School of Computing opens Cyber Threat Range, called 'game changer' for computing students, community

It looks like a normal computer lab, but the new Cyber Threat Range is a high-tech training ground to prepare students for cybersecurity jobs and set Grand Valley on a path to become a National Security Agency designated academic program.

Housed within the Applied Computing Institute, the Cyber Threat Range was established through a connection with Mark Tellier, former chief information officer for the Michigan National Guard and a cybersecurity expert.

Tellier is the founder of Michigan Cyber Threat Response Alliance (MiCTRA), the organization that supplied the software for the range to be operational. An underutilized computer lab in the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences was converted to be isolated from the university's network, allowing students and industry to safely engage in cyber threat exercises. Funding for the range came from Grand Valley's Presidential Innovation Fund.

people seated in a computer lab, working on desktops and chatting with each other
Members of the West Michigan Cybersecurity Consortium are pictured in the Cyber Threat Range on the Health Campus.
Image credit - courtesy photo

Paul Doyle, mentor-in-residence at ACI, said the cyber threat range is similar to a shooting range.

"The computers are physically and logistically isolated from Grand Valley's network, so participants can conduct these exercises without risk," Doyle said. "The advantage of having live computers allows participants to do offense and defense in the same environment without threat to the network."

Members of the West Michigan Cybersecurity Consortium held the inaugural event at the range March 10. A virtual corporate network, with a company website and network servers, was created and participants were instructed to attempt to hack into the site using techniques and procedures learned during training courses.

Andrew Kalafut, associate professor of computing, said only a handful of universities around the country have such a range. Grand Valley students in the cybersecurity programs will have more access to the range beginning in the fall semester.

"This offers so many more possibilities," Kalafut said. "We used to have to run small-scale simulations for our students, simulations that were set up on a single device or a class could participate in a limited temporary exercise. 

"With this model, we are able to bring in industry and have more interactions between students and industry leaders."

Kalafut joined Grand Valley's faculty in 2010 when there was one cybersecurity class offered at GVSU. Now, Kalafut and five other faculty members teach undergraduate and graduate cybersecurity programs that enroll about 150 students.

close up of monitor used during cybersecurity exercise with code shown on screen
A virtual corporate network, with a company website and network servers, was created and participants were instructed to attempt to hack into the site.
Image credit - courtesy photo

'Like a sandbox to practice skills'

One of those students, Isaac Beasley, helped set up the range as part of his responsibilities as a graduate assistant for ACI. Beasley called it a "game changer" for computing students interested in cybersecurity.

"It's like a sandbox for students to practice their skills," Beasley said.

In his role for ACI, Beasley has led community presentations about the range. He said his job at ACI helped him secure a full-time position with Grand Rapids-based office furniture company Steelcase Inc. as an application security engineer following graduation in April. 

"Getting involved in ACI and the cyber range gave me more than the tech skills needed to find a job. I stepped out of my comfort zone to go with Paul to these networking events," Beasley said. "My internship, computer courses and the ability to work with industry while in school, that's the experience employers want you to have.

"It separates Grand Valley from other schools."


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