Unique collaboration turned a governor’s vision of a cyber center into reality

Interviewing the State of George's CIO Calvin Rhodes, who helped lead a collaboration of government, academia, the military and the private sector to create a new cyber ecosystem.

A recent McKinsey article states that cyberattacks are costly, and they appear to be broadening in scope. Every corporate boardroom and even federal, state and local government agencies are discussing how to avert cyber threats. The State of Georgia is addressing this issue.

Governor Nathan Deal announced his vision for a Cyber Center in his State of the State Address on January 11, 2017. It was more than a vision; it became a reality in just 18 months with the ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 10, 2018. And now it is positioned to become one of the world’s leading centers for cybersecurity. Governor Deal tasked State CIO Calvin Rhodes to turn his vision into reality, and that he did. The story of how a unique collaboration among government, academia, the military and the private sector is resulting in a cyber ecosystem is truly remarkable. I had the opportunity to speak with Rhodes about the Cyber Center and following is an excerpt from our conversation.

Phil Weinzimer: The Georgia Cyber Center is a massive undertaking. What are the reasons for developing a cyber center in Georgia?

Calvin Rhodes: The very beginning of the Georgia Cyber Center is a story within itself. It all started with the U.S. Army’s decision to consolidate its Cyber Command headquarters at Fort Gordon. That decision created a need for a workforce with skills in cybersecurity – skills also needed by employers across Georgia and that decision created an exciting opportunity for Augusta.

Cyber is a growing threat across the U.S. and around the world and no single sector can address the growing threats from cybercriminals on their own. An effective response takes a collaborative, coordinated effort from government, academia, the military and the private sector. The idea of a Cyber Center in Augusta, Georgia, and the impressive resources it can offer provide the ideal environment for different sectors to work together to educate and train the next generation of cyber professionals and to develop innovative cybersecurity tools and solutions.

Two philanthropists and businessmen from Augusta, James M. Hull and William D. McKnight, see cyber as a growing issue, and they approached Governor Deal with the idea that the state should invest in a cyber facility to support workforce development and encourage innovation and research.

Augusta was chosen as the ideal location for the Cyber Center. In addition to the U.S. Army’s cybersecurity resources at Fort Gordon, which include the Cyber School of Excellence, Augusta University is designated as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense, thanks to its outstanding School of Computer and Cyber Sciences and Cyber Institute. Both the Department of Energy and the National Security Agency have locations nearby. Augusta is also home to theClubhou.se, a non-profit incubator/accelerator with a proven track record of helping technology startups succeed.

PW: Calvin, many are concerned that the shortage of cybersecurity professionals will impact the ability to properly respond to cybersecurity threats. How will the Georgia Cyber Center help address the skills gap?

CR: Cyber Ventures published a report noting that by 2021 there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity positions worldwide, up from one million openings in 2016. The U.S. alone is on pace to hit a half-million or more unfilled cybersecurity positions by 2021.

In partnership with Augusta University and Augusta Technical College, the Cyber Center is linked to certificate programs as well as undergraduate- and graduate-level programs in cybersecurity and cyber sciences. Augusta University’s School of Computer and Cyber Sciences is actually housed in the Cyber Center. Offerings include both on-site and virtual courses to train industry's current workforce and develop talent to meet future workforce needs. Industry will have access to the best and brightest students for internships. In addition, the Cyber Center’s Workforce Academy offers training for information security professionals in state and local government.

The Cyber Center addresses the skills gap with innovative programs and amenities that promote learning and innovation. Here are a few examples:

The Cyber Center is supporting cybersecurity companies through its incubator/accelerator program. The program is managed through a strategic partnership with theClubhou.se, an Augusta-based non-profit organization dedicated to growing a culture of innovation and collaboration. The Clubhou.se has served over 25,000 people in the Augusta area through its events and programs, and it’s grown over 50 companies.

The Georgia Cyber Range is a heterogeneous computing environment used to practice incident response, conduct penetration testing, fuzz binaries across multiple processor architectures and more. It provides tools that help strengthen the stability, security, and performance of cyber infrastructures and IT systems. It is available to students, industry and government professionals in education and training, product development, offensive activity and competition, detection and defensive competition, response and recovery, and evaluation and benchmarking.

The Cyber Center houses the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Cyber Crime Unit, and local law enforcement professionals can take advantage of the GBI’s expertise in digital forensics.

The Cyber Center features demonstration space to highlight cyber research activities under way across Georgia’s university system, including basic and applied research at Augusta University.

Build-to-suit Class A space is available for lease to industry-related companies. Companies within the Cyber Center can benefit from the facility’s resources and the convenience of co-location with state, federal and industry-related partners.

The Cyber Center features a 340-seat auditorium with state-of-the-art audio/visual equipment and excellent acoustics, making it ideal for multi-media presentations. The auditorium is available for STEM-related events in line with the center's mission. Space adjacent to the auditorium is suitable for exhibits and receptions. The center's multi-story garage provides ample parking.

PW: I understand a second building is under construction at the Cyber Center that will expand its services. Can you talk more about how it will be used?

CR: Ground was broken on the second building, the Shaffer MacCartney Building, on January 3, 2018, and it’s scheduled to open in December 2018. The building will have 165,000 square feet and offer build-to-suit Class A space for lease to industry-related companies. The building is named in honor of Michael Shaffer, executive vice president of strategic partnerships and economic development at Augusta University, and Teresa MacCartney, director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.

The Shaffer MacCartney Building will include additional space for lease by private-sector partners and more space for innovation and growth of startup companies. With much of the first building devoted to education and training, the second building will take advantage of synergies with the private sector, fostering fellowships, internships, and co-op program opportunities coordinated by Augusta University and Augusta Technical College.

Working with our partners, we’ve put a great deal of thought into the design of the innovation space. We’ve toured the cutting-edge facilities of several industry leaders, including NCR and Intellinet. We visited Comcast’s facility at the Battery Atlanta, dubbed The Farm, which offers programs to support startups and entrepreneurs, and we took a look at The Garage, a collaborative workspace at Tech Square, also in Atlanta. The facilities were all different, and we found elements from each to incorporate in our building.

PW: One of the objectives of the Cyber Center is to train our next generation of cyber technologists. How will the program be structured, and who in the public/private sectors are involved?

CR: We saw the Georgia Cyber Center’s Hull McKnight Building truly come to life in August. Students began to fill its spaces – spaces which were specially designed to encourage learning, innovation, and collaboration. Students from Augusta University and Augusta Technical College are filling classrooms and labs, eager to pursue their dreams and career goals. They can choose from certificate programs as well as undergraduate- and graduate-level programs in cybersecurity and cyber sciences. They will gain the skills and experience that will make them valuable to employers seeking bright, well-educated individuals prepared to take on the ever-changing world of cybersecurity. Through both on-site and virtual course offerings, the center will also be able to train the industry's current workforce and develop talent to meet future workforce needs. In addition, the Cyber Center’s Workforce Academy offers training for information security professionals in state and local government.

PW: The Cyber Center will include a public/private partnership. How will this work, and what are the benefits?

CR: As we envisioned the Cyber Center, we agreed that we wanted it to be different from any other similar facility in the nation. We didn’t want to build just a cyber facility – we want to build a cyber ecosystem.

A few years ago, I was part of a delegation that traveled to Israel, a main hub for technology in the Middle East, particularly in cybersecurity. In fact, several of Georgia’s Fortune 100 companies have opened offices there. We were all intrigued by the cyber ecosystem they’ve created, and I was a member of a subsequent delegation from Georgia that studied it further. Israel’s military cyber unit has led to the growth of numerous cyber companies and recently located to a university, where they have established a center of excellence. The combination of academic and military efforts encourages collaboration to further cyber innovation and workforce development.

To create a cyber ecosystem here in Georgia, we’re assembling the right partners and supporters:

  • Academia
  • The military
  • Federal, state, and local government
  • Law enforcement
  • And the very important private sector

Each brings a different strength and fortifies the whole, combining for a unique approach no other state has taken.

The Cyber Center has already announced a strategic partnership with theClubhou.se as part of its incubator/accelerator program, and more strategic partnerships will be announced in the fall and beyond.

PW: The Cyber Center houses a number of academic, law enforcement, corporate, and nonprofit organizations. Can you share who they are?

CR: The Hull McKnight Building houses the Virtual World, our capture-the-flag space; the Cyber Range; the GBI’s cybercrime lab; Augusta University’s cyber learning labs and classrooms; Augusta University faculty offices; administrative space for Augusta University’s School of Computer and Cyber Sciences; Augusta Technical College’s cyber learning facilities; offices for the University System of Georgia; the Cisco Learning Lab; and theClubhouse.se.

As I’ve already noted, the Shaffer MacCartney Building will include additional space for lease by private-sector partners and more space for innovation and growth of startup companies.

PW: Fast forward three years. What do you see as the benefits to the U.S. of the cybersecurity skills that will help the public and private sectors?

CR: Cyber collaboration is the future. Successfully combatting the growing number and complexity of cyberattacks requires combined, focused efforts, and the Cyber Center is bringing together all the resources needed to develop innovative approaches and solutions, train highly skilled cybersecurity professionals, and strengthen our defenses. At a cost of $100 million, it is the single largest investment in a cybersecurity facility by a state government to date, and its facilities and programs are unmatched. It is well on its way to becoming one of the nation’s and the world’s leading centers for cybersecurity.

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