What is a security operations center (SOC)?
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Published: 15 March 2024
Contributors: Mark Scapicchio, Amanda Downie, Matthew Finio

What is a SOC?

A security operations center (SOC) improves an organization's threat detection, response and prevention capabilities by unifying and coordinating all cybersecurity technologies and operations.

A SOC—usually pronounced "sock" and sometimes called an information security operations center, or ISOC—is an in-house or outsourced team of IT security professionals dedicated to monitoring an organization’s entire IT infrastructure 24x7. Its mission is to detect, analyze and respond to security incidents in real-time. This orchestration of cybersecurity functions allows the SOC team to maintain vigilance over the organization’s networks, systems and applications and ensures a proactive defense posture against cyber threats.

The 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. 

When not on premises, a SOC is often part of outsourced managed security services (MSS) offered by a managed security service provider (MSSP). The chief benefit of operating or outsourcing a SOC is that it unifies and coordinates an organization’s security system, including its 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. A SOC can also improve customer confidence, and simplify and strengthen an organization's compliance with industry, national and global privacy regulations.

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What a security operations center (SOC) does

SOC activities and responsibilities fall into three general categories.

Preparation, planning and prevention

Asset inventory: A SOC needs to maintain an exhaustive inventory of everything that needs to be protected, inside or outside the data center (for example 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 preventive maintenance such as applying software patches and upgrades, and continually updating firewalls, allowlist and blocklists, and security policies and procedures. The SOC can also create system backups—or assist in creating backup policies 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 and 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 or emerging threats and the associate costs. It also conducts penetration tests that simulate specific attacks on one or 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 who perpetrate them, gathered from social media, industry sources and the dark web.

Monitoring, detection and response

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 enables automation of incident detection and response.

Log management: Log management—the collection and analysis of log data generated by every network event—is an important subset of monitoring. 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 uses from the false positives—and then triages the threats by severity. Modern SIEM solutions include artificial intelligence (AI) that automates these processes and which '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, refinement and compliance

Recovery and remediation: Once an incident is contained, the SOC eradicates the threat, then works to recover the impacted assets to their state before the incident (for example wiping, restoring and reconnecting disks, user devices and other endpoints; restoring network traffic; restarting applications and processes). In the event of a data breach or ransomware attack, recovery might 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 might also try to determine whether 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.

Security operations center (SOC) benefits

A SOC provides numerous benefits to organizations, including:

Asset protection: The proactive monitoring and rapid response capabilities of SOCs help prevent unauthorized access and minimize the risk of data breaches. This will safeguard critical systems, sensitive data and intellectual property from security breaches and theft.

Business continuity: By reducing security incidents and minimizing their impact, SOCs ensure uninterrupted business operations. This helps maintain productivity, revenue streams and customer satisfaction.

Regulatory compliance: SOCs help organizations meet regulatory requirements and industry standards for cybersecurity by implementing effective security measures and maintaining detailed records of incidents and responses.

Cost savings: Investing in proactive security measures through a SOC can result in significant savings by preventing costly data breaches and cyberattacks. The upfront investment is often far less than the financial damages and risks to reputation caused by a security incident, and, if outsourced, replaces the need for staffing security professionals in-house.

Customer trust: Demonstrating a commitment to cybersecurity through the operation of a SOC enhances trust and confidence among customers and stakeholders.

Enhanced incident response: The rapid response capabilities of SOCs reduce downtime and financial losses by containing threats and quickly restoring normal operations to minimize disruptions.

Improved risk management: By analyzing security events and trends, SOC teams can identify an organization’s potential vulnerabilities. They can then take proactive measures to mitigate them before they are exploited.

Proactive threat detection: By continuously monitoring networks and systems, SOCs can more quickly identify and mitigate security threats. This minimizes potential damage and data breaches and helps organizations stay ahead of an evolving threat landscape.

Key security operations center (SOC) team members

In general, the chief roles on a SOC team include:

SOC manager: The SOC manager runs the team, oversees all security operations, and reports to the organization's CISO (Chief Information Security Officer).

Security engineers: These individuals 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 in application development cycles.

Security analysts: Also called security investigators or incident responders, security analysts are essentially the first responders to cybersecurity threats or incidents. Analysts detect, investigate, and triage (prioritize) threats; then identify the impacted hosts, endpoints and users. They then take 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 or SOC analysts, threat hunters specialize in detecting and containing advanced threats—threat hunting for 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 type of industry. 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.

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