An Introduction to SOC Automation
The Security Operations Center, or SOC, is the backbone of modern security operations. By centralizing security monitoring, detection, and response, SOCs help organizations manage security risks more efficiently and effectively.
But simply setting up a SOC doesn’t guarantee optimal security workflows. To get the very most from your SOC, you must automate its operations as much as possible. SOC automation allows teams to manage security threats with even greater speed, efficiency, and accuracy than they can in a SOC that relies on manual operations.
Keep reading for a dive into how SOC automation works, how to define SOC playbooks and workflows for your SOC, and which benefits SOC automation provides to both security teams and the business as a whole.
What Is a SOC?
A SOC (pronounced “sock”) is the part of a business that is responsible for managing security threats. Specifically, SOCs handle:
- Threat intelligence, meaning the collection of data about potential security threats and risks.
- Security monitoring, which allows security teams to detect active risks and breaches.
- Security analysis, or the process of investigating threats and breaches in order to identify their root cause and plan a response operation.
- Security response, meaning the processes by which the security team reacts to identified threats.
- Recovery, which involves restoring systems to a secure state following a security incident.
- Post-incident reporting and analysis, which teams use to evaluate why an attack occurred and plan strategies for preventing a similar incident from happening again in the future.
Although the term “Security Operations Center” may seem to imply that the SOC is an actual facility or physical location, that’s not always the case. Ultimately, a SOC is an organizational function. You don’t need all of your security analysts to sit in the same room in order to have a SOC. As long as there is a team within your business that handles the security tasks described above, you have a SOC in place.
What Is SOC Automation?
SOC automation is the process of automating some or all aspects of SOC operations. When you automate your SOC, you replace manual security workflows with automated ones.
For example, SOC automation might entail automatically collecting and parsing threat intelligence reports in order to identify which threat intelligence data is most relevant to your business based on the types of resources it relates to and the types of risks it addresses. You could perform this process manually, but SOC automation allows you to do it faster and with fewer staff resources.
As another example, SOC automation could take the form of automated security analysis. Instead of relying on engineers to investigate and analyze a threat manually, you could automate that SOC function using tools that assess the threat’s potential impact and trace it back to its root cause.
The Benefits of SOC Automation
The main reasons to consider SOC automation include:
- Speed: Automation helps security teams detect and respond to incidents faster.
- Efficiency: Automation allows the SOC to do more with fewer staff resources.
- Scale: Relatedly, automation helps the SOC to contend with threats of increasing volume and complexity without having to scale up the size of the security team.
- Better use of human capital: By automating routine aspects of security response, SOC automation allows engineers to apply their skills where they matter most: solving complex problems that require original thought and analysis, as opposed to performing mundane, repetitive tasks.
These advantages of SOC automation reflect the benefits of automation in general. However, given that the ability to respond quickly and efficiently is particularly critical in the context of security, automating the SOC arguably delivers even more value than automating other parts of the business. It’s nice to automate, say, the deployment of an application to a server, which would save a bit of time and effort. But it’s not absolutely critical. By contrast, detecting and remediating threats in as little time as possible with the help of security automation is absolutely essential for preventing risks from turning into active breaches.
Aren’t SOCs Always Automated?
It’s worth noting that, to a certain extent, virtually every SOC has some level of automation.
For example, security monitoring, which is one of the core functions of a SOC, is typically performed using tools that automatically collect and analyze data to reveal anomalies that could be the sign of a threat. SOCs may also automate some of the auxiliary processes required to drive security workflows, such as providing communication channels between stakeholders.
However, the typical SOC relies mostly on manual operations for handling more complex tasks. It doesn’t automate work like security analysis or response. Those processes are harder to automate because every threat or risk requires a different analysis and response process, so many teams perform them manually.
The goal of SOC automation, then, is to automate those aspects of a SOC that teams have conventionally managed using a manual approach. So, if your SOC is automated, you go above and beyond basic security automations; you automate the more complex and less predictable components of your security operations.
The Role of Playbooks in SOC Workflows
A fundamental building block of SOC automation is the security playbook. A playbook defines a security workflow by outlining the steps teams will take to handle different types of security incidents. By developing SOC playbooks ahead of time, teams avoid having to make a response plan every time an incident occurs.
That said, simply having playbooks on hand doesn’t mean that you’ve automated your SOC. In order to enable complete SOC automation, your playbooks must integrate with other security tools and workflows so that your teams can deploy the playbooks easily and efficiently.
For example, in a fully automated SOC, monitoring tools might detect a certain type of risk, then identify the playbook that the team should use to respond to it. Then, the SOC can automatically keep track of the team’s progress as it works through the steps defined in the playbook. The SOC may also generate automatic post-incident reports based on the procedures laid out in the playbook.
What If There Is No Playbook for My Cyber Incident?
Of course, it’s impossible to create SOC playbooks ahead of time that address every type of incident. There will always be situations that your team didn’t anticipate, and for which it therefore didn’t prepare a playbook.
Even in those situations, however, the playbooks you do have can be useful for minimizing the manual effort required to respond to a security incident. During the response planning stage, your team can build on or borrow from existing SOC playbooks to craft a response strategy for a novel threat.
As a basic example, imagine you have a cyber incident playbook that defines a response plan for handling malware after you discover it on a server, but the security incident you’re dealing with involves malware inside a Kubernetes environment, not a standalone server.
These are different scenarios because they involve fundamentally different types of infrastructure or hosting environments. However, there is still likely to be a lot of overlap in the response process to each threat. In both instances, your team would need to identify the type of malware, then determine the most efficient way to remove it.
So, although the removal process would probably be different if you’re dealing with containers (where you could most likely replace the infected containers with new containers based on clean images) as opposed to a server (where you may need to scrub the malware from the server because you can’t just drop a new server into place), the initial stages of the response process would be more or less the same. The playbook for server malware response could therefore serve as the basis for responding to an incident involving malware on containers, saving your SOC from having to plan a response totally from scratch.
Of course, in order to automate the response process, your SOC would still need to be able to recognize the similarities between a malware incident in both types of environments, then alert your team to the relevant playbook. This can be done, but it requires nuanced, sophisticated SOC automation. Automation that is based on simple rules (like linking monitoring alerts to specific playbooks) wouldn’t be enough in this case to help the SOC automate the response process as much as possible based on the available resources.
Building a SOC is one step toward modernizing security operations, but it’s not enough on its own. Organizations should seek to automate SOC as much as possible – even in cases where there is no preexisting playbook to guide response operations. SOC automation helps security teams work faster while also maximizing their chances of shutting down threats before they cause harm to the business.