In this post, we provide advice on how you can build a current cyber range using AWS services.

Conducting security incident simulations is a valuable exercise for organizations. As described in the AWS Security Incident Response Guide, security incident response simulations (SIRS) are useful tools to improve how an organization handles security events. These simulations can be tabletop sessions, individualized labs, or full team exercises conducted using a cyber range.

A cyber range is an isolated virtual environment used by security engineers, researchers, and enthusiasts to practice their craft and experiment with new techniques. Traditionally, these ranges were developed on premises, but on-prem ranges can be expensive to build and maintain (and do not reflect the new realities of cloud architectures).

In this post, we share concepts for building a cyber range in AWS. First, we cover the networking components of a cyber range, then how to control access to the cyber range. We also explain how to make the exercise realistic and how to integrate your own tools into a cyber range on AWS. As we go through each component, we relate them back to AWS services.

Using AWS to build a cyber range provides flexibility since you only pay for services when in use. They can also be templated to a certain degree, to make creation and teardown easier. This allows you to iterate on your design and build a cyber range that is as identical to your production environment as possible.

Networking

Designing the network architecture is a critical component of building a cyber range. The cyber range must be an isolated environment so you have full control over it and keep the live environment safe. The purpose of the cyber range is to be able to play with various types of malware and malicious code, so keeping it separate from live environments is necessary. That being said, the range should simulate closely or even replicate real-world environments that include applications on the public internet, as well as internal systems and defenses.

There are several services you can use to create an isolated cyber range in AWS:

  • Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC), which lets you provision a logically isolated section of AWS. This is where you can launch AWS resources in a virtual network that you define.
    • Traffic mirroring is an Amazon VPC feature that you can use to copy network traffic from an elastic network interface of Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances.
  • AWS Transit Gateway, which is a service that enables you to connect your Amazon VPCs and your on-premises networks to a single gateway.
  • Interface VPC endpoints, which enable you to privately connect your VPC to supported AWS services and VPC endpoint services powered by AWS PrivateLink. You’re able to do this without an internet gateway, NAT device, VPN connection, or AWS Direct Connect connection.

Amazon VPC provides the fundamental building blocks to create the isolated software defined network for your cyber range. With a VPC, you have fine grained control over IP CIDR ranges, subnets, and routing. When replicating real-world environments, you want the ability to establish communications between multiple VPCs. By using AWS Transit Gateway, you can add or subtract an environment from your cyber range and route traffic between VPCs. Since the cyber range is isolated from the public internet, you need a way to connect to the various AWS services without leaving the cyber range’s isolated network. VPC endpoints can be created for the AWS services so they can function without an internet connection.

A network TAP (test access point) is an external monitoring device that mirrors traffic passing between network nodes. A network TAP can be hardware or virtual; it sends traffic to security and monitoring tools. Though its unconventional in a typical architecture, routing all traffic through an EC2 Nitro instance enables you to use traffic mirroring to provide the network TAP functionality.

Accessing the system

Due to the isolated nature of a cyber range, administrators and participants cannot rely on typical tools to connect to resources, such as the secure shell (SSH) protocol and Microsoft remote desktop protocol (RDP). However, there are several AWS services that help achieve this goal, depending on the type of access role.

There are typically two types of access roles for a cyber range: an administrator and a participant. The administrator – sometimes called the Black Team – is responsible for designing, building, and maintaining the environment. The participant – often called the Red Team (attacking), Blue Team (defending), or Purple Team (both) – then plays within the simulated environment.

For the administrator role, the following AWS services would be useful:

  • Amazon EC2, which provides scalable computing capacity on AWS.
  • AWS Systems Manager, which gives you visibility into and control of your infrastructure on AWS

The administrator can use Systems Manager to establish SSH, RDP, or run commands manually or on a schedule. Files can be transferred in and out of the environment using a combination of S3 and VPC endpoints. Amazon EC2 can host all the web applications and security tools used by the participants, but are managed by the administrators with Systems Manager.

For the participant role, the most useful AWS service is Amazon WorkSpaces, which is a managed, secure cloud desktop service.

The participants are provided with virtual desktops that are contained in the isolated cyber range. Here, they either initiate an attack on resources in the environment or defend the attack. With Amazon WorkSpaces, participants can use the same operating system environment they are accustomed to in the real-world, while still being fully controlled and isolated within the cyber range.

Realism

A cyber range must be realistic enough to provide a satisfactory experience for its participants. This realism must factor tactics, techniques, procedures, communications, toolsets, and more. Constructing a cyber range on AWS enables the builder full control of the environment. It also means the environment is repeatable and auditable.

It is important to replicate the toolsets that are used in real life. By creating re-usable “Golden” Amazon Machine Images (AMIs) that contain tools and configurations that would typically be installed on machines, a builder can easily slot the appropriate systems into an environment. You can also use AWS PrivateLink – a feature of Amazon VPC – to establish connections from your isolated environment to customer-defined outside tools.

To emulate the tactics of an adversary, you can replicate a functional copy of the internet that is scaled down. Using private hosted zones in Amazon Route 53, you can use a “.” record to control name resolution for the entire “internet”. Alternatively, you can use a Route 53 resolver to forward all requests for a specific domain to your name servers. With these strategies, you can create adversaries that act from known malicious domains to test your defense capabilities. You can also use Amazon VPC route tables to send all traffic to a centralized web server under your control. This web server can respond as variety of websites to emulate the internet.

Logging and monitoring

It is important for responders to exercise using the same tools and techniques that they would use in the real world. AWS VPC traffic mirroring is an effective way to utilize many IDS products. Our documentation provides guidance for using popular open source tool such as Zeek and Suricata. Additionally, responders can leverage any network monitoring tools that support VXLAN.

You can interact with the tools outside of the VPC by using AWS PrivateLink. PrivateLink provides secure connectivity to resources outside of a network, without the need for firewall rules or route tables. PrivateLink also enables integration with many AWS Partner offerings.

You can use Amazon CloudWatch Logs to aggregate operating system logs, application logs, and logs from AWS resources. You can also easily share CloudWatch Logs with a dedicated security logging account.

In addition, if there are third party tools that you currently use, you can leverage the AWS Marketplace to easily procure the specific tools and install within your AWS account.

Summary

In this post, I covered what a cyber range is, the value of using one, and how to think about creating one using AWS services. AWS provides a great platform to build a cost effective cyber range that can be used to bolster your security practices.

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Author

John Formento, Jr.

John is a Solutions Architect at Amazon Web Services. He helps large enterprises achieve their goals by architecting secure and scalable solutions on the AWS Cloud. John holds 5 AWS certifications including AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional and DevOps Engineer – Professional.

Author

Adam Cerini

Adam is a Senior Solutions Architect with Amazon Web Services. He focuses on helping Public Sector customers architect scalable, secure, and cost effective systems. Adam holds 5 AWS certifications including AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Professional and AWS Certified Security – Specialist.