In this contest, good D really does win championships
The empty coffee cups and caffeine-laden soda cans spread around the room told the story.
"Right now, we're very tired," was the commentary added by Christy Sauper, a University of Illinois senior in computer science.
Who wouldn't be if they were headed into their 10th hour defending a computer network against some of the best break-in artists in the business? That on top of seven or so hours the day before.
Sauper might have been heartened a bit to see Dave Farrell. By Saturday evening, the leader of the "Red Team" from the Cyber Defense Agency, the professional group trying to bring down the network run by the UI student and her teammates, was looking about as tired as the students were.
The long hours were all part of the Midwest Regional Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition, an exercise for computer security junkies from eight schools, including the UI, that started Friday and finished Sunday.
Essentially, the student teams had to administer a hypothetical business computer network, provide the regular services its users would expect and perform "business injects" – tasks the contest judges gave them periodically – like installing and testing a new firewall system.
And they had to keep their "customers," the networks' hypothetical users, happy while foiling attempts to wreak havoc on their systems by Farrell and his colleagues, UI computer science Professor Susan Hinrichs said.
"The teams are fighting off what we would call a pretty aggressive network attack," said Erich Spengler, who teaches computer security at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. He and Hinrichs organized the weekend event after the two heard about a similar competition in Texas at a conference last year.
The Information Trust Institute at the UI and the Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance, a National Science Foundation-funded program for which Spengler is the director, jointly sponsored the Midwest competition, held at the UI's Siebel Center for Computer Science.
The Cyber Defense Agency, a security consulting and research company, is routinely employed by the military, government agencies and high-level research organizations to ferret out flaws in their computer security.
Farrell said the company's team didn't take it easy on the students, although it ratcheted up the intensity of its attacks gradually to give the student teams an opportunity to learn how to respond.
"We didn't come out and start hammering them with all of the tools we brought," he said.
The UI team was made up of members of an interest group in the Association for Computing Machinery chapter on campus that focuses on computer security. Many of its members have experience on the flip side of the competition held here over the weekend. Previously, they've won national "hacker" contests where the challenge was overcoming security measures.
"They're being pretty nasty, I would say," Steve Hanna, another UI team member, said of the Cyber Defense Agency professionals who were arrayed against the student teams.
But Hanna thought the UI team had done "a pretty good job."
"They got in one of our machines yesterday," he said. "But since then we haven't been compromised."
The team from Southern Illinois University won the regional contest and will go to the first National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition in San Antonio, Texas, in April. The UI team finished third.