Managed Security Service Providers (MSSPs) have become an increasingly popular choice for organizations nowadays following the trend to outsource security services. Meanwhile, with the growing number of MSSPs in the market, it can be difficult for organizations to determine which provider will fit in the best way. This paper aims to provide guidance for organizations looking to select an MSSP and help to identify the benefits and drawbacks of using an MSSP.
To make an all-round choice, let’s try to answer the following questions:
- What exact services do we need?
- Why does my organization need an MSSP?
- When does my organization need an MSSP?
- Who should deliver the service?
First, let’s start with what services we can expect. Here are some of the most common security services provided by MSSPs:
24/7 monitoring of the organization’s network, systems, and applications to identify potential security threats and anomalies; can be provided as an on-premises solution (when data must not leave the customer infrastructure) or as a service.
Incident Response (IR)
Responding to security incidents and breaches, investigating, and containing the incident. Incident Response can be provided in multiple forms, from recommendations for the customer IR team to pre-agreed response actions in the customer environment.
Managed Detection and Response (MDR)
A combination of the previous two services. Usually, MDR is considered an evolution of classic monitoring and response services due to the utilization of advanced threat-detection techniques. Also, MDR supports embedded response capabilities within the platform, which are supplied and fully managed by the service provider.
Threat Intelligence (TI)
Provision of intelligence on current and emerging threats to the organization’s security. The best-known and simplest form of TI is IoC feeds that indicate the presence in the customer environment of known signs of attacks. But there are other deliverables, too, focused on different maturity levels of TI consumers within the organization.
Note that the use of TI requires an in-house security team, so it is not possible to fully outsource it. TI data has to be applied internally to bring value.
Managed Security Solutions
Multiple services focused on administering security solutions that are deployed in customer environments. These services are commonly bundled if the customer wants on-premise deployment of MSSP technologies.
There is an extended set of services not directly involved in day-to-day operations, but still valuable on a one-time or regular basis.
Digital Forensics and Incident Response (DFIR) or Emergency Incident Responder
The ultimate form of incident response that provides a full-scale DFIR service in case of critical incidents in the customer environment.
A narrow-focus service providing extended reporting and behavior analysis of submitted malware. The service requires an in-house team to properly utilize the analysis results.
A group of services focused on the identification of target infrastructure or application vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and potential attack vectors. Among the best-known services are penetration testing, application security assessment, red teaming, and vulnerability assessment.
Attack Surface Management (ASM)
A service focused on the collection of information related to the organization’s public-facing assets.
Digital Footprint Intelligence (DFI)
A service focused on searching for, collecting, and analyzing organization-related threats in external sources. Typical deliverables include information about leaked accounts, organization-related tracks in malware logs, post and advertisements for the sale of infrastructure access, and a list of actors who can target the organization. Clearly, DFI replaced many TI tasks related to external sources processing.
As we can see, some services can replace the overall function of the in-house team (monitoring, MDR, assessment), while others can be considered as additional support for the existing team (TI, malware analysis, DFIR). The overall scenario of MSSP usage – whenever the function is required and can’t be provided within the organization. So, a key task for the organization is to define its needs, priorities, and available resources.
Scenarios for MSSP involvement
Switching to MSSP involvement scenarios can provide significant value.
The typical one: you need to establish a specific function quickly. In such cases, an MSSP will save you time and money, and provide value in the short term. This case is applicable whenever you want to implement or test some additional services in your SOC.
You have to build a security function from scratch. Even if, in the end, all security services should be built in-house, the involvement of an MSSP will be a good idea, since like in scenario 1 it helps to get the service up and running. Later, you can transfer specific services to the in-house team, considering all service aspects and expertise obtained from the MSSP by your team. At the same time, such an approach will help you to implement security functions step-by-step, replacing MSSP services one by one, focusing on one topic at a time, and avoiding security interruptions due to missing services.
You need extensive growth. Whenever your business is growing, cybersecurity cannot always follow with the same speed. Especially in cases of company mergers and acquisitions, the IT landscape jumps to a new level that cannot be covered promptly by an in-house team. This case can transform into scenario 1 or 2, depending on the nature of this growth. If it’s a one-time event, probably later you’d like to transfer the function to the in-house team, when it will be ready to handle the new volume.
All the more reasons to engage an MSSP
Besides specific cases, there are common reasons to support engaging an MSSP over developing in-house capability. Here are some of them:
Lack of In-House Expertise
Many organizations do not have the necessary in-house expertise to effectively manage and respond to security threats. Some roles and functions require deep knowledge and continuous growth of expertise, which cannot be maintained within the organization. At the same time, an MSSP has a chance to work simultaneously with multiple customers, therefore the intensity of incidents and conducted investigations are much higher and generates more experience for MSSP teams.
Smaller organizations may not have the resources to build and manage a comprehensive security program. An MSSP can provide the necessary security services to help these organizations mitigate security risks without having to hire a full security team and, in more complex cases, to maintain this full-scale team in the long term.
It can be expensive to build and maintain an in-house security program. Outsourcing security services to an MSSP can be a more cost-effective solution, particularly for smaller organizations. Also, the MSSP approach allows you to spread the budget over time, since establishing a service in-house requires significant investments from day one.
Fast-growing organizations may find it difficult to scale their security program at the same pace. An MSSP can provide scalable security services able to grow with the organization.
In case of outsourcing, it is much easier to manage the level of service, from playing with the SLA options for a particular MSSP to changing provider every time the preconditions change or a better proposal emerges in the market.
Overall, an MSSP can help organizations improve their security posture, manage risk, and ensure compliance while optimizing costs and resource constraints. Considering the reasons for involving an MSSP, to complete the picture, we must mention not only the pros but the cons as well. Possible stop factors to think twice about are:
Every new partner extends the potential attack surface of your organization. During the contract lifetime, you should consider the risks of MSSP compromise and supply-chain attacks on the service, especially if the MSSP has a high level of privileges (usually required under a contract for advanced Incident Response). The provider can mitigate the risk by demonstrating complex cybersecurity program, applied by their infrastructure and independent assessments.
Also, it’s important to off-board the MSSP correctly in case of contract termination. This off-boarding should include careful access revocation and rollback of all changes done in the network, configurations, etc.
Lack of understanding
Do you know what is within your infrastructure, and how business processes are tied to the IT environment? What is typical and normal in your network? Do you have an asset DB? What about an account registry and a list of full regularly reviewed privileges? I guess not all answers were positive. Bad news: the MSSP will have an even less clear understanding of what is within the protected environment, since its only trustful source of information is you.
Need to control the MSSP
It is essential to conduct a thorough analysis and evaluation of every service contract, particularly when it comes to selecting an MSSP. To achieve this, an expert from within the organization should be assigned to handle the contract and carefully scrutinize all details, conditions, and limitations. Additionally, the service delivery should be closely observed and evaluated throughout the lifetime of the contract. Generally, this means that it is not possible to entirely outsource the security function without establishing at least a small security team in-house. Moreover, the output from the service should be processed by an internal team, especially in cases where incidents, anomalies, or misconfigurations are detected.
In-house or MSSP for SMB
The decision between using an MSSP or building an in-house SOC for small and medium-sized business (SMB) can depend on various factors, including the organization’s budget, resources, and security needs. Here are some MSSP benefits provided in SMB cases:
MSSP can provide a level of expertise in security that may not be available in-house, particularly for smaller organizations with limited security resources. Commonly, SBM does not have a security team at all.
Building an in-house SOC is an expensive way that includes the cost of hiring experienced security professionals, investing in security tools and technologies, and building a security infrastructure.
As an SMB grows, its security needs may also grow. An MSSP can provide scalable security services that can grow with the organization without investing in additional security resources.
Overall, for many SMBs, outsourcing security services to an MSSP can be a more cost-effective solution than building an in-house SOC.
For large enterprises, as in other complex cases, the answer will be “it depends.” There are a lot of factors to be considered.
Finding the balance
Considering the pros and cons of outsourcing security services, I suggest finding the right balance. One balanced way can be a hybrid approach in which the organization builds some services in-house and outsources others.
The first variation of the hybrid approach is to build core functions (like Security Monitoring, Incident Response, etc.) by yourself and outsource everything that would make no sense to build in-house. Such an approach lets you build strong core functions and not waste time and resources on functions that require narrow skills and tools. Any MSSP services we have mentioned in the extended category are good candidates for such an approach.
Another variant of the hybrid approach is to develop the expertise of incident responders, who know the environment and are able to respond to advanced attacks. Incident detection and initial analysis in this case can be outsourced, which gives better scalability and the ability to focus on serious matters.
The transition approach fits the conditions when you need to build a security function right here and now, but still focus on the later development of an in-house SOC. So, you can start with outsourcing security services and gradually replacing them one by one with in-house functions, whenever the team, technologies, and resources will be ready.
Choosing the right one
As a very first step, we have to define our needs, the services we are looking for, and the overall strategy we are going to follow in outsourcing security services, considering everything we have discussed before.
The next step is to choose the right provider. Here are the criteria to keep in mind during the screening procedure:
Look for expertise and experience
Choose an MSSP with the necessary expertise. Pay attention to experience with clients in your region/industry as well as well-known global players. Consider the number of years in the market – it is usually simpler to find a proven partner than take a chance with a disruptive new player.
Threat detection and cyberthreat hunting are related to security research. Check if the MSSP has appropriate research capabilities that can be measured by number and depth of publications related to new APT groups, tools and techniques used, and methods of detection and investigation.
Another significant point is the team. All services are provided by individual people, so make sure that the MSSP employs qualified personnel with the required level of education and world-recognized certification.
Consider the MSSP’s technology
Ensure that the MSSP uses relevant tool and technologies to provide effective security solutions. A simple example: if the MSSP is focused on Windows protection, that will not fit an environment built on Unix. There are more nuances regarding MSSP technology platforms, which we will come back to later.
Check for compliance
Ensure that the MSSP follows industry compliance regulations and standards if applicable to your business.
Evaluate customer experience and support
Find references and success stories and collect feedback from other companies – clients of the potential service provider. Focus on customer support experience, including responsiveness, availability, and expertise.
Type, what metrics are used, and how are these metrics tracked and calculated. And, of course, SLA target values that can be provided by the vendor.
Consider the cost
Compare the cost of MSSP services from different providers and choose the one that, other things being equal, offers the best value for your business.
Does the vendor pay attention to the security topic: cybersecurity hygiene, regular assessments by external experts? That is only a small part to check if you don’t want to lower your protection.
Ask for proof of concept (PoC)
Mature players provide a test period, so you can have hands-on experience with most aspects of service provision and deliverables.
The technology question is a bit tricky. In most cases, we can split MSSPs into two big groups: the first use enterprise solutions, the second self-developed tools or open source with customization.
The first group needs to share their revenue with the vendor providing technology, but if later you decide to build an on-prem SOC platform, the migration can be simplified if you choose the same vendor platform. Also, you won’t need to implement too many changes in your environment. Furthermore, if the organization intends to adopt a transition approach and establish an in-house SOC based on a specific technology, the use of an MSSP with the corresponding technical solution can serve as an “extended test drive” for the chosen platform.
The second group usually focuses on a highly custom solution that lets the MSSP fine-tune the technology platform for better results. In a lot of cases, this can be a conglomerate of multiple tools and platforms, integrated to provide more advanced detection and analysis methods. Commonly this platform cannot be adopted by customers for independent usage.
Another question we should mention: is it worth splitting services between multiple providers? On the one hand, such diversity can help to choose the best provider for specific services; on the other, you can feel the synergy of multiple services provided by the same vendor in a bundle. E.g., if you have monitoring from one provider, the provision of DFIR by the same company will create positive synergy due to the ability to exchange information about historical incidents and to continuously monitor DFIR IoCs.
Buying defensive services, don’t forget about offensive assessments, and checking contract conditions for to conduct red teaming, pen tests or conducting cyber ranges. Any type of assessment will be valuable to proof MSS value and train your team.
When selecting an MSSP, it is important for organizations to keep their security goals in mind and align them with the criteria used for evaluation. With a large number of players in the market, it is always possible to choose the one that best meets the organization’s specific requirements and strategy. Careful consideration of factors such as service offerings, reputation, technology, and cost will help organizations find the right MSSP to meet their security needs.
Selecting the right MSSP: Guidelines for making an objective decision