SOC Analyst: Job Description, Skills, and Certifications - Exabeam

SOC Analyst: Job Description, Skills and 5 Key Responsibilities

May 01, 2022


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What is a SOC analyst?

A SOC Analyst, also known as a Security Operations Center Analyst, is an IT security focal tasked with monitoring an organization’s network and system infrastructure to identify potential threats. 

SOC analysts play a vital role in upholding the overall security stance of businesses by reviewing events that occur within the security stack, pinpointing vulnerabilities, escalating incidents, and advising or deploying mitigation tactics. As the number of cyberattacks worldwide continues to grow, SOC analysts have become essential members of larger IT security teams.

The main objective of a SOC analyst is to identify, investigate, and escalate alerts and events to safeguard sensitive information from unauthorized access or harm caused by cybercriminals or malicious insiders.

In this article:

SOC analyst job description

SOC analysts are often the first to see and respond to cybersecurity events. They report on cyberthreats and initiate any changes needed to protect the organization.

Job duties of SOC analysts include:

  • Threat and vulnerability analysis.
  • Investigating, documenting, and reporting on any information security (InfoSec) issues as well as emerging trends.
  • Analysis and advising or response to previously unknown hardware and software vulnerabilities.
  • Preparing disaster recovery plans.

SOC analysts are considered the last line of defense, and usually work as part of a larger security team, alongside IT departments, security managers, and cybersecurity engineers. Typically, SOC analysts report to the SOC manager, who in turn answers to the company’s chief information security officer (CISO).

SOC analysts need to be ethical, curious, and detail oriented, because they are responsible for monitoring many aspects — and sometimes systems — simultaneously. They need to watch the extended network and respond to threats and events. The level of responsibility typically depends on the size of the organization.

What does it take to become a SOC analyst?

To excel as a SOC analyst, you must possess curiosity and a willingness to spend long hours learning about systems, security tools, and networking to acquire specific skills and qualifications. A solid understanding of IT networking and security principles is vital, along with knowledge of various cybersecurity tools and technologies. Here are some suggested prerequisites for aspiring SOC analysts:

  • Educational background: Generally, a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information technology, or a related field is useful. Some organizations might consider candidates with relevant experience in network operations or helpdesk support, especially with certifications
  • Cybersecurity knowledge: Familiarity with prevalent cyber threats, such as malware, phishing attacks, and DDoS attacks, is crucial. Grasping the concepts of anomaly identification and incident response will enable you to effectively identify and mitigate potential threats.
  • Technical expertise: Proficiency in using Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) solutions can significantly enhance your ability to detect suspicious activities within your organization’s network. Familiarity with other security tools, including firewalls, intrusion detection systems (IDS), and vulnerability scanners, is also advantageous.
  • Analytical skills: As a SOC analyst, you will be responsible for monitoring substantial amounts of data from various sources. The ability to quickly analyze this information and identify patterns that may signify potential security incidents is crucial.
  • Communication skills: Efficient communication is essential when collaborating with IT security teams or reporting incidents to stakeholders within the organization. It is important for a SOC analyst to have clarity of speech when escalating events, and good written communication skills to document incidents as well as suggested steps of remediation.

Besides these primary competencies, obtaining industry-recognized certifications can set you apart from other applicants and showcase your dedication to the field. Learn more below.

SOC analyst career path

A security operations center typically assigns analysts to three or four tiers:

  • Tier 1 security analyst — receives and looks into alerts daily. Reviews the most recent SIEM alerts to see their relevance and urgency. Carries out triage to ensure that a genuine security incident is occurring. Oversees and configures security monitoring tools.
  • Tier 2 security analyst — addresses security incidents. Evaluates incidents identified by tier 1 analysts. Uses threat intelligence such as updated rules and indicators of compromise (IOCs) to pinpoint affected systems and the extent of the attack. Analyzes running processes and configurations on affected systems. Carries out in-depth threat intelligence analysis to find the perpetrator, the type of attack, and the data or systems impacted.  Identifies threats that have entered the network, and security gaps and vulnerabilities currently unknown. 
  • Tier 3 security analyst — often deals with system (SIEM, security tool) configurations and creates rules or visualization. Often represents for security on incident bridge or other security calls. Carries out vulnerability assessments and penetration tests to assess the resilience of the organization and to isolate areas of weakness that need attention. Reviews alerts, threat intelligence, and security data. Creates and implements a security strategy for long-term improvement, incident containment, and recovery.
  • Incident response manager — manages and prioritizes actions during isolation, analysis, and containment of an incident. They also communicate any special requirements of high severity incidents to internal,external, and executive stakeholders.

5 responsibilities of SOC analysts

SOC analysts ensure that events are investigated, possible security incidents are accurately identified and investigated, analyzed, escalated, guarded against, and communicated with clarity.

1. Implement and manage security tools

SOC analysts should have access to a suite of technology products that provide insight into the organization’s security environment. They should be trained or certified on the relevant security tools and be able to operate them effectively.

Basic security tools include firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention technology, threat and vulnerability management tools, data loss prevention tools, filtering technologies, traffic inspection solutions, reporting technology and data analytics platforms. The SOC may also have access to enterprise forensic tools that support incident response investigations.

On top of this toolset, a SIEM solution can help aggregate security events and generate alerts for analysts to investigate. Next-generation SIEM tools include new capabilities like user and entity behavior analytics (UEBA) and security orchestration and automation (SOAR), which can save time for analysts and help identify threats that traditional tools could not. For an example of a next-gen SIEM solution that includes UEBA and SOAR, see Exabeam’s Security Operations Platform.

2. Investigate suspicious activities, contain and prevent them

With the assistance of security monitoring tools, SOC analysts look into suspicious activity within IT systems and networks. Typically, they do this by reviewing and analyzing alerts from the SIEM, which may contain signs of compromise and related threat intelligence. Analysts perform triage on alerts, understand the extent of the threat, and respond, or if necessary, escalate the incident to higher-tier analysts.

SOC personnel may not be able to entirely stop threats from entering their network, but they can stop threats from spreading. If a network system is compromised, SOC analysts should identify the infected hosts and escalate to IT or engage processes to prevent them from affecting the rest of the network. Analysts often use controls on switches, routers, and virtual local area networks (VLANs) to stop the threat from spreading — or work with IT to disable protocols, accounts, or outdated systems.

SOC analysts should correlate and validate alerts to ensure they represent relevant security incidents. Part of an analyst’s role is to contextualize events within the network environment of the business, understand their impact on the business, and coordinate response activities with key staff in real time.

3. Reduce downtime and ensure business continuity

Businesses need to ensure their network and systems run with minimal or no downtime. It was once possible to shut down a mail server infected by a virus for cleanup, but in today’s environment the business cannot sustain downtime of critical infrastructure.

In the event of a breach, SOC analysts are responsible for proactively notifying the appropriate functional and business stakeholders about serious security events. If possible, risks are mitigated before security events reach key business infrastructure.

4. Providing security services to the rest of the organization

SOCs ideally function as shared service centers that provide value to business stakeholders and help them meet their agendas. SOCs are cross-functional organizations that centralize operations carried out by different departments. SOC analysts play a crucial role in providing this service.

Organizations should empower analysts and enable them to take responsibility for security incidents, oversee communication, and guide interactions with individuals from IT, IR, HR, legal, compliance and other groups. A clear line of authority can limit confusion during critical emergency actions, such as connectivity termination or complete system shutdown.

5. Audit and compliance support

SOC analysts are often responsible for monitoring the auditing systems in place to meet compliance requirements for government, corporate and industry regulations such as SB 1386, HIPAA, and Sarbanes-Oxley. Efficient access to threat information, patch levels, identity and access control data is essential for compliance.

In the past, SOC analysts used documentation templates to create new documentation for an audit. This process is error prone and time-consuming. Modern SOCs use security tools such as the SIEM, which aggregates security data from across the organization and makes it easy for analysts to generate compliance audits and reports.

For example, here’s how Exabeam’s next-generation SIEM solution provides support for compliance with GDPR, PCI DSS, SOX, and more.

SOC analyst skills

Tier 1 SOC analysts serve as the first responders during security events and when analysis of cyberattacks is required. They review incident alerts, run vulnerability tests, and escalate severe incidents to senior analysts in Tier 2. 

Here are the main skills required by Tier 1 and Tier 2 analysts:

  • Tier 1 SOC analysts – must have administrative skills in several operating systems, such as Windows, OS X, and Linux. Tier 1 SOC analysts are (or become) proficient in basic shell scripting, creating Snort rules, or other log-searching query languages and methods. These professionals are required to handle common security incidents independently, but know when to escalate to higher tiers for support and assistance.
  • Tier 2 SOC analysts – also called ‘incident responders.’ These professionals review tickets received from Tier 1 analysts, which represent more severe security incidents or those requiring in-depth investigation. Tier SOC 2 analysts are responsible for gathering all details needed to assess the scope of a cyberattack and respond to severe attacks or those with high business impact.

Here are several must-have skills advanced SOC analysts need:

  • Network defense – must understand how network traffic flows work on the network — and extended remote and cloud systems. Tasks include monitoring, discovering, and analyzing possible threats. A SOC analyst should have the skills needed to maintain secure network traffic and respond to suspicious activities. 
  • Ethical hacking – must know how to detect threats and report vulnerabilities in a manner that ensures the organization remains protected from attacks. SOC analysts should know (or learn) how to perform perpetration testing for systems, web applications, and networks to find vulnerabilities.
  • Incident response – must be able to manage the effects of incidents in a manner that reduces the impact of breaches. SOC analysts should also be able to provide recommendations that can help prevent future security breaches.
  • Computer forensics – willing to learn computer forensic techniques that can help prevent cybercrime. Tasks include collecting, analyzing, and reporting security data in a systematic way with a clean chain of evidence. 
  • Reverse engineering – must be able to read and understand the basic operation and actions taken by software programs, and at higher levels of skill, should  learn  to reverse-engineer malware. 

SOC analyst certification and training

A common requirement for SOC analysts is a bachelor’s degree in computer science or computer engineering, or equivalent practical experience in IT and/or networking roles. 

In addition, the following certifications are recognized or required by many employers:

  • Cisco Certified CyberOps Associate – provides practical knowledge about real world tasks performed in SOC environments
  • EC-Council Certified SOC Analyst (CSA) – a three-day program, covering both entry-level and intermediate tasks for Tier 1 and Tier 2 analysts.
  • EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacker – teaches emerging attack vectors, tools used by hackers and penetration testers, and practical experience in malware analysis.
  • CompTIA Network+ and Security+ – trains on basic network and cabling, and educates candidates to perform the entire security lifecycle in a modern IT environment. Compliant with ISO 17024 and approved for US Department of Defense 8570 compliance.
  • SANS GCIA — validates a practitioner’s knowledge of network and host monitoring, traffic analysis, and intrusion detection.

Exabeam helps organizations get the most out of their current SOC team by automating cumbersome, time-consuming, and prone-to-error manual tasks enabling security analysts to spend more time putting their specialized skills to use. 

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