3/4/2019
10:30 AM
Heather Hixon
Heather Hixon
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Here's What Happened When a SOC Embraced Automation

Despite initial apprehension, security engineers and analysts immediately began to notice a variety of benefits.



Most security operations centers (SOCs), regardless of industry or maturity level, are challenged by a dearth of qualified experts and unmanageable numbers of security alerts that lack context or actionable value. Year after year, overcoming these obstacles continues to be at the top of the SOC wish list.

Combining the power of automation with advanced network and security capabilities could very well be the solution.

However, the very mention of the word "automation" often creates some anxiety. At one large managed security services provider (MSSP) where I worked as a SOC engineer, we were asked to report which job functions took up most of our time and suggest how they could be automated. Even though members of our group would at times struggle to manage all of their responsibilities, there still was concern over how automation would impact our jobs, rather than how it could improve our roles. 

Nevertheless, our SOC team developed a list of job functions that would benefit from automation, along with how it could be implemented. As changes were rolled out, we immediately began to notice some benefits. For example, building more automation processes into the SOC's correlation engine enabled us to complete more tuning tasks on a daily basis and reduce overall event generation. This, in turn, allowed us to spend more quality time with clients, gain greater insights into their security programs, and collaborate on future projects.

Automation provided another important benefit: The MSSP's senior analysts and SOC engineers were able to devote more time to documentation for the team's junior analysts. This robust library of knowledge enabled less experienced team members to better identify exploit techniques and recognize common patterns, thereby gaining valuable knowledge and on-the-job training from their more experienced colleagues. This process translated into fewer escalations to senior staff, overall empowerment of junior analysts, and also accelerated their professional development.

Senior management soon began to recognize automation's benefits. The SOC team was able to supply better, more relevant business metrics to drive organizational change. Better reporting provided data points we needed to hire additional analysts, invest in the development and adoption of new technologies, and assess the overall performance and productivity of current staff.

From an operational standpoint, automation helped produce measurable improvements across key customer service metrics, including time to detection and remediation, vulnerability management progress, and network disruption times, just to name a few.

In one instance, automation enabled the SOC to quickly resolve a widespread outage experienced by multiple clients, caused by the incorrect classification of common websites due to a networking equipment software glitch. Automated rulesets in place generated an abnormally large amount of denied traffic events across these multiple companies. Simultaneously, the affected organizations were notified of the activity via their ticketing systems. This immediate notification allowed the SOC to identify and quickly respond to an extremely unique event.  

As this real example illustrates, automating both network and security processes can help security teams evolve from reactionary fire-fighting to a more proactive response posture. Despite the apprehension often associated with the automation of SOC functions, it is an ally, not an adversary. 

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Heather Hixon is a senior solutions architect for security orchestration, automation and response vendor DFLabs. She has been a SOC team leader, SOC analyst and SIEM engineer with NTT Security, and served in IT management roles with several other organizations. Heather is ... View Full Bio
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