What Is a Security Operations Center (SOC)?
A security operations center (SOC) is a centralized unit responsible for monitoring and managing an organization's security posture. It is typically staffed by security professionals who are responsible for identifying, responding to and mitigating security threats. In short, a SOC team is responsible for making sure an organization is operating securely at all times.
What Does a SOC Do?
Security Operations Centers, or SOCs, were created to facilitate collaboration among security personnel. They streamline the security incident handling process as well as help analysts triage and resolve security incidents more efficiently and effectively. The SOC’s goal is to gain a complete view of the business’ threat landscape, including not only the various types of endpoints, servers and software on-premises but also third-party services and traffic flowing between these assets.
Key Functions of a SOC
Cybersecurity incidents can usually be identified and responded to by SOC staff who possess all the necessary skills. The team also collaborates with other departments or teams to share information with relevant stakeholders regarding incidents. As a general rule, security operations centers operate 24/7, with employees working in shifts to mitigate threats and manage log activity. Third-party providers are sometimes hired to provide SOC services for organizations.
The key functions of a SOC include:
- Monitoring and managing an organization's security posture.
- Developing and implementing security policies and procedures.
- Providing security awareness training to employees.
- Responding to security incidents.
- Analyzing logs, network traffic, and other data sources to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities.
- Performing vulnerability assessments.
- Providing threat intelligence reports.
- Designing and implementing security solutions.
The SOC team also provides incident response services, such as forensic analysis, malware analysis and vulnerability assessment. Additionally, they may provide threat intelligence services, such as threat intelligence reports and threat hunting.
Security incident handling requires these key functions, which security operations teams commonly deliver using a tiered structure that accounts for the experience levels of their analysts:
Tier 1 – Triage
Triage is the first level of the SOC. Tier 1 personnel are responsible for triaging incoming security incidents and determining the severity of the incident. This includes identifying the source of the incident, determining the scope of the incident and assessing the impact of the incident.
Tier 1 personnel are also responsible for providing initial response and containment measures, as well as escalating incidents to higher tiers if necessary. This is where security analysts typically spend most of their time.
Tier 1 analysts are typically the least experienced analysts, and their primary function is to monitor event logs for suspicious activity. When they feel something needs further investigation, they gather as much information as possible and escalate the incident to Tier 2.
Tier 2 – Investigation
Investigation is the second level of the SOC. Tier 2 personnel are responsible for investigating security incidents and determining the root cause of the incident. This includes analyzing logs, network traffic and other data sources to identify the source of the incident. Tier 2 personnel are also responsible for providing detailed incident reports and recommendations for remediation.
Tier 3 – Threat Hunting
Threat Hunting is the third level of the SOC. Tier 3 personnel are responsible for proactively hunting for threats and vulnerabilities in an organization's environment. This includes analyzing logs, network traffic and other data sources to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities.
Tier 3 personnel are also responsible for providing detailed threat intelligence reports and recommendations for remediation. The most experienced analysts support complex incident response and spend any remaining time looking through forensic and telemetry data for threats that detection software may not have identified as suspicious. The average company spends the least time on threat hunting activities, as Tier 1 and Tier 2 consume so many analyst resources.
How Is a SOC Structured?
For most organizations, cybersecurity has evolved into a major priority from its roots as a part-time function of the IT team. Some security operations teams still function as part of IT, whereas others are separated into their own organization.
The SOC architecture is the overall design and structure of a SOC. It typically consists of four main components:
- The SOC monitors and manages an organization’s security posture.
- The security operations manager (SOM) manages the day-to-day operations of the SOC.
- Security analysts monitor and analyze logs, network traffic, and other data sources to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities.
- Security engineers/architects design and implement security solutions to protect an organization’s environment.
SOCs may operate as part of an infrastructure and operations team, as part of the security group, as part of the network operations center (NOC), directly under the CIO or CISO, or as an outsourced function (wholly or in part).
SOC Hub-and-Spoke Architecture
The SOC hub-and-spoke architecture is a model for organizing a SOC. In this model, the SOC is organized into a central hub and multiple spokes. The hub is responsible for managing the overall security posture of the organization, while the spokes are responsible for monitoring and managing specific areas of the organization's security posture.
This model allows for greater flexibility and scalability, as the organization can add or remove spokes as needed. Additionally, the hub can provide centralized oversight and coordination of the organization's security operations.
Key SOC Roles and Responsibilities
The security operations staffing and organizational structure of a SOC typically consist of a security operations manager, security analysts, incident responders, security engineers/architects and security investigators:
- SOC manager: Responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the SOC, including developing and implementing security policies and procedures, and providing security awareness training to employees.
- Advanced security analyst: Responsible for proactively hunting for threats and vulnerabilities in an organization's environment. This includes analyzing logs, network traffic, and other data sources to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities.
- Incident responder: Responsible for responding to security incidents, including identifying the source of the incident, determining the scope of the incident and assessing the impact of the incident.
- Security engineer/architect: Responsible for designing and implementing security solutions to protect an organization's environment. This includes designing and implementing network security solutions, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems and antivirus software.
- Security investigator: Responsible for investigating security incidents and determining the root cause of the incident. This includes analyzing logs, network traffic and other data sources to identify the source of the incident.
Find out more about SOC Roles and Responsibilities, the key to your security operations success.
SOC as a Service (SOCaaS)
SOCaaS is a security model that allows a third-party vendor to operate and maintain a fully managed SOC on a subscription basis. This service includes all of the security functions performed by a traditional, in-house SOC, including network monitoring; log management; threat detection and intelligence; incident investigation and response; reporting; and risk and compliance. The vendor also assumes responsibility for all people, processes and technologies needed to enable those services and provide 24/7 support.
Find out more about the subscription-based SOC-as-a-service delivery model.
SIEM Solutions in a SOC
Security information and event management (SIEM) solutions are a type of security solution that helps businesses monitor and analyze their security data in real time. SIEM solutions collect data from multiple sources, including network devices, applications and user activity, and use analytics to detect potential threats.
SIEM solutions allow businesses to respond quickly to security incidents and take corrective action. For many SOCs, this is the core monitoring, detection and response technology utilized to monitor and aggregate alerts and telemetry from software and hardware on the network and analyze the data for potential threats.
Explore how SIEM solutions intertwine with SOC teams to identify potential security issues.
Security Operations Center Best Practices
The SOC team's primary focus is to implement the security strategy rather than develop it. This includes deploying protective measures in response to incidents and analyzing the aftermath. SOC teams use technology for data collection, endpoint monitoring and vulnerability detection. They also work to ensure compliance with regulations and protect sensitive data.
Before any work can begin, there needs to be a well-defined security strategy that is aligned with business goals. Once that's in place, the necessary infrastructure must be established and maintained. This requires a wide range of tools, features and functions.
The following are the best SOC practices for establishing a secure enterprise:
- Establish a SOC: Establish a centralized unit responsible for monitoring and managing an organization's security posture.
- Develop security policies and procedures: Develop and implement security policies and procedures to ensure that the organization complies with applicable laws and regulations.
- Implement security solutions: Implement security solutions, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems and antivirus software, to protect an organization's environment.
- Monitor and analyze logs: Monitor and analyze logs, network traffic and other data sources to identify potential threats and vulnerabilities.
- Provide security awareness training: Provide security awareness training to employees to ensure that they are aware of the organization's security policies and procedures.
- Perform vulnerability assessments: Perform vulnerability assessments to identify potential weaknesses in an organization's environment.
- Respond to security incidents: Respond to security incidents in a timely manner to minimize the impact of the incident.
Which Tools Are Used in a SOC?
SOCs use various tools for prevention, event logging, automation, detection, investigation, orchestration and response. Many SOC teams have multiple sets of siloed tools for different parts of their infrastructure. Research by analyst firms such as Ovum and ESG has found that the majority of enterprises use more than 25 separate tools in their SOCs. These tools might include the following:
- Network Intrusion Detection System (NIDS)
- Network Intrusion Prevention System (NIPS)
- Security Orchestration, Automation and Response (SOAR)
- Security Analytics Platforms
- Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR)
- Vulnerability Management Solutions
- Data Loss Prevention (DLP)
- Identity and Access Management (IAM)
XDR is a new class of detection and response tools that integrates and correlates data from the endpoint, the network and the cloud. XDR replaces several key tools security operations teams rely on and is designed to increase security visibility, efficiency and efficacy. For more on how XDR optimizes security operations, check out Cortex XDR.
Security Operations Center (SOC) FAQs
Q: Why is a SOC important?
A: Due to the necessity to prevent major cyber incidents, reduce threats, and the subsequent adoption of centralized security operations, security operations centers can provide a comprehensive approach to detecting, preventing and mitigating attacks. Having a dedicated SOC can provide continuous protection and uninterrupted monitoring to detect anomalous activity. A SOC can also provide proactive threat prevention and hunting via analysis and modeling. Having a diverse security team beyond the four analyst tiers (Tier 1: Triage Specialist; Tier 2: Incident Responder; Tier 3: Threat Hunter; Tier 4: SOC Manager) can provide broader and deeper coverage. Those roles include titles such as vulnerability managers, threat intelligence, malware, and forensic analysts.
“The Security Operations Center (SOC) represents an organizational aspect of an enterprise’s security strategy. It combines processes, technologies, and people to manage and enhance an organization’s overall security posture. This goal can usually not be accomplished by a single entity or system but rather by a complex structure. It creates situational awareness, mitigates the exposed risks, and helps to fulfill regulatory requirements. Additionally, a SOC provides governance and compliance as a framework in which people operate and to which processes and technologies are tailored.” – Security Operations Center: A Systematic Study and Open Challenges
Q: How can I improve my SOC?
A: Organizations need to take a page out of modern attack playbooks wherein well-funded threat actors are investing in new tools like machine learning, automation and artificial intelligence. Challenges from legacy SOC environments can include:
- Lack of visibility and context.
- Increased complexity of investigations.
- Alert fatigue and “noise” from a high volume of low-fidelity alerts generated by security controls.
- Lack of interoperability of systems.
- Lack of automation and orchestration.
- Inability to collect, process and contextualize threat intelligence data.
Investing in solutions that can consolidate a myriad of disjointed, siloed tools, improve MTTR and MTTI and alleviate analyst burnout is the proverbial path forward to stay ahead of today’s threats.
Q: How is a SOC related to SIEM?
A: SOCs commonly receive a barrage of security alerts in a single day, many of which are low-fidelity alerts, which overwhelm security analysts with false positives (i.e., an alert that incorrectly indicates that malicious activity is occurring). Consequently, the number of alerts is far more than most security teams are capable of effectively managing, with many going uninvestigated. A SIEM solution is intended to take some of the burdens from SOC analysts. Although a SIEM is not a requirement to have a SOC, the two work together to protect internal resources.