Six Essential Ingredients for Building a Successful Security Operations Center (SOC)

Over years of my professional work and research, I found six ingredients absolutely necessary for success of any SOC, big or small. When you combine these ingredients with continuous improvement activities, you will get excellent business results. On the other hand, you miss one of these and everything falls apart.

For more than a decade since I got involved in helping businesses build security programs and operations centers, it has been quite a learning process. To make this body of knowledge available to the information security community, about two and a half years ago I started writing a book about building a Security Operations Center (SOC). As part of my research for this book. As part of my research, I have interviewed a large number of SOC practitioners, talked to CISOs, read thousands of research papers and reports, explored commercial and open source products, and created tools for budgeting purposes.

So what are those six essential ingredients? While three of them are typical people, process, and technology while others go beyond that as shown in the diagram below.

Essential ingredients for building a successful security operations center (SOC)
  1. People (SOC Staff) with different levels of expertise in diverse areas including networking, operating systems, applications, operations management, scripting, Python, vulnerability management, incident handling, forensics and others.
  2. Defined processes for tasks under the scope of SOC. While there are many SOC processes, effective incident detection and incident management is a key process for success of every SOC. A SOC may also rely on other IT systems/processes like asset management, change management, patch management etc.
  3. Technology Stack for collecting log and other types of telemetry data, storing data, and processing/analyzing data. Main technologies used in SOC include Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) tool, log collection, network sensing, ticket/incident management, forensic tools, and vulnerability management tools.
  4. SOC Governance structure that enables SOC management and continuous improvement while ensuring the business objectives of SOC are achieved.
  5. Carefully selected Data Sources provide high value in threat detection. People need to be careful and selective in determining the type and amount of data that is fed into the technology stack. More is not always better!
  6. Threat Intelligence is a must for the success of any modern SOC. It helps in proactive threat hunting and helps in automation, responding to threats at machine speed.

While these ingredients are necessary to build a successful SOC, continuous improvement activities are absolutely necessary to keep SOC effective and continuously deliver value. Continuous improvements require that SOC managers look for opportunities of improvement in all of these areas including training of SOC staff.

Also note that while building a SOC, you don’t necessarily need to have all of the SOC components in-house. You can make business decisions about what to keep in-house and where to get help from your security partners/vendors.

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Achieving Excellence in SOC Operations and Incident Response

Draft of Chapter 7 of my book “Cybersecurity Arm Wrestling – Winning the perpetual fight against crime by building a modern Security Operations Center” is complete and available for download. This chapter is about “Operate” part of the “Plan-Design-Build-Operate” strategy and covers such areas like:

  • SOC governance
  • Human Resource management
  • Incident Detection and Response
  • Managing SOC technology infrastructure
  • Build and Improve use cases 
  • Dealing with stress and SOC burnout
  • SOC reporting and metrics
  • SOC and meeting compliance needs
  • SOC best practices and pitfalls 

The chapter summary and recommendations include:

  • Importance of SOC governance can’t be emphasized enough. This is the most critical success factor for long-term success.
  • Hiring the right kind of people, training, managing their stress levels, and scheduling shifts is very critical as well.
  • The most important process for SOC is incident detection and response. Building and improving use cases, automation and use of SOAR technologies is part of it.
  • Applying ITIL processes to manage SOC infrastructure is quite important.
  • Meaningful metrics, automated reports, and dashboards do help not only in meeting compliance needs but also facilitate effective communications across broader IT teams as well as business leadership.
  • Last, but not the least, maintain a risk register, plan for next year, and always be ready to respond to data breaches.

The chapter can be download from the link below. However please note that this is a draft and will be updated in the final version of the book.

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What is a Next Generation SOC and does it Cost More?

Historically Security Operations Centers (SOC) have been a combination of people, processes, and technology designed to protect information systems, detect and respond to incidents to minimize damage. Many times SOC were built to meet fundamental needs for log collection and analysis, achieve compliance, and provide incident response. However, traditional SOC has morphed into a modern SOC concept where there is a lot more focus on building capabilities for early threat detection (both known and unknown), minimizing dwell time, and using automation to improve efficiency. The nature of SOC has also morphed from a reactive organization to proactive hunting to identify threats before they strike.

Traditional SOC

If you think about the traditional SOC, the focus areas were as follows:

  • Log collection from systems and applications/
  • Use Security Incident and Event Management (SIEM) solutions for correlations.
  • Developing use cases to identify threats.
  • Integrate vulnerability scanning data for risk scoring.
  • Provide incident response through SOC as well as extended IT teams (first responders).
  • Putting significant focus on achieving compliance while managing risk.

Capabilities of NextGen SOC

A modern NextGen SOC takes into account all of the capabilities of a traditional SOC. However, the focus has shifted from managing tools to building capabilities and from reactive approach to a proactive approach. Modern SOC design also uses new sources of telemetry beyond traditional Syslog data collection and discovering unknown threats. When you think about a modern SOC, following are some of the salient features and capabilities of a NextGen SOC.

  • Less focused on tools and more on capabilities as more and more SOC tools are now available in the Cloud and as-a-Service.
  • Threat intelligence integration is now an essential component of SOC.
  • Using automation to shorten analysis and response time through Security Orchestration, Automation and Response (SOAR) tools.
  • Proactive threat hunting, not only from internal telemetry data but also going outside of corporation boundaries and discovering threats through dark web research.
  • Finding unknown threats with help from machine learning techniques like anomaly detection and unsupervised learning.
  • Cloud telemetry integration and use of APIs.
  • Cater for convergence of IT/OT (Operational Technologies), including IoT.
  • User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA) going beyond just log data and known threat detection.

Businesses who have adopted nexgen SOC concepts see improvement in threat detection, quick incident response and better satisfaction of their staff as well as their internal or external customers.

Does a NextGen SOC Costs More?

Not necessarily. Many times it is just a cost shift. Efficiency is achieved through reducing mean time to resolve (MTTR) incidents through automation and proactive capabilities. Cloud based tools (e.g. Cloud based SIEM technologies) help in better cost management as well as capacity planning. What the security leaders need to do is to build cost models and business cases keeping in view the total cost of ownership.
SOC is a continuous and unending journey and a perpetual Cybersecurity Arm Wrestling with threat actors. Infosec leaders must continuously evaluate where they stand right now and where they should be going to achieve goals and provide value to businesses they support.

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Setting up Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT)

Once SOC analysts declare an event as a security incident, the CSIRT takes the ownership of the incident, take necessary actions and close it. The objective of CSIRT is to execute workflow for responding to the incidents once it is escalated by SOC analysts. The main reason of having a CSIRT is to keep SOC analysts primarily focused on threat monitoring activities instead of getting into response activities which may take long time and may divert their attention away from their primary goal of threat monitoring and detection. A typical high level workflow (corresponding to NIST incident response process) for CSIRT team is shown below that also shows collaboration between SOC analysts and the CSIRT.

CSIRT Incident Handling

Note than the CSIRT team will be working with the SOC analysts in some phases of the incident response whereas it will take lead in containment, eradication, recovery and post incident activities. However, collaboration among all stakeholders is crucial during incident response and you should not strive for drawing hard lines for where role of one team starts/ends as long as the responders are clear about who is the lead on certain activities.

ENISA and other organizations have published good material about CSIRT establishment, training, and handbooks in case you need further help.

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The Case for a SOC Conference

Credits Pixabay

The current model of building security operations center (SOC) is not sustainable. This is probably not a news for many of my readers. Working with many businesses, small to large and regional to international organizations, I have been thinking about this quite a lot lately. I have been publishing CISO MindMap for over eight years to explain and highlight complexities of work that security professionals have to do. With digital economy taking a foothold, the CISO’s work is just getting more complex as new technologies are adopted by businesses, strict privacy laws are enacted globally, and attack surface is expanding by each day. Networks are no longer confined to data centers or corporate offices, and older ideas of managing security operations are obsolete.

With digital economy taking a foothold, the CISO’s work is just getting more complex as new technologies are adopted by businesses, strict privacy laws are enacted globally, and attack surface is expanding by each day.

Working on my latest book “Cybersecurity Arm Wrestling – Winning the perpetual fight agains crime by building a modern Security Operations Center (SOC)” has made me even more convinced that something needs to change (or many things need to change depending upon how you frame the challenges). Managing cost of security programs is a challenge, SOC analysts are stressed out by overwhelming number of incidents, and CISOs are living in the constant fear of when the next data breach is going to happen and how would it impact their career. This can’t continue. It is not sustainable.

Why SOC Conference?

There is a need for major changes in foundational thinking about how to run security operations. Most security conferences are too generic and focusing on tactical and derived work. There is a need for new, original, and thought-provoking ideas to change our practices for managing security operating and optimizing risk. Our industry needs this badly. For these reasons, I have started thinking about a 3-day conference in 2021 to exclusively focus on SOC by gathering best minds and exploring new ideas.

What could/would be the Conference Focus Areas?

Per my initial exploration, following are some of the major areas of focus for the conference. However, I believe these would evolve and change as I get more feedback from industry leaders.

  1. Alternate models for the SOC of the future
  2. SOC for IoT, OT, Autonomous Vehicles and other emerging industry needs
  3. Implication of Cloud, Containers, Serverless Computing on SOC
  4. Threat visualization, Threat Intelligence
  5. Cooperative SOC for vertical markets
  6. SOC Innovation and frameworks, Meaningful Metrics
  7. SOC in the Cloud, SOC as a Service
  8. SOC People: Stress management and well being
  9. Automation, Machine Learning for SOC technologies
  10. Open source SOC
  11. Incident Response, Digital Forensics
  12. Planning and implementation, Business case development
  13. Emerging SOC technologies
  14. Global SOC challenges, privacy laws, data sharing across physical boundaries
  15. Integrations, APIs, Ticketing Systems
  16. Knowledge Management

Want to be Involved?

In the short team, I would like to create an advisory council for the conference. However, there are many other areas where help is needed. Please check and fill out this Google Form if you are interested in getting involved.

Final Thoughts

While upgrading SOC technologies, bringing in new tools, and continuously training SOC staff are all great things to do, these don’t solve the fundamental issue of long term sustainability of the SOC model itself. With expanding sources of data and ever-evolving new threats, we, as industry need to bring new thought process to question what we are doing today and what is the best path forward. The objective of this conference is to do exactly that by challenging the status quo and bring fresh and original thoughts to meet new challenges. 

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Managing Cybersecurity Program Cost

With COVID19 and expected budget cuts across the board, cybersecurity leaders must prepare for a shrinking slice of their share in 2021. While hoping for the best, it is still a prudent idea to take a more critical look at security programs and find ways of better/smart management of the overall budget for the program. So where should a CISO be paying attention to find waste and opportunities for smart budget management? Here are some ideas.

Remove redundancy and start consolidating

An average organization is using a large number of technologies, by some estimates as high as 47, according to a Ponemon survey. However, the majority of security leaders (53%) are not sure if their tools and technologies are actually working. It is time to stop buying more and more tools and start consolidating. When you start taking a deeper look, you will see there is a lot of redundancy in technologies that you own. You will also find that you can replace many of the existing technologies with a single new solution. By doing so, you will also improve user experience. For example, imagine how many endpints run slow because of a large number of agents running everywhere.

Eliminate shelfware

You have more shelfware in your organization than you think you have. Many vendors sell tools and technologies in the name of incentives that you never use. We need to stop falling for buy-one-get-one-free tricks.

Use Cloud based security services

Cloud has revolutionized security services by more innovation, less cost, and giving you ability to avoid vendor lock-ins. Consider the following as few examples:

  • Are you using an old full packet capture solution that requires an insane amount of local storage? You must consider new solutions that compress data and store it in the Cloud drastically reducing the cost.
  • Are you spending too much on maintaining honeypots and still not getting the value? Well you have new Cloud based options where modern deception technologies are available “as-a-service” with much lower cost and exceptionally improved functionality.
  • You know how much you spend on network segmentation to protect crown jewels. Why not look at software-defined zero trust technologies provided from the Cloud?
  • Traditionally organizations have been doing content filtering with on-premises technologies that are too difficult and costly to manage when you take into account total cost of ownership. Why not go to Cloud based web content filtering solutions that provide the shortest path to the Internet and protect users whether they are on private network or on public network or working from home.

These are just a few examples of how Cloud based security technologies can help but there are many other areas to look into. Like everything else, security services are moving to Cloud fast.

Use of Open Source Software

The fact is that we already use so much open software in all businesses, but we don’t realize its presence. For example, “all” medium to large size companies use Linux (which is open source). Majority of smartphones run on Android which is also open source. Apache is a common web server used in ecommerce environments, again an open source technology. Many commercial products, including commercial security products also run on Linux behind the scene. There is no harm in looking at open source tools when you are constrained for budget. In many cases, these tools are as good as commercial options, if not better. For example, ModSecurity is an excellent open source web application firewall. Why not consider it as part of Apache web server for hosting web applications? Same is true for many network and host based open source security tools.

Better Distribution of Program Cost

Security program cost optimization is a tricky issue but can be achieved by some creative thinking. Doing everything in-house could be costly and outsourcing the whole program could have its own drawbacks. A balanced approach is usually the best. One of the methods is to split the overall budget into three major areas as evenly as possible:

  1. People and Payroll – This also includes education and training of security staff.
  2. Technology and tools – Purchase of technology and tools needed to run the security program. It also includes subscription based security services.
  3. Services – Instead of building a large security team, it is a good idea to identify areas where a service provider would make sense and outsource it. For example, if you do malware analysis once in a while, it would make sense to use services from a third party instead of building a team for malware analysis.

How much do we Spend on Security Programs?

Last but not the least, this is a common question on many CISO’s minds and is asked in board meetings. How much spending on security programs is good enough? The answer depends upon the current maturity level of the security program, the industry sector, and the risk that an organization needs to manage. According to different surveys and research reports, a good percentage of companies spend between 10-20% of their IT budget on security, with a median around 15%. However in case of data breaches, the portion of the security budget as a percentage of the total IT budget may go quite high. If an organization is spending more than 30% of IT budget on security, there is a good probability that they had a recent major breach.


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Stress and SOC Staff Burnout

SOC staff is dealing with threats and investigations on regular basis every day. In many cases these threats are repetitive. Dealing with continuous onslaught of Cyber threats makes SOC staff stressed. Stress and burnout are real problem.

What is stress?

According National Institute of Health, MedlinePlus, “Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline. But when stress lasts for a long time, it may harm your health”.

Chronic stress results in burnout of SOC staff. Burnout is a state of mental and physical exhaustion due to prolonged stress that drains out energy.

Burnout is a result of constant stress. If you find a co-worker calling sick often or coming late to work, it may be a sign of burnout.

Burnout may also manifest in an otherwise efficient person taking longer to finish tasks.  

SOC manager should not only take care of themselves against these very real issues but also make sure SOC staff is healthy with a good work-life balance. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is for a successful SOC.

How to identify if SOC staff is stressed out?

SOC managers need to understand stress and take actions to minimize its impact on SOC staff. Every person takes stress differently while living through the same type of experiences. Prolonged stress results in exhaustion and results in visible signs of damage to one’s health. If you see a co-worker agitated, frustrated, or overwhelmed, it could be first sign of stress.

What SOC managers can do?

Well-being of SOC staff must be at the top of any SOC manager agenda. It is not only a good practice but is also essential for staff retention and operational efficiency of SOC. TO start with, managers must know:

  • What causes stress and burnout?
  • How to find if an employee is stressed out?
  • What managers can do to address this issue?

One of the ways stress manifests in terms of physical health is hypertension. The research in this area is well documented and largely accepted.

Following can reduce stress for SOC staff.

  • Flexibility of working hours
  • Reduce console time for staff, rotate their duties
  • Provide some time where staff can work on “things they like” or on “problems they want to solve”. 
  • Since triage of events could involve performing the same tasks over and over, work on tools and automation to minimize fatigue from these repetitive tasks. If you have not yet, consider investing in SOAR (Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response) tools.
  • Make sure staff members take vacation and other time off.
  • Celebrate successes, no matter how small they are.
  • Making sure staff gets time for lunch and breaks and are not too much absorbed in work such that they forget to take breaks.
  • It may not be a bad idea in investing in buying gym membership for SOC staff.

I would strongly recommend that each SOC should encourage SOC staff to check their blood pressure on regular basis. To address privacy concerns, an option should be provided to staff to buy and keep a blood pressure meter at home. Decent personal use equipment costs less than $100 and is a good investment in SOC staff health.

Another general recommendation is increase awareness of stress among SOC staff. One way to do so is to purchase few stress posters and place these on SOC walls as a constant reminder.

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CISO MindMap 2020: Summary of Recommendations for Updating Security Programs

Cybersecurity is a complicated business. Many people outside this profession don’t fully realize and appreciate the complexities of the job. CISO MindMap is an effort to educate public about Cybersecurity professionals’ job responsibilities. The MindMap also enables Cybersecurity professionals design and refine their security programs.

Each year, I also publish recommendations along with the updated MindMap to cover changes in threat landscape and impact of new technologies. The latest version of CISO MindMap includes eight recommendations to consider for updating your security program and roadmap. This paper provides a rationale behind these recommendations, why one should care about these and steps you can take to make a progress.

The eight recommendations included in CISO MindMap 2020 are listed below. The main objective of providing these recommendations is to help you consider specific focus areas that can bring significant value to your program, reduce risk, and enable business. These recommendations are based upon research reports from different security organizations, research, and my interactions with Cybersecurity leaders.

  1. Improve SOC analyst productivity with SOAR
  2. Reduction/consolidation of tools/technologies
  3. Better protection monitoring of Cloud
  4. Explore new architecture models like SASE
  5. Consider zero trust and secure enclaves
  6. Edge computing security
  7. Include deception technologies as part of security tools
  8. COVID19 and Work from Home

The attached paper provides a brief description of each of the above recommendation. Depending upon the current maturity level of your program, you may already be on a journey to explore or implement some of these recommendations. If you have not started yet, please note that these recommendations are provided to further improve and not necessarily as a replacement of any other parts of your overall security program. This list does not reduce importance of any other activities to manage risk to your organization. Phishing is still there, ransomware attacks are still happening and you still need to manage compliance needs!

Please download the PDF version of paper to get detail of each of these recommendation. Last, but not the lease, don’t forget to subscribe to this blog to keep updated on new developments and my upcoming book “Cybersecurity Arm Wrestling: Winning the perpetual fight against crime by building a modern security operations center” coming this winter.

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CISO MindMap 2020: What do InfoSec professionals really do?

Please note that an updated 2021 version of MindMap is available at

Most people outside Cybersecurity profession don’t fully realize and appreciate the complexity of security professionals’ job. I have been publishing and updating this MindMap for many years, not only as an effective educational tool but also enable professionals use this MindMap for designing and refining their security programs.

The latest version of CISO MindMap 2020 is here! COVID19 has forced every business to take unplanned actions. CISO’s had to enable work-from-home in a very short period of time to keep the business operational, and in many cases that work is still ongoing. If you say “I don’t like 2020 so far”, I may actually agree with you this time! I have to admit I am missing air travel and meeting with CISOs and other cybersecurity leaders in-person, although I used to complain about missing connecting flights. It was much better than getting stuck at home and staring at computer screen all day during video conference calls!

Download PDF version of CISO MindMap 2020

What is new?

What are some new areas that need your attention in 2020? Following is the list of recommendations, keeping in mind that you need to continue and improve what you have already been doing while considering these. This list does not make any other activities to manage risk as less important; Phishing is still there, ransomware attacks are still happening and you still need to manage compliance needs!

  • Improve SOC analyst productivity with SOAR
  • Reduction/consolidation of tools/technologies
  • Better protection & monitoring of Cloud
  • Explore new architecture models like SASE
  • Consider zero trust, secure enclaves
  • Edge computing security
  • Include deception technologies as part of security tools
  • COVID19 and Work from Home

You will find some text on the MindMap in red color which is to show changes since the last publication in 2019.

How to use CISO MindMap?

How many times people ask you about what you really do? Although the answer could be many things depending upon the context of the question and who is asking it, sending a copy of this MindMap could help. I have heard from many professionals that this MindMap is extremely helpful in explaining the complexity of a CISO job to business audience.

Using as poster, derived work, or commercial use – This is a copyrighted material but is made available for free to all with no strings attached as long it is not altered and not used to make money 🙂 When using this MindMap, please cite the source properly. Any derived work or commercial use requires written permission of the author.

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Run Away from People with Defeatist Attitude

While negativity usually becomes very toxic for any team fairly quickly, defeatist attitude is probably the worst. Defeatists give up even before trying and urge others to do the same. They fear change. “A defeatist is the opposite of an optimist. A defeatist is convinced that he’s going to fail, and he isn’t surprised when he does”. People with defeatist attitude are not only paralyzed to take any action, they spread despair to others bringing everyone down with them. When you find a defeatist, run away as this attitude can be quite contagious.

How to spot defeatist attitude? It is actually not quite difficult. People with this attitude some very specific characteristics, like:

  • They will always find how million different ways an initiative can/will fail
  • When asked for suggestions about anything, a defeatist will start with list of problems but seldom provide any solution
  • You will hear a lot of complaints
  • A defeatist is keen to transfer blame and responsibility to others
  • Defeatists will hesitate to take ownership of anything
  • You know you are taking to a defeatist when you hear comments like: “we tried it last year and it did not work”
  • They are looking for survival, not to accomplish anything
  • In discussions, they would mention strengths of their competitors and shortcomings/weaknesses of their team.
  • You will seldom hear much of “we will win” or “we are going to get it done” or “we are a great team, nobody can defeat us” type remarks
  • It would be a task to get them excited about new initiatives

This is a self-limiting behavior and toxic for any team, group, or startup that wants to achieve something big or challenge the norm.

You will be surprised that some defeatists may be quite vocal about voicing their opinion. Most of them fail to understand this behavior and actually think that they are helping while doing quite the opposite. This is one of the reasons behind my suggestion “run away from people with defeatist attitude”.

If you are a building a team or starting a new venture, try to identify this behavior during interviews by asking some probing situational questions using the list above. Remember, experience or skills can’t compensate for attitude.

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