Iowa State cyber security experts make virtual lab available for classrooms, competitions

Cyber Defense Compeition

Hundreds of students defend their networks from hackers during Iowa State's regular Cyber Defense Competitions. Larger image. Photo by ISEAGE Cyber Defense Competitions.

AMES, Iowa – “The red team is watching,” warns the web brochure about the Cyber Defense Competitions at Iowa State University.

The red team is typically made up of industry professionals and graduate students. Their goal for an eight-hour cyber competition is to hack into the computer networks set up by as many as 200 students divided into various blue teams.

The university now sponsors separate competitions for teams of Iowa State students, teams of community college students, teams of high school students and teams of top college students from across the country. About 600 students participate in Iowa State competitions every year.

The competitions are made possible by ISEAGE (ice age, the Internet-Scale Event and Attack Generation Environment) developed by Iowa State’s Information Assurance Center with support from the U.S. Department of Justice. The technology creates a virtual Internet for cyber security research and training.

Now Iowa State is making a smaller version of the software technology – dubbed ISERink (ice rink) – available to universities, colleges and community colleges. The National Science Foundation is supporting the distribution, making the software available for free.

“The idea is that this is a playground for all kinds of different cyber sports – just like an ice rink can support different sports,” said Doug Jacobson, a University Professor of electrical and computer engineering at Iowa State.

Some schools, for example, could use ISERink to run Cyber Defense Competitions. Some schools could use it to teach networking or security lessons. Some could use it for hands-on training or workshops. And some could use it for cyber security research.

Jacobson said the software has been tested by several collaborators, including Oklahoma State University, Iowa Western Community College and the Iowa National Guard.

The software was originally developed to help Iowa high school students prepare for cyber competitions. ISERink provided each team uniform and remote access to a network. Student teams experimented on their assigned network space, building operating systems and installing various network services.

That’s something that makes Iowa State Cyber Defense Competitions unique, Jacobson said. Students can work for weeks before a competition to design and build their systems. Other competitions don’t give students the chance for advance planning and building.

“Students learn a lot more by building and defending their systems,” Jacobson said.

The ultimate goal of the cyber security playground is “to get more schools to play the same games we play at Iowa State,” he said. “We want to encourage cyber competition as a learning environment.”

For more information about ISERink, see or contact