A security operations center, or SOC, is an organizational or business unit operating at the center of security operations to manage and improve an organization’s overall security posture. Its primary function is to detect, analyze and respond to cybersecurity events, including threats and incidents, employing people, processes and technology. Teams are responsible for managing security infrastructure and configuring and deploying various security solutions, tools and products. Just like other organizational units, there are several different roles and responsibilities within a SOC, from tier 1 analysts to specialized roles like threat hunters.
Typical core roles that make up a SOC team consist of different tiers of SOC analysts and dedicated managers. In their research, Manfred Vielberth, Fabian Böhm, Ines Fichtinger and Günther Pernul identify these main roles — each with a specific skill set — in a SOC team.
Tier 1 — Triage Specialist: Tier 1 analysts are mainly responsible for collecting raw data as well as reviewing alarms and alerts. They need to confirm, determine or adjust the criticality of alerts and enrich them with relevant data. For every alert, the triage specialist has to identify whether it’s justified or a false positive, as alert fatigue is a real issue. An additional responsibility at this level is identifying other high-risk events and potential incidents. All these need to be prioritized according to their criticality. If problems occurring cannot be solved at this level, they have to be escalated to tier 2 analysts. Furthermore, triage specialists are often managing and configuring the monitoring tools.
Tier 2 — Incident Responder: At the tier 2 level, analysts review the higher-priority security incidents escalated by triage specialists and do a more in-depth assessment using threat intelligence (indicators of compromise, updated rules, etc.). They need to understand the scope of an attack and be aware of the affected systems. The raw attack telemetry data collected at tier 1 is transformed into actionable threat intelligence at this second tier. Incident responders are responsible for designing and implementing strategies to contain and recover from an incident. If a tier 2 analyst faces major issues with identifying or mitigating an attack, additional tier 2 analysts are consulted, or the incident is escalated to tier 3.
Tier 3 — Threat Hunter: Tier 3 analysts are the most experienced workforce in a SOC. They handle major incidents escalated to them by the incident responders. They also perform or at least supervise vulnerability assessments and penetration tests to identify possible attack vectors. Their most important responsibility is to proactively identify possible threats, security gaps and vulnerabilities that might be unknown. They should also recommend ways to optimize the deployed security monitoring tools as they gain reasonable knowledge about a possible threat to the systems. Additionally, any critical security alerts, threat intelligence, and other security data provided by tier 1 and tier 2 analysts need to be reviewed at this tier.
SOC Manager: SOC managers supervise the security operations team. They provide technical guidance if needed, but most importantly, they are in charge of adequately managing the team. This includes hiring, training and evaluating team members; creating processes; assessing incident reports; and developing and implementing necessary crisis communication plans. They also oversee the financial aspects of a SOC, support security audits, and report to the chief information security officer (CISO) or a respective top-level management position.
In addition to the tiered roles, multiple technical and specialty roles exist, including:
SOCs were created to facilitate collaboration among security personnel, with a primary focus on security monitoring and alerting, including the collection and analysis of data to identify suspicious activity and improve the organization's security.
A SOC can streamline the security incident handling process as well as help analysts triage and resolve security incidents more efficiently and effectively. In today’s digital world, a SOC can be located in-house, in the cloud (a virtual SOC), staffed internally, outsourced (e.g., to an MSSP or MDR) or a mix of these.
SOCs can provide continuous protection with uninterrupted monitoring and visibility into critical assets across the attack surface. They can provide a fast and effective response, decreasing the time elapsed between when the compromise first occurred and the mean time to detection.
With security becoming a board-level topic, organizations are debating whether they need a SOC, what kind of SOC they need, and which components their SOC should include. While there are no specific guidelines to help organizations with their decisions, some best practices exist for scoping out their various options, including ensuring compliance regulations are met.
Whether one is building a physical SOC, a hybrid of cloud and on-premises, or partnering with a third party, some general benchmarks should be considered. Before starting, it’s important to note — to ensure success — that the project has an executive sponsor or “champion” as well as a strong business use case and budget for the long term. There are several ways that security teams can ensure the success of their SOC in any incarnation.
Beyond investing in security solutions and tools, the most important factor in any successful SOC will remain the human element. While machine learning and automation will undoubtedly improve outcomes like response times, accuracy, and remediation overall — especially for low-level, repetitive tasks — attracting, training and retaining security personnel, including engineers, analysts and architects, needs to be baked into any cohesive SOC strategy.
Leverage automation and machine learning to their full potential to augment and complement humans in security. Advanced analytics and AI can significantly reduce the time teams spend processing massive amounts of data in the enterprise to come up with critical security insights. By automatically detecting anomalous patterns across multiple data sources and also automatically providing alerts with context, machine learning today can deliver on its promise of speeding investigations and removing blind spots.
Security leaders can identify repeatable, low-level tasks that can work with human decision-making to help accelerate incident investigations. With too many manual processes involved in security operations and incident response (IR), including numerous threat feeds to monitor, investing in automation capabilities such as those in a SOAR solution can help orchestrate actions across the product stack for faster and more scalable IR.
Due to acquisitions, mergers and a lack of standardization for similar security products, many organizations are burdened with a disparate swath of tools across their security stack. One of the first steps an organization can take to reduce the security impact of tool sprawl is to audit protected systems and entities. Identify precisely what is being protected and what is being prevented from happening. Is it intellectual property? Customers’ personal information? By identifying as much as possible, whether software or physical assets, an organization can better prioritize protecting high-value and high-risk data. Having this end-to-end visibility can help identify gaps and potential threat vectors.
What are two non-technology problems that a SOC team often encounters?
SOC teams often face challenges related to people, including budget allocation issues and staffing shortages. Particularly with the move to new operating modes, finding trained, experienced personnel can be a considerable obstacle. Affording SOC staff with relevant knowledge and experience is the other side of the coin.
What is one of the most important advantages of having a SOC team?
A SOC team can provide 24/7 monitoring of an organization’s IT infrastructure and data. Cybercriminals are always on the prowl, making around-the-clock monitoring a necessity.
What are some essential questions to ask when considering outsourcing a SOC team?
Want to learn the basics of a Security Operations Center? Read our What is a SOC? article.