vCISOs Explained: The Benefits and Drawbacks

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An increasing number of modern security conscious companies have Chief Information Security Officers (CISOs) on the payroll to help them manage their environment from increasingly sophisticated cyber threats. Unfortunately, many other organizations are not currently able to employ a full time CISO. This can be related to a series of contributing factors including a lack of necessary budget, competing priorities, or unfilled vacancies due to a shortage of qualified candidates. 

That is why a growing number of companies are turning to a new solution: virtual chief information security officers (vCISOs).

Touted as remote industry experts on-call 24×7 for any company’s cybersecurity needs, these professionals promise to save you money without leaving gaps in your security posture from not having a full-time, in-house CISO. But what’s the truth?

Are vCISOs an optimal solution for modern enterprise security needs? Or do they cut costs in the short term at the expense of long-term operational security? Let’s examine these questions in more detail.

What Is a vCISO?

Since CISOs are becoming standard figures of cybersecurity leadership in today’s era of digital transformation, vCISOs are perhaps an interesting temporary substitution of their role. “Virtual” CISOs are on-demand alternatives to the traditional employee model of in-house full-time experts.

Rather than internal staff, vCISOs are outsourced security practitioners who can offer time, insight, and expertise while working remotely. In that way, they’re similar to many other cybersecurity roles that have changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Traditional CISOs are full time members of an executive leadership team who work in person, alongside the rest of your in-house cybersecurity department. They’re on the ground floor with you during cybersecurity events while also helping to plan and implement updates to systems and infrastructure. In this way their value lies not only in their leadership but also their ability to understand your business inside and out.

Alternatively, vCISOs can be thought of as a temporary  outsourced service provider available for hire either on a part-time basis, as a long-term contractor, or on retainer as needed. Because of their “virtual” capacity they are more distanced from your organization, but they’re a more affordable alternative and should be as accessible as a typical CISO. So, there’s a clear trade-off to consider when deciding between these two professionals if you have an open spot to fill in your company.

Who Should Consider Hiring a vCISO?

Given their unique characteristics, certain organizations might consider hiring a virtual CISO on a periodic basis. Some circumstances where a vCISO could be helpful include:

  • If a company has a limited budget but are required to fill a chief information security officer position. If they can’t afford a traditional CISO, a vCISO might do the trick
  • If a company can’t find any qualified candidates in the local area for a short-term need
  • If a company it weighing the necessity of a CISO and would like to try using this position without yet committing to a full time hire.

Like their in-person counterparts, vCISOs can handle a wide range of security tasks, including HIPAA compliance, PCI compliance, and vendor risk assessment. Some organizations also consult with vCISOs for strategic analysis when creating security policies and standards for their companies.

Overall, the differences between in-person CISOs and remote vCISOs are in the details rather than in their exact job descriptions. vCISOs may be able manage many of the same responsibilities of a traditional CISOs, just from afar. However, it is important to understand that a vCISOs limitations and benefits.

A vCISO looking at his computer.

Benefits of vCISOs

There are a few benefits to hiring a vCISO for your organization. Often, cost is a biggest advantage for many organizations where resources are limited. Traditional CISOs can earn salaries over $200,000 a year, so not every business that would benefit from a CISO’s expertise can afford to put one on the permanent payroll.

vCISOs work on a contractual consulting basis. This means organizations are not restricted to a single provider. If a company is unhappy with their vCISO they can often terminate the contract or quickly seek a replacement. This benefits companies who are looking for unique skills as well as those who may only need to fill this position for a short period of time.

vCISOs can also be accessible in a way that can be difficult in-person CISOs. Since they can be contracted on an “on call” basis, companies may be able to contact them 24×7 whenever they have a security need. The pool of vCISO candidates is also not limited by geography. An organization can hire a best fit vCISO who may work from anywhere in the world.

Drawbacks of vCISOs

vCISOs also come with several downsides that shouldn’t be understated. First is the idea that the concept of a vCISO is not rigidly defined. There are numerous service providers in the market, and each may set the limitations of their offerings differently. It is important to fully research what is included in a vCISO service before committing to a contract.

Additionally, some vCISOs may lack the perspective and specific knowledge that internal CISOs—or even alternative security solutions—bring to the table. Because a vCISO is defined as a “virtual” and “contractual” position they are rarely on the ground in the middle of a cybersecurity incident response. They often lack familiarity or a deep understanding about how the organization runs and its resource limitations when compared to in-house staff.

Furthermore, as a cost saving measure many vCISOs are not as dedicated to any one organization. They are able to provide their service at a lower price by dividing their time between organizations they are working with.  In comparison, physical CISOs are hired to only work for your company alone, meaning they can dedicate their insights and expertise to the organization’s specific security problems instead of diversifying their efforts.

The potential long-term stability of a vCISO should also be considered. As a temporary service provider, a vCISO may switch consulting firms or move to other contracts. This leaves executives the chore of finding a new provider who is equally qualified. The time between vCISOs can be a critical gap in an organization’s security posture.

So, while finding the perfect in-house CISO might be a little more time-consuming and oftentimes more expensive, they can potentially bring long-term quality and consistent performance.

The Crucial Foundation for CISO or vCISO

Whether your organization is considering a full-time CISO or a vCISO, your company’s security is dependent on a solid foundation of skilled security analyst who can provide safeguard your environment. While a vCISO can be helpful for many organizations, they’re no replacement for a comprehensive security team powered by tailor-made solutions like Arctic Wolf.

The Arctic Wolf Concierge Security® Team (CST) operates as your enterprise’s dedicated, 24×7 team of security experts and can help you stay protected against today’s cyber threats, and also anticipate future problems before they impact your business. As the foundation of your security program, Arctic Wolf is dedicated to ending cyber risk whether your organization either currently or has plans to employ a CISO or vCISO.

With round-the-clock operations to help triage critical events, knowledgeable security expertise to help you navigate the complex cybersecurity landscape, and a philosophy of continuous improvement to maximize our value to your organization, Arctic Wolf can help you address your current security needs. See all the ways we can help.

Arctic Wolf

Arctic Wolf

Arctic Wolf provides your team with 24x7 coverage, security operations expertise, and strategically tailored security recommendations to continuously improve your overall posture.
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