Cyber ranges

How are virtual labs and cyber range simulations different?

Graeme Messina
December 15, 2020 by
Graeme Messina


Cybersecurity training is one of the most important ways that IT professionals can validate their skills and learn new ones too. It not only teaches valuable theoretical knowledge but hands-on and practical skills as well.

It is no surprise then that there are many different ways to accomplish this kind of practical training. Creating your own lab at home is one option, but the reality is that it is much more affordable to take your training to dedicated providers that specialize in realistic testing and training.

Of these providers there is often a choice of cyber ranges and virtual labs. To an outsider, they sound like the same thing: hands-on training in a simulated environment. This may be true to a certain extent, but it is certainly not the whole story, not by a long shot.

We thought it would be a great idea to compare virtual labs to cyber ranges and see exactly where their differences lie. Each method has some advantages and disadvantages, but what they do and how they do it is actually quite different.

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What is a virtual lab?

Virtual labs are often thought of as a simple training tool, but in cybersecurity, that is not the case. They are often designed by industry players that provide training and certification. This means that the labs are designed to be as close to the curriculum or syllabus as possible.

What this means is that in some cases, a virtual lab might sacrifice some realism to stay in line with the course teachings. This means that in most cases when you perform an action or enter a command, you will be taken on a safe and scripted journey through the lab with no unexpected failures or errors.

The key reason why you would want to use a virtual lab is that it gives you hands-on experience on the subjects that you have just learned the theory about. You might know why a certain action is necessary, but not exactly how to do it. Virtual labs are great at showing you how you might go about performing the actions in a controlled environment.

What does a virtual lab do for you?

Other than helping to solidify your knowledge in studying scenarios, they are also quite useful as standalone training tools. In cybersecurity, virtual labs can be set up that teach users how to perform certain tasks that will help to keep their network safe.

These kinds of virtual labs can be customized and updated so that no matter who uses the virtual lab, they will receive the most relevant and up-to-date training available. They can help you to familiarize yourself with systems that you might be interacting with regularly and will generally help you to remember by repetition.

All of this is done without any risk of damage to the lab environment, as it is just a simulation of the environment that you are testing yourself on. This means that you cannot enter any commands or perform any tasks that are not part of the current objective in your lab.

What is a cyber range?

Cyber ranges are an excellent way for training in a real-world environment with actual cyber threats. Cyber ranges are created on a real virtual machine with software-defined networks and network routing. Because the environment is authentic, it gives you a real sense of what to expect during a real cybersecurity attack. Each task is repeatable, and if anything goes wrong with the cyber range environment, then it can be quickly and easily reset or recreated so that you can continue to practice.

The end result with using cyber ranges is that with repetition and practice then you will start to identify threats by recognizing key traits of different classes of threats. Once you understand what a threat is, what its attack vector is and how you would stop it from spreading, then you can take action.

Cyber ranges are also a great platform for testing threats in environments that are patched and updated to the most current versions of operating systems and applications. You have a far greater chance of working on a realistic scenario when using a cyber range. The reason for all of these positive attributes is that cyber ranges are usually cloud-based and are updated according to automated scheduling once the updates have been validated by the cloud support owner.

Another important aspect of cyber ranges is the scalability of the platform. If you need to expand the operation, then it is merely a case of logging onto the management console and provisioning additional resources as you need them. Once the demand for those resources subsides, then you can decommission the instances that you no longer require.

What are some differences between the two?

Now that we have covered the basics of each learning and training approach, we can do a direct comparison of each one. We are not strictly comparing apples with apples here, but that is not to say that comparisons are not useful in this case. The reason is that although the way that cyber ranges and virtual labs work may be different, they share common goals: training and education.

Virtual labs

  • A virtual lab is a simulation of a system
  • A virtual lab is an accurate representation of a process or procedure
  • Virtual labs are normally represented as guided, step-by-step tutorials
  • Not as easy to keep up to date, as VL designers must update the look and feel of the simulation manually

Cyber ranges

  • A cyber range is an actual system running in a simulated network environment
  • A cyber range runs through an actual, real-life process on a real virtual machine
  • Cyber ranges provide detailed instructions and commands to complete objectives, mistakes can be made but they are a necessary part of the learning process
  • System software updates make for a more contemporary testing environment 

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The main takeaway from all of these comparisons is that virtual labs, while effective at providing training “on rails”, are starting to show their age. Most training that required an expensive physical lab to accomplish testing could rely on an accurate representation of the training environment through a virtual lab. 

With the advent of cloud computing technologies that leverage virtual machines, SDNs and other virtual appliances, it is starting to make more sense to go with a cyber range-based training program. Why recreate something to an approximate analog, when you can build the real thing in the could for more realistic training?

There are still instances where virtual labs are useful, though, especially in areas where internet connectivity is not available or lacks the capacity needed to remotely connect to another system. Virtual labs can be simple enough to run from removable media or can be installed on a local area network for onsite training. Cyber ranges can also be administered in-house and on the local network, depending on your company’s budget and resources.

At the end of the day, there is still room for both training types, depending on what you want to accomplish. If you want to run through user awareness programs and all that is needed is a guided step-by-step instructional on what to do and what not to do, then a virtual lab could be the perfect solution for you. If you want more advanced training, for example on how a ransomware attack affects a desktop by opening an infected payload from an email, then a cyber range can be configured to provide users with that exact experience.

It all boils down to the level of detail required in your training and what your budget is. 

Graeme Messina
Graeme Messina

Graeme is an IT professional with a special interest in computer forensics and computer security. When not building networks and researching the latest developments in network security, he can be found writing technical articles and blog posts at InfoSec Resources and elsewhere.