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SOC 2.0: A Crystal-Ball Glimpse Of The Next-Generation Security Operations Center

Thanks to some fundamental shifts in security technology and thinking, the day-to-day activities of security professionals in large enterprises could take some sharp turns in the near future, experts say

Despite spending millions of dollars on technology and countless hours on defense, large enterprises continue to be hacked and infected at an unprecedented pace. Clearly, conventional approaches to security aren't getting the job done.

With this harsh reality in mind, many security professionals -- and the vendors that serve them -- have begun some slow, but fundamental, changes in the way they view their approaches to the IT security problem. And as a result of these changes, tomorrow's security organizations in large enterprises -- particularly the security operations center (SOC) -- could work very differently than they do today, experts say.

"People in the SOC need ways to react faster and better -- they need ways to improve the efficiency of what they do," says Rich Mogull, founder of Securosis, a security consulting firm. "They need ways to reduce the amount of time between the onset of an attack and the time it's stopped or remediated."

To achieve this efficiency, enterprises may need to undertake some tectonic shifts in the way they think about security and the way they spend their days. Let's look at some of those changes in philosophy and how they might affect the future activities of tomorrow's SOC.

Tomorrow's SOC will spend more time on security analytics and less time on perimeter defense.
Traditional notions of "defending the walls" of the enterprise are crumbling, experts say. As users become more mobile and businesses become more interdependent, the "security perimeter" of a given organization is becoming increasingly harder to define -- and nearly impossible to defend.

"In 2007, it's estimated that there were about 500 million network-connected devices on the planet. By the end of 2010, that number will grow to 35 billion -- that's five devices for every person on Earth," says Don Proctor, senior vice president in the office of the chairman and CEO at Cisco Systems. "We can't secure them by patching them all at the endpoint. We have to say goodbye to the perimeter."

In fact, some security professionals -- even some vendors -- are rejecting the fundamental notion that the perimeter can be completely defended. The new assumption: The enterprise will be compromised, and probably already has been.

"At this point, the security team can have no confidence that a given host has not been compromised -- the bad guys are already inside your environment," says Amit Yoran, CEO of security vendor NetWitness and a former White House cybersecurity adviser. "All of the threats that really matter are already inside the network."

While not all security experts agree on this philosophy, most agree that tomorrow's security teams will have to spend at least as much time analyzing logs, events, and incidents as they currently do on building perimeter defenses. That means more focus on security analytics, forensics, and incident response.

"Over time, the people in the SOC will find that they're spending more time as data analysts, rather than security analysts," says Joe Gottlieb, CEO of SenSage, a maker of security information and event management (SIEM) tools. "They'll be doing a lot more data mining to find the source of a problem. They'll be more focused on, 'You've been hacked. Now what?'"

Tomorrow's SOC will spend more time identifying new, unknown threats and less time blacklisting known threats.
Even the antivirus vendors that invented the concept now agree: The notion of building security defenses around the "signatures" of known attacks is not an effective long-term solution.

"Ten years ago, we were identifying five or 10 new viruses each week that needed to be blacklisted," said Gerry Egan, director of Symantec's Technology and Response unit, at the recent unveiling of Ubiquity, the company's new reputation-based security tool. "Now we're identifying 10,000 to 15,000 new signatures every day. The old, signature-based model has become a bit long in the tooth."

While signature-based technology will continue to be part of enterprise security strategies, the analysts in tomorrow's SOC will spend more time seeking out changes in network and systems behavior that might indicate new attacks, experts say. Emerging technologies, such as Symantec's Ubiquity, Dasient's Web Anti-Malware, and FireEye's Malware Protection System, could improve detection of zero-day threats because they seek to identify changes in behavior and reputation, rather than focusing on known threats.

"With the growth and evolution of malware today, if you attempt to defend against attacks solely via signatures, you are doomed to fail," says Neil Daswani, co-founder and CTO of Dasient. "We have to shift our thinking from focusing on what the code looks like to what the code does."

This means the staff of the next-generation SOC will likely spend more of its time in malware analysis -- even malware research -- than ever before, experts say. Mogull suggests tomorrow's SOC will need to develop its own combination of correlated activity sets and signature feeds, essentially creating a threat analysis environment that is tailored to the specific threats, risks, and sensitivities of the business.

The next-generation SOC will also need a better process for quickly analyzing behavioral data that might indicate new threats and escalating it to the top of the security team's priority list, Mogull says. Many SOCs will develop customized scripts and user interfaces that help automate the escalation process and speed the analysis and resolution of potential security problems, he says.

Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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