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How Easy Is It To Teach Cybersecurity Using Cloud Platforms versus Traditional Methods?

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By: Abdul Ali Khan

August 20, 2020

Benjamin Franklin once said, "Tell me, and I forget, teach me, and I may remember, involve me, and learn." This principle holds for educational pursuits, and some areas of study rely heavily on practical work. One of these fields is cybersecurity.

In recent history, many cybersecurity training programs began incorporating practical application into their curricula. This training was usually conducted in a traditional classroom setting, with dedicated systems. The hardware was sometimes "hand-me-down" as lifecycle replacements were made for the operational environment. In other cases, a small investment was made to equip the classroom with the needed hardware, software, and training applications. This training network would often be set up as a stand-alone or isolated environment, away from production. The dedicated systems, licensing, network, and physical infrastructure added a significant expense for an organization.

Downsides of the traditional method

Although this traditional laboratory model is still utilized, there are many limitations associated with it. One challenge faced by training bodies with multiple campuses is the cumbersome process of replicating lab settings to facilitate the same course at different physical locations. In this situation, coordinating and maintaining the same configuration across different campuses is both costly and time-consuming.

Another issue that pertains to large and dispersed classes is that most of the instructor's time is spent fixing lab machine errors and solving problems initiated by students. This leaves very little time for the instructor to deliver his or her lessons. Therefore, there is a dire need to adopt a lab model that can alleviate these problems.

The benefits of using cloud platforms in cybersecurity training

One model that is rapidly replacing the classical lab setting is the cloud computing model. This model simplifies the configuration process, and it can be easily scaled for varied classroom sizes. Whether students are local or remote, they will be granted equal access to the virtual machines hosted in the cloud.

Unlike inflexible traditional labs, cloud platforms are inherently scalable. There is no need to waste money on purchasing and upgrading new systems now and then to accommodate more users.

Additionally, on-demand cloud services ensure that instructors are furnished with a tailor-made environment that suits their needs perfectly. The heavy administrative and maintenance costs associated with physical labs can also be done away with. Moreover, cloud platforms also eliminate the need to hire dozens of lab technicians because the cloud service provider assumes these responsibilities.

Applying the cloud computing model to cybersecurity training

Although it's not intuitive, providing cybersecurity education using cloud platforms is much simpler than using traditional methodologies.

Instructors and lab assistants don't need to spend countless hours manually configuring software packages and security tools on each lab machine. Instead, they can use tools such as Amazon Machine Images (AMIs) with preconfigured software packages to facilitate students with up and running systems. Many AMIs are already publicly available on online communities, and to run them, students only need to download and launch them.

Another benefit of cloud computing is disaster recovery. The need to draft complex disaster recovery and contingency plans is eliminated as these features are inherently present in the cloud infrastructure. Cloud platforms can guarantee speedy recovery because the information is already distributed across multiple sites.

A byproduct of using cloud platforms to conduct cybersecurity training is that the testing and implementation has no adverse impact on the production network. As a result, all cybersecurity exercises are carried out in a contained environment, and the network of the training institution remains unaffected. Not only is this beneficial for instructors, but it also simplifies the learning process for students. Students no longer need to compete for limited computing resources at peak times, such as near a deadline. Therefore, they are free to learn according to their schedules, from anywhere in the world.

A journal titled "Teaching Cybersecurity Using the Cloud" published in April 2015 indicates that students favor learning cybersecurity using cloud platforms. Researchers surveyed 18 students who had undergone cybersecurity training using cloud platforms. A large majority of those students strongly agreed that the teaching method had not only achieved the desired learning outcomes but also taught them new skills. Additionally, numerous students mentioned that the lab exercises were convenient because they could work according to their schedules, and from anywhere.

Cloud platforms don't solve all our problems

Despite the countless advantages of this mode of delivering cybersecurity training, many drawbacks need to be considered.

Firstly, it is not feasible to offer certain cybersecurity labs using cloud platforms. Specifically, experiments that require direct interfacing through hardware devices such as tablets and mobile phones cannot be carried out through the cloud. They require devices to be immediately attached to the ports of local machines. Unfortunately, exercises such as wireless and network security protocol cracking cannot be performed using the cloud.

Perhaps soon, there will be workarounds for this problem, but for now, these labs must be conducted using other methods.

Another major drawback of teaching cybersecurity using the cloud is the doubt associated with surrendering your IT resources to an external cloud service provider. This leads to unnecessary dependencies, such as the need to request the service provider for minor changes such as software upgrades and replacements.

Additionally, there are several legal aspects, such as data privacy and protection, that need to be considered before adopting this teaching mode. The correct policies must be positioned to prevent issues such as cloud vendor lock — a phenomenon in which clients are forced to use a cloud service regardless of quality.

Virtual Labs: a popular alternative to traditional labs

The next best medium for delivering cybersecurity training is virtual laboratory architecture. This architecture shares many benefits with cloud architecture, and it has the edge over a traditional classroom setting.

Unlike cloud training platforms that are still in their initial stage, virtual labs have been tried and tested by millions of learners. The success of virtual labs can be judged from the fact that hundreds of traditional instructor-led courses are metamorphosing into virtual labs.

To witness the experience of virtual labs with your own eyes, head over to Cybrary Practice Labs. Cybrary maintains an updated list of over 500 practice labs that allow learners to implement and consolidate cybersecurity concepts.

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