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Exploring NetWars with SANS Certified Instructor Steve Armstrong

netwars blog titleAre you looking to attend a SANS training course and hearing other SANS students talk about the NetWars Tournament experience? When you register for training at a SANS event that includes NetWars, you can check a box during the registration process that will allow you to automatically participate in the tournament for free. Until you've experienced a NetWars Tournament, however, you may not be able to imagine what's involved and what skills or preparation you'll need to take part.

So, What Is a NetWars Tournament?

We posed this question to SANS Certified Instructor Steve Armstrong, who has been with SANS since 2007, while he was hosting a NetWars Tournament at the October 2019 cybersecurity training event. It seemed the perfect time to ask Steve to explain in more detail what NetWars Tournaments are all about.

"We have several different types of NetWars Tournaments. Core NetWars is middle of the road — you're challenged with assignments that cover incident response, system understanding and management, Linux, web compromise, and penetration testing. DFIR NetWars is much more into evidence-handling. Players are given disk and phone images and have to go in and extract artefacts, images, web histories, and more in order to determine what has happened during the various incidents. We also run Grid, ICS, and Cyber Defense NetWars Tournaments.

"NetWars Tournaments are designed to encourage younger and more junior players, as well as to challenge our more advanced cyber professionals. It incorporates a hinting system that some decide not to use (often wearing that as a badge of honour!), while others take advantage of this feature if their skills aren't yet so advanced because it relieves pressure if and when they get stuck. There's no penalty associated with using the initial hints and players are free to use Google, too, so it allows them to try out various ideas.

Applying all the skills that they have learned, players build camaraderie with those around them as the evening progresses.

"In tournament mode, NetWars runs over two evenings, each for three hours, providing a full six hours of additional training, which is basically a full extra day for no additional cost! Students find it to be a nice way to relax and socialise with friends and new acquaintances. Taking on the challenges together and applying all the skills that they have learned, players build camaraderie with those around them as the evening progresses.

"As multilevel, individual, or team-based capture-the-flag events, SANS NetWars Tournaments are structured so that they encourage people in the early part of their career to learn. As they proceed further through the game, participants engage in a way that helps them improve their skills and achieve more. You don't have to know Python or ?C' (coding language) to take part, you just need to come along and we'll give you a virtual machine. All we expect you to bring is an enthusiasm to learn, a willingness to apply yourself, and an open mind. By having participants compete against one another with a live scoreboard, NetWars Tournaments put participants under the type of pressure that benefits learning. Players retain the information as they're achieving the knowledge, rather than just being given it."

What about the Pros?

In order to prevent experienced players from getting bored, SANS NetWars Tournaments progress through levels to deliver more difficult challenges to test the guile of those technically gifted attendees. Therefore, returning or already accomplished students who've booked training to keep up with the consistently progressing cyber threat will also be challenged by NetWars.

Steve explains: "NetWars is structured with five levels of incrementally progressing difficulty. The initial level could be considered the first rung of a tall ladder on the way up to a more difficult challenge. The primary three levels work with a standard Linux machine and challenge you with various objectives against the network. For many people, it can take at least three or four six-hour tournaments to get up to levels four and five. Level four involves penetrating past the DMZ (demilitarized zone) into an internal network that is hosted in the cloud and managed by the network team. Level five — which few get to — is more of a player versus player environment. So it's a real structured learning curve.

"We change the games about every 18 months, so it doesn't get stale. That way, if people are attending a training course every couple of years or so, they'll get a different NetWars Tournament experience every time. Plus, each game tends to be themed and immersive, and although the question engine stays the same, the underlying questions are all based around the various themes. For example, the activities could revolve around themes ranging from Star Wars to Willy Wonka or Lord of the Rings."

Can Anyone Participate?

You don't need to be experienced in cybersecurity to take part in a NetWars Tournament, but you do need to be able to use a computer, search, and apply a little bit of information.

"If you can use a standard computer, you'll be perfectly capable of learning what's happening," explains Steve. "Remember, there is a hinting system, so you're not being thrown into the deep end. If you're stuck you can use a hint, and without penalty! You can even take a second hint without repercussions, but if you take the third — which almost gives you the answer — you will lose a point."

You don't need to be skilled in cybersecurity to attend NetWars, you just need to apply yourself and learn.

Finding Your Nearest NetWars Tournament

SANS generally holds tournaments at its major events because of the size of the venue and the number of people attending, and because the tournaments are very labour-intensive. Many staff are needed to manage and maintain the systems; in fact there's a whole network that's there supporting the servers, the backend systems, and the scoreboard.

Networking and Immersion

"NetWars Tournaments are held across the globe, and because they happen at the larger events, with many attendees, you'll find them a great way to network," Steve explains. "Most SANS events also feature cyber talks and organised socials. So you'll find that an average day at one of these events spans from 8am to anywhere up to 9 or 10pm, Monday to Saturday, making SANS a very good value for your money!"

Get Involved!

To take part in a NetWars Tournament, you can either pay your way for the tournament itself or take part at no extra cost if you sign up for a long SANS course. If you register for the two evening NetWars Tournaments alone? which would give you a good six hours of training — you will need to pay when you register. However, the best way to participate is to enrol in any of SANS's four- to six-day courses, which gives you the option to attend NetWars for free!

"If you are keen to get involved, make sure to always check that a NetWars Tournament is running at the event where you are attended a course," Steve suggests.

In addition to live NetWars Tournaments, SANS also offer NetWars Continuous, which is a four-month online subscription that offers students the chance to test their cyber skillset, take on challenges, and learn hands-on offensive and defensive skills 24 hours a day, seven days a week!

What Is the Incentive to Attend NetWars? Learn!

Steve feels passionately that the purpose of a NetWars Tournament is to learn.

"For many participants, it's not about winning, while for others, that's all that it's about. For the most part, however, people don't come to win, they come to learn, socialise, have a good time, and pick up new skills. If you do win, then great, it's a bonus! And of course, you can win NetWars Challenge Coins and NetWars Champion Trophies. Plus, the winners of Core NetWars can go on to compete in the Core NetWars Tournament of Champions."

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