Nonprofit SAMSOC Opens Cyber Range, Training Lab at Port San Antonio

Cybersecurity professionals new to the field become experienced by honing their skills, finding vulnerabilities and defending against massive cyber-attacks. Companies and software startups also need to test tools and apps in a realistic but virtual environment to see how well they work and make adjustments before going to market. The place for these activities ideally is not within a company’s active computer system, but at a cyber range—a controlled virtual environment where “white hats” or cyber professionals in training can practice their skills or test their product in a simulated, robust computer infrastructure.

Port San Antonio is now home to a new cyber range that operates as part of a collaborative nonprofit organization called SAMSOC or the San Antonio Multidiscipline Security Operations Center. Cyber ranges are already bolstering the workforce in five states and are quickly becoming a resource for addressing the widening cybersecurity workforce gap and making a city more attractive to cybersecurity companies.

SAMSOC will soon offer memberships to local San Antonio cybersecurity experts and companies that will include access to the cyber range, a training lab, cyber and IT training programs, and a network of connections to both small businesses and large companies looking for cybersecurity professionals.

Three San Antonio executives joined to create SAMSOC. Cindy McClister, founder and CEO of DC Industries, provides targeted training for veterans transitioning into a cybersecurity career. Rob Dodson runs the workforce development nonprofit Red Cell San Antonio helping individuals gain real-world experience needed for specific cyber jobs. RedKnight CEO Red Thomas specializes in information technology (IT) security work with Department of Defense (DOD) clients.

The three met during their professional careers in cybersecurity and training.

“We realized we all had projects that synergized well and decided to form a cooperative organization that became SAMSOC,” Dodson said, who leads SAMSOC’s efforts.

McClister works to transition military members to cyber and IT careers by training veterans who lack previous experience. Once they complete training and acquire industry certifications, they gain practical experience from Dodson in the Pearson Vue testing certified training lab.

“The Air Force prefers to have training locations close to where the active duty personnel work,” McClister said. “With cyber command elements located at both the 24th and 25 Air Force, an expanded training space with the cyber range test lab at the Port made sense.”

Dodson works with both civilians and veterans who need practical cybersecurity experience, placing interns with clients, especially smaller nonprofits with sensitive data like medical records or financial information. There are not enough certified, experienced cybersecurity and IT professionals to address cybersecurity and IT needs for businesses both big and small, according to Dodson.

SAMSOC’s coordinated approach is designed to address this urgent need for more cyber and IT workforce development in San Antonio.

“Our goal is to build small cybersecurity service companies that will cater to these small- and midrange businesses,” Dodson said. “No one is servicing these small-business owners, and that is something we can grow in San Antonio.”

The third SAMSOC component is the cyber range, an uncommon commodity outside of government facilities. RedKnight offers cybersecurity, product testing, and mission operations experience as well as training Dodson’s Red Cell’s interns for careers in both the private sector and in government.

“What’s missing in the cyber startup community is direct access to the customer environment,” Thomas said. “Interns here can monitor traffic real time in the simulated SOC to learn how to spot hackers.”

The security operations center or SOC is a facility dedicated to preventing, detecting, and responding to cybersecurity threats and is costly to build and maintain. The value of SAMSOC’s cyber range is how it simulates a working IT environment, providing realistic training and a rigorous, but safe laboratory for testing skills, apps, and tools.

While DOD has large cyber ranges for testing, training, and exercises, the creation of similar ranges for civilian use can be prohibitively expensive, especially for smaller companies, explained U.S. Air Force captain Derek Bull, a cyber acquisition officer stationed in San Antonio. The best cyber ranges are costly to create and maintain, as they go beyond complete virtual networks with the addition of servers that simulate hundreds of thousands of computers and simulated internet traffic complete with phantom users emailing and searching online.

“Software development often takes place in well-controlled networks that do a poor job of replicating the real world,” Bull said. “A test on a realistic range might reveal that a product which works fine in a developmental environment makes a real network with real users completely inoperable and impossible to use.”

Cybersecurity firms use commercial cyber ranges to test their product in as realistic an environment as possible without the danger of taking down a real company’s systems. But for those who can afford access to a civilian cyber range, they still need to find one nearby. Thomas recognized this “massive gap between the ‘kitchen table’ and the initial beta test in a corporate network” when he designed SAMSOC’s cyber range.

“A San Antonio-based company had to fly someone to Arizona to test a product because there was no cyber range close by,” Thomas said. “What is is missing in this city is the opportunity for small businesses and startups to have a testing environment before they take a product to a bigger customer or market.”

SAMSOC also provides students mentorship and access to the facilities to expose as many young people as possible to cybersecurity careers. They support Girls Who Code, mentor a Cyber Patriot team every year, and work with East Central High School in San Antonio. The co-founders also help with local educational programs at Hallmark University and St. Philip’s College.

“The need to train our local workforce for these careers is what drove the creation of SAMSOC,” Dodson said. “We aim to keep as much talent here as we can.”

Featured image is of RedKnight CEO Red Thomas speaking with students at SAMSOC. Photo courtesy Port San Antonio.

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Iris Gonzalez

Iris Gonzalez is a writer based in San Antonio, Texas, covering innovation in emerging tech, cybersecurity, and bioscience startup companies in San Antonio.

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