Dynasty? U of W repeats as national cyber defense champ.

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 Defense Competition.

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.

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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 routers."

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 done.”

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 year.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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