A security operations center (SOC) – sometimes called an information security operations center, or ISOC – is an in-house or outsourced team of IT security professionals that monitors an organization’s entire IT infrastructure, 24/7, to detect cybersecurity events in real time and address them as quickly and effectively as possible.
An SOC also selects, operates, and maintains the organization’s cybersecurity technologies, and continually analyzes threat data to find ways to improve the organization's security posture.
The chief benefit of operating or outsourcing an SOC is that it unifies and coordinates an organization’s security tools, practices, and response to security incidents. This usually results in improved preventative measures and security policies, faster threat detection, and faster, more effective and more cost-effective response to security threats. An SOC can also improve customer confidence, and simplify and strengthen an organization's compliance with industry, national and global privacy regulations.
SOC activities and responsibilities fall into three general categories.
Asset inventory. An SOC needs to maintain an exhaustive inventory of everything that needs to be protected, inside or outside the data center (e.g. applications, databases, servers, cloud services, endpoints, etc.) and all the tools used to protect them (firewalls, antivirus/anti-malware/anti-ransomware tools, monitoring software, etc). Many SOCs will use an asset discovery solution for this task.
Routine maintenance and preparation. To maximize the effectiveness of security tools and measures in place, the SOC performs preventative maintenance such as applying software patches and upgrades, and continually updating firewalls, whitelists and blacklists, and security policies and procedures. The SOC may also create system back-ups – or assist in creating back-up policy or procedures – to ensure business continuity in the event of a data breach, ransomware attack or other cybersecurity incident.
Incident response planning. The SOC is responsible for developing the organization's incident response plan, which defines activities, roles, responsibilities in the event of a threat or incident – and the metrics by which the success of any incident response will be measured.
Regular testing. The SOC team performs vulnerability assessments – comprehensive assessments that identify each resource's vulnerability to potential threats, and the associate costs. It also conducts penetration tests that simulate specific attacks on one more systems. The team remediates or fine-tunes applications, security policies, best practices and incident response plans based on the results of these tests.
Staying current. The SOC stays up to date on the latest security solutions and technologies, and on the latest threat intelligence – news and information about cyberattacks and the hackers of perpetrate them, gathered from social media, industry sources, and the dark web.
Continuous, around-the-clock security monitoring. The SOC monitors the entire extended IT infrastructure – applications, servers, system software, computing devices, cloud workloads, the network - 24/7/365 for signs of known exploits and for any suspicious activity.
For many SOCs, the core monitoring, detection and response technology has been security information and event management, or SIEM. SIEM monitors and aggregates alerts and telemetry from software and hardware on the network in real time, and then analyzes the data to identify potential threats. More recently, some SOCs have also adopted extended detection and response (XDR) technology, which provides more detailed telemetry and monitoring, and the ability to automate incident detection and response.
Log management. Log management – the collection and analysis of log data generated by every network event – is a subset of monitoring that's important enough to get its own paragraph. While most IT departments collect log data, it's the analysis that establishes normal or baseline activity, and reveals anomalies that indicate suspicious activity. In fact, many hackers count on the fact that companies don't always analyze log data, which can allow their viruses and malware to run undetected for weeks or even months on the victim's systems. Most SIEM solutions include log management capability.
Threat detection. The SOC team sorts the signals from the noise - the indications of actual cyberthreats and hacker exploits from the false positives - and then triages the threats by severity. Modern SIEM solutions include artificial intelligence (AI) that automates these processes 'learns' from the data to get better at spotting suspicious activity over time.
Incident response. In response to a threat or actual incident, the SOC moves to limit the damage. Actions can include:
• Root cause investigation, to determine the technical vulnerabilities that gave hackers access to the system, as well as other factors (such as bad password hygiene or poor enforcement of policies) that contributed to the incident
• Shutting down compromised endpoints or disconnecting them from the network
• Isolating compromised areas of the network or rerouting network traffic
• Pausing or stopping compromised applications or processes
• Deleting damaged or infected files
• Running antivirus or anti-malware software
• Decommissioning passwords for internal and external users.
Many XDR solutions enable SOCs to automate and accelerate these and other incident responses.
Recovery and remediation. Once an incident is contained, the SOC eradicates the threat, then works to the impacted assets to their state before the incident (e.g. wiping, restoring and reconnecting disks, end-user devices and other endpoints; restoring network traffic; restarting applications and processes). In the event of a data breach or ransomware attack, recovery may also involve cutting over to backup systems, and resetting passwords and authentication credentials.
Post-mortem and refinement. To prevent a recurrence, the SOC uses any new intelligence gained from the incident to better address vulnerabilities, update processes and policies, choose new cybersecurity tools or revise the incident response plan. At a higher level, SOC team may also try to determine if the incident reveals a new or changing cybersecurity trend for which the team needs to prepare.
Compliance management. It's the SOC's job to ensure all applications, systems, and security tools and processes comply with data privacy regulations such as GDPR (Global Data Protection Regulation), CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act), PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act). Following an incident, the SOC makes sure that users, regulators, law enforcement and other parties are notified in accordance with regulations, and that the required incident data is retained for evidence and auditing.
In general, the chief roles on an SOC team include:
• The SOC manager, who runs the team, oversees all security operations, and reports to the organization's CISO (chief information security officer).
• Security engineers, who build out and manage the organization's security architecture. Much of this work involves evaluating, testing, recommending, implementing and maintaining security tools and technologies. Security engineers also work with development or DevOps/DevSecOps teams to make sure the organization's security architecture is included application development cycles.
• Security analysts – also called security investigators or incident responders – who are essentially the first responders to cybersecurity threats or incidents. Analysts detect, investigate, and triage (prioritize) threats; then they identify the impacted hosts, endpoints and users, and take the appropriate actions to mitigate and contain the impact or the threat or incident. (In some organizations, investigators and incident responders are separate roles classified as Tier 1 and Tier 2 analysts, respectively.)
• Threat hunters (also called expert security analysts) specialize in detecting and containing advanced threats – new threats or threat variants that manage to slip past automated defenses.
The SOC team may include other specialists, depending on the size of the organization or the industry in which it does business. Larger companies may include a Director of Incident Response, responsible for communicating and coordinating incident response. And some SOCs include forensic investigators, who specialize in retrieving data – clues – from devices damaged or compromised in a cybersecurity incident.
IBM Security QRadar XDR is the IT security industry’s first comprehensive XDR solution built with open standards and automation that unifies endpoint detection and response (EDR), network detection and response (NDR) and SIEM capabilities into one workflow. With QRadar XDR, SOCs can save valuable time and eliminate threats faster, by connecting insights, streamlining workflows, and leveraging AI to automate response.
The IBM Security QRadar XDR suite of solutions includes:
• QRadar XDR Connect, which integrates security tools, streamlines workflows, adapts to security teams’ skills and needs, and automates the SOC.
• QRadar SIEM, with intelligent security analytics that automatically analyzes log and flow data from thousands of devices, endpoints and apps on the network, providing actionable insight into the most critical threats.
• QRadar Network Insights, which provides real-time network traffic analysis, for the deep visibility SOC teams need to detect hidden threats before it’s too late.
• QRadar SOAR (security orchestration, automation and response), which codifies incident response processes into dynamic playbooks that help security teams respond confidently, automate intelligently and collaborate consistently.