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Why answering the question of orchestration vs automation will improve your security effectiveness

03 Aug 2020

Article by ThreatQuotient director of APJC, Anthony Stitt.

The investment in security operations is at an all-time high. AustCyber's ‘Australia's Cybersecurity Sector Competitiveness Plan’ shows spend on security operations makes up more than 40% of all cybersecurity spending (AU$1.58 billion in 2018), with cyber spending growth outpacing IT spending growth by nearly two to one. 

The report also highlights Australia’s current cybersecurity skills shortage, and projected worsening gap in this coming decade, especially in labour-intensive areas like security operations.

Organisations are looking to improve their security operations effectiveness, efficiency, and staff satisfaction, with security, orchestration, automation and response (SOAR) fast becoming a trending approach. 

However, experiences from early SOAR adopters suggest implementation has its challenges, but there are rewards for those that achieve an effective implementation.

Determining how orchestration and automation will best improve your security operation’s effectiveness takes asking the right questions about what technology approach is best for the business. This is not the same as simply buying the best technology on paper – it’s about adopting technology that fits with your business, security operations capabilities, and cyber strategy. 

Analyst firms like Gartner say SOAR is actually three interrelated, but largely disparate, capabilities: cyber threat intelligence (CTI), incident response (IR) and security automation and orchestration (SOA). 

These ‘capabilities’ work in unison to help manage many common security operations use cases, including alert triage, threat and vulnerability prioritisation, and threat hunting.

However, the majority of security practitioners have a narrower view of the market, tending to focus on automation and orchestration capabilities because the leading SOA vendors offer the kind of graphical workflow and playbook features associated with the ‘SOAR’ name. 

The case for SOAR is compelling for organisations due to the financial benefits of increasing efficiency and effectiveness, with employees able to focus on the interesting tasks instead of the mundane. 

So, where are the pitfalls then? In most cases, SOAR projects take longer to execute and implement, cost more and have a smaller scope of benefit than expected.

Practically by definition, SOAR works across different groups within security operations and this challenges many large organisations. Larger organisations have separate teams for security operations centre analysis, incident response, threat intelligence, vulnerability management, and threat hunting. 

Coordinating a SOAR project and its implementation across these various teams is incredibly time-consuming, in addition to raising budgetary and staff allocation issues. 

As a result, organisations start with a compelling number of possible use cases, before falling back to a few basic automations, which are often limited to the team that initiated the SOAR implementation in the first place. Therefore, projects have a tendency to be descoped from the Gartner SOAR definition and back to a pure SOA project, losing some of the cross-functional benefits along the way.

Further, in most organisations, the teams within security operations predominantly work within their specific remits, using their specific tools. For example, the security operations team spends the majority of their time in the security information & event management (SIEM) system, the intelligence team uses the threat intelligence platform (TIP) and the incident response team uses the case management system. 

This is to be expected, although adopting a SOAR platform that requires teams and employees to work outside of their ‘go-to’ systems, will create significant operational and organisational challenges.

Equally, it’s important to consider that an orchestration workflow within a SOAR platform may simply be an automated action of another system. For example, enriching Indicators of Compromise (IoCs) using a resource like VirusTotal, is an orchestration workflow spanning an intelligence source (potentially a TIP), a SIEM, and VirusTotal. 

However, enriching IOCs is an out-of-the-box automation for a threat intelligence platform. Similarly, many of the cross-functional SOAR workflows are actually automations in other tools.

Organisations considering security orchestration, automation and response will achieve their best results by being clear on the operational outcomes they want to achieve. Is phishing email analysis a major pain point? Or is alert triage the most time-consuming activity? Is your team spending way too much time manually collecting and enriching threat intelligence? 

It’s important for organisations to categorise use-cases by the group or team they fall within and identify the ones that span more than a single team. Asking which solution from the threat intelligence platform, incident response platform or security automation and orchestration platform is the right fit, is also fundamental to effective adoption.

You may be thinking: ‘Why do I need to choose the right platform? Surely, I can get a complete SOAR solution today.’ Despite the analyst definition of SOAR, attaining this has some trade-offs because the platforms currently available are strongest in their historical domains. 

For example, orchestration platforms can cache threat indicators for subsequent decision making, yet this still falls short of the capabilities that buyers demand in a commercial TIP. 

Likewise, a TIP has the ability to automate many intelligence workflows and become a central memory of threats that SOAR operations can evolve from, yet may not offer the same depth of nuanced decision making as a dedicated orchestration platform. 

Interestingly, many of the compelling SOAR use-cases are threat intelligence-related. Activities like analysing phishing emails, enriching indicators of compromise, automating intelligence feeds, providing threat context to SOC analysts and prioritising vulnerability patching are just some of the more popular workflows. 

Automating these activities is something you can do in a threat intelligence platform alone. Alternatively, if a full SOAR capability suits your organisation’s needs, the majority of the platforms interoperate, allowing each team to continue using the best-of-breed tools they require to be effective.