Want to develop cybersecurity skills? Try SANS Institute's NetWars

If you think you might like to add some new skills to your resume, put cybersecurity on the list. SANS Institute has an intense, hands-on training program that develops your skills while allowing you to compete against others to test your mettle.

Are you looking to refresh your resume with some new skills? If so, consider learning all you can about cybersecurity, a discipline in high demand with good future career prospects.

Here are three signs that cybersecurity is a growth market:

1. In October, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that the nation may face a digital Pearl Harbor and that a cyber-terrorist attack could paralyze the U.S. economy. He said that a top priority is to invest in the development of skilled cyber-warriors needed to conduct operations in cyberspace.

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2. Tech training company Global Knowledge has named the Certified Information Security Manager (CISM) one of the top eight credentials for 2013. According to Global Knowledge: "It's no longer the tried-and-true CISSP certification that matters. Applications, networks, health and privacy are just some of the areas of concern and those working in security with cutting-edge technology are highly sought after. The demand exists for developers who can build secure applications, network engineers with security certifications, and architects who understand how to secure systems and processes."

3. The SANS Institute's NetWars tournaments have grown so popular that the research and education organization has scheduled its first NetWars Tournament of Champions. According to Ed Skoudis, director of the SANS NetWars Project, the goal is to try to help the country build a pipeline of 10,000 or more skilled cybersecurity practitioners so they can help defend our country in cyberspace.

I caught up with Ed Skoudis a few weeks ago to learn more about NetWars and how regular IT professionals can take advantage of the program to develop cutting-edge skills. Good news: This is a program you can use to build upon your network knowledge to become skilled in cybersecurity.

SANS Institute started the NetWars Tournament project about two years ago in response to a dearth of skilled cybersecurity experts. NetWars is a multi-level training program and fun competition that helps you develop and master skills pertaining to cybersecurity. As you step through each level and validate that you have acquired the necessary skills, you get awarded points that are the competitive aspect of NetWars. Similar to a multi-player video game, you are competing against others in a particular session to attain the highest number of points and win the tournament. Skoudis says this friendly competition keeps people motivated to learn more.

All of the NetWars exercises are hands-on and interactive, with a focus on the types of skills you can use in your job every day. There are five levels in the program designed to help you develop skills in these critical arenas:

• Vulnerability Assessments 

• System Hardening 

• Malware Analysis 

• Digital Forensics 

• Incident Response 

• Packet Analysis 

• Penetration Testing

NetWars comes in two forms: Tournament and Continuous. NetWars Tournament runs over an intense two- to three-day period, at a conference or hosted on-site. The conferences are typically SANS Institute conferences or others that SANS is affiliated with, and any attendee can participate in the NetWars Tournament. Many enterprises, government agencies and military bases are using NetWars onsites to help identify skilled personnel and as part of extensive hands-on training.

NetWars Continuous allows you to build your skills on your own time over a four-month period performing the exercises at home or at work across the Internet. This version of the learning includes an automated hint system that can get you "unstuck" when you think you've come to a dead end in your hands-on activities. The hint helps to keep your learning opportunity progressing.

Skoudis has seen first-hand how participation in NetWars has helped numerous IT professionals. "It gives them bragging rights among the cybersecurity and tech community," he says. "I've seen some folks start to put it on their credentials and resumes. We've also seen some of our best military NetWars participants earn some serious promotions. Beyond the military, there are several private sector participants that did well in NetWars, and they're really doing well in their careers and putting this stuff on their resume. It's exciting to be able to help find these people that are so good and to watch their careers really pop."

A variety of employers are starting to contact Skoudis to find out how they can hire NetWars participants, especially those who have won or placed high in tournaments.

Skoudis says that if you think you might like to participate in either a NetWars tournament or the NetWars Continuous at-home study, here's what you need to know: "[Participants] should have foundational computer skills. Specifically, they should know networking, operating systems, especially Linux, and the fundamentals of how Linux is put together. They should understand Linux file systems and where things like browsers store things in the file system. No scripting knowledge is required. You can get through Levels 1, 2 and 3 without scripting knowledge. However, by the time you get to Level 4, it really helps to understand some scripting such as Python, or Pearl, or JavaScript, or some combination thereof."

Although the program is called NetWars, it's not all about penetration testing. Rather, it's a blend of defensive -- meaning system hardening and just really good secure system administration, analytics, malware analysis, forensic analysis -- and offensive, including vulnerability assessment and penetration testing. SANS tries to balance the content across the spectrum; not any one area dominates. What's more, the agency continuously updates the content to keep up with trends in security threats.

To learn more about this unique hands-on training and competition, visit http://www.sans.org/cyber-ranges/netwars.

Linda Musthaler is a principal analyst with Essential Solutions Corporation. You can write to her at LMusthaler@essential-iws.com.

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About Essential Solutions Corp:

Essential Solutions researches the practical value of information technology, and how it can make individual workers and entire organizations more productive. Essential Solutions offers consulting services to computer industry and corporate clients to help define and fulfill the potential of IT.

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