Video: Assistant Professor of Practice Bahram Attaie explains how the NECCDC works, and what students will be doing during the weekend contest.

By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

It might sound counterintuitive, but a lot of planning and preparation goes into facilitating the execution of high-quality cyber attacks.

That’s something James Powell, instructional technology analyst and adjunct instructor for the iSchool, can tell you from his recent experience.

Over the past year, since the iSchool announced it would host the 2015 edition of the Northeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (NECCDC), Powell and a team that includes iSchool IT Services staffers and Syracuse University’s Information Technology and Services (ITS) associates have been putting together the technical infrastructure to build and operate the weekend-long cyber defense contest.

The NECCDC competition starts on Friday, March 20, and concludes Sunday afternoon. Over 100 students from colleges throughout the Northeast, plus their faculty members, IT industry professionals, and competition sponsors will be in Syracuse for the event.

Hosting the competition requires sourcing and creating a dedicated network system and shepherding 10 identical technology setups into use for the annual cyber-skills contest.

It’s been a Herculean effort that has enmeshed Powell, ’08, G’11, with help from the iSchool’s IT Department, along with some iSchool students who work with him maintaining the School’s computer labs. Also key to the effort is Christopher Croad, Information Security Officer at Syracuse University, and also an adjunct iSchool instructor. He is  heading and coordinating the contest judging team, getting help in that effort from some of his ITS associates. Working with competition leader Bahram Attaie, an Assistant Professor of Practice at the iSchool, Powell and Croad have been actively engaged for months in what Powell calls a “short-lived but heavily planned” initiative.  

Hinds Hall Takeover

Hosting the contest essentially involves building a temporary infrastructure parallel to iSchool’s existing network and computing infrastructure that is used soley for the NECCDC event. Planners took in 30 web servers and 136 laptops, donated by HP through alumnus Michael Brown, and worked with CISCO representatives to run new networking equipment.

Aside from building the new infrastructure, the competition physically uses most of Hinds Hall all weekend. The 10 student teams, a panel of judges, the “red team” group of cyber-attackers, and scoring system needs require 14 classrooms and other meeting spaces.

James said that planning the configuration took organizers “12-15 hours in a room, on a white board, mapping out a design and how to integrate it into the building.” They decided the best way to create a dedicated tableau was to replace existing room switches with new ones to avoid a lot of re-cabling. “It was the path of least resistence. The plan was that we not have that big a disruption of the day-to-day activity, but it does take more effort to roll it out that way,” Powell said.

Thinking about all those details has left Powell where, “My brain’s been running on overdrive,” he laughed. “It’s meeting with the networking guys; how do you do the set ups; what’s the systems administration. We’re setting up 10 mini identical enterprise networks, and have to strategize and assess what does every [team] have, how can we execute that fairly, and how can we configure it properly. Then we have to step back a little bit so it’s a quality troubleshooting exercise, a live fire drill for our students,” he added.

The scale also is daunting, he noted. “It’s doing eight to nine different things in each room, but 10 times over, so it’s a lot heavier lift. We’re used to doing a lab launch, with one master golden image, then pushing it out 100 times. This is developing 10 master images, then pushing each of them out 11 times. So it’s more of a time management thing,” he said.

Syracuse University's ITS group provided assistance in network planning and design, which included configuring a backup piece of hardware for every part of the network, with a duplicate configuration which can quickly be put into service should there be any failures.

Participants from the University's ITS group include Bruce Boardman, Ron Bunal, Bob Herman, Peter Morrissey, and Jim Pampinella, 

Devising a Game

Aside from responsibility for IT systems, the host school gets to develop the competition “game,” the situational scenario and operating challenges that are the essence of the competition. The premise is that each student team acts as a business IT department, dealing with everyday operational challenges, then on top of that, must fend off randomly injected cyber attacks and hacks. Powell, Croad, and their team members devised a creative storyline to the event, feauring elements of virtualization and mobile device use, as well as access to actual data that became public due to litigation. Part of the intrigue for contest organizers and participants alike, Powell said, is strategizing  how various competition scenarios might unfold, including “all the kinds of entropy that can be introduced.” Consequently, some system imperfections are built in, just like in real life, to provide optimal competition challenges for students, James said.

The idea of an imperfect system runs counter to Powell’s normal routine because  of the iSchool’s “best practices” standards. Having to do that kind of inverted thinking has been a learning experience for him, the iSchool undergrad and graduate-degree recipient noted. “It’s a good mental exercise for me. It’s knocking off a lot of rust. We’re learning a lot quickly, thinking about all the different complexities, beause we don’t have the privilege of setting this up as we know it, which is best practices. So it’s interesting to say, ‘this is how we would do it, but how would a bad team do it?’”

Croad is heading the judging team throughout the weekend, and Powell will be on duty with his student group to manage any systems issues that may arise. Although Powell and his associates have spent the past two weeks testing their installations, they must be ready to address any technical issues throughout the event.   

So what kind of a weekend does Powell foresee? “It will be a stressful week the week before, finalizing the final set up,” he noted. “Then I look forward to a weekend of observing. If it’s a boring weekend for me, I’ll have done my job correctly.”