Students build, defend virtual network
for national security demonstration © Dec. 10, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Computer security students (left to right) Nicholas Logan, Robert Gallagher and Jacob Berry were part of the team who defended a computer network during a simulated attack for a national computer conference on Nov. 10, 2010.

photo by Jennifer LangilleNorwich students (left to right) Nicholas Logan, Robert Gallagher and Jacob Berry helped defend a computer network during a simulated attack for a national security conference on Nov. 10, 2010.

Their parents don’t understand what they do.

But seven Norwich computer security students impressed an audience of hundreds at the recent SC World Congress, a New York City gathering of information security professionals. Students defended a virtual network they had built—a key component of a simulation that was the conference’s keynote event.

For “Twelve hours to network meltdown,” a cyber gang invaded the network of a fictitious company called Hackbro, compromised data on off-site “cloud” servers, and threatened the company.

The Red Team, a U.S. Air Force unit, led the assault. Defending Hackbro was the Blue Team from Norwich. The purpose of the demonstration was to show the vulnerability of cloud computing and to explore reactions to cyber attacks.

I don’t think you
can put a value on it.
It’s definitely a plus
on your resume.

Senior Nicholas Logan
on participating in demonstration

Spearheading this exercise was Peter Stephenson, SC’s technology editor and director of the Norwich University Advanced Computing Center. He gave the students the task of building the virtual network.

The simulation was a training exercise for the audience, he explained. Hackbro made mistakes common in the real world, and suffered expected consequences. “Breaking into a company and using it as a launch pad to attack another company; that happens,” he said.

What the students created, said Stephenson, represents a company’s entire computing network, including web servers, email and work stations. Students spent a month working on the project, regularly putting in 12- to 15-hour days.

“These kids are remarkably active in this,” said Stephenson. “This is a very difficult thing to build ... It was hands-on, real-world experience backed by theory.

“I marvel at it. These are some of the brightest kids I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach. I put an immense amount of trust in them. I basically turned the keys of the castle [over] to them.”

For the Nov. 10, 2010, exercise, students donned dark, conservative suits and hunkered in the basement of a Norwich computer lab. The keynote panel and audience observed from New York City, using Twitter to send suggestions.

The panel included personnel from the U.S. Air Force, a computer game company, an intellectual property specialist and chief security officer for the New York Times.

The first sign of trouble was when various indicators turned red. “I felt my heart rate jump,” said one panelist. “I’m nervous, but not Code Red yet.”

Air Force Col. Mike Convertino, the panel moderator who also played the part of Hackbro’s chief information security officer, talked with Norwich sophomore Jacob Berry over Skype, their conversations piped into the conference room.

“Excuse me, sir,” said Berry. “There’s been a large file transfer.”

“Oh, this is bad,” remarked a panelist. “My heart rate is a little bit faster. I assume information is going to be lost.”

“Jacob, I like how calm you are,” said another panelist. “Are you looking for a job?”

The attackers had broken into Hackbro’s network, stolen credit card and social security numbers and appropriated other intellectual property. The panel advised Blue Team to alert public relations, call the CEO and bring in the FBI and the Secret Service.

It gets worse, reported Berry. One or more of the company’s databases had been corrupted. The network must go down.

Storming in, the “company president,” played by Norwich professor Michel Kabay, demanded to know what was going on. “The entire network is down. I’ve got a ransom note—pay $1 million in ransom or they’ll melt our network in 12 hours. You’ve got to get this fixed right now, man!”

An hour and a half later, Norwich students had stopped the assault and implemented policies designed to prevent future attacks.

Conference participants were impressed.

“Not only did they showcase their technical prowess and some thespian chops, but they were also professional and completely calm, cool and collected,” wrote Illena Armstrong, editor-in-chief of SC Magazine in an email to Stephenson.

Norwich was able to participate in the exercise, in part, because of NUACC: the Norwich University Advanced Computing Center.

“We have the infrastructure of a university twice, three times our size,” said Michael Stephenson, the administrator and architect of NUACC. “It’s one-of-a-kind in terms of universities the size of Norwich.”

While the audience at the conference learned about cyber defense, students reaped benefits of their own.

“It was a learning experience from start to end,” said Berry.

Reading manuals and employing trial and error, students taught themselves how to build the virtual network from scratch, with a little coaching from Stephenson.

“We all got to work with hardware and software that’s [typically] not available until we graduate,” said Eric Patterson, a junior. “This gives us a leg up when we graduate.”

According to students, parents frequently don’t understand what they are studying, but the NSA, FBI and Fortune 500 companies in the audience—all potential employers—certainly do.

“I learned how to fully implement a network to support a company,” said senior Nicholas Logan. “If I’m able to understand that, I can go to any company and truthfully say I can build them a network. No company would turn down an offer like that. I don’t think you can put a value on it. It’s definitely a plus on your resume.”