many security leaders take their SOC technology choices one step further by contracting reputable managed service vendors as part of their SOC strategy. This puts specialist talent in charge of handling technical implementation issues and makes valuable support available when its needed most.

3. Plenty of headroom for proactive security processes

Real-time monitoring is just one benefit of implementing a centralized security management system. Even a small SOC for a small company can generate an enormous daily volume of alerts. The more time security analysts spend responding to these alerts, the less time they have for high-impact, strategic initiatives.

Those initiatives include things like fine-tuning monitoring systems, creating new incident detection and response procedures, and incorporating threat intelligence insights into SOC operations. They may include leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate time-consuming security tasks.

If your security analysts are stuck in a cycle of reactive work — triaging alerts, investigating security events, and responding to incidents — they won't have enough time to improve security performance as your organization grows. Eventually, they won't be able to guarantee your organization's security capabilities without significant additional investments.

This is another reason why efficiency-minded security leaders choose to work with reputable managed detection and response vendors like Lumifi. The ability to extend your security team and its capabilities provides much-needed scalability and allows proactive, security-enhancing tasks to take place.

SOC-as-a-service solutions address the challenges of achieving operational security excellence

Navigating the build vs. buy decision is a challenge for IT leaders in every field, and it's especially difficult for IT security leaders. Your security team plays a crucial role ensuring your organization responds decisively to new and emerging threats and prevents potentially catastrophic data breaches.

At the same time, in-house SOC facilities are expensive to maintain, and they do not scale well with business growth. This often translates to intense personal pressure for analysts.

According to a 2023 study by the Enterprise Strategy Group and the Information Systems Security Association, more than half of cybersecurity professionals report their job is stressful most of the time. Half are considering changing their jobs, and nearly a third are considering leaving the cybersecurity field altogether.

At the same time, qualified cybersecurity analysts are difficult to recruit. Combined with high turnover and overwhelming conditions, keeping an in-house SOC staffed with competent, highly qualified analysts is increasingly out of reach for many organizations.

This is where managed detection and response vendors like Lumifi provide much-needed expertise and scalability to organizations with unmet security needs. The ShieldVision™ SOC automation service allows our SOC 2 Type II-compliant security operations center to act as an extension of yours, bringing specialist expertise and best-in-class technology to your organization as a managed service.

Our team of product experts can help you implement some of the world's most advanced security technologies. Speak to one of our specialists to find out how Lumifi can help you expand your security capabilities without ballooning your payroll budget.

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