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NEWS | Sept. 6, 2018

SSC Atlantic’s CERF Lab trains employees for less

By Maison Piedfort Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command

Since its grand opening a little more than a year ago, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SSC) Atlantic’s Cyber Education and Certification Readiness Facility (CERF) Lab is building a more technically proficient workforce and earning accolades for creativity, cost savings and training effectiveness. 

The CERF Lab is a collaborative training environment that provides fast-paced, hands-on, in-house training on cyber, networks, routing and operating systems for job enhancement and to prepare employees for various information technology (IT) certification exams. Instructors use current vendor and in-house-developed curriculum and classes include networking and cybersecurity, as well as courses focused on tools like Linux, Red Hat, Juniper and Cisco. 

The CERF Lab was assembled and furnished with government equipment which had been designated for the Defense Reutilization Management Office versus a commercial off-the-shelf product. The lab contains workstations for 14 students and includes a total of 170 laptops and personal computers, 54 servers, 84 routers and 315 switches. This allows for plenty of gear to cover the needs of the lab, which includes providing each workstation with two to three computers, shipping gear to other CERF Lab locations and storing gear as backup equipment in case the reused equipment should fail. This reused government equipment represents a total cost avoidance of $1,100,000 if purchased new.

Because agencies sending students to outside classes must also cover the costs of travel and per diem, it’s much cheaper to send students to the classroom next door instead. The cost to attend in-person trainings for network training and exam preparation is roughly $2,000-$3,500 per person per class. In the last year, the CERF Lab conducted 17 week-long classes with 236 students, yielding a cost savings of roughly $600,000 for a grand total of $1.7 million in cost avoidance to the command. 

“We’re a dynamic IT lab focused on providing our employees with practical training on networks in a safe environment and with real equipment,” said Fred Bisel, scientist and Cisco Academy instructor. 

Some employees take CERF Lab courses to prepare for certification testing, while others take courses to become more well-rounded employees. 

“I’m a hardware guy, so when the software guys came in to do their thing, I was lost — and then intrigued,” said technician Michael Fortuna. “That’s when I decided to take the introduction to networks class.”

Students also get the benefit of networking with coworkers assigned to various projects, which is often absent in private, third-party training. 

“I’ll have people meet in class and say, ‘I just met someone in your class who I’ve been emailing for years!’” said Bisel. “It’s pretty cool to see people come together.”

Finally, a crucial benefit students enjoy with in-house training is safety. 

“Here students know they’re safe. They know that if they mess something up, it’s not going to cost anyone a million dollars to fix,” said Bisel, who likened the lab to a risk-free playground for learning networks. “Ultimately, that freedom to play makes for more nuanced learning,” said Bisel. 

The CERF Lab directly contributes to SSC Atlantic’s technical growth area of cybersecurity.

“Programs like CERF are key in building a more technically proficient and certified workforce,” said SSC Atlantic Commanding Officer Capt. Scott Heller. “They saved money by building it from the ground up with refurbished equipment and, ultimately, they’re saving warfighter lives by ensuring they’ve got the back-end proficiency covered.”

In the future, the CERF Lab plans to provide video teleconference broadcasts and remote site equipment access for SSC Atlantic employees outside Charleston. The New Orleans and Hampton Roads sites are in the process of establishing CERF Lab at their respective campuses.

SSC Atlantic provides systems engineering and acquisition to deliver information warfare capabilities to the naval, joint and national warfighter through the acquisition, development, integration, production, test, deployment, and sustainment of interoperable Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Cyber and Information Technology capabilities.