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FEATURE

Cisco Critical Infrastructure Assurance Group (CIAG) Supports Education at Top Institutions

June 28, 2005

By Jenny Carless, News@Cisco

As the world's critical infrastructures (such as transportation, energy and defense) migrate their core business operations onto information networks and the Internet, they become more efficient and effective - but also potentially more vulnerable. In this constantly evolving climate, their future security depends on having a work force with an expert level of knowledge and skills in information assurance (IA).

The IA experts of tomorrow can be found today at top universities around the United States and the world, learning their craft with the help of the most advanced technology and curricula available. One important source of support for these education programs is the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Group (CIAG) at Cisco Systems.

"Many in government and business are trying to improve security in the short term, but we wanted to carve out the capability to influence it for the long term," explains Ken Watson, who created and manages CIAG. "So the programs we've chosen to develop - of which education is one - have the longest reach, the greatest influence over time."

IA Education

Colleges and universities represent a particularly important vehicle for developing future leaders and contributors in IA, but they need help from industry.

"We've never needed close collaboration with industry as much as we do now," points out Allan Berg, director of Information Assurance and Infrastructure Protection Programs at Towson University in Maryland. "We can't pretend to have an intimate knowledge of the rapidly changing technology, so we rely heavily on the experts. We are the conduits of the information; industry is the repository."

CIAG works to increase the expert security work force by helping Cisco, government, academia and industry improve IA education. In particular, the group fosters strategic relationships with National Security Agency/Department of Homeland Security-designated Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education (CAE/IAE) as well as other prominent institutions to support development of their learning infrastructures. It accomplishes this with donations of equipment, curriculum, expert instructors, scholarships, internships and innovative faculty training.

Spreading the Wealth

Towson University (a CAE/IAE since 2002) has implemented a range of improvements in both its curricula and laboratories with the help of approximately $300,000 in CIAG equipment donations.

"When we started building our IA lab about three years ago, it was a bare-bones facility. Since then, it has gone through several iterations based on these Cisco donations," says Berg. "The level of complexity now versus then is like night and day." The improved laboratory also led to the development of a computer forensics course at Towson, one of only a very few such courses among all the CAE/IAE.

To help share its newly acquired expertise in information security with others, the university established MAISA - the Maryland Alliance for Information Security and Assurance. Through that group, ten regional schools (four universities and six community colleges) are also able to improve their IA programs. For example, Towson hosted a one-week Cisco training session ("boot camp") for professors in June 2004, to which it invited (and hosted) MAISA members. "Dollar for dollar, you couldn't get more efficient than what happened that week," notes Berg. "It was a very concentrated, effective program."

The CIAG equipment grant also enabled Towson's Center for Applied Information Technology to establish IA laboratories on the campus of each MAISA member. "Ours goals are to have every community college in Maryland join MAISA, to expand Cisco training to the new members and to intensify the level of that training in the future," Berg added.

Wide-Ranging Support

Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech; a CAE/IAE since 2001) has benefited in numerous ways from its relationship with CIAG, including more than $100,000 in equipment donations, Cisco "Boot camp," guest lecturers and student scholarships and internships.

The equipment donations have supported an internetwork programming course and a hands-on security lab. "Students can only get so far without a hands-on lab," explains Henry Owen, professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "The equipment grant and curriculum development helped catapult us to the next level in IA training."

This strong foundation helped Georgia Tech students win third place in the 2004 University of California Santa Barbara "Capture The Flag," an international exercise that tests students' security skills from both the attack and defense viewpoints. "It was a great learning experience for the team," Owen said.

The CIAG donations have also allowed Georgia Tech to improve the students' ability to use the campus network to test and evaluate network sensors.

"We like to use our own backyard to develop and test sensors, but this is a large campus with a very busy network," explains David Dagon, a Ph.D. candidate working with Professor Wenke Lee in the College of Computing. "In the past, we were limited in the number of test sensors we could run at a time."

"Now we're using the Cisco Catalyst 2970 switches to mirror the traffic, which allows us to run all sensors simultaneously," he continues. "This means that students can actually test projects (such as experimental intrusion detection systems) on real, live network traffic."

Real-World Experience

Equipment donations to the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD; a CAE/IAE since 2004) have been used to develop the school's new $2 million Security Analysis and Information Assurance Laboratory (SAIAL), a physically and electronically secure three-room facility that allows researchers to simulate the Internet and test security products.

"As UTD students and researchers develop better ways to defend against identity theft break-ins, we can test them on this system," explains E. Douglas Harris, associate dean and executive director of the CyberSecurity and Emergency Preparedness Institute. "Because it's controlled, we can put viruses in there and bring in 'white hat hackers' to see if they can break in. Anything you'd like to test for security on the Internet, we can do it here."

"Cisco is the top player in Internet efforts today, so no one can put together a fair representation of the Internet without using its equipment," he adds. "By having Cisco equipment in this lab, we're providing our students with invaluable experience."

CIAG's focus on academia stems from a recognition that universities are the place to go to change culture in the critical realm of IA. "It's too late if you just target software companies," explains Greg Akers, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Global Government Solutions at Cisco. "You want to make sure the people coming in already think about security as they begin to write code. That's what CIAG is working to accomplish."

Jenny Carless is a freelance writer located in Santa Cruz, CA.

 
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