Root Cause Analysis

When investigating a cyber security incident, security operations teams must act quickly to identify and isolate the root cause of the event.


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Root cause analysis (RCA) is a method of problem-solving used to investigate known problems and identify their antecedent and underlying causes. While the term root cause analysis seems to imply that issues have a singular cause, this is not always the cause. Problems may have a singular cause, or multiple causes stemming from deficiencies in products, people, processes or other factors.

When is Root Cause Analysis Used?

Root cause analysis is implemented as an investigative tool in a variety of industries. Engineers and product designers use an RCA technique known as failure analysis to proactively evaluate what conditions might cause a product or project to fail.

For IT organizations, root cause analysis is a key aspect of the cyber security incident response process. When a security breach occurs, SecOps teams must collaborate quickly to determine where the breach originated, isolate the vulnerability that caused the breach and initiate corrective and preventive actions to ensure the vulnerability cannot be exploited again.

Root Cause Analysis Tools and Techniques

While the general process for root cause analysis remains consistent across industries, investigators differ in the tools and techniques that they use to get to the underlying source of a problem. Even security operators who can automate much of the RCA process with security analytics applications must be familiar with methodologies of root cause analysis to accurately interpret the causes of security events.


How to Do Root Cause Analysis

When investigating a cyber security incident, security operations teams must act quickly to identify and isolate the root cause of the event. The basic outline of the RCA process is identical across industries, regardless of the tools that individual practitioners choose to implement. A process for root cause analysis is described in the following four steps:

Identification and Description

The first step to a successful root cause analysis is the accurate identification and description of a problem. If the problem is poorly understood, it may prove difficult to correctly isolate the underlying causes of the problem.


Differentiation is the third step of the RCA process. Here, investigators incorporate additional contextual data surrounding the events to understand how events are correlated. When a cyber security event is detected, security operators must analyze dependencies between events to distinguish between root causes, causal factors and non-causal factors within the system.


Organizations that leverage security analytics software can automate the collection of event logs and the integration of logs from multiple sources into a single, standardized format and platform. This streamlines the RCA process, helping these organizations get to step three of RCA at lightning speed.

Causal Graphing

In the final step of the RCA process, investigators are encouraged to produce a causal graph, diagram or another visual interpretation of the result of the RCA process. Causal graphing illustrates a sequence of key events that begins with the root causes and ends with the problem.

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