Best Practices for Building Effective Purple Team Exercises

March 31, 2022 | By IANS Faculty

Purple teams blend traditional red and blue team skillsets to optimize security exercises and test an organization's cybersecurity strength. Purple teams are structured to unite the strengths of both teams and make security more proactive. The result is an effective way to improve an organization's overall security posture. 

To test the strength of cybersecurity defenses, purple team exercises allow both red and blue teams to collaborate during coordinated exercises. The purple team approach is milestone-driven, has a business focus, is iterative and is designed to work with combined goals. 

Purple teams often get too caught up in their “red” or “blue” roles, not sharing information as readily, which diminishes the benefits of the exercise. By knowing which pitfalls to avoid and understanding how to leverage purple team exercises, you can bolster your cybersecurity posture.  

This piece explains how purple teams help strengthen and uncover security vulnerabilities and risks for the organization, along with best practices to build solid purple team exercises. 

Purposes of Purple Team Exercises   

Purple team exercises are extremely useful to validate the security of an organization. Purple teams are collaborative in nature and designed to identify new weaknesses and security gaps. This methodology helps push beyond conventional processes to redefine the defend-report-repeat cycle to gain critical insight. Other benefits include: 

  • Prioritizing new risks and threats 
  • Testing vendor and stakeholder security postures 
  • Streamlining security improvements 
  • Boosting performance and fine-tuning security investments 

Unlike traditional red or blue teams, purple teams capitalize on the strengths of both perspectives in coordinated attack exercises, leading to an enhancement of security knowledge and an ability to strengthen organizational security pillars. 

How to Build a Purple Team Exercise 

All purple team exercises should have a level of agility and flexibility built in because, as in a real-world scenario, things may not unfold as you expect, and security teams may need more freedom to find breaches and correct them. 

To build a solid purple team exercise, you’ll want to start by considering how much you want to keep in-house and how much you want to partner with an expert third-party vendor. 

Once you figure out how to structure your purple team, turn an eye toward planning considerations, highlighting any benchmarks the integrated exercise should meet, such as: 

  • Improving your IR team's response 
  • Refining network alerts 
  • Confirming assumptions or testing gaps in controls 
  • Testing people, processes or technology 

The ideal purple team exercise supports both offensive and defensive team members' ability to transfer knowledge to one another while simultaneously meeting benchmarks. 

Steps to Building a Purple Team Exercise 

Effective purple team exercises create a coordinated effort of offensive and defensive objectives. Collaboration strengthens the ability to pinpoint vulnerabilities and subsequently close them, helping to avoid exploitation by threat actors (if the test was a real-life scenario playing out). 

1. Set Goals and Objectives 

Clear goals help guide the purple team exercise and should depend on your security team's objectives. For example, your goals for the purple team exercise could include one or more of the following:  

  • Testing attack chains against targeted organization 
  • Training the defenders (traditional "blue team") 
  • Testing any previously untested tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) 
  • Testing processes between offensive and defensive teams 
  • Preparing for a zero-knowledge red team engagement 
  • Performing reveals or replays after simulated attacks 

2. Set Timelines   

Timelines may vary, but generally, it takes a few weeks to establish goals, a month or two to prepare, and anywhere between a few days to a week to carry out the simulations.

3. Outline a Background 

Cite specific reasons for the exercise and the results you anticipate. 

4. Justify the Exercise 

Cite reasons for conducting the purple team exercise, including closing gaps for known weaknesses and identifying unknown vulnerabilities. Emphasize the need to cultivate a mindset of continuous improvements across the board. 

5. Report Metrics 

After the exercise, examine how the various TTPs worked to see where your organization stands in its security posture. Document results to contrast which defenses and mitigations worked and which failed. 

6. Identify Gaps 

When considering the results of the exercise, make a concentrated effort to pinpoint any gaps or lapses that were highlighted. 

7. Note High-Impact Activities 

Take particularly detailed notes on activities that significantly impact your security protocols, either good or bad. 

8. Examine Results/Deliverables/Outcomes/Adjustments   

At this step, you'll want to examine outcomes by documenting: 

  • The stage at which weaknesses were found 
  • Action areas needing improvement 
  • Individuals involved, including names, level and skills 
  • Key contacts and who needs to know 

This step should also involve documenting and recording the exercise, listing who is accountable and how follow-up will be done to ensure remediation is completed. 

Building a purple team exercise helps your traditional red and blue teams gain insight into both offensive and defensive cybersecurity strategies, closes skills gaps, and empowers members to gain the skills they need to successfully identify, prevent and/or manage attacks. Instead of competing with one another, everyone works together to identify vulnerabilities and improve the security program. 

Today’s overarching threat landscape has grown incredibly complex. Purple team exercises help your blue and red teams work together to provide a more accurate and realistic picture of your actual vulnerabilities and strengths, helping you to protect your organization to the fullest. 

Although reasonable efforts will be made to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the information contained in our blog posts, no liability can be accepted by IANS or our Faculty members for the results of any actions taken by individuals or firms in connection with such information, opinions, or advice. 


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