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Managed Security Monitoring: Use Cases

By Mike Rothman

Many security professionals feel the deck is stacked against them. Adversaries continue to improve their techniques, aided by plentiful malware kits and botnet infrastructures. Continued digitization at pretty much every enterprise means everything of interest in on some system somewhere. Don’t forget the double whammy of mobile and cloud, which democratizes access without geographic boundaries, and takes the one bastion of control, the traditional data center, out of your direct control. Are we having fun yet?

Of course the news isn’t all bad – security has become very high profile. Getting attention and resources can sometimes be a little too easy – life was simpler when we toiled away in obscurity bemoaning that senior management didn’t understand or care about security. That’s clearly not the case today, as you get ready to present the security strategy to the board of directors. Again. And after that’s done you get to meet with the HR team trying to fill your open positions. Again.

In terms of fundamentals of a strong security program, we have always believed in the importance of security monitoring to shorten the window between compromise and detection of compromise. As we posted in our recent SIEM Kung Fu paper:

Security monitoring needs to be a core, fundamental, aspect of every security program.

There are a lot of different concepts of what security monitoring actually is. It certainly starts with log aggregation and SIEM, although many organizations are looking to leverage advanced security analytics (either built into their SIEM or using third-party technology) to provide better and faster detection. But that’s not what we want to tackle in this new series, titled Managed Security Monitoring. It’s not about whether to do security monitoring, it’s a question of the most effective way to monitor resources.

Given the challenges of finding and retaining staff, the increasingly distributed nature of data and systems that need to be monitored, and the rapid march of technology, it’s worth considering whether a managed security monitoring service makes sense for your organization. The fact is that, under the right circumstances, a managed service presents an interesting alternative to racking and stacking another set of SIEM appliances. We will go through drivers, use cases, and deployment architectures for those considering managed services. And we will provide cautions for areas where a service offering might not meet expectations.

As always, our business model depends on forward-looking companies who understand the value of objective research. We’d like to thank IBM Security Systems for agreeing to potentially license this paper once completed. We’ll publish the research using our Totally Transparent Research methodology, which ensures our work is done in an open and accessible manner.

Drivers for Managed Security Monitoring

We have no illusions about the amount of effort required to get a security monitoring platform up and running, or what it takes to keep one current and useful, given the rapid adaptation of attackers and automated attack tools in use today. Many organizations feel stuck in a purgatory of sorts, reacting without sufficient visibility, yet not having time to invest to gain that much-needed visibility into threats. A suboptimal situation, often the initial trigger for discussion of managed services. Let’s be a bit more specific about situations where it’s worth a look at managed security monitoring.

  • Lack of internal expertise: Even having people to throw at security monitoring may not be enough. They need to be the right people – with expertise in triaging alerts, validating exploits, closing simple issues, and knowing when to pull the alarm and escalate to the incident response team. Reviewing events, setting up policies, and managing the system, all take skills that come with training and time with the security monitoring product. Clearly this is not a skill set you can just pick up anywhere – finding and keeping talented people is hard – so if you don’t have sufficient expertise internally, that’s a good reason to check out a service-based alternative.
  • Scalability of existing technology platform: You might have a decent platform, but perhaps it can’t scale to what you need for real-time analysis, or has limitations in capturing network traffic or other voluminous telemetry. And for organizations still using a first generation SIEM with a relational database backend (yes, they are still out there), you face a significant and costly upgrade to scale the system. With a managed service offering scale is not an issue – any sizable provider is handling billions of events per day and scalability of the technology isn’t your problem – so long as the provider hits your SLAs.
  • Predictable Costs: To be the master of the obvious, the more data you put into a monitoring system, the more storage you’ll need. The more sites you want to monitor and the deeper you want visibility into your network, the more sensors you need. Scaling up a security monitoring environment can become costly. One advantage of managed offerings is predictable costs. You know what you’re monitoring and what it costs. You don’t have variable staff costs, nor do you have out-of-cycle capital expenses to deal with new applications that need monitoring.
  • Technology Risk Transference: You have been burned before by vendors promising the world without delivering much of anything. That’s why you are considering alternatives. A managed monitoring service enables you to focus on the functionality you need, instead of trying to determine which product can meet your needs. Ultimately you only need to be concerned with the application and the user experience – all that other stuff is the provider’s problem. Selecting a provider becomes effectively an insurance policy to minimize your technology investment risk. Similarly, if you are worried about your ops team’s ability to keep a broad security monitoring platform up and running, you can transfer operational risk to the provider, who assumes responsibility for uptime and performance – so long as your SLAs are structured properly.
  • Geographically dispersed small sites: Managed services also interest organizations needing to support many small locations without a lot of technical expertise. Think retail and other distribution-centric organizations. This presents a good opportunity for a service provider who can monitor remote sites.
  • Round the clock monitoring: As security programs scale and mature, some organizations decide to move from an 8-hour/5-day monitoring schedule to a round-the-clock approach. Soon after making that decision, the difficult of staffing a security operations center (SOC) 24/7 sets in. A service provider can leverage a 24/7 staffing investment to deliver round-the-clock services to many customers.

Of course you can’t outsource thinking or accountability, so ultimately the buck stops with the internal team, but under the right circumstances managed security monitoring services can address skills and capabilities gaps.

Favorable Use Cases

The technology platform used by the provider may be the equal of an in-house solution, as many providers use commercial monitoring platforms as the basis for their managed services. This is a place for significant diligence during procurement, as we will discuss in our next post. As mentioned above, there are a few use cases where managed security monitoring makes a lot of sense, including:

  • Device Monitoring/Alerting: This is the scaling and skills issue. If you have a ton of network and security devices, but you don’t have the technology or people to properly monitor them, managed security monitoring can help. These services are generally architected to aggregate data on your site and ship it to the service provider for analysis and alerting, though a variety of different options are emerging for where the platform runs and who owns it. Central to this use case is a correlation system to identify issues, a means to find new attacks (typically via a threat intelligence capability) and a bunch of analysts who can triage and validate issues quickly, and then provide an actionable alert.
  • Advanced Detection: With the increasing sophistication of attackers, it can be hard for an organization’s security team to keep pace. A service provider has access to threat intelligence, presumably multiple clients across which to watch for emerging attacks, and the ability to amortize advanced security analytics across customers. Additionally specialized (and expensive) malware researchers can be shared among many customers, making it more feasible for a service provider to employ those resources than many organizations.
  • Compliance Reporting: Another no-brainer for a managed security monitoring alternative is basic log aggregation and reporting – typically driven by a compliance requirement. This isn’t a very complicated use case, and it fits service offerings well. It also gets you out of the business of managing storage and updating reports when a requirement/mandate changes. The provider should take care of all that for you.
  • CapEx vs. OpEx: As much as it may hurt a security purist, buying decisions come down to economics. Depending on your funding model and your organization’s attitude toward capital expenses, leasing a service may be a better option than buying outright. Of course there are other ways to turn a capital purchase into an operational expense, and we’re sure your CFO will have plenty of ideas on that front, but buying a service can be a simple option for avoiding capital expenditure. Obviously, given the long and involved process to select a new security monitoring platform, you must make sure the managed service meets your needs before economic considerations come into play – especially if there’s a risk of Accounting’s preferences driving you to spend big on an unsuitable product. No OpEx vs. CapEx tradeoff can make a poorly matched service offering meet your requirements.

There are other offerings and situations where managed security monitoring makes sense, which have nothing to do with the nice clean buckets above. We have seen implementations of all shapes and sizes, and we need to avoid overgeneralizing. But the majority of service implementations fit these general use cases.

Unfavorable Use Cases

Of course there are also situations where a monitoring service may not be a good fit. That doesn’t mean you can’t use a service because of extenuating circumstances, typically having to do with a staffing and skills gap. But generally these situations don’t make for the best fit for a service:

  • Dark Networks: Due to security requirements, some networks are dark, meaning no external access is available. These are typically highly sensitive military and/or regulated environments. Clearly this is problematic for a security monitoring service because the provider cannot access the customer network. To address skills gaps you’d instead consider a dedicated onsite resource and either buying a security monitoring platform yourself or leasing it from the provider.
  • Highly Sensitive IP: On networks where the intellectual property is particularly valuable, the idea of providing access to external parties is usually a non-starter. Again, this situation would call for dedicated on-site resources helping to run your on-premise security monitoring platform.
  • Large Volumes of Data: If your organization is very large and has a ton of logs and other telemetry for security monitoring, this can challenge a service offering that requires data to be moved to a cloud-based service, including network forensics and packet analytics. In this case an on-premise monitoring service will likely be the best solution. Note the new hybrid offerings which capture data and perform security analytics on-premise using resources in a shared SOC. We’ll discuss these hybrid offerings in our next post.

As with the favorable use cases, the unfavorable use cases are strong indicators but not absolute. It really depends on the specific requirements of your situation, your ability to invest in technology, and the availability of skilled resources.

These generalizations should give you a starting point to consider a managed security monitoring service. Our next post will get into specifics of selection criteria, service levels, and deployment models.

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