Dynasty? U of W repeats as national cyber defense champ.
- By William Jackson
- Apr 25, 2012
A team of eight computer science students from the University of
Washington has brought home a national cybersecurity championship for
the second straight year, besting regional champs from nine other
schools competing in San Antonio in the National Collegiate Cyber
The U.S. Air Force Academy finished second in the competition, and
last year’s No. 2 team, Texas A&M University, also finished in the
money this year, coming in third.
The event, hosted by the University of Texas at San Antonio, was held
April 20-22, as the teams defended networks against red team attacks.
University teams from around the country competed through March in 10
regional competitions, with regional winners meeting to vie for bragging
rights and job opportunities.
National cyber defense championship is more than just a game
Key to better security on a tight budget: Quality workforce
The tourney, which began in 2005 as a regional event, is part of a
nationwide effort to identify and develop talent that is increasingly in
demand for a professional cybersecurity workforce. The winner takes
home the Alamo Cup trophy, and a recruiting is part of the weekend
events. Job offers from major employers are one of the primary benefits
for participating students.
However, “we walked into the competition already having jobs,” both
this year and last, said Melody Kadenko, cybersecurity program director
for the University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering
Department and the team’s faculty adviser.
Not only are trained cybersecurity professionals in demand, but the
school also has a number of large employers in the area, including
Boeing, Microsoft, Google and Facebook. “They are in the department for
months before the competition,” recruiting students, Kadenko said.
At the beginning of the three-day competition, each team was given an
operational network for a fictional Internet Web services hosting
company with subsidiary retail operations, including e-mail, websites,
data files and users. The network had to be operated and services
maintained in the face of a red team probing and attacking systems. For
the first time this year, an orange team of fictional users, clients and
customers also stressed the teams and their networks.
Teams were scored on their ability to maintain services while
completing business tasks and were docked points for failing to meet
service-level agreements, for failure to recover and restore services
when disrupted, and for allowing red team penetrations.
This year’s competition included a few surprises, Kadenko said.
“Every year they’ve always had Cisco routers,” she said. Her team
included a student with expertise in Cisco routers and other members had
studied the platform. But on the opening morning the students were
introduced to networks with Juniper routers. “In every team there was
one person who ran out to do a 30-minute cram session on Juniper
The team benefited this year from a donation to the school of cloud
computing credits from Amazon Web Services. “Cloud computing was a major
component of the competition this year,” Kadenko said.
Although final scoring has not yet been announced, Kadenko said she
was told the competition between the top three finishers was close. She
said her team’s edge came from their teamwork.
“The most important component was how they interact with each other,”
she said. “They already had the knowledge. They got that from the
curriculum. But you can’t teach how to get along with somebody.”
The team was largely self-selected. “We don’t have tryouts,” she
said. Interested students in the department met regularly and were given
tasks to prepare for the contests. “I made them train themselves. I
only stepped I when there was a problem brewing. Dealing with and
defusing problems was key. I gave them enough leeway to get things
This year’s team included three returning students from last year’s
winning team. But there were six graduating students and a graduate
student on the team this year, so the only student likely to return for
the competition next year will be a junior. But there were also two
alternates who participated in the Pacific Rim regional competition but
who were not able to join the eight-person team in the nationals, so
Kadenko will not have to rebuild the team completely from scratch next
William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.