ANN ARBOR — Merit Network Inc. Monday announced the launch of the first pilot of the Michigan Cyber Range in collaboration with Washtenaw Community College.

As of Jan. 9, WCC students enrolled in CSS 200 Information Assurance Concepts and CSS 205 Network Penetration Testing use the Michigan Cyber Range as an extension of their classroom for experiential learning exercises.

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CSS 200 students use the Michigan Cyber Range to perform hands on labs that help them understand security measures, techniques for securing systems, basic intrusion detection and recovery methods. Students in the more advanced CSS 205 course will utilize the Range to evaluate and audit network vulnerabilities and properly secure networks from attack.

“I am pleased to announce the first pilot course on the Michigan Cyber Range. This is especially exciting because it is in collaboration with Washtenaw Community College, a Merit Member,” said Joe Adams, executive director of research and the Michigan Cyber Range, Merit Network. “The pilot shows that we are committed to supporting the Merit Community and helping our Members achieve their strategic goals. This is indicative of where we want to go and what we want to do with the Michigan Cyber Range program.”

The Michigan Cyber Range is an unclassified, logically isolated system overlaid on Merit’s extensive network. As a “live fire” range, it utilizes virtualization technology, customized thin clients and dynamic multipoint networking to model complex networks safely. Users are able to perform real cyber exercises without impacting everyday network activity.

The pilot will establish the operational foundation for one type of course that will be taught on the Michigan Cyber Range. Focusing on the Range’s key features of accessibility, experiential learning, and adaptive assessment, students demonstrate their knowledge of cyber security across a wide range of techniques, tactics, and procedures.

“Security is hard to learn,” said Doug Cox, adjunct professor of computer security at Washtenaw CC. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose. It draws upon knowledge of networking, DNS, HTML and more — and it’s constantly changing and evolving. The question is always, how do you solve it?

“We want students to be able to play with fire,” Cox continued. “It’s important to create an environment where students can try things and break things without causing any real damage or getting in trouble.”

For students in CSS 200 and CSS 205 at WCC, that environment is now the Michigan Cyber Range.

Merit says it’s eager to evaluate the first course taught on Michigan Cyber Range infrastructure, paying close attention the mechanics of how WCC students access the Range. For WCC, course offerings in collaboration with the Michigan Cyber Range help them be more accommodating to their students.

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“Our goal at Washtenaw Community College is to make the Computer Security program affordable and accessible for our students,” said Neil Gudson, Business and Computer Technologies Division, Washtenaw Community College.

In a comprehensive computer Security program like the one at WCC, students work with a variety of different Operating Systems to complete learning objectives and degree certificate requirements. Ensuring that each student has access to physical machines running various Operating Systems can be challenging. Most WCC students attend school part-time and have other obligations outside of class. Scheduling courses during peak hours must occur within time and classroom constraints.

Courses that utilize the Michigan Cyber Range ease physical classroom constraints. Through the use of virtualization and thin client technology, WCC faculty and students can access the Range for coursework from any lab or work station on campus, enabling flexibility when scheduling courses.

Because the Michigan Cyber Range operates as an air-gapped system over Merit’s extensive backbone, it helps WCC’s Computer Security program scale beyond its physical constraints. WCC has received interest in their courses from other higher education institutions in Michigan and out of state, all able to connect to Merit Member WCC over Merit’s network.

“It’s great to be able to jump across county lines with our curriculum,” said Gudson. “It will go a long way toward strengthening the courses, increasing enrollment and sustaining the program.”

The Computer Security program at WCC dates back to 2003 when Washtenaw Community College was one of the founding Midwest Affiliate schools of the Center for Systems Security and Informational Assurance, a National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education National Resource Center. As such, WCC was one of the first institutions of higher education (two-year or four-year) in Michigan to offer a bona fide computer security program.

“I am looking forward to working more with Washtenaw Community College and other Merit Member higher education institutions as the Michigan Cyber Range continues to establish itself as a cyber security education platform,” Adams said.

The WCC pilot is just one way the Michigan Cyber Range can be used as a cyber security training resource. Like the WCC example, it is available as a platform, where students and instructors can access the Range as a secure sandbox for learning. In another model, Merit will offer complete turnkey courses from their offices in Ann Arbor. Additionally, Merit is working with government and industry to develop structured training that addresses an organization’s unique needs. For example, Merit might work with a utility company to provide smart grid protection skills to their workforce.

Merit Network, a nonprofit corporation owned and governed by Michigan’s public universities, owns and operates America’s longest-running regional research and education network. In 1966, Michigan’s public universities created Merit as a shared resource to help meet their common need for networking assistance. Today, Merit provides high-performance networking and IT solutions to Michigan’s public universities, colleges, K-12 organizations, libraries, state government, healthcare, and other non-profit organizations.

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