Organizers played "Eye of the Tiger" and "We are the Champions" over the loudspeakers as participants in the SANS Institute's NetWars Tournament of Champions sat down at their laptops and prepared for action.
About 200 cybersecurity professionals, and about 30 high school students, gathered last week in Washington, D.C., for two nights of NetWars, a realistic cybersecurity competition, with prizes including an Apple iPad, Star Wars chop sticks and gift cards. But many participants were playing as much for pride as they were for the prizes.
The competition is both educational and fun, said Jorge Orchilles, manager of the infrastructure vulnerability assessment team at Citi Global Security Operations. Orchilles participated in the competition last week and finished in third place in a NetWars competition in 2011.
"I participate to measure myself up with the best in the industry," he said by email after the event. "After the session I can look at the areas where I can improve as well as the areas I have mastered."
In last week's competition, featuring about 30 top scorers in past NetWars competitions, Orchilles was among the top 25 scorers, he said. "I plan to play next year for sure and do much better!" he said.
If the competition itself wasn't enough motivation to pump up participants, SANS instructor Ed Skoudis, on the first evening of the tournament, pointed to the presence of the high school students, invited to participate in NetWars because they did well in a student competition. "If they pass you up, you will be the past," he told the older participants.
The high school students could do well in the competition, said Randall Brazelton, a program manager with Tyonek Native and a contractor for the U.S. Air Force. Young people can use online tools to train themselves in cyber defense and offense, he said.
"The tools are out there on the open market," said Brazelton as he observed the tournament. "A training class or two, some open-source tools, and I'm a threat."
At least six of the students made it to level two of the five-level competition in just one night of participation in the two-night event, said Mark Estep, a computer science teacher at Poolesville High School in Maryland. "There was some degree of working together -- but not as much as I expected," he said in an email "They worked fairly independently. None returned for the second night of competition (something about having to do homework!)."
The Air Force has been using an adapted version of NetWars for about two years to train its own cybersecurity professionals, Brazelton said. He cheered when one of his coworkers was the first competitor to level two in the first day of the tournament.
"That's one of my guys," Brazelton said.
Beyond the NetWars competition, SANS is now building a so-called CyberCity where cybersecurity professionals can test their skills against simulated attacks against physical infrastructure. SANS employees are building a scale-model city with a hospital, railroad, military base, electric utility, Internet service provider and other buildings.
SANS plans simulations in which, for example, the hospital's records system is attacked, or the utility's power system is shut down and employees are locked out of the computer system, Skoudis said. In other planned simulations, attackers will derail a train or contaminate the town's water system.
SANS is building CyberCity so that people training with the institute have a more realistic picture of the consequences of cyberattacks, Skoudis added.
The coffee shop, offering free Wi-Fi in CyberCity, will be a "hotbed" of terrorist activity, with attackers using compromised accounts of bank and hospital employees to tunnel into back into the nearby businesses, he said.
Orchilles said NetWars helps him keep his cybersecurity skills sharp. The competition simulates several skills needed for cybersecurity professionals, including system administration, computer forensics and defending your own network against live attackers.
"The last level is one where you must defend your infrastructure and services like a team of administrators would do in real life while attacking a third party," he said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is email@example.com.