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The state of the SOC: skills shortages, automation and gaining context remain a challenge for SOCs

By Contributor, Mon 10 Jan 2022

Article by ThreatQuotient APJC regional director, Anthony Stitt.

The security operations centre (SOC) has been on the front line facing the pandemic-induced escalation of cybersecurity threats in the past eighteen months. A 2020 study found that the average security operations team receives more than 11,000 alerts per day (the figure is likely to have grown in the intervening period).

While they were deeply engaged in responding to the crisis, SOC teams simultaneously faced the disruption common to all formerly office-based workers. They were switching to remote working and learning how to continue collaborating successfully with colleagues at a distance.

As SOCs consider the changes and challenges of the past year, there’s an opportunity to explore some of the factors that characterise the modern SOC and issues experienced in this crucial sector.

After collecting and analysing the views of security analysts and team managers from a broad spectrum of industry sectors, the following key findings have been put together as priorities for equipping SOCs for the future:

The cybersecurity skills shortage continues to bite

A continuing issue: the number one barrier preventing full utilisation of a SOC’s capabilities is a lack of skilled staff. 

Supporting in-house skills development should be a key priority for SOC leaders. It doesn’t just improve SOC performance but also encourages staff to remain long-term with the organisation. The most common tenure for a SOC analyst is between one and three years, but training opportunities and career development are the key factors that encourage employee retention.

There are further benefits to growing your own expertise. For example, the top “missing skill” in teams was threat hunting experience, which can be costly to bring in from outside. Threat hunting and intelligence monitoring are the activities most commonly outsourced by the SOC. Yet, these are two areas where intimate knowledge of internal systems and infrastructure considerably improves effectiveness.

Suppose analysts can acquire these skills and are supported with tools that lift the burden of intelligence assimilation. In that case, this will amount to a double benefit for the business: they retain key staff and build stronger internal capability in the areas that would most benefit.

Work from home becomes the norm

Linked to the challenge of staff retention are changes to the work environment. Unsurprisingly, 87% of security analysts and team leaders surveyed said that working from home was permitted in their organisation. It may have raised some issues around how to collaborate effectively, but the general success of remote working has liberated SOC analysts.

Where previously they may have looked for employment within an easy commute, now they can search further afield. This means organisations will have to work harder to attract and retain employees and gives analysts greater leverage over pay and working conditions.

This should lead to a greater focus on analyst workload, which is long overdue. Currently, organisations lack an appropriate method of calculating analyst workload. The majority of survey respondents say their SOC doesn’t calculate it, and the next most common answer is that they use a basic time-per-ticket method. With 83% of SOCs operating 24/7 and most of these delivering this capability through in-house resources, managing workload is important to maintain team wellbeing.

As the workforce embarks on the “great resignation”, all the above factors should sound warning bells alerting employers that they need to develop and protect their employees if they want to retain them.

Automation and data context drive efficiency and security improvements

Another efficient way to mitigate the impact of escalating workloads on the SOC is through automation and orchestration, and here teams are also struggling. Automation and orchestration were only just behind skills shortages as the most significant challenge facing SOCs.

When you are short of staff and skills, mundane, repetitive and low-value tasks must be automated as far as possible, freeing analysts to focus on higher-value activities that reduce time to detection and response and are more individually fulfilling. It also supports teams to meet performance objectives and handle the escalating volume of alerts.  

Some quick wins can be implemented here. For example, one respondent has successfully deployed a portal integrating dozens of data sources which enabled consolidation of information from across the business. This resulted in a reduction in Level 0 to Level 2 response times by 25%. 

A number of respondents cited the lack of context related to the data they are seeing as a major barrier to operating an efficient SOC. The SOC of the future will be increasingly data-driven, ingesting information from multiple sources within and outside the enterprise, but data without context or relevance simply overwhelms analysts. 

Supporting the SOC of the future

As SOCs look to the next phase, focusing on people, data, and the technology that enables the two to work effectively together is key. By balancing automation to allow machine-based support where possible, together with the proper tooling for human analysts, SOCs can drive improvements while keeping analysts engaging and giving them more time to upskill into key areas such as threat hunting.

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