A Security Operation Center (SOC) is a centralized function within an organization employing people, processes, and technology to continuously monitor and improve an organization's security posture while preventing, detecting, analyzing, and responding to cybersecurity incidents.

A SOC acts like the hub or central command post, taking in telemetry from across an organization's IT infrastructure, including its networks, devices, appliances, and information stores, wherever those assets reside. The proliferation of advanced threats places a premium on collecting context from diverse sources. Essentially, the SOC is the correlation point for every event logged within the organization that is being monitored. For each of these events, the SOC must decide how they will be managed and acted upon.

Security operations staffing and organizational structure

The function of a security operations team and, frequently, of a security operations center (SOC), is to monitor, detect, investigate, and respond to cyberthreats around the clock. Security operations teams are charged with monitoring and protecting many assets, such as intellectual property, personnel data, business systems, and brand integrity. As the implementation component of an organization's overall cybersecurity framework, security operations teams act as the central point of collaboration in coordinated efforts to monitor, assess, and defend against cyberattacks.

SOCs have been typically built around a hub-and-spoke architecture, where a security information and event management (SIEM) system aggregates and correlates data from security feeds. Spokes of this model can incorporate a variety of systems, such as vulnerability assessment solutions, governance, risk and compliance (GRC) systems, application and database scanners, intrusion prevention systems (IPS), user and entity behavior analytics (UEBA), endpoint detection and remediation (EDR), and threat intelligence platforms (TIP).

The SOC is usually led by a SOC manager, and may include incident responders, SOC Analysts (levels 1, 2 and 3), threat hunters and incident response manager(s). The SOC reports to the CISO, who in turn reports to either the CIO or directly to the CEO.

10 key functions performed by the SOC

  1. Take Stock of Available Resources
    The SOC is responsible for two types of assets—the various devices, processes and applications they’re charged with safeguarding, and the defensive tools at their disposal to help ensure this protection.

    • • What The SOC Protects
      The SOC can’t safeguard devices and data they can’t see. Without visibility and control from device to the cloud, there are likely to be blind spots in the network security posture that can be found and exploited. So 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.

    • • How The SOC Protects
      The SOC should also have a complete understanding of all cybersecurity tools on hand and all workflows in use within the SOC. This increases agility and allows the SOC to run at peak efficiency.

  2. Preparation and Preventative Maintenance
    Even the most well-equipped and agile response processes are no match for preventing problems from occurring in the first place. To help keep attackers at bay, the SOC implements preventative measures, which can be divided into two main categories.

    • • Preparation
      Team members should stay informed on the newest security innovations, the latest trends in cybercrime and the development of new threats on the horizon. This research can help inform the creation a security roadmap that will provide direction for the company’s cybersecurity efforts going forward, and a disaster recovery plan that will serve as ready guidance in a worst-case scenario.

    • • Preventative Maintenance
      This step includes all actions taken to make successful attacks more difficult, including regularly maintaining and updating existing systems; updating firewall policies; patching vulnerabilities; and whitelisting, blacklisting and securing applications.

  3. Continuous Proactive Monitoring
    Tools used by the SOC scan the network 24/7 to flag any abnormalities or suspicious activities. Monitoring the network around the clock allows the SOC to be notified immediately of emerging threats, giving them the best chance to prevent or mitigate harm. Monitoring tools can include a SIEM or an EDR, the most advanced of which can use behavioral analysis to “teach” systems the difference between regular day-to-day operations and actual threat behavior, minimizing the amount of triage and analysis that must be done by humans.

  4. Alert Ranking and Management
    When monitoring tools issue alerts, it is the responsibility of the SOC to look closely at each one, discard any false positives, and determine how aggressive any actual threats are and what they could be targeting. This allows them to triage emerging threats appropriately, handling the most urgent issues first.

  5. Threat Response
    These are the actions most people think of when they think of the SOC. As soon as an incident is confirmed, the SOC acts as first responder, performing actions like shutting down or isolating endpoints, terminating harmful processes (or preventing them from executing), deleting files, and more. The goal is to respond to the extent necessary while having as small an impact on business continuity as possible.

  6. Recovery and Remediation
    In the aftermath of an incident, the SOC will work to restore systems and recover any lost or compromised data. This may include wiping and restarting endpoints, reconfiguring systems or, in the case of ransomware attacks, deploying viable backups in order to circumvent the ransomware. When successful, this step will return the network to the state it was in prior to the incident.

  7. Log Management
    The SOC is responsible for collecting, maintaining, and regularly reviewing the log of all network activity and communications for the entire organization. This data helps define a baseline for “normal” network activity, can reveal the existence of threats, and can be used for remediation and forensics in the aftermath of an incident. Many SOCs use a SIEM to aggregate and correlate the data feeds from applications, firewalls, operating systems and endpoints, all of which produce their own internal logs.

  8. Root Cause Investigation
    In the aftermath of an incident, the SOC is responsible for figuring out exactly what happened when, how and why. During this investigation, the SOC uses log data and other information to trace the problem to its source, which will help them prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.

  9. Security Refinement and Improvement
    Cybercriminals are constantly refining their tools and tactics—and in order to stay ahead of them, the SOC needs to implement improvements on a continuous basis. During this step, the plans outlined in the Security Road Map come to life, but this refinement can also include hands-on practices such as red-teaming and purple-teaming.

  10. Compliance Management
    Many of the SOC’s processes are guided by established best practices, but some are governed by compliance requirements. The SOC is responsible for regularly auditing their systems to ensure compliance with such regulations, which may be issued by their organization, by their industry, or by governing bodies. Examples of these regulations include GDPR, HIPAA, and PCI DSS. Acting in accordance with these regulations not only helps safeguard the sensitive data that the company has been entrusted with—it can also shield the organization from reputational damage and legal challenges resulting from a breach.

Optimizing a security operations model

While dealing with incidents monopolizes much of the SOC's resources, the chief information security officer (CISO) is responsible for the larger picture of risk and compliance. To bridge operational and data silos across these functions, an effective strategy requires an adaptive security architecture that enables organizations to enact optimized security operations. This approach increases efficiency through integration, automation, and orchestration, and reduces the amount of labor hours required while improving your information security management posture.

An optimized security operations model requires the adoption of a security framework that makes it easy to integrate security solutions and threat intelligence into day-to-day processes. SOC tools like centralized and actionable dashboards help integrate threat data into security monitoring dashboards and reports to keep operations and management apprised of evolving events and activities. By linking threat management with other systems for managing risk and compliance, SOC teams can better manage overall risk posture. Such configurations support continuous visibility across systems and domains and can use actionable intelligence to drive better accuracy and consistency into security operations. Centralized functions reduce the burden of manual data sharing, auditing, and reporting throughout.

Operationalizing threat management should start with a thoughtful assessment. In addition to defenses, an organization should evaluate processes and policies. Where is the organization strong? What are the gaps? What is the risk posture? What data is collected, and how much of that data is used?

While every organization is different, certain core capabilities and security operations best practices represent due care today. A reasonable threat management process starts with a plan, and includes discovery (including baseline calculation to promote anomaly detection, normalization, and correlation), triage (based on risk and asset value), analysis (including contextualization), and scoping (including iterative investigation). Threat management processes feed prioritized and characterized cases into incident response programs. A well-defined response plan is absolutely key to containing a threat or minimizing the damage from a data breach.

Threat Management Plan for a Security Operations Center (SOC)

Figure 1. Threat management plans integrate and structure many processes across security and IT operations.

Effective visibility and threat management will draw on many data sources, but it can be hard to sort out the useful and timely information. The most valuable data has proven to be event data produced by countermeasures and IT assets, indicators of compromise (IoCs) produced internally (via malware analysis) and externally (via threat intelligence feeds), and system data available from sensors (e.g., host, network, database, etc.).

Data sources like these are not just an input to threat management. They add context and make the information valuable and actionable for more precise, accurate, and speedy assessment throughout the iterative and interactive threat management effort. Access to, and effective use of, the right data to support plans and procedures is a measure of organizational maturity. A "mature" scenario would include a workflow that hands off the right information or permits direct action within operational consoles and across products. This flow integrates IT operations and security teams and tools into incident response when there is a critical event.

All these assessments will help prioritize where an increase in investment or reduction of friction is needed to make threat management implementation match goals. Consultants and penetration tests can help benchmark strategy and organizational maturity and health check security response against attacks to obtain a current measure of an organization’s ability to detect and contain malicious events. By comparing against peer enterprises, this vetted review can help justify and explain the need to redirect or invest in cybersecurity operations resources.