April 12, 2023

A peek behind the curtain at USC Beaufort’s new cybersecurity lab

Tony Kukulich  /  The Post and Courier Hilton Head

BEAUFORT –- There's little clue that the nondescript building at 1100 Boundary St. is home to a new, state-of-the-art cyber lab that's providing University of South Carolina Beaufort students experience working with the latest cybersecurity technologies.

Given the nature of the classes taking place inside, the building's incognito appearance seems appropriate.

Late last month, USCB hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the completion of the lab and recognize participation of the city of Beaufort, the South Coast Cyber Center, the Beaufort Digital Corridor and the U.S. Department of Defense in making the facility a reality.

Brian Canada, chair of the USCB Department of Computer Science and Mathematics, told The Post and Courier the first objective of the lab was to raise the profile of the Computer Science Department on the school's Beaufort campus. But it's also expected to play a more broad role in region's development as a hub for cybersecurity expertise.

"The idea was to create an ecosystem, not just in terms of minds, but also in terms of physical space that would be centered in Beaufort," Canada added.

When the doors to the lab were opened, visitors had a chance to see the unique aesthetic that was employed in the design of the facility. Hardware is mounted in open racks, and what seems like miles of cables are visible as they snake through the room. Nothing is hidden.

"The industrial look of the room design not only supports courses in advanced network security, but it also evokes a sensibility of the kinds of covert operations and investigations like you might see on TV shows like "24" and "The Blacklist" that might take place in repurposed, old buildings," said USCB Chancellor Al Panu, who added that there's no other lab like it on any other USCB campus.

When university officials first toured the structure two years ago, the intent was to determine if it could support a lab and the necessary technology. The building was last home to Bridges Preparatory School, which has since moved to a larger facility on Robert Smalls Parkway. The Boys and Girls Club occupied the space before that. It's choice as a location for a modern, high-tech lab was not immediately obvious.

Canada acknowledged the facility was a little rough at first glance, but had potential.

A working design emerges

He credits Matt Heightland, the school's director of Information Technology, with developing the lab's floor plan and the use of rack-mounted hardware in the lab itself.

"As soon as I saw the workup, I thought this was going to be a really special space' Canada said. "There's really nothing like it anywhere else that I've seen."

According to Canada, the university was after an industrial design that would mesh with the older building. They eschewed the clinical, sterile look that many similar facilities, particularly in the academic world, employ.

The city and the feds chip in

The South Coast Cybersecurity Center reports a need for 300,000 cybersecurity professional in the United States. With a growth rate of 32 percent annually, it's the fastest-growing profession in the country.

Beaufort City Manager Scott Marshall said the city's participation is part of a concerted effort to give local students an opportunity to fill those openings.

The city of Beaufort purchased the building and surrounding property for $2.3 million at the end of 2021, and has entered an agreement to lease the building to the school.

"Providing space to USCB to support an emerging cyber security education program helps to bridge the gap between the demand for cybersecurity professionals and the number of available and qualified cybersecurity experts," Marshall said.

A $1.3 million grant provided by U.S. Department of Defense Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation to the school and the South Coast Cyber Center provided much of the funding to outfit the lab with the latest hardware and software.

Moving forward

Currently, USCB offers a concentration in cybersecurity to its 60 information science and technology majors, and graduated its first students with a cybersecurity concentration this past fall. The number of students declaring the concentration is growing, Canada said, and the school is likely to discuss creating a cybersecurity major at some point in the future.

In the immediate future, the school is pursuing opportunities in a growing specialization, maritime cybersecurity.

"USCB is going to be collaborating with other institutions throughout the state on advancing research to support anomaly detection in maritime cybersecurity," Canada said.

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