United States: From The CISO Corner: Your Most Important Security Relationship

Today's Guest Post courtesy of Bill Kyrouz, Mintz Levin's CISO:

Have you come to the conclusion that you need a Managed Security Services Provider (MSSP) to support your small to medium sized enterprise but don't know where to start?

Delegating elements of your security operations can be a scary prospect. An entire school of thought says "If you don't do all of your information security in house, you aren't doing it right." While I'm sympathetic to that thinking, and caution against completely outsourcing security, this post is intended to help those who seek outside assistance.

Let's dig in:

Step 1. Outline What You Need

Some elements of a security program lend themselves to outsourcing better than others, such as firewall/IPS management, enterprise-wide data leak prevention, or anything else where you require a 24/7 SOC but lack the funding to build and staff one.

As you begin this step, ask yourself: Are you looking for monitoring (the MSSP just observes and reports), management (they actually make changes to production systems) or a hybrid model? A requirement of "co-management" will take a lot of potential players right off the table—they simply do not support that model. Any vendor worth their salt will allow someone in your company to logon to the firewall in a true emergency, but many make it clear that they do not want your administrators and their SOC bumping into each other.

Next, consider Data Leak Prevention (DLP). Even a managed solution could require a large portion of a full time employee (FTE) within the organization to maintain policies and quarterback responses to alerts. This depends upon the size of your firm and can be mitigated by carefully scoping your DLP project, so your mileage may vary.

Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) might also be on your outsourcing list out of concerns for 24/7 coverage and/or storage for long term log retention. This can be a difficult market to navigate because many vendors lead you to believe that they will correlate disparate security events using artificial intelligence or that they will detect highly advanced threats in your environment that you would otherwise miss. But in reality, some vendors are simply providing mere "log aggregation" – and it is up to you or a member of your team to develop alerts and reports that are useful to your business.

Once you have collected your thoughts on what you want an MSSP for, let's turn to:

Step 2. Write up a Diet RFP

Wait—don't leave!!! Please hear me out!

To some, the term Request for Proposal (RFP) means a document of length that surpasses Stephen King's unabridged The Stand, requiring that all potential vendors provide detailed financials, source code, and biographical sketches of the entire management team.

This does not have to be a novel; a concise 5-7 page document can convey who you are, what you want (and don't want) from an MSSP relationship. Questions asked in an RFP help you differentiate the vendors on paper before bringing people onsite for the Dog and Pony shows. Your vendors will appreciate this and everyone on your side of the table will go in with similar expectations.

If you're not very familiar with the particular market to which you are sending this RFP, get to know the players and their capabilities with a review of resources like:

The SANS Institute
The Gartner Magic Quadrant applicable to your project
Your local information security peer group

Vendor webinars

When you're ready, here are section headers from an RFP (with examples) to help get you started:


Borrow some prose from your web site to quickly state who your organization is and then go on to declare your mission, e.g.:

We are seeking to enlist a managed security services provider to augment our internal resources for purposes of firewall and IDS/IPS management.

If you have multiple goals with this project, e.g., you're considering having an MSSP run your endpoint security platform too but it's only a secondary consideration, say so.

I suggest ending this section with a disclaimer like:

This brief RFP is not meant to be an exhaustive document covering all of our questions and concerns about vendors in this space. The intent is to allow us to start a dialog with potential partners and help narrow down finalists on paper before having in-person and telephonic discussions.

This is a polite way of saying, "Don't call us, follow these instructions and nobody gets hurt."

One beautiful thing about this process is: Some vendors will immediately take themselves out of the running. You will get emails along the lines of, "We respectfully decline to respond to this RFP..." when it is clear to the vendor that they cannot meet your needs.

Evaluation and Selection Milestones

Distribution of RFP by
Vendor Responses Due
Finalists determined and vendors notified by
Vendor selection completed by
Production Deployment by

Consider adding: Finalist PoC Start and End milestones if you envision a live bake-off between two to four finalists.

Overview of Our Environment

Spend, at a maximum, one page discussing your infrastructure in ways relevant to the project. Include number of sites, employees, Active Directory objects, servers being monitored, firewalls, or any other pertinent information.

Depending upon the nature of this project and your risk appetite, consider requiring vendors to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement before they can receive the RFP.


One sentence like:

All responses and questions concerning this RFP must be submitted in writing via e-mail to Benjamin Sisko, Chief Information Security Officer at bsisko@yourcompany.com.

If you have this RFP going to more than a dozen vendors, a special mailbox or email alias is a good idea.

Evaluation Criteria

Two bulleted lists: "We are seeking" and "We are not seeking"

A vendor that can manage your firewalls might love to also manage your network infrastructure. An MSSP that provides a managed Network Access Control solution might be able to sell you wireless access points. Use these lists to clearly draw lines around what you are interested in and to save time of all concerned later. If something is not a requirement for the project but a "plus", or you have a related future project and wouldn't mind collecting some intelligence in that area, say so.

Questions for Vendors

This is the heart of the document. At least a page of questions that you might break down with these subheadings:

Vendor Profile

Topics may include: Point of contact at the vendor, whether use of a reseller is preferred and if so who they are (you might want to avoid volunteering your go-to resellers at this point), whether the solution managed is internally developed or that of a third party.


Which vendor solutions are supported? Is a co-management model allowed? What kind of business continuity plan do they have (backup operations centers)? Ask about capabilities that currently are important to you or may be in the future. Where does the MSSP's responsibility end and yours begin in this relationship?

Getting your answers here can save you so much time later by avoiding needless conference calls and meetings.


Ask for a sample quote for the services you're looking for given the number of hosts/users/offices/etc. This is not meant to be your formal request for a final quote on what you intend to deploy, but a ballpark figure.

Are there costs for custom SIEM rules or emergency anti-virus definitions? What if you want to monitor additional servers with your SIEM later?


Ask for three references of similar size in your industry or in a broader industry similar to yours (e.g. if they don't have any other law firm customers, ask for other professional services firms).

Sample questions to ask the references (not for the RFP):

  • Do they find problems before you do?
  • How has the service evolved over time?
  • If you could do the implementation over, what would you do differently?

Step 3. Circulate the RFP (along with targeted vendor list) to Internal Stakeholders

If you get internal resistance to the RFP process itself, remind them that this is not a contract, it is a way to guide the group to an educated selection.

Once everyone is on board, you're ready to proceed to publish to a vendor list you developed through the resources listed earlier

Step 4. Execute according to your schedule outlined in the RFP

Collect RFP responses and resist the urge to setup meetings or webinars with anyone until you have an agreed upon set of finalists. Beyond answering questions clarifying something in your RFP, keep contact with the pre-finalist vendors to a minimum (and preferably email only).

After Implementation: Maintain the Relationship

If you outsource a substantial part of your security program to an MSSP, you should have at least a weekly phone call with them. Discuss tuning of alerts, let them know what reports are useful or are clogging up your inbox, and generally let them know what is working and what isn't. If you don't do this, some providers will simply go on auto-pilot. This results in money wasted and sometimes critical security infrastructure going unmonitored.

On your next penetration test: Don't alert your new MSSP in advance about the test, and pay close attention to how (in)effective they are in areas of detection, prevention, attacker lateral movement and data exfiltration.

A Strong MSSP Will Make You More Secure

This may be the most important vendor partnership in your security program. Choosing wisely, leverage their resources and maintaining a strong relationship will help keep your company safe.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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