Living our Mission: Project Ares Takes Full Flight with Cloud-Native Architecture

According to CIO magazine, about 96% of organizations use cloud services in one way or another. In partnership with Microsoft, we are proud to announce that Circadence has redesigned its Project Ares cyber learning platform to fully leverage a cloud-native design on Microsoft Azure.  This new, flexible architecture improves cyber training to be even more customized, scalable, accessible, and relevant for today’s professionals.

This transition to cloud infrastructure will yield immediate impacts to our current customers.

  • Increased speeds to launch cyber learning battle rooms and missions
  • Greater ability to onboard more trainees to the system from virtually any location
  • More access to cyber training content that suits their security needs and professional development interests

Proven success at Microsoft Ignite

At the recent Microsoft Ignite conference (November 2019), more than 500 security professionals had the opportunity to use the enhanced platform.  Conference participants set up CyberBridge accounts and then played customized battle rooms in Project Ares. Microsoft cloud-based Azure security solutions were integrated into the cloud-based cyber range to provide an immersive “cloud-in-cloud” sandboxed learning experience that realistically aligned to phases of a ransomware attack.  The new version of Project Ares sustained weeklong intensive usage while delivering on performance. 

So what’s new in the new and improved Project Ares?

Curriculum Access Controls for Tailored Cyber Learning

One of the biggest enhancements for Project Ares clients is that they can now control permissions for  training exercises and solution access at the user level. Customer Administrators will use the new CyberBridge management portal to tailor access to Circadence training exercises for individual users or groups of users.

Single-sign-on through CyberBridge enables the alignment of training exercises to individuals based on their unique learning requirements including:

  • Cyber skill-building exercises and complex missions within Project Ares for cyber professionals
  • Cyber foundation learning with Cyber Essentials tools for the IT team
  • Security awareness training with inCyt for general staff

Cyber Essential learning tools and the inCyt game for security awareness will be added to CyberBridge over the next several months. With the capability to pre-select training activities reflective of a company’s overall security strategy, enterprise security managers can call the shots.

“As the administrator, you now choose what curriculum content your team should have. “This provides more flexibility in cyber training for our customers in terms of what they can expose to their teams.” ~ Rajani Kutty, Senior Product Manager for CyberBridge at Circadence.

Greater Scalability and Performance in Cyber Training

With a cloud-native architecture design, Project Ares can support more simultaneous users on the platform than ever before. Project Ares can now handle over 1,000 concurrent users, a significant improvement over historical capacity of 200-250 concurrent users on the platform.  The combination of  content access control at the group or individual level and the increased scalability of Project Ares creates a solution that effectively spins up cyber ranges with built-in learning exercises for teams and enterprises of any size.  Additionally, this means that no matter where a cyber learner is geographically, they can log on to Project Ares and access training quickly. We see this as similar to the scalability and accessibility of any large global content provider (e.g. Netflix)—in that users who have accounts can log in virtually anywhere in the world at multiple times and access their accounts.

Now that Project Ares can support a greater volume of users on the platform, activities like hosting cyber competitions and events for experts and aspiring security professionals can be done on-demand and at scale.

“We can train more people in cyber than ever before and that is so impactful when we remember the industry’s challenges in workforce gaps and skills deficiencies.” ~ Paul Ellis, Project Ares Senior Product Manager at Circadence

The previous design of Project Ares required placing users in “enclaves” or groups when they signed on to the system to ensure the content within could be loaded quickly without delay. Now, everyone can sign in at any time and have access to learning without loading delays. It doesn’t even matter if multiple people are accessing the same mission or battle room at the same time. Their individual experience loading and playing the exercise won’t be compromised because of increased user activity.

Other performance improvements made to this version of Project Ares include:

  • Quicker download speeds of cyber exercises
  • Use of less memory on user’s computers, and resulting longer battery life for users, thanks to lower CPU utilization.
  • These behind-the-scenes improvements mean that training can happen quicker and learning, faster.

New Cyber Training Content

One new Mission and three new Battle Rooms will be deployed throughout the next few months on this new version of Project Ares.

  • Mission 15, Operation Raging Mammoth, showcases how to protect against an Election attack
  • Battle Rooms 19 and 20 feature Splunk Enterprise installation, configuration, and fundamentals
  • Battle Room 21 teaches Powershell cmdlet (pronounced command-lets) basics

Mission 15 has been developed from many discussions about 2020 election security given past reports of Russian hacktivist groups interfering with the 2016 U.S. election.  In Operation Raging Mammoth, users are tasked to monitor voting-related systems. In order to identify anomalies, players must first establish a baseline of normal activity and configurations. Any changes to administrator access or attempt to modify voter registration information must be quickly detected and reported to authorities. Like all Project Ares Missions, the exercise aligns with NIST/NICE work roles, specifically Cyber Defense Analyst, Cyber Defense Incident Responder, Threat/Warning analyst.

Battle Rooms 19 and 20 focuses on using Splunk software to assist IT and security teams to get the most out of their security tools by enabling log aggregation of event data from across an environment into a single repository of critical security insights. Teaching cyber pros how to configure and use this tool helps them identify issues faster so they can resolve them more efficiently to stop threats and attacks.

Battle Room 21 teaches cmdlet lightweight commands used in PowerShell.  PowerShell is a command-line (CLI) scripting language developed by Microsoft to simplify automation and configuration management, consisting of a command-line shell and associated scripting language. With PowerShell, network analysts can obtain all the information they need to solve problems they detect in an environment. Microsoft notes that PowerShell also makes learning other programming languages like C# easier.

Embracing Cloud Capabilities for Continual Cyber Training

Circadence embraces all the capabilities the cloud provides and is pleased to launch the latest version of Project Ares that furthers our vision to provide sustainable, scalable, adaptable cyber training and learning opportunities to professionals so they can combat evolving threats in their workplace and in their personal lives.

As this upward trend in cloud utilization becomes ever-more prevalent, security teams of all sizes need to adapt their strategies to acknowledge the adoption of the cloud and train persistently in Project Ares. You can bet that as more people convene in the cloud, malicious hackers are not far behind them, looking for ways to exploit it. By continually innovating in Project Ares, we hope professionals all over the globe can better manage their networks in the cloud and protect them from attackers.

Living our Mission Blog Series: How Tony Hammerling, Curriculum Developer, Orchestrates a Symphony of Cyber Learning at Circadence

Circadence’s Curriculum Developer Tony Hammerling wasn’t always interested in a career in cyber—but he was certainly made for it. In fact, he initially wanted to be a musician! While his musical talents didn’t pan out for him early in his career, he quickly learned how to create unique harmonies using computers instead of instruments…After joining the Navy in 1995 as a Cryptologist and Morse Code operator, he transitioned to a Cryptologic Technician Networks professional where he performed network analysis and social network/persona analysis. It was there he learned more offensive and defensive strategies pertinent to cyber security and was introduced to network types and communication patterns. He moved to Maryland to do offensive analysis and then retired in Pensacola, Florida. The world of cyber grew on Tony and he enjoyed the digital accompaniment of the work it offered.

For the last few years, now settled in Pensacola, Florida, Tony is a critical part of Circadence’s Curriculum Team, working alongside colleagues to develop learning objectives and routes for players using platforms like inCyt, Project Ares, and other cyber games like NexAgent, Circadence’s immersive network exploration game. Currently, Tony and his team are focused on building out learning of network essentials in NexAgent, and “…are bridging the gap between what new IT professional’s learn in NexAgent and getting them onto more advanced learning pathways in Project Ares,” says Tony.

“We’re starting to introduce new content for [Project Ares] battle rooms so users coming out of NexAgent can have an understanding of the tools and techniques needed for more advanced learning of cyber defense—and actually apply those tools and techniques in realistic scenarios.”

As the technical subject matter expert for cyber curriculum, Tony digs into the details with his work—and that’s where he shines. Tony and his team ensure that user learning is reflective of today’s cyber attacks and vulnerabilities. In the next iteration of NexAgent, users will be able to focus on network segmentation using election security as the theme for game-play. From separating election polling servers to working with registration databases to designing networks to prevent election fraud, learning becomes much more interesting for the end-user.

The most exciting part about Tony’s job is the diversity of material he gets to work on every day. One day he could be helping end-users of Project Ares identify fraudulent IP addresses in a battle room and another day he could be working on a full-scale technical design of a SCADA system modeled after a cyber incident at a Ukrainian power plant.

By understanding corporate demands for new content, Tony and his team have more direction to build out cyber learning curriculum that aligns to customer’s needs. He believes the technical training he’s able to support with learning material in Circadence’s platforms complements traditional cyber learning paths like obtaining certifications and attending off-site classes. The variety of learning options for users of all cyber ability levels (both technical and non-technical), gives professionals the opportunity to be more thoughtful in their day-to-day lives, more critical and discerning of vulnerabilities and systems, and more creative in how they address threats.

“Knowing that people are able to come into a Circadence product and learn something that they didn’t know before or refine specific knowledge into an application/skill-based path is exciting. I don’t think too much of the greater impact my work provides—but perhaps 10 years down the line when we can say ‘we were the first to gamify and scale cyber training,’ it will mean so much more.”

We are grateful for the unique talents Tony brings to the Circadence family of products and how he’s able to craft learning “chords” that when orchestrated, provide a symphonic concerto of cyber learning activity—empowering cyber professionals across the globe with relevant, persistent, and scalable cyber training options to suit their security needs.

Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

Photo by Alphacolor on Unsplash

 

Living our Mission Blog Series: Programming Innovation in Orion, Thanks to Raeschel Reed, Circadence Software Engineer

There’s never a dull moment at work for Circadence Software Engineer Raeschel Reed. Between learning ways to use new technology, improving coding techniques, and operationalizing cyber innovations, Raeschel is a critical part to the success of the company’s product suite.

She currently works on Orion, a curriculum development application that allows learning coordinators or security managers to customize cyber training exercises based on specific needs. Raeschel has been a part of the Orion development team for over nine months, working on the back-end operations to create the logic behind the functionality. The best part about working on this product is the level of collaboration Raeschel gets to experience.

“We do a lot of pair-programming on Orion, where we work in groups of two or three to move tasks along quickly. Everyone has good ideas to share and suggestions that build on one another and it helps expediate the problem-solving aspect of software engineering,” she said.

Prior to joining Circadence, she served as a senior software developer supporting the Naval Integrated Tactical Environmental System Next Generation and before that, at the Battelle Memorial Institute supporting various government contracts for the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. Those experiences helped her learn critical technical skills and computer languages that diversified her understanding of programming and software development. She’s also an alumnus of George Mason University (master’s degree in Computer Science) and Mary Washington College (bachelor’s in Computer Science).

For Raeschel, the process of working with and applying a new tech stack like Kubernetes, back-end tools like Golang (an open-source programming language), and working in Azure, keep the act of software development truly unique and on the cutting-edge of innovation.

While unique hobbies like soccer, sewing and improv feed her need to try new things, it is the tech industry she keeps returning to for career fulfillment.

“Tech stuff I keep coming back to,” she said. “I have a growth mindset where I want to keep learning new things and trying new things and the field of cyber allows me to do that.”

And if that wasn’t enough for Raeschel to feel inspired and innovative at Circadence, the team she works with is second to none in her eyes.

“Team Orion is the BEST!” she exclaimed. “I feel very fortunate to be here and to have found ‘my people.’ Mondays never feel like Mondays.”

Photo by Fatos Bytyqi on Unsplash

Exclaim “Cyber for All!” During National Cyber Security Awareness Month

Happy National Cyber Security Awareness Month! We all know that cyber security isn’t just a month-long focus area for businesses and individuals—but this month, we are grateful for the collaborative effort between government entity Department of Homeland Security and the National Cyber Security Alliance that together, place a lens on cyber (as an industry, strategy, and operation). It reminds us that the industry is persistent and impacts us all, and is not siloed into a single time span, or targeted to a specific industry or person. We know this because of data cyberattacks on businesses occurring every day, the continual discussion about the cyber talent “gap” and lack of holistically-trained workforce, and because of the ineffectiveness of passive-learning training models many professionals are exposed to today. Nevertheless, as the world draws its attention around cyber in October and the industry evolves to better serve today’s professionals and businesses, we wanted to communicate the critical idea that cyber really IS for all as we strive to make cyber awareness learning accessible, intentional, and effective.

Making cyber learning accessible

We believe there are three ways to make cyber learning more accessible: providing a comprehensive learning curriculum, making it available via a browser, and using gamification as a tool for ingesting and retaining new information.

Before we dive into each of those areas, let’s get more context about the concept of cyber learning itself. For a long time, cyber security has been thought of as a technical career and while there is a great deal of technical prowess that goes into the day-to-day tasks of a cyber pro, the idea of cyber security being an “anyone can do it” profession hasn’t popularized – and rightly so.

With roots in the military and government (cyber range training), learning cyber security has been a structured, systematic, and data-driven process typically executed in a passive learning setting where students watch or listen and then take a test at the end of the lesson. There is minimal opportunity for hands-on practice in safe and secure environments, making cyber security learning and awareness of its purpose, value, and function a little more ethereal than we in the industry would like.

Comprehensive Learning Curriculum

One way to ensure “cyber for all” (our rally cry this year), is to make cyber training more readily available to reach today’s learner (the next generation of cyber pros) while injecting a touch of personal accountability toward the concept. This should include a learning curriculum that addresses:

–      General awareness topics: These are topics that are broadly applicable to all employees of an organization and ones they should know regardless of IT level or expertise. Cyber security awareness topics at this level might include phishing, malware, social engineering, identity theft, removable media security, insider threats, social media vulnerabilities, etc.

–      Industry-focused topics: relevant cyber security issues segmented by industry where security is a priority, especially highly regulated sectors like healthcare, government and industry, finance, election security, manufacturing, electricity, etc.

–      Executive level topics: more functional/business topic areas where corporate leaders and other high-risk personnel and privilege users are impacted. Cyber security awareness topics at this level might include support/maintenance, consulting, managed services, legislation, risk assessment, etc.

By offering pathways upon which interested cyber enthusiasts or seasoned pros can “walk along,” it gives learners an idea as to how to develop their knowledge and skills. Further, cyber learning and awareness becomes more accessible because there is a route—or cyber learning journey—for everyone to choose.

Browser-Based Accessibility

The other component to ensure learning cyber awareness is accessible is by making the act of learning available to virtually anyone—via a browser. Online trainings today are quite popular for cyber enthusiasts and pros in training who want to hone their skills—and the idea of being able to access a cyber security course or activity online without having to leave the office or home is not only convenient but preferred these days. Some companies (like ours) are taking cyber training a step further by placing it in the cloud (Microsoft Azure) so learning can be scalable, more collaborative, and more customizable to learner needs.

Gamified Cyber Learning

Finally, cyber awareness learning can be attained by making learning fun. We do this with elements of gamification, which engage and inspire learners to train in environments that are not only realistic but also supported by a compelling narrative that invites players to progress through activities. Components like leaderboards, points, badges, and team-based collaboration allow learners to build a sense of “healthy competition” while learning and building skills and cyber competencies. Circadence offers learners of all skill levels various game-based activities from foundational concept learning in games like RegExile to application and analysis in Project Ares’ battle rooms and missions.

One student who played our RegExile cyber learning game in his cyber security course at CU Boulder said:

“I played the RegExile game today and I have to say I have hated regex till now, but when I learned it through the game, I actually liked it. It was really fun. I liked the concept of how a false sense of impending danger from the robots can make you think better and learn more. I was typing out my regex and actually thinking quite hard on how it could work and what I could do to make sure it was right as I did not want to lose the shield. I learned more through this game on regex than what I had in my undergrad class.” ~ Student at CU Boulder Cyber Security Course

Make Cyber Learning Intentional

Cyber learning has to be intentional. In order for students and existing cyber pros to get the most out of their training, they need a curriculum path that is not only diverse (based on skill needs), but also one that addresses all phases of learning: knowledge, comprehension, application/analysis, and synthesis/evaluation.

Can we insert an image that illustrates the “learning phases” of knowledge, comprehension, application/analysis, and synthesis/evaluation?

After understanding what cyber concepts are and how they impact our professional and personal lives (knowledge and comprehension), a learner needs to be able to build their cyber literacy and knowledge “essentials” by developing baseline cyber skills (application/analysis). Then, they can apply those skills in objective-based activities that synthesize concepts (evaluation).

“I personally found Project Ares to be a great learning experience and thought the mission environment was seamless.” ~ Chris N. UNCW Cyber Security Operations Club

Making Cyber Learning Effective

For IT Security Specialists and professionals, cyber learners can advance their competencies via recurring role-based training combined with continuing education and real-world experience trainings. Cyber learning needs to be rooted in best practice, industry-defined frameworks and there’s no better model to follow than the framework set forth by the NIST/NICE organization.

By aligning learning curriculum against work roles, learning concepts and skills inherently becomes more effective because it is RELEVANT for people. They learn concepts, how to apply them and can draw connections to how those concepts apply to their own jobs or jobs they aspire to. Further, the learning permeates into individual’s personal lives as well, enhancing cybersecurity at home.

We have built-in five NIST/NICE work roles that are present in Project Ares for trainees to work toward including:

–      Cyber Defense Infrastructure Support Specialist

–      Information Systems Security Manager

–      Threat Warning Analyst

–      Systems Security Analyst

–      Cyber Defense Analyst

Intentional cyber learning following this framework focuses on a particular technical topic, such as Incident and Event Management, Identification of Privilege Escalation Techniques, or Elections and Voting Security. This type of work role specification helps make learning cyber a reality.

Summing it up

While there’s no switch to turn on every part of this “cyber for all” plan, we hope it helps shed light on ways security leaders and HR directors can begin to cultivate an inclusive cyber culture in their own workplace, among their own teams. As we celebrate National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM 2019), it’s important for us to resurface conversations around what it means to actually be aware and how we can manifest that meaning into something that really makes an impact on business’ security posture. We hope this post is one inspiration to start initiating those conversations around shared responsibility to ensure all Americans stay safe.

 

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Guest Blog: Embracing Immersive, Gamified Cybersecurity Learning, Featuring Divergence Academy

What is immersive, gamified cybersecurity learning? The term was originally coined in 2002 by a British computer programmer named Nick Pelling. The term hit the mainstream when a location-sharing service called Foursquare emerged in 2009, employing gamification elements like points, badges, and “mayorships” to motivate people to use their mobile app to “check in” to places they visited.  The term hit buzzword fame in 2011 when Gartner officially added it to its “Hype Cycle” list. But gamification is more than a buzz word. Companies have seen gamification work for them in cyber team training—so we thought it wise to take what is working and apply it at the earlier stages of career development—in the classroom.

At Divergence Academy, we are proud to offer a curriculum that embraces blended cyber learning to cultivate students and transitioning professionals who are ready to enter the workforce and stop today’s cyber threats.

We offer data science, cybersecurity, and cloud computing immersive learning programs that enable students to gain the knowledge and skills needed to work in any of those fields. Many of our courses offer a mix of concept-driven learning and application-driven learning so that students understand new knowledge and, in turn, apply that knowledge in skill building, project-based activities. Through working with messy, real-world data and scenarios, students gain experience across the entire technology spectrum.

Studies find when learners engage in active learning, hands-on activities, their information retention rates increase from 5% (with traditional, lecture-based methods) to 75%. The millennial generation presents radically different learning preferences than previous generations. Thus, educational institutions across the country should consider gamification as a pedagogical technique in the classroom. A study from the University of Limerick notes:

Gamified learning activities could become an integral part of flipped teaching environments. Their social, asynchronous nature can be used to prompt students to engage with pre-prepared content, while gamified learning activities can be used in the classroom to prompt student interaction and participation.

In watching our students engage with gamified activities, we see team-building blossom before our eyes. We see instant collaboration and problem-solving and critical thinking emerge. Those kinds of soft skills can’t always be taught in a traditional lecture-based setting and because of that, it is critical that we continue to offer a healthy mix of concept-driven learning with gamified learning opportunities to our students so that they can enter the workforce with a more holistic understanding of the industry.

Cybersecurity has become a captivating and engaging subject matter for students, which is fantastic as those words aren’t typically associated with the technical field.

“Wow, today we were introduced to Project Ares. Captivating is the best description I can think of. It is like ‘Call of Duty’ for cybersecurity.”
~ Divergence Academy Student, 24 years old

Fellow professors and instructors are looking for ways to make cybersecurity more interesting and attractive to students and we believe at Divergence, the gamified learning approach can help. It is an approachable way for students to engage with a field they may be completely unfamiliar with and it supports instructors by offering a course that students WANT to take.

“We notice an increase in student engagement in the classroom with the introduction of Project Ares. Gamification brings an element of intrigue and satisfaction to the learning experience.”
~ Beth Lahaie, Program Director

We hope our adoption and proven success of a blended learning approach is the nudge other institutions around the globe need to consider its power in building the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.