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Alliances in Tacoma, Wash. Working to Combat Cybersecurity Threats

Anderson Nascimento, Professor of Computer Science at UW Tacoma
Lars Harvey, VP of Security Strategy at Infoblox

Almost daily, the news is filled with stories about threats and attacks on cyberspace. In 2016 alone, a long list of notable US companies had their systems breached by increasingly skilled hackers. Yahoo!, LinkedIn, Verizon, Wendy’s and even the governments own Department of Homeland Security and FBI found themselves having to explain to the public how and why information that was supposed to be secure was now in the hands of criminals. Even the integrity of our democratic election was compromised. Clearly, no company, government or individual is safe from cybercrime.

Given the scale of the threats, it’s only natural that our education system is responding with more programs to train new generations of cybersecurity experts. The ability to protect networks and create safe portals is, without a doubt, a growth industry.

TacomaTacoma, Washington, some 30 miles south of Seattle, is leading the way in the development of a trained workforce prepared to make computer networks and Websites safe. The city is well on its way to becoming one of the nation’s most important cybersecurity hubs.

There are good reasons for Tacoma’s rapid rise as a center of cybersecurity education and research. The city’s close proximity to large military bases, such as Joint Base Lewis McChord and the National Guard Base Camp Murray, combined with the innovative leadership at the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus, which has aggressively brought in the finest minds in cybersecurity, big data and computer science, gives Tacoma momentum. There, in the heart of UW’s downtown Tacoma campus, education, research and knowledge transfer are working to find answers and build strategies to bring more security to the wired world.

Tacoma’s edge comes from collaboration. Multiple local universities and the nearby military have teamed up to train and educate a tech and security workforce, consisting of civilian and military personal, through innovative programs including those at the Institute of Technology and the Center for Information Assurance and Cybersecurity at UW Tacoma. Tacoma Community College has joined in and developed programs around Networking and Cybersecurity. These colleges are actively producing a top-quality and field-ready workforce. The scope and dangers of the issues demand a full court press and Tacoma is delivering.

Since cybersecurity issues span both businesses and government, UW Tacoma and the National Guard partnered to create a Cybersecurity and Leadership program that has a particular interest in attracting transitioning military with relevant skills. The education in leadership is combined with the technical side of cyber-sleuthing, with the understanding that security should be front-of-the-office rather than a server room issue.

Together, graduates from these programs and experienced transitioning veterans from JBLM are bolstering the pool of cybersecurity-trained employees for local businesses and government, which has left the city with a unique dilemma: there’s an overabundance of talent. Businesses can’t pop up fast enough in Tacoma to employ this highly educated and skilled group locally. However, the region is seeing a steady stream of interest in technology innovation, and the government need continues to grow.

In the midst of this burgeoning group of tech-savvy students and veterans, more and more thriving tech companies are seeing the potential to open shop in the area. One of those companies is Infoblox, a network control company that acquired the Tacoma-based cybersecurity and network-security company IID last year for $45 million. The partnership was a natural fit as IID specialized in threat intelligence and data gathering while Infoblox specializes in translating that information into methods of defense against cyber attacks.

The acquisition of IID was heavily influenced by the nearby university’s talent pool. Not long after taking over IID, Infoblox partnered with UW Tacoma to research and develop products that would help organizations prevent and remediate cybsecurity issues. IID had a history of working with university staff, students, and graduates over the years, and Infoblox saw the opportunity to not only continue the relationships with familiar university resources, but to also capitalize on this blossoming influx of tech leaders.

The new partnership between Infoblox and UW Tacoma aims to research the use of cutting-edge machine learning methodologies to help mitigate domain name system (DNS) cybersecurity issues that affect the government, economy and the daily lives of people in the US and abroad. The university brings some of the foremost experts in information security, advanced analytics and machine learning, while Infoblox supplies the contextual data necessary for high-level research. The outcomes from this research could have an immediate positive impact on global defense and business infrastructure as the new products developed could strengthen the security of Infoblox’s customer base of more than 7,000 organizations, including more than 80 of the Fortune 100, as well as government agencies and service providers.

So together, the two organizations are literally fighting bad guys. Through techniques such as identifying those using DNS Tunneling to exfiltrate data and steal information, and using machine learning to analyze DNS traffic for anomalies that might be malware, they are developing new methodologies and scientific theories. They can then scale this technology for larger data sets. The ultimate goal is to use the data and information being gathered, then analyze it to find predictive patterns, and see attacks before they even happen, therefore keeping everyone safer.

The Infoblox and UW Tacoma partnership is providing university students with real-world examples of security challenges and DNS data that professors and students can use to develop new, innovative analytics and methodologies to address cyber crime. By practicing and working within real-world situations, Infoblox is not only getting a stronger workforce to cater to its clients cybersecurity needs, but its also allowing students to exercise their understanding of concepts and solutions for actual problems.

The partnership is also made possible due to its logistical convenience. Infoblox’s Tacoma office is located right across the street from UW Tacoma’s campus. The company regularly hosts faculty and student researches at its offices, and they plan to connect with military and tech industry community thought leaders, also conveniently located in Tacoma, who specialize in security, cloud, analytics and computer infrastructure.

One of the greatest features of this partnership is continuing the push to educate, employ and grow locally. While tech hub cities such as San Francisco and Seattle are actively outsourcing for top talent from cities and countries around the world, Tacoma is prioritizing its residents talent and employment needs.

Tacoma has leadership that has managed to maintain a long-view of the city. For nearly a decade, the City’s Department of Economic Development, in concert with the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, has been working toward creating cybersecurity as a major cluster for economic development, recognizing the unique assets the region has. Their foresight is finally being rewarded as this industry continues to grow swiftly in the region.

The tech influence in Tacoma doesn’t stop at just Infoblox. Many other tech companies have started in, or transitioned to, Tacoma in recent years. Topia Technology, developer of software to combat data breaches for enterprise, the military and defense department is celebrating 20 years in Tacoma. Their engineers are world-class experts in security, mobility and the cloud. And their employees must possess expertise in secure data movement for high performance, complex distributed systems, like those being trained in Tacoma.

Accumula, a company that helps small retail businesses compete with big businesses in the online market, launched in Seattle but ended up making the move to Tacoma. They credit the move to a lower cost of living, lower business costs, and an overall change in pace versus Seattle. This has made the business more productive and their employees happier in their time at work. Other Tacoma-based tech companies growing in Tacoma include Cloud Power, Red Quarry, and Parallel Machines.

In continuing the trend of local organizations partnering together, UW Tacoma engineering faculty and students recently announced a two-year partnership with the Tacoma Fire Department to build augmented reality-based firefighter helmets. The project aims to create sensors that read environmental data such as temperature, gas and humidity levels, and building layouts, and display that information as a gesture-driven interface within the helmet. The real-time data collected will not only be available to those in burning buildings, but to those on the outside as well, allowing first responders to make more informed decisions and more safely rescue civilians.

Tacoma has the workforce, the amenities of a first-class city without the cost of living or traffic, and a world-class port and airport nearby. Tacoma is in a growth phase. The innovation and approachability of Tacoma is similar to that of Silicon Valley and Seattle before they boomed.

These alliances create exciting opportunities that brings together leaders from both academia and the private sector to solve security issues that affect everyone. Tacoma has a natural advantage with its position adjacent to multiple squadrons of active cyber warriors in the armed forces, the massive workforce of software and cloud developers based in the Puget Sound area, and a leading educational institution in the field like the University of Washington Tacoma. Infoblox, UW Tacoma, the City and other businesses are leading the region in forming a natural cluster for cybersecurity.

The clock is ticking. Cyber criminals are constantly evolving. Their abilities to rapidly change tactics means education must also evolve at an accelerated rate. Hard on Puget Sound, in the shadow of Mount Rainier, bright minds are matching wits with hackers bent on both crime and disruption. Smart money is on Tacoma.

For more information please visit www.infoblox.com and www.tacoma.uw.edu.

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