Innovative Research Center Will Train Future Workforce

Student working at the Cyber Range Image by Tory Wesnofske

Computer Science major Zachary Perlmutter gave a demonstration of the UML Cyber Range’s capabilities during the opening of the research facility on Nov. 1.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

UMass Lowell has opened a new center for cybersecurity education, research and workforce development called the Cyber Range that will help students prepare for careers in the high-demand field.

The state-of-the-art lab facility, which is located on the fourth floor of the Wannalancit Business Center near East Campus, will use real-world scenarios and the latest technology to teach students how to defend against an array of cyberattacks, implement security measures to mitigate network vulnerabilities and harden different operating systems.

For more than a decade, UMass Lowell has been a leader in cybersecurity education and training. In 2016, the university was designated by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Research (CAE-R).

“UMass Lowell is one of only four universities in the state that carry the designation, the others being Boston University, Northeastern University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute,” says Computer Science Prof. Xinwen Fu, who is a member of the Cyber Range faculty. “The designation provides federal funding opportunities that are open only to CAE-R institutions.”

UMass Lowell is also home to three cybersecurity research centers – the Center for Internet Security and Forensics Education and Research (iSAFER), the New England Cybersecurity Operation and Research Center (CORE) and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies (CTSS). Faculty from computer science and engineering to business and criminal justice are engaged in research in all aspects of cybersecurity, including Big Data, data mining and business analytics, digital forensics, health data security, network and mobile security, counterterrorism and transportation security.

“Our work is being supported by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, DARPA, the Army Research Lab and many others,” says Fu.

A Sandboxed Environment

“The Cyber Range enhances the university’s learning and research capabilities by giving students the opportunity to practice cybersecurity exercises in a safe and interactive environment,” says Computer Science Prof. Fred Martin, who is the associate dean for student success at the Kennedy College of Sciences. "UMass Lowell is proud to be the first public university in Massachusetts to open a Cyber Range that will contribute to the cyber talent in our region.”

The Cyber Range’s lab facilities include a Dell PowerEdge R740 server and twenty Dell Precision 3630 i7 workstations, as well as a conference room and lecture theater.

“Each workstation allows students to test their cybersecurity skills by facing live cyberattacks in a sandboxed environment. The machines are isolated from the internet during live exercises,” says Sashank Narain, an assistant professor of computer science and a member of the Cyber Range faculty.

All incoming and outgoing communication with the Cyber Range is controlled by a firewall that the university’s IT Department maintains. “As such, the university’s security team controls all accesses to ensure that the Range is protected from external attacks. Moreover, instructors are there to make sure that students do not accidentally attack external systems,” notes Narain.

Cyber Range faculty are currently training a student team that will participate in the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition’s Northeast Regional in Maine next spring.

Combating a Rising Global Threat

Sciences Dean Noureddine Melickechi, U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan and Chancellor Jacquie Moloney Image by Tory Wesnofske

Kennedy College of Sciences Dean Noureddine Melikechi with U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, middle, and Chancellor Jacquie Moloney at the official opening of the Cyber Range, which is located on the fourth floor of the Wannalancit Business Center near East Campus.

Cyber threats continue to rise as the number of internet-connected devices grows exponentially. In 2018 alone, one in 36 mobile devices was infected with malware or other malicious apps, according to the latest Internet Security Threat Report by Symantec Corp., maker of the Norton antivirus software. And mobile ransomware infections, wherein cyber criminals hold the device’s data hostage for a profit, increased 33 percent from 2017.

“So much of our daily life unfolds online, which has greatly increased the need for highly skilled cybersecurity workers. We are proud to provide UMass Lowell students with the very best training to prepare them for careers in this important field,” UMass Lowell Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said during the Cyber Range’s official opening on Nov. 1. “This new Cyber Range supports students’ education, while also helping employers secure the skilled workforce to address a critical issue.”

Demand for computer security skills is strong, with the number of job openings in cybersecurity predicted to top 3 million by 2021, according to a recent industry report.

“We must rise to the challenge and stop cybercriminals in their tracks,” said U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan at the center’s opening. “The new Cyber Range allows UMass Lowell to expand the pipeline of skilled and hard-working graduates that companies throughout our region have come to rely on in developing the talented workforce necessary to take on such challenges.”

Aside from Moloney and Trahan, speakers at the event included representatives from Red Hat Inc., MITRE Corp., Spinnaker Security LLC, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s MassCyberCenter, the UMass President’s Office, state and local officials and Noureddine Melikechi, dean of the Kennedy College of Sciences.

The opening of the Cyber Range comes as the university is expanding its computer security offerings.

In the fall of 2020, the Department of Computer Science will offer an undergraduate option in cybersecurity, according to Melikechi.

This is in addition to UMass Lowell’s current academic offerings, which include Cybersecurity Training for the NIST Framework, a master’s degree in security studies, an online graduate certificate in cybersecurity and other programs from Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering and the School of Criminology and Justice Studies.