UAF team dominates regional cyber competition, heads to national

Members of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC) team took first place in the 2012 At-Large Regional CCDC competition.

The team defeated four competitors in the March 3-4 competition hosted virtually in the UAF Advanced System Security Education, Research and Training (ASSERT) Laboratory. Team members-captain Robert Hartshorn, alternate captain Ben Hartman, Greg Klupar, William Showalter, Jan Pruce, Tim Grediagin, Michael Tait and Jon Klein-will travel to the national competition in San Antonio, Texas in April.

"I was very impressed by their teamwork, uptime, and positive attitude during the contest," said team faculty advisor Orion Lawlor, assistant professor of computer science at UAF.

Team member Grediagin, a senior and first-year team member, said the competition was not just preparation for the real-world careers but real-world disasters.

"(It provides) a better idea of what might be asked of a sys(tem)-admin in the business world, and a nightmare of a day," he stated via email. "CCDC is as one friend described it, 'a sys-admin's day of hell'."

Grediagin said he's interested in computer science because "it is a useful branch of mathematics with problems to solve and readily relatable to real life." His goal for Nationals in April: "To not embarrass myself too badly."

"I just kind of grew up playing on computers and trying to get them to work in between," he said.

Now he's hoping for a strong showing in Texas and is excited about the opportunity to meet other interesting teams.

Like the nine other regional events, the At-Large competition is modeled after the national competition. Each team is given access to the Information Technology (IT) infrastructure for a business-this year a social media site- and acts as the IT and security staff. Each team was expected to maintain critical services of the site-think Facebook: status updates, picture uploads, etc.-as well as add functionality such as chatting. The real challenge, though, was to protect the site from cyber-attacks. Volunteer staff from Rockwell Collins, an aerospace and defense company, attacked the systems, just as real-world hackers would.

One key difference between other regional events and the At-Large event is physical location: there isn't one. Designed to address the challenge of high travel costs for schools like UAF, the At-Large event takes place in a virtual realm, utilizing virtualization technology to maintain a simulated network. The concept was created by At-Large Regional CCDC Director Brian Hay, also director of the UAF ASSERT Lab. Capitalizing on an NSF-funded project led by Hay's fellow computer science professor Kara Nance, the virtual security computing lab-Remotely Accessible Virtualized Environment (RAVE)- provided the technology and equipment necessary to hold a virtual computer competition.

"For some schools, that travel is cost-prohibitive, and our At-Large Regional CCDC event allows teams that cannot attend physical regions to still participate," Hay said. "This is particularly important for the Alaska and Hawaii teams, where travel and lodging bills could easily be $10,000 per team."

Teams participating in 2012 were UAF, UAF Community and Technical College; University of Hawaii at Manoa; Penn State Altoona from Pennsylvania; and Utah State University. UAF's Community and Technical College finished second and Hawaii took third.

Hay noted the competition offers applicable preparation for future careers in the IT field.

"Competitions like this allow students to experience the challenges of running and defending IT infrastructure in a relatively real-world environment which is under constant attack from a variety of sources," he said. "These are the challenges they will face in the workplace."

Lawlor noted the national importance of training a workforce for cyber security.

That point is illustrated by national sponsorships and support for the competition. Hay noted the high-profile support NCCDC receives:

  • Deloitte: National and regional sponsorship, including travel funds for regional winners to attend the National CCDC.
  • The Department of Homeland Security (DHS): National and regional sponsorship.
  • Rockwell Collins: Provided Red Team (the attackers) for the At-Large regional event, including nine staff members who attacked systems in the competition and provided teams with performance debriefing.
  • The FBI (specifically the Anchorage FBI office): Provided a Special Agent at At-Large event for teams to report suspected compromises of their systems to law enforcement.
  • The U.S. Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR): National sponsorship and provided five "white team" members for At-Large event serving as local judges at each competition site.

"In terms of the sponsorship and support, the national focus clearly shows how important cyber security is governmental and commercial organizations," Hay said. "They understand that the impact of a failure in cyber security is not limited to computers, but instead has the potential to impact essentially all aspects of modern life, and I think they see this support as a way to encourage and support the next generation of cyber security professionals and researchers."