Earlier this month, the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored a research project by PI Jelena Mirkovic, project leader at USC’s Information Sciences Institute and research associate professor of computer science at USC Viterbi, for the modernization of USC ISI’s networking experimental tested, DeterLab. The project’s co-PI is Terry Benzel, director of the Networking and Cybersecurity Division at USC ISI, which houses the state-of-the-art DeterLab project.
An experimental testbed is a platform for researchers to conduct experimentation for various scientific theories, and consists of specific hardware, software, and network configurations. By having a space to realistically conduct testing experiments, researchers can develop new products, applications, and software.
DeterLab has been extremely impactful in supporting research and experimentation on various network security projects. These projects include combating issues like Distributed Denial of Service, in which multiple machines are working together to overwhelm a user’s computer with an overflow of internet traffic, and also preventing and detecting BotNets, which comprise multiple devices connected to the internet, with each device running one or more bots. DeterLab additionally facilitates research and experimentation in certain combined networking and cyber-physical systems, such as in the electric power grid.
DeterLab has also been extensively used for educational purposes, with hundreds of faculty from various institutions using teaching modules offered on DeterLab and educating over 15,000 students since its inception. DeterLab’s current student population is over 50% from community colleges and minority-serving institutions, indicating the broadening participation and impact of the platform.
Numerous Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) projects have used DETER for experimentation, evaluation, test and technology transition, such as the Safer Warfighter Communications (SAFER), Edge-Directed Cyber Technologies for Reliable Mission Communication (EdgeCT), Extreme DDoS Defense (XD3), Dispersed Computing, and Searchlight programs. Several award-winning fundamental research results have also been achieved using DeterLab.
“DeterLab is a great example of how shared infrastructure can benefit educational community,” said Deep Medhi, Program Director in Directorate for Computer & Information Sciences & Engineering at the National Science Foundation. “NSF is pleased to fund DeterLab in order to enhance the platform with new capabilities, thus allowing researchers and students to conduct next generation of cyber-defense research and education.”
Upgrades and Integrations
The current research award from NSF will enable upgrades to modernize DeterLab, enabling researchers to perform experimentation at a greater scale and complexity, and will also be make it easier to use for novice researchers.
“The original testbed software is close to 20 years old – software and networking has evolved tremendously in that time,” Benzel said. “The current software isn’t easily extensible and doesn’t operate well with the most leading edge modern hardware. [With the modernization], experimentation will be much faster and less error prone and more efficient and reliable. In addition, the type of experiments supported will be broader and can span multiple types of resources.”
There are three major architectural changes that will facilitate the modernization of DeterLab. The current, 15-year old network switches will be updated and the 360 old PC nodes will be replaced with 144 high-density nodes, which will allow for faster computing speeds.
Also, the current, outdated testbed software, based on Emulab, will be replaced with the modular and modern Merge software. Already running several other testbeds, Merge was developed by a team of DeterLab research software engineers in 2017 and aimed to optimize testbed environments through features like multi-device support and the ability to have a clear separation between the experimenter space and the testbed resource space.
“These changes will modernize the testbed, making it more robust, reliable, and self-sustainable, supporting many more users through resource virtualization,” said Mirkovic. “[They’ll] additionally enable users to perform large-scale experiments with reconfigurable topologies and across multiple testbeds.”
Merge has had a stable release since 2018, and is currently used in DARPA’s Dispersed Computing (DComp) and Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy’s (ARPA-E) Enlitened programs.
“Software modernization will enable our users to create experiments across different physical enclaves and join them seamlessly into a single experimental view,” Mirkovic continued. “It’ll also enable SDN-based switch setup, which will result in more robust operation. Our new software [allows for] much faster experiment realization and thus supports large-scale experimentation.”
These upgrades will ensure DeterLab can operate as a “centralized experiment portal,” as Mirkovic called it, in which multiple vastly different testbed platforms can be integrated. “Migrating to a much more modern code base will allow researchers to conduct larger, more realistic experiments, and to do so very quickly with fewer errors and delays,” Benzel added.
“These modernizations will lay the groundwork for an ecosystem of testbeds.”
DeterLab is an important part of USC ISI and its Networking and Cybersecurity Division. The Division conducts important fundamental and applied research that focuses on understanding the internet, the theory and practice of distributed computing, analyzing vulnerabilities and scientific methods to modeling, and experimenting with and evaluating critical infrastructure systems, with DeterLab playing a key role in its research projects.
“My personal passion is to help researchers dramatically accelerate the pace of their work, shifting from repetitive, small-lab engineering to the repeatable, measurable scientific experimentation and testing,” said Benzel. “My work is focused on developing the methods and techniques to analyze security systems in a scientific, hypothesis driven, repeatable way.”
And this work is more relevant now than ever. As technology continues to improve and advance, the need for effective security systems in a wide range of technologies is growing more prevalent.
“Security systems are embedded in homes, in cars, on computer networks and the Internet, and in medical and manufacturing technologies,” Benzel continued. “The Networking and Cybersecurity Division is looking to the future to develop new experimentation techniques that can apply to new technologies – we envision an expansive ecosystem of experimentation labs, along with clearing houses and coordination centers to ensure wide-spread availability and use.”
With the modernization of DeterLab, USC ISI’s Networking and Cybersecurity Division will be able to continue its mission of advancing networking and cybersecurity technology research and development for societal benefit.
“These modernizations will lay the groundwork for an ecosystem of testbeds,” Benzel said. “We’re working towards a vision for a new generation of experimental cybersecurity research, one that offers powerful assistance towards helping researchers shift the asymmetric cyberspace context to one of greater planning preparedness and higher assurance fielded solutions.”