What is a SOC?

Written by Andy Smith on 03/09/2020

What is a SOC?

SOC stands for a Security Operations Centre, and it is a centralised unit within a company or another organisation that manages people, technology and processes to make sure all security measures are in place. It is designed to prevent cyber threats in the first place, detect and analyse them if they take place, and plan an incident response.

The SOC must know every event logged within an organisation to properly monitor the movements and be able to detect any abnormalities. It seems like in today's digitised world, full of the various cyber threats, SOC services can make or break your company's success.

Hackers can strike at any time from anywhere in the world, which means businesses have to be on guard 24/7

Why is a Security Operations Centre important?

A modern dynamic business needs to be proactive about their cyber security. A data breach can be costly, with latest estimates said to be (on average) around £3.18 million, and reputational damage can be even harder (or impossible) to recover from. Hackers can strike at any time from anywhere in the world, which means businesses have to be on guard 24/7.

This is where the Security Operations Centre comes in

. The SOC and the trained security analysts behind it are integral to maintaining good security and stopping threats before they cause damage to the business they are monitoring.

A Security Operations Centre or SOC is a central unit that oversees a company’s security through the use of people, procedures and technology. The idea is to detect and protect against cyber threats by collecting data in one central location, processing it with the latest technology and having trained security analysts conduct investigations on any alerts and anomalies raised.

Organisations of any size are open to cyber threats, and with cyber criminals using more and more sophisticated hacking software, protection has become an increasingly challenging task.

As a consequence, businesses are exploring new programmes and services to defend themselves against cyber attacks, and the integration with a security operation centre is becoming increasingly popular.

Our Security Operations Centre
Our Security Operations Centre protects hundreds of customer per month

What does a SOC do?

A SOC protects a corporate network by combining technologies and incorporating a variety of internal and external threat intelligence data. The SOC (or rather the SIEM technology used by the SOC - but more on that later) will detect threats via log analysis taken from a variety of endpoints across the business. These threats will be raised according to predefined rules which can be configured to suit any organisation.

These events can then be investigated by a trained security analyst to determine the true cause and extent of the problem.

First of all, the SOC must see everything that's going on within an organisation. That includes the use of devices, conducted processes, used applications, as well as all the defensive tools that are in place. Without full visibility, even the SOC service won't be effective.

The SOC is constantly updating, looking for vulnerabilities to get rid of, securing the firewall, checking applications, and more. You can support SOC services by educating yourself and your employees on the topic of cyber threats, threat intelligence, and your implemented security measures.

Then, the SOC keeps monitoring the network within your organisation, and it never really stops, using SIEM, EDR, or other monitoring tools. It ensures that any potential threat will be identified and analysed as soon as it arises so that it can be handled. The SOC's design aims for prioritising issues. Thanks to its thorough analysis, it can be determined which problems are more burning and what will be the right incident response in each, individual case.

But that's not where the SOC activities end - it will also help you in the aftermath by restoring and recovering data that may have been lost during the incident. Additionally, the unit will investigate the attack to make sure you know what happened and what you can do to prevent it in the future. After that, your SOC can update and improve.

SOCs must monitor 24/7 to be effective
SOCs must monitor 24/7 to be effective

What is a managed SOC?

A managed SOC is an external Security Operations Centre that monitors environments on behalf of other businesses. Often referred to as an outsourced SOC service, companies will pay a simple, affordable monthly retainer fee rather than build their own SOC. It is sometimes referred to as a SOC as a service SOCaaS. It takes the worries and responsibilities from the shoulders of the organisation. You, as a company, will be able to focus on your work, knowing that you are properly protected by specialists.

Managed SOC is an outsourced SOC option that gives you access to 24/7/365 security monitoring along with a whole security team

Managed SOC vs Dedicated SOC

A managed SOC is an outsourced SOC option that gives you access to 24/7 security monitoring along with a whole security team. These are best suited for businesses that don’t yet have a monitoring strategy. A managed SOC is often quick to set up and is usually sold as a software as a service (SaaS) model, meaning it can expand with your business.

A dedicated SOC provides organisations with dedicated teams made up of experienced analysts to complement existing security strategies. These are best suited for businesses that have their own security technology but are struggling to find the staff to cover 24/7 monitoring

Why do you need a Security Operations Centre?

A Security Operations Centre is vital to maintaining a strong security posture. Loaded with powerful SIEM software, a SOC will help monitor and protect against threats. Cyber criminals are active at all times everywhere in the world, and a fully staffed SOC will help prevent hackers from compromising your environment.

More and more compliance packages are making some form of log monitoring mandatory. It’s an essential part of PCI DSS, for instance. Without a SOC gathering the right information, it will be difficult to tell if you are under attack or worse, have been breached. Dwell time, the time it takes to detect a breach, is a serious issue, and the right monitoring helps keep it to a minimum.

If you are breached, investigating the root cause will be difficult if you haven’t been gathering the right data. A SOC that has archived logs appropriately means all evidence and indicators of compromise will be preserved for digital forensic analysis.

The hardware involved will vary, but a SOC will be using a complex SIEM system to correlate and analyse logs

What tools are used by a Security Operations Centre?

The hardware involved will vary, but a SOC will be using a complex SIEM system to correlate and analyse logs before flagging security events to analysts for investigation.

SIEM stands for Security Information and Event Management and encompasses the technological aspect of a SOC. What goes into a SIEM can differ depending on the product but will often include cyber defences such as:

  • Intrusion detection systems (IDS)
  • Intrusion protection systems (IPS)
  • File integrity monitoring (FIM)
  • Web application firewalls (WAF)
  • Data loss prevention (DLP)
  • Vulnerability scanning (VA)

A log collector will pass the log data onto the SIEM, which will correlate them into meaningful groups. There will often be some behavioural analysis involved, and activity will be compared to a set of rules unique to each environment.

Should I build my own SOC?

There are some benefits to building your own SOC, such as:

  • The SOC will be dedicated to your organisation (analysts will be focussing purely on your environment), but it's possible with an outsourced service as well
  • Analysts will work for you and be able to take immediate and direct action
  • The software can be designed for your environment (if built yourself)
  • It may be easier to make configurations directly
  • You won't have to reply on third parties

However, building a SOC is time-consuming and expensive. Even if using off the shelf software and hardware, the most basic SOC will require a large budget. Plus there are staffing costs to consider. A worthwhile SOC will be staffed 24/7, so you will need to hire enough staff to cover round-the-clock shifts, whilst also taking a holiday and sick pay into account.

The difficulty here is that there is a huge shortage of qualified cyber security experts with nearly 3 million cyber security roles looking to be filled. Trained analysts with the skills to effectively investigate alerts are expensive assets. This means that in-house SOCs are typically the preserve of large multinational corporations only.

Increasingly, organisations are following the trend of outsourcing SOC obligations

Outsourcing your SOC

Increasingly, organisations are following the trend of outsourcing SOC services. There are many benefits to this model, with the costs being the biggest one. Paying a monthly fee to a reputable vendor will give you access to the latest tech, along with the skilled staff needed to monitor and investigate alerts.

The difficulty here with in-house specialists is that there is a considerable shortage of qualified cyber-security experts. There are around 2.93 million unfilled cyber-security positions, and the average salary for a full-time SOC analyst (junior) is around £27,000.

With outsourcing, you can relax, knowing your business is covered by qualified experts 24/7 at a fraction of the cost of hiring in house.

The benefits of outsourcing include:

  • Significantly reduced cost
  • Access to qualified and experienced staff
  • A wider range of threat data
  • Any upgrades will usually be applied to your service automatically
  • You don't need to worry!

What is the difference between a NOC and SOC?

A NOC (Network Operations Centre) and a SOC (Security Operations Centre) can sometimes be seen as complementary, but they are fundamentally different services. A NOC is concerned with responding to incidents that affect the availability and performance of services. By contrary, a SOC is concerned with the protection and integrity of information. To put it simply, a NOC responds to technical faults and events that risk downtime, while a SOC responds to events regarding security.

To help you get your head around this, here's the Dr Seuss version

"A NOC keeps sites going around the clock. But if it's hackers you wish to block, you will definitely need a SOC. If the day presents numerous technical events, take stock! You, good sir, need a NOC. If day and night, you want oversight of all your digital assets; if you want to see where hackers flock, you want a SOC and all its facets"

A CSIRT responding to a security event... they might not always look this cool
A CSIRT responding to a security event... they might not always look this cool

CSIRT versus SOC

CSIRT and SOC often come up within similar contexts, but they are, in fact, different terms. A SOC, as we have established, is the Security Operations Centre. The go-to analogy is to think of the SOC as the brain of a cyber security team. A CSIRT (Computer Security Incident Response Team) is a department that may work with a SOC, but who is responsible for responding to security events, coordinating strategies and forensics investigations.

Both teams seek to detect and respond to security events, but a SOC tends to focus more on the ongoing monitoring of staff, systems and applications whereas the CSIRT team tends to take prompt action to minimise damage in the event of a security incident.

The SOC Lifestyle

The threat landscape is always changing, so SOCs need to keep up. A good SOC will constantly undergo reconfigurations to suit a business’s activity better and reduce false positives. Up-do-date threat information should be shared with a SOC to catch the latest evolving attacks - this is known as the SOC lifecycle. SOCs should always be adapting and evolving. Again, unless you’ve chosen the outsourced or managed option, this can incur significant cost in time and resources.

There are numerous benefits to outsourcing your SOC obligations, cost being the biggest one

Start-up and requirements capture

When setting up a SOC, either in-house or outsourced, it’s vital that you understand what you are buying and that your provider understands your requirements. In the beginning, it’s integral that your provider/designer knows:

  • Your core business objectives
  • Your infrastructure/environment
  • Expected traffic (e.g. do you communicate regularly overseas?)
  • Data retention requirements.
  • What assets are most important
A good SOC team will work with you to understand your businesses requirements
A good SOC team will work with you to understand your businesses requirements

If you are outsourcing, it's also essential that you and your provider establish all the relevant procedures, such as initiating change requests and maintenance alerts. Failing to do this could lead to alarms being raised unnecessarily, alerting you and your staff and risking that a real threat will be ignored in the future.

Before deciding on any option, it's essential for businesses to understand:

  • What's your potential vendor's precise offer? E.g. they may provide tiered services
  • Poutsourced SOC teams will usually not be able to make changes in your cyber environment immediately unless stated otherwise
  • Is the vendor reliant on other third parties?

Other elements, such as KPIs, SLAs and escalation processes, will need to be established at the start of any working relationship and tweaked where necessary.

Best practices for running a SOC

Running a successful SOC is a complex process that relies on having a strong and knowledgeable team. However, some of the best practices include:

  • Making sure your SOC has full visibility of your data across the entire organisation (strong alignment between the SOC and other security intelligence tools is key) - only then can it protect it effectively
  • Aligning the SOC with your company's objectives to ensure nothing stands in the way of the security measures
  • Conducting an asset audit beforehand to make sure you identify and handle all the vulnerabilities
  • Setting up the right team, which means the combination of people with various helpful skills, e.g., specialists for managing and alerting, for recommending the correct measures, a threat hunter, etc
  • Making private all the services that you feel shouldn't be exposed
  • Creating and testing an escalation procedure and incident response system to be sure that everything will go smoothly and ensure your company's safety in the case of an attack
  • Starting to define rules to establish a pattern of the right behaviour and defining normal user behaviour - you won't really be protected if your employees don't know how to operate without making your company vulnerable
  • Using devices wisely - you need to know which kinds of devices are best for your operations and if they are properly secured, plus, they need to be possible to integrate with your particular security system
  • Ensuring 24/7 coverage – hackers can strike at any time

Monitor, investigate and protect

A Security Operations Centre is a vital part of any successful security strategy. Unfortunately, building an in-house, dedicated SOC is beyond the means of most businesses. But on the bright side, outsourced services are incredibly effective whilst also being affordable. Monitoring your business environment, investigating threats and conducting ongoing threat hunting will help keep your information safe from cyber criminals. If you don't have any safety measures in place, there's no time to lose - hackers wait for no one!

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