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Tech Insight: Operationalizing Security Saves Time And Money

University security team's efforts to streamline and automate security processes has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars

A Special Analysis for Dark Reading

Operationalization is a hot yet often misunderstood term getting tossed around in security these days. The University of Florida, where I'm employed, is working toward a CIO model with an action plan for governance and reducing costs within our decentralized IT environment -- and in the process, our security team has been operationalizing things without even knowing there was a snazzy term for it.

The simplest definition for operationalization is the act of taking repetitive activity, often a daily task, and automating it so it requires no human interaction. It can also involve refining a security process to such a well-defined, step-by-step task that daily operations staff can take it over, leaving the security team to focus on higher priority items. Some of the common tasks that are regularly operationalized include typical account management tasks, such as account creation and modification, password resets, and patch management.

Indeed, security products are out there that help automate security processes and reduce the burden of those tasks. They usually come in the form of a security information and event management system (or some variation of those words), a.k.a. SIM, SEM, or SIEM. These products take in many sources of information (syslog, IDS/IPS , netflow, firewall, etc.) and correlate them, which helps security pros pinpoint areas of concern and drill down for deeper analysis.

As with many university security teams, we went down the road of developing an in-house SIEM-type solution that has served us extremely well for more than five years. Because we were having to manually create security tickets for events of interest, a modular system was developed that could process numerous data sources, automatically generate Remedy trouble tickets, and send them to the appropriate sysadmins around campus. Every other week, it seems like we find something else that we can automate with it, making our lives a bit easier.

Vulnerability management, which includes discovery and remediation, is another area that we've been able to operationalize in a couple of ways. The first step was automating the discovery or vulnerability scanning process so that scans occurred regularly, without human intervention. Results are placed into a database, and sysadmins are notified of vulnerabilities that need to be remediated.

To help sysadmins with the vulnerability remediation phase, a Web interface was developed with role-based authentication so sysadmins can see current vulnerabilities for their respective networks, view trends, and request exemptions. And we developed another Web interface so sysadmins could initiate more comprehensive, on-demand vulnerability scans -- allowing them to schedule them to fit their schedule and be ready in case the more in-depth checks induced instabilities within their systems.

Our security team's efforts to streamline processes via operationalization have saved the university hundreds of thousands of dollars, with several in-house solutions that are extremely low-maintenance, modular, and easy-to-use. If you're wondering how you can get start operationalizing security within your organization, the Burton Group's blog has an excellent post titled "Operationalizing Security" that describes some "operationalization litmus tests" that can help guide you. For us, the blog entry served as a good validation of what our team has worked to implement during the past six years.

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