What is a cyber range?
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Published: 16 May 2024
Contributors: Matthew Finio, Amanda Downie

What is a cyber range?

A cyber range is a virtual environment for cybersecurity training, testing, and research that simulates real-world networks and cyberattacks

Cyber ranges are modern battlefields for cybersecurity. Much like traditional shooting or military ranges that act as proving grounds for marksmanship and combat skills, cyber range platforms provide users with a safe environment to practice responding to real-world cyber challenges. Within a secure and controlled setting, cyber ranges simulate complex networks and threats for cybersecurity training, allowing participants to learn and refine their strategies for defending against digital attacks. These training exercises offer realistic, real-time scenarios without putting actual systems at risk.

Using virtual machines, cyber ranges create realistic training environments that can be easily segmented from other networks such as a corporate LAN or the internet at large. These environments provide a safe space for experimentation and testing various cybersecurity tools and functionality. Target infrastructures within the cyber range mirror actual servers, firewalls, routers, storage devices, and personal computers. This allows users to deploy real-world cybersecurity tools such as penetration testing, intrusion detection systems and digital forensics tools. Participants can also safely practice defending against specific cyberthreats like malware and ransomware.

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework, which was designed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is commonly used in cyber ranges. The NIST framework is a guide based on five core functions—identify, protect, detect, respond, and recover—that provides a structured approach to cybersecurity strategy and risk management. By incorporating the NIST framework into cyber range exercises, organizations can align their training with industry standards and best practices. This offers participants practical, real-world experience and enhances the organizations’ security posture.

A cyber range often features a learning management system (LMS) for organizing coursework and tracking students' progress and performance. Instructors use the LMS to define the curriculum and facilitate communication, assignments, and assessments. By combining advanced technology with targeted learning and testing opportunities, cyber ranges prepare cybersecurity professionals to confront evolving challenges.

There are 4 common types of cyber ranges:

  • Simulation ranges replicate the behavior of real-world networks and systems. They use software simulations and provide an efficient, cost-effective environment for training and testing without the need for extensive hardware.
  • Emulation ranges mimic the actual hardware and software configurations of a real-world network, offering a high degree of realism for practicing with specific technologies and setups.
  • Overlay ranges use real hardware and networks that are overlaid with virtual elements to simulate different scenarios, offering a mix of realism and flexibility.
  • Hybrid ranges combine elements of simulation, overlay, and emulation to create a versatile environment that balances realism, cost, and resource efficiency.
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Technical components of a cyber range

A cyber range consists of various technical components that work together to create a realistic and controlled environment for cybersecurity training, testing, and research:

Range learning management system (RLMS)

A key component, the RLMS combines features of a traditional learning management system (LMS) with the specific needs of a cyber range. It provides educational resources, tracks participants' progress, and manages course curricula and assessments. It also integrates with other cyber range components to create a comprehensive experience.

Orchestration layer

The orchestration layer coordinates the various technology and service components of the cyber range. It integrates the underlying infrastructure, virtualization, or isolation layers and the target infrastructure. The layer also supports dynamic range extensibility, including compatibility with public cloud, private cloud, and dedicated hard-wired infrastructures.

Underlying infrastructure

This infrastructure includes networks, servers and storage, which may consist of physical devices such as switches, routers, firewalls, and endpoints. Many cyber ranges are changing to cloud-based and software-defined virtual infrastructure for scalability, cost-effectiveness, and extensibility. The choice of infrastructure greatly impacts the realism of the range.

Virtualization layer

Most cyber ranges employ virtualization to reduce the amount of physical equipment needed. This is typically done with hypervisor-based solutions or software-defined infrastructure. Virtualization creates a separation between the physical infrastructure and the simulated environment, which can affect realism and introduce some latency. However, virtualization acts as a protective barrier and helps make cyber ranges more cost effective.  

Target infrastructure

The target infrastructure is the simulated environment where training occurs, sometimes replicating the student's actual IT and security infrastructure. It includes profiles of commercially available servers, storage systems, endpoints, applications, and firewalls. Advanced cyber range platforms might incorporate threat intelligence data and frameworks like MITRE ATT&CK to simulate realistic attack techniques.

The target infrastructure often incorporates the use of red teams and blue teams during exercises. Red teams simulate attackers and attempt to take advantage of vulnerabilities within the environment, while blue teams focus on defending against these attacks.

Who should use a cyber range?

Cyber ranges were originally used primarily by military and government agencies. They are now used by a broad range of businesses and organizations due to their cost-effectiveness and valuable opportunities to upskill security team members. Cyber ranges offer essential training for various people and groups:

  1. Bug bounty hunters: Cyber ranges provide bug bounty hunters with a safe environment for researching security issues and discovering new vulnerabilities, helping them find and report bugs to developers and manufacturers.

  2. Cybersecurity professionals: Security analysts, penetration testers, ethical hackers, and other professionals use cyber ranges to refine their skills. They offer real-world practice, allowing professionals to keep up with emerging threats and learn new defense techniques.

  3. Government and military and agencies: As some of the first users of the internet, military and government agencies depend on cyber ranges to maintain national defense and data safety. Cyber ranges aid government personnel in handling the latest cyberthreats, including cyber warfare and espionage.

  4. IoT and smart grid developers: Developers and engineers working on Internet of Things (IoT) devices or smart grid technologies can use cyber ranges to test the security and resilience of their products.

  5. Organizations and individuals: Companies can use cyber ranges for situational operations testing, training, and assessing candidates for cybersecurity positions. Individuals entering cybersecurity roles can benefit from the workforce training cyber ranges offer.

  6. Researchers: Academics and researchers can use cyber ranges to study cybersecurity trends, conduct experiments, and test new tools and technologies in a controlled setting.

  7. Security trainers and educators: Instructors, educators, and facilities such as security operations centers (SOCs) can use cyber ranges as platforms for teaching cybersecurity courses and developing training programs that provide students with practical, hands-on experience.

  8. Students: Cyber ranges are now a key component of a top-tier cybersecurity education. They provide students pursuing certifications or degrees with practical experience through hands-on labs, enhancing their learning with realistic scenarios.
Why cyber ranges are important

Cyber ranges are a critical tool for cybersecurity professionals. They offer a safe and controlled training platform for cybersecurity workforce development. Here are several reasons why cyber ranges are important:

  1. Addressing the talent gap: By offering practical training, cyber ranges help close the skills gap in the cybersecurity workforce by preparing individuals with job-ready skills.  

  2. Continuous learning: Cyber ranges offer on-demand, ongoing opportunities for cybersecurity professionals and students to enhance their cyber skills, keeping them up-to-date with the latest cyberdefense strategies and tools.

  3. Controlled environment: Cyber ranges provide a safe space for trial and error. This allows for repeated and reusable training scenarios without impacting live systems and enables experimentation and learning without risking damage to real data and networks, helping to prevent data breaches.

  4. Incident response practice: Participants can practice and refine incident response plans in the range, learning how to use established playbooks and adapt to various threats. This experience enhances their readiness and confidence. 

  5. Keeping up with evolving threats: Cyber ranges allow individuals to stay current with emerging cyberthreats and techniques and prepare them for real-world challenges.

  6. Performance assessment: Cyber ranges provide metrics and feedback to evaluate individual and team performance. These measurements help identify areas for improvement and enable tailored training for optimal results.

  7. Realistic training: Cyber ranges use realistic attack scenarios and network simulations in a controlled, safe environment for practicing cybersecurity skills. Trainees develop hands-on experience and confidence in handling real-world threats without the risks that are associated with practicing on live systems. 

  8. Skills development: Trainees can hone their abilities to detect, prevent, and respond to cyberthreats. Cyber ranges help professionals stay updated with the evolving attack methods and defense strategies and help them enhance critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and confidence. 

  9. Team collaboration: Cyber ranges enable teamwork and coordination as participants work together on complex scenarios. This fosters effective communication and teamwork in high-pressure situations and prepares security teams for coordinated incident response.

  10. Testing and research: Organizations can test new security tools and approaches within a cyber range, developing innovative solutions and assessing their efficacy. This enables safe testing of new technologies and supports ongoing research to improve cybersecurity measures.

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