As cybersecurity threats increase in sophistication and frequency, the demand for skilled Security Operations Center (SOC) analysts continues to rise. In tandem with defensive strategies and advanced security software, SOC analysts fill a critical role in keeping enterprises safe from attacks.
SOC teams are responsible for identifying and mitigating oncoming threats, protecting sensitive information, and ensuring the overall security of an organization’s digital assets. As demand for skilled SOC analysts climbs, aspiring analysts need to ensure they have the technical knowledge, analytical skills, and critical thinking abilities required for the job.
This post is the first of three in a series covering the essential skills aspiring analysts should master as they embark on their journey toward success. In this first post, we detail the first four key areas of study that lay the groundwork for mastery in the SOC analysis field.
1. Learn Network Architecture
Networking is the backbone of any IT infrastructure. For an aspiring SOC analyst, learning networking basics means understanding how data flows across the network; a skill critical in identifying and responding to security incidents.
By building a foundational understanding of networking concepts such as IP addressing, subnets, domain name system (DNS), routing, and protocols like TCP/IP, ICMP, and UDP, a SOC analyst can identify anomalies, track down malicious activity, and create effective security policies.
Since most attackers are initiated from the network, having a good grasp of network security fundamentals, including firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS), and network segmentation provide SOC analysts with an edge in responding to security incidents. Understanding network fundamentals typically includes the below areas of interest:
- Learn networking fundamentals – Learn about network topologies, addressing, protocols, and networking devices. Resources such as the CompTIA Network+ or Cisco CCNA certifications can provide a solid foundation in fundamental networking concepts.
- Learn network security principles – Focus on firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS), and virtual private networks (VPNs).
- Practice with hands-on labs – Use virtual labs or physical equipment to gain hands-on experience in configuring and troubleshooting networks. Examples include:
- GNS3 – This free, open-source network simulation software allows users to design, configure, and test virtual networks.
- Packet Tracer – This network simulation software developed by Cisco allows users to design, configure, and test network topologies.
- EVE-NG – This network emulation software allows users to design, configure, and test virtual networks and complex network configurations.
- TryHackMe – This platform provides guided, pre-configured labs accessible through a browser. The variety of high-quality courses and their low entry barrier allow learners to gain exposure to different tools and concepts.
- Join networking and security communities – Connect with professionals in the networking and security industry to learn from their experience, ask questions, and gain insights into the latest trends and technologies. Online communities such as Reddit’s /r/networking or /r/netsec, or professional associations such as ISACA, ISSA, or (ISC)², can be a great resource for connecting with others in the field.
- Stay up-to-date with industry news – Follow security and networking news sites such as Dark Reading, BleepingComputer, or SecurityWeek to stay informed on the latest security threats and trends.
2. Learn Network Analysis
Network traffic analysis involves examining the packets of data transmitted between devices on a network to identify patterns, anomalies, and signs of malicious activity. SOC analysts can detect suspicious behaviors such as unauthorized access attempts, data exfiltration, malware infections, and command-and-control communication by analyzing network traffic.
They can also use network traffic analysis to trace the origin of an attack, determine the scope of compromise, and identify affected assets. Network traffic analysis skills are key for any aspiring SOC analyst looking to build proficiency in threat detection and incident response. To get started on learning how to analyze network traffic, consider the below steps:
- Build up networking basics – Before analyzing network traffic, it is essential to have a solid understanding of networking concepts such as TCP/IP, DNS, HTTP, and SSL. Learn to interpret a packet’s structure and each header field’s role can help identify and troubleshoot network issues.
- Use network analysis tools – Various network analysis tools can help analyze network traffic, such as Wireshark, tcpdump, and tshark. These tools can be used to capture, decode, and analyze packets in real time or from saved capture files. Using Wireshark, for example, analysts can filter traffic by IP address, protocol, port, or keyword and analyze packet contents such as payload, headers, and timestamps.
- Practice analyzing network traffic – The best way to improve network traffic analysis skills is by practicing on real-world network traffic data. Sample capture files are obtainable from online resources such as the Wireshark Sample Captures page or by capturing traffic on a test network. Use the traffic to simulate an attack and create detection rules using a NIDS-like snort.
- Learn from online resources – Various online resources provide tutorials, blogs, and videos on network traffic analysis, such as the Wireshark University, PacketTotal, and the SANS Institute. These resources can help budding analysts learn advanced techniques like protocol analysis, network forensics, and malware analysis.
3. Learn Log Analysis
To be effective in their role, SOC analysts need to show proficiency in log analysis. Logs are a critical information source containing a wealth of data about system and network activity, user behavior, and security events. By analyzing logs, SOC analysts can identify suspicious activity, track the spread of malware, and detect potential security incidents.
Log analysis also plays a crucial role in incident response. When a security incident occurs, SOC analysts must investigate it, determine its scope and impact, and identify the root cause. Data captured in logs can help SOC analysts reconstruct the incident timeline, identify the attacker’s entry point, and determine the extent of the compromise.
Analyzing logs will also be required for any in-depth forensic investigations. The analysis involves examining logs generated by various systems and applications to detect anomalies, suspicious activities, and signs of compromise. Experienced analysts can detect events such as failed login attempts, unusual network traffic, and system changes that may indicate a security incident. Below are some methods aspiring analysts can take to improve their log analysis skills:
- Become familiar with log management tools – Log management tools like Splunk, ELK, and Graylog can help analysts to parse, search, and analyze logs. These tools can collect logs from different sources, apply filters and transformations, and visualize log data. Use these tools to view the organization’s security posture comprehensively.
- Learn common log formats – Logs come in a variety of formats. Learning common log formats like Syslog, Apache, and Windows Event Logs will serve to develop a stronger understanding of log data and how to make sense of it.
- Study log analysis, parsing, and search techniques – SOC analysts must have a wide arsenal of knowledge on log analysis techniques such as anomaly detection, correlation analysis, and threat hunting. Also, practice parsing and searching logs with different log management tools and techniques.
- Use regular expressions (Regex) – Regular expressions (regex) are a powerful tool for parsing and searching log data, allowing analysts to extract specific information from logs quickly.
- Filter noise – Logs may contain a lot of noise, such as debug messages, informational messages, or system messages. Filtering out noise helps analysts focus on the essential log data only.
- Use visualization tools – Visualization tools like graphs, charts, and dashboards are useful when trying to understand log data quickly. Utilize any visualization features within log management tools to create graphs or dashboards that show trends or anomalies in log data.
- Stay updated on threat news – Cybersecurity threats and attack techniques constantly evolve. Stay in the know with the latest cybersecurity news and trends. Follow industry blogs, attend webinars, and participate in online communities to stay informed.
4. Learn Endpoint Analysis
In today’s digital landscape, cybercriminals are continually devising new ways to exploit vulnerabilities and launch attacks, and the traditional perimeter-based security model is no longer enough. Security operations centers (SOCs) are at the forefront of identifying and mitigating these threats, and SOC analysts need to be familiar with a variety of tools and techniques to protect their organization’s network and sensitive data. Among these, one of the most critical tools that SOC analysts need to master is endpoint security tools.
Endpoint security tools protect against cyberattacks, focusing on securing endpoints like laptops, desktops, mobile devices, and servers. The endpoint is where an attack usually occurs, and it’s also the entry point for malware and other cyber threats. Endpoint security tools help to identify, isolate, and remediate the threat before it can cause significant damage.
Endpoint security tools in the hands of a knowledgeable SOC analyst can do the following:
- Protect vulnerable endpoints – Attacks on endpoints can result in data breaches, system disruption, and other security incidents. Endpoint security tools help to protect against these attacks by providing real-time visibility and control over devices.
- Perform advanced threat detection – Endpoint security tools use advanced threat detection mechanisms like behavioral analysis, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to detect and respond to threats. These tools can identify and isolate suspicious activities, providing SOC analysts with the information they need to respond to incidents quickly.
- Increase visibility – Endpoint security tools provide SOC analysts with a complete view of endpoint devices, including their applications and processes. This visibility allows analysts to identify vulnerabilities and misconfigurations that cybercriminals could exploit.
- Save time – Endpoint security tools can automate and orchestrate response actions, reducing the time it takes to detect and respond to incidents. This automation helps SOC analysts to focus on high-priority incidents, improving the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the SOC.
There are several endpoint security tools that SOC analysts need to master to protect their organization’s network and sensitive data. The most important of these are:
- Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) – EDR solutions provide real-time visibility into endpoint devices, enabling SOC analysts to quickly detect and respond to incidents. EDR solutions use advanced threat detection mechanisms like behavioral analysis and machine learning to identify and isolate suspicious activities.
- Antivirus & Anti-Malware – These can help to protect against known threats. These tools use signature-based detection to identify and block known malware and viruses.
- Vulnerability Scanners – These tools scan endpoint devices for vulnerabilities and provide SOC analysts with a list of vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.
- Patch Management Tools – These are vital to keeping endpoint devices up to date with the latest security patches and updates. These tools protect endpoint devices against known or so-called “N-day” vulnerabilities.
The path to mastering the art of SOC analysis begins with these fundamental skills, but it does not end there. In Part 2 of this series, we will cover how analysts can develop further and explore more advanced topics including cloud computing, Active Directory, threat hunting and malware detection.
Armed with a solid understanding of these concepts, new and developing analyts can rapidly learn how to detect intrusions and isolate them before they move deep into a sensitive environment and create long-lasting damage.
A trained and experienced SOC analyst is an invaluable component of today’s cybersecurity defense. To build on the skills we’ve discussed in this post, look out for the next part of this series by subscribing to our email list or following us on social media.
SentinelOne offers robust Managed Detection & Response (MDR), Managed Threat Hunting (MTH), Compromise Assessment and Incident Response Services. To learn more contact us or visit SentinelOne Global Services.