CU Cyber poses with its first-place medals at the Palmetto Cyber Defense Competition. From left to right: Foster McLane, Max Harley, Carson Sallis, Andrew Samuels, Nick Bulischeck, Rusty Cuff, Weston Belk, Nathan Gantt, Kyle Wolfe, Kenneth Simpson, David Houston, Zac Whitworth.

CU Cyber poses with its first-place medals at the Palmetto Cyber Defense Competition. From left to right: Foster McLane, Max Harley, Carson Sallis, Andrew Samuels, Nick Bulischeck, Rusty Cuff, Weston Belk, Nathan Gantt, Kyle Wolfe, Kenneth Simpson, David Houston, Zac Whitworth.
Image Credit: Clemson University

CLEMSON — CU Cyber, the Clemson University competitive cybersecurity team, won first place at the recent Palmetto Cyber Defense Competition (PCDC) at Trident Technical College in Charleston. The victory marks the fourth time in the last six years CU Cyber has taken home the top prize.

“After winning in 2016 and coming in second place last year, the team was eager to bring the trophy back to Clemson,” said John Hoyt, Clemson’s Security Infrastructure and Operations Director and team advisor. “I’m very proud of how hard they worked and the time they put in to prepare for these competitions. During this competition they faced a really hard situation, but even so they kept their composure and pushed forward.”

CU Cyber bested seven other schools from around the state, including the University of South Carolina, College of Charleston and The Citadel.

The competition put six-person “blue teams” in charge of a fictional company that delivered calzones via drone and recently fired its IT staff for incompetence. Teams earned points by replacing the company’s service functionality, responding to imminent security threats from the “red team” and completing business tasks assigned by the CEO and security officer.

Clemson’s team built a huge early lead by maintaining service uptime and fulfilling calzone deliveries. With all blue team systems humming, the red team unleashed a devastating attack that threatened Clemson’s advantage by wiping out two systems and all deliveries.

“For the first roughly five and a half hours, we had probably best PCDC performance of all time,” said senior captain Nick Bulischeck. “Then the attack came fairly early on and that changed the pace of competition. Once that one machine got completely destroyed, the mood changed.”

Bulischeck and the team then faced a crucial decision: Do they reset the machine and take a significant point penalty, or do they focus on what they can accomplish and hope their lead holds up?

“Resetting is both good and bad,” said Bulischeck. “Good because you can use the service, but bad because it still has the same security flaws as the beginning of competition. It was a tough call, but we but decided not to use the reset option.”

In the end, Clemson’s lead held as the team battled incoming security threats.

“It’s like being up five touchdowns and they’re coming back one TD at a time, and you’re holding on and hoping they don’t overtake you,” said Bulischeck.

Some students on the team work in Clemson’s Cyber Security Operations Center (CSOC) in Barre Hall, experience that paid off in the weekend competition.

“Working in the CSOC helped quite a lot,” said senior Foster McLane. “In both the CSOC and in the competition, we focus on blue team and defensive activities and operations. We worked hard preparing for this and even though the red team says they always win, we did our best ever and achieved victory.”

“I’ve been working there since the first day it opened in February of 2016,” said senior Carson Sallis. “The CSOC was essential in our success in the competition and the experience that we received through the internship was unparalleled. We couldn’t have done as well as we did without the collaboration and support of the other interns and supervisors.”

Bulischeck invites all students interested in the growing field of cybersecurity to attend a CU Cyber meeting, regardless of major or experience. More information can be found at cucyber.net.

The Palmetto Cyber Defense Competition is held by the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic in collaboration with the South Carolina Lowcountry Chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA).