The Case for Modeling and Simulation of Information Security

John H. Saunders, Ph.D., GSEC

National Defense University


“When I hear I forget. When I see I remember. When I do, I learn.” Confucius


 A challenge that stands before the security community is to better prepare management, system administrators, and users to respond appropriately to information security crises while simultaneously reducing the anxiety associated with them. One clear approach to achieving this goal is to use modeling and simulation for education, training, and testing. This paper will present the available range of modeling and simulation capabilities in Information Assurance. It will also establish some principles for extending these capabilities into the community. It will do this by establishing a case for utilizing more simulation in our discipline, reviewing past modeling & simulation efforts within information security, reviewing the traditional types of modeling and simulation methodologies, addressing capability and experiences in computer modeling within other areas such as telecomm and economics, and providing a framework for future computer based modeling and simulation efforts in Information security.


The life of the computer security manager is often one of boredom punctuated by instances of sheer terror. The reasons are obvious. As an overhead cost, the organization wants to keep investment in security to a minimum. So the security manager allocates his budget dollars as best he can, spreading it among defenses such as anti-virus software, firewalls and minimal user training. Then he sits and waits. When the new virus terror hits, he is shaken out of bed to spend 72 hours without sleep answering questions from customers and management about just how the devil got through the “silicon curtain” this time. Promoting a better understanding of the information security environment, quantitatively and qualitatively, statically and dynamically, locally or globally can be effectively achieved through the use of modeling and simulation. 

Modeling is the process of capturing the essence, through symbolic representation, of a real world system. Simulation is the exercising of a model, i.e. adding dynamics. In simulation, the primary independent variable is time. Most models by nature are not dynamic. For example the OSI 7 layer model is static. But a series of snapshots of this model as bits are stripped from (or added to) a packet moving up (or down) the OSI "stack" provides a simulation that can portray significantly more meaning to the concept of layering. 

Modeling and Simulation (M&S) is an effective technique to use during those times when information security threats are not acute. The use of M&S can provide both information security and lay managers a better understanding of their information environment on both on a concrete and abstract level. Proactively it can be used to identify weaknesses and reactively it can provide education and training using “what if” scenarios. Ultimately when new threats are introduced the ability of the organization to respond is significantly enhanced. 

The Case For Computer Simulation In The Security Arena 

"The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat." Navy Seals Theme

Organizations that must fight battles – teams in the NFL, the FBI, the military, all regularly model and simulate/practice their battles. Many of the NFL teams have sophisticated computer models that pit their player’s abilities and the team strategies against the other teams. Just ask the head coach of the world champion Baltimore Ravens, Brian Billick [Tuttle, 2000]. He uses computer models extensively. 

The FBI also has extensive computer models for envisioning, tracking and simulating complex criminal activity. These dynamic models can include representations of “players” and their contacts with other players, their travel, conversations, and financial transactions. On a more physical basis the FBI has large training sites in Beltsville , Maryland and Quantico , Virginia where all types of police action scenarios are played out daily. 

And the U.S. Military forces, when not in actual policing actions or combat spend their entire time in preparation and rehearsal. The U.S. Army’s Simulation Training and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM) has an apt phrase, “All but War is Simulation.” Over the next eight years this branch of the Army alone will spend $4 billion on simulations. Major simulation efforts in the U.S. Military related to computing and communications include JWARS, NETWARS, and JSIMS[1]

There is evidence that utilizing simulations is actually better than the education provided by real world experiences. At the Institute for Simulation and Training in Orlando Florida , scientists discovered that among participants who were asked to explore a building, those who utilized virtual reality, a branch of simulation, learned much more than those who were given an equal amount of time to physically explore the building. At the National Training Center , it was found that, for knowledge retention, learning by doing (75% retention) was only secondary to teaching one-to-one (90%). But that lecture was dead last (5%), and even reading did very poorly (10%). [Forio, 2001]  For airline pilots simulators provide scenarios that would be much too risky to duplicate in the “real” world. The FAA gives equal credit to pilots for time spent in a simulator as time flying a real aircraft. Simulations of the interaction of factors in large scale, long-term projects have yielded tens of millions of dollars in savings [Saunders, 1999]. 

Issues with Audience Level 

Individuals within the different levels of the organization must respond in different ways to a crisis or to the planning of InfoSec defenses. Whereas a CIO may need to practice the process of calling in the services of an emergency backup facility, a network engineer may need to simulate when it is prudent to shut down the internet connection. And the security design engineer may need to better understand which features on a Intrusion Detection System (IDS) operate best within a specific data environment. The table below provides a view of elemental level entities and questions that simulations can provide. 

Management Area


Model Entities






Operational, Strategic

People, Dollars, Morale, Experience

Is the lag time for the acquisition of security personnel adequate?

Are our people on average performing adequately, well trained?

Is the flow of work well designed?

How will a crisis action flow with our contingency provider?




  Supply Chain 


Dollars, Units of Product, Risk Measures

Will our budget flow meet our requirements?

What scenarios can justify needed contingency funding?

How might we streamline our CERT processes?


  Computer Hardware

  Network connectivity



Operational, Tactical

Computers, Routers, Lines of Code, Connectivity, Transactions, Incidents

How should we exercise our system to insure that, for surge requirements, our computers are fast enough and our communications lines are adequate?

Is the security element in our software development proceeding well?

Given known attacks how will our network react?

 Through simulation exercises, responses to these questions can be learned. It is too late to formulate a proper response after the crisis has occurred or after the system has failed to perform. If the team players have an opportunity to repeatedly rehearse their roles, then the stage performance, even with the element of surprise, becomes much more manageable. 

M&S can be utilized effectively across a wide berth of areas in information security such as:

Specific Benefits of Simulation 

Certainly the Information security community demonstrates a need for a modeling and simulation capability. Attacking your own system as an educational exercise is a foolish option. It has led to prison time for some individuals.  As Fred Cohen [1999] has stated “The high cost of running real-world attacks, the limited extent to which they exercise the space of actual attacks, and the high potential for harm from a successful attack conspire to make some other means of analysis an imperative.” 

The benefits of simulation in the security arena are numerous. Some are outlined in the figure below. 

  • Instant "reset" of computers, networks, etc to initial conditions
  • Compression of long term activity into short periods
  • Lower cost than utilizing real computers, networks, software, protocols, etc
  • Ease of scalability
  • Creation of scenarios too risky for "real world" testing
  • Levels of abstraction like the OSI model may be represented
  • Ease of re-configuration
  • Capability for building in an “automatic/scripted” Black or White Team

Given that the creation of security models and simulations has real benefit to the community, what sort of simulations and events have already taken place within this realm, and what might we expect to arise in the near future?.

Simulations/Exercises in the Information security Arena 

There are many examples where simulation has already served the information security community. For purposes of description and analysis, the examples provided here have been divided into 1) Packet Wars, 2) Sniffers + Network Design Tools, 3) Canned Attack/Defend Scenarios, 4) Management Flight Simulators, and 5) Role-playing.

 There are other taxonomies that could be utilized such as that used by IATAC for classifying types of M&S tools [Wagg, 2001].  But it was felt by the author that the taxonomy proposed above would best serve the practitioner for making a decision about the level of effort they would need to extend to get started in this arena. 

Packet Wars 

This type of simulation involves tactical level network attack and defense. These types of simulations exist for technical personnel primarily on the local network or at best enterprise level. The primary mode to date has been to set up real, but isolated, networks with servers, clients, and switching/routing equipment. Likely the best example of an academic lab exists at the United States Military Academy (USMA) in West Point , New York . It is called the Information Warfare Analysis and Research (IWAR) Laboratory [Schafer, 2000]. A diagram of their network can be seen below. 

Figure1 - Academic Security Network at US Military Academy 

The USMA has been using the lab in upper level computer science courses to educate their students in the science and art of network attack and defense. In the Spring of 2001 the military faculty at West Point worked with the faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the US Coast Guard Academy to initiate an annual competition, judged by experts at the National Security Agency. As part of the competition, the students spent a semester learning about attacks and defenses. They then established defense postures for isolated networks at their facilities, and finally participated in attempting to scan and attack the weak points in their opponents systems Similar networks and exercises exist at Texas A&M [Hill, 2000], and Idaho State. 

Other examples of these types of simulations include an annual competition run by SANs called ID'ed Net [SANS, 2001], the competition held each year at DEFCON, and Rootwars at Toorcon [Toorcon, 2001].  These types of competitions are likely the best possible approach toward simulating network attacks and defenses on the technology level. The drawbacks are obvious. Building systems solely for these kinds of exercises is very expensive and time consuming. And maintaining the system requires a large allocation of resources. Each time an exercise is run, the network must be returned to its original state. Is it possible to gain a great deal of the essence of packet wars without the resource intensive nature of the approach? 

Sniffers + Network Design Tools 

What simulation tools are available for professional system administrators and application designers who need models for a detail understanding and in-depth analysis of items such as packet flows, buffer overflow, and operating system compromise? One area of promise for this group is in the growth of Network Modeling & Simulation (NMS) Packages. These packages, when paired with sniffer data can provide "real" network visualization from nanosecond in-depth tracing to month long summary statistical data. NMS packages, which continue to grow in popularity and maturity, provide interesting and valuable insight into the details and the statistical analysis of network traffic. Originally crafted as tools for large-scale network design, their capabilities have been growing to allow the creation of hypothetical scenarios down to the bit level. They could be utilized for a variety of tasks related to information security such as,

Some packages available in this area are provided in the table below.  







Univ Western Australia


Good learning tool





(800) 521-9353


IT DecisionGuru

Opnet Technologies

Start at $19,000

(202) 364-4700

Significant contracts with DoD


NetCracker Technology

starts at $7,500

(800) 477-5785



Analytical Engines

starts at $7,500

(703) 287-8720

Has been gathering awards

The method for utilizing these tools in the security arena requires that data first be collected from the operational network. The obvious drawback is that even a short-term sample can yield gigabytes or even terabytes of data. The diagram below portrays the process utilized by the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency for modeling network events. 


Figure 2 - DISA Network Modeling and Simulation Methodology, Source: DISA D8 

There are drawbacks to utilizing Network Modeling and Simulation Packages. They include: 

·        There is no "built-in" representation of the software execution.

·        Vendors are now only beginning to focus on memory resident processes.

·        No "soft" factors representation is available, e.g. how do you represent social engineering or the level of training of your people?

·        The user interface geared toward network engineering. 

To overcome these resource hurdles, some organizations have focused upon building "ready, out of the box" simulations.

Canned Attack/Defend Scenarios  

These simulations are typically standalone applications that can be utilized in a game like manner to facilitate learning. Individuals who are trained in IT, but not yet conversant in finer points specific to information security would most often use these simulations. These packages are built using Multimedia tools such as Macromedia's Authorware or Microsoft's Visual Basic, and can be packaged all on one CD. Therefore, once built they are very easy to distribute. Up front costs for building these types of simulations can be very high. A common metric in the multimedia area is 300 man-hours of work for one hour of packaged CD activity.  Another constraint is that fixed paths that must be built into the simulation. Typically a procedural, decision tree type of approach is utilized to guide the user through the simulation. Some random elements may be programmed into the scenarios, but always from a fixed set of attacks and defenses. 

Some examples from this arena include InfoChess, CyberProtect, and the Information Security War gaming System. 

InfoChess, recently computerized, is focused on Military Information Operations and stems from the board game [InfoChess, 2001]. A few "specialized" rules are added to the usual game of Chess to simulate some of the characteristics of Information Operations such as  "psychological operations, military deception, operations security, electronic warfare, and physical destruction, mutually supported by intelligence, to deny information to, influence, degrade, or destroy adversary command and control capabilities." It is played by many of the Information Warfare groups within the U.S. Military. InfoChess can only be purchased with the formal instructor training. It starts at around $2500. 

Figure3 - InfoChess Controller Station 

CyberProtect is a simulation that was built under contract by the Defense Information Systems Agency. It revolves around the purchase and application of information security countermeasures in a local area network environment. It takes place over 4 quarters. Each quarter the user makes decisions about what resources/ countermeasures to purchase and put in place. After making those decisions the simulation is set in motion. The user is then subject to a variety of security attacks. The following cycle is repeated four times: 

·    Purchase information security resources to apply to your network. These resources include Training, Redundant systems, Access control, Virus protection, Backup, Disconnect, Encryption, Firewalls, and Intrusion detection. The user is provided limited resource dollars to apply.

·    Apply/install those resources. The user drags and drops the countermeasures to specific locations on the network. See the exhibit below for a diagram of the network. 

·    Experience attacks. There are nine possible forms of attack. They include Jamming, Viruses, Moles, Social Engineering, Packet Sniffers, Data theft, Data modification, Flooding, and Imitation/Spoofing. The numbers and types of attacks are random; they come from outside and inside your organization. A user might receive one attack or six. The simulation provides feedback on the nature and effects of the attack and whether the user was successful in defense of his network. 

·   Receive report indicating performance level. Each quarter the user receives a score sheet based upon how well they did in purchasing and applying resources to thwart the attacks.

To successfully complete the simulation, meeting a "commanders" goal, the user needs to score a 90 or above. As in real world situations, there is good and bad fortune associated with the simulation. A user might do very poorly in allocating his resources, yet through good fortune be subject to very few attacks, and therefore receive a final high score. On the other end of the spectrum, he might do a pretty good job in allocating the resources, yet because of numerous attacks, the ending tally would look bad. Even with perfect "known" defenses, the enemy may still slip through. The CyberProtect CD is distributed free of charge to qualified government personnel. 

The Information Security War Gaming System (ISWGS) is a tutorial type simulation that provides a more in depth focus on specific attack types and defenses. The attacks are portrayed pictorially using a multimedia package. That is, gross packet flow is shown along with specific targets and defenses.  ISWGS is also distributed free of charge to qualified government personnel from faculty at the IRM College at the National Defense university. 

Other interesting examples in this arena include Cohen's unnamed simulation [Cohen, 1999], and a number of others itemized in Modeling and Simulation for Information Assurance [Waag, 2001]. 

The simulations we have covered in this paper to this point have been aimed largely at the system administrator level. What about more macro level simulations for use by managers, who need to be concerned with other factors such as budget and staffing or for learning by individuals less familiar with the details of information security? Canned simulations provide interesting training tools, but the simulations are "locked in" when shipped. What about the user who would like to play "what if" scenarios with the simulation variables? An interesting option for simulation in this area is the "microworld" or  "management flight simulator." 

Management Flight Simulators (MFS)  

These applications are built using a System Dynamics or a Discrete Event simulation tool. System Dynamics is a technology that uses difference equations to simulate the changing state of quantities and flows through multiple time periods [Saunders, 1997]. Discrete Event simulation uses queues to control the flow of elements through a system [Law, 2000]. These simulators are built to help project managers or program directors better understand the interaction of elements, whether they are people, equipment, or dollars, both within and outside of their control, throughout the life cycle of a system. The Integrated Security Policy Model, with model sectors pictured below, was built by Graham Winch and Stephen Sturges of the University of Plymouth in England [Winch, 1996]. 

Figure4 - Integrated Security Management Flight Simulator 

The outstanding characteristic of this model and this approach is the ability to easily combine many seemingly disparate elements into one model. The purpose of this security model was to look at the overall impact of a computer fraud attack on the flow and reconstruction of organizational data, as well as its ensuing impacts on staff, customers, and the bottom line finances. The key is an analysis of "nth order effects" on the overall health of the organization. This effect is akin to a pushed line of dominos. For example the downing of a server could result in the possible loss of records, followed by a loss of customer confidence, then a loss of customers, then loss of staff, and finally the very fall of the organization itself. 

In building a MFS, both a user interface and a simulation engine are created by dragging and dropping symbols with built-in behaviors into scenarios. Once built the simulations can be replayed using different input variables. The user simply slides bars or enters new beginning values. The left diagram below portrays six sliding bar inputs, and a single output graph with several output variables displayed. The Security Policy Model allows administrators to play different roles in allocating different percentages of the IT budget to security, and then tossing the dice on possible attacks. One part of the engine in this simulation is depicted in the right image below. This sector contains items such as number of operational PCs and servers and the pressure being placed on the system to get the current workload processed. 



A significant benefit to this type of application is the ability to also change the model "on the fly." This would be akin to quickly swapping out one wing on an aircraft for another, and then immediately taking off on a test flight.  

These types of simulation models have been used extensively in a number of application areas [Saunders, 1998]. One example in the information technology arena is the Information Technology Organization Flight Simulator that was built by Professor Margaret Johnson of Stanford University after foundational work by Tarek Abdel-Hamid [1991].  This simulator allows groups to play different roles in a project-based production of computer code. Another example is one by Clark and Augustine [1980]. Their simulator demonstrated how different levels of information quality might affect a firm's overall performance. 

Another interesting simulator, the Synthetic Environments for Advanced Simulations (SEAS) was developed at Purdue. It has been utilized to war game cyber terrorist attacks and other malware incidents [Chaturvedi, 1999]. It is now sold as a commercial product called CyberMBA. 

An interesting recent development has been the emergence of the Easel Survivability Simulation from the Software Engineering Institute [Easel, 2001]. 

"Easel is a general-purpose modeling/simulation language and tool that is used to predict behavior in a seemingly uncertain world. Easel can be used to simulate systems in which there are large numbers of interacting participants (human or otherwise) that have limited knowledge of the global system properties. Such systems (where the participants in the system have limited visibility) are called unbounded and include the Internet, electric power grids, telephone systems, biological systems, the stock market, and software organizations." 

This simulation tool holds promise in that given its basic structure a wide variety of simulation types may be developed under its architecture. To this point we have covered only those types of simulation that utilize technology and provide fairly detailed activity on either the system administrator or computer security manager level. How might we better aid the learning of all participants, especially those who do not have the time to learn about the technical details of computer security? One very open option is to act out scenarios as role players. 


These types of simulations utilize no computer-based simulation. They are face to face, actor-oriented. Their purpose is to play out scenarios, more often on a national level, to gain a better understanding of the roles of different organizations and personnel in defending large-scale attacks. Examples include The Day After … in Cyberspace II [Anderson, 1997], a Presidents Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection (PCCIP) Strategic Simulation created by Booz, Allen, & Hamilton [Critical, 1997], a game played annually by Winn Swartou at the InfoWarCon Conference [InfoWarCon, 2001], Cyber War at CSI 27 [Bliss, 2000], and Dark Winter [Roberts, 2001]. Although Dark Winter is about BioTerrorism, it still conveys the type of strategic level decision-making and containment skills that would be necessary in a massive Cyber Terrorism event. 

The advantage to these types of simulations is the heavy weight upon the human variable in the InfoSec = People + Processes + Technology equation. These exercises require accurate expertise and careful planning to package a simulation that represents the workings of complex relationships either within or among the organizations that may be involved in a cyber attack and defense action. Players would include operations and information management, as well as multiple police, legal, and coordination agencies across many jurisdictional boundaries. Internal and external political factors play a heavy role in these simulations. 

Figure5 - Role Playing Exercise in Action 

Summary Comparison 

We have now looked at 5 distinct simulation types. The table below provides a synopsis of factors that might be utilized for guidance in which direction a security program manager may wish to take. 

  Role Playing "Canned"


Packet Wars Flexible Network Design Mgmt Flight Simulators
Audience General Trained in IT but not security Network Admins Researchers Gen, IT, & Secur. Mgt
Example(s) Swartou, Christy CyberProtect


IOWars, USMAv.AFA OPNET, Netrule Ithink, Powersim
Initial $ Low High- Very High High Moderate-High Moderate
Repeating $ Low Moderate - updates High Low-Moderate Low-Moderate
Time to build Hours/










Time to reset Instant Instant Days Hours Instant
Learning curve Fast Fast Moderate Slow Fast
Learning effectiveness Fair Excellent Excellent Good Good
Level of detail Poor Fair Excellent Good Good

Types of Simulations - a comparison

Formal Simulation Models 

As in many other areas where there is chaos in growth, there is a need for the community to come together on representational formalisms for the security arena to progress. Such agreements exist in the simulation realm, such as the DEVS Formalism, the Systems Dynamics method and State Space/Petri Net Modeling [Moitra, 2000]. But conceptual agreement in the security arena is still very much in debate [Denning, 1999]. Often however this debate is about provably correct systems, that is finding a way to test low level relationships to guarantee "fail safe" operation. 

On a different level though, and perhaps as a base, security professionals would benefit through a larger understanding of basic concepts in modeling such as levels of abstraction, logical versus physical entities, objects attributes, and scripting. To this end Tanner et al at Mitre have created a rough simulation class hierarchy [Tanner, 2001]. 


The purpose of this paper has not been to examine all the issues with respect to using modeling and simulation as a tool. Common criticisms with modeling include "garbage in, garbage out", the absence the "right" variables, and the difficulty in modeling human behavior. Modeling is not a perfect science but it is an effective method for visualizing and communicating concepts that are complex and amorphous. In this regard it should be considered more seriously by the information security community for capturing the essence of the challenges of the field. And to this point a number of simulations have been presented. While the sources of these simulations sprout from considerably disparate genesis, each type presents a distinct benefit to the community. Hopefully this paper has provided an entrée into a better understanding of both what is available and what may be possible.


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[1] Joint Warfare System, Network Warfare Simulation, Joint Simulation System