Cyber security professionals will compete over the next few days to prove their capabilities in the QinetiQ Network Defence competition, as the Cyber Security Challenge gets into full swing.

The virtual stage of the QinetiQ Network Defence competition and the SANS Packet Capture Analysis competition begin today and test both the ability of cyber enthusiasts to identify vulnerabilities in IT networks and protect systems exposed to simulated cyber attacks.

The Network Defence competition requires candidates to critique a technology network or design a completely new one from scratch, against a brief that is typical of those given to security professionals. The SANS Packet Capture Analysis is a brand new competition that tests candidates' digital forensics skills; asking them to investigate technology networks, spot irregularities and highlight the activities of network users that are putting the whole system at risk.

To complete the Packet Capture Analysis test, competitors will be presented with a file containing data captured from a theoretical computer network and a piece of analysis software called Wireshark. They will be scored on their ability to answer questions on the data they are presented with, and the time they take to complete the competition.

Charles Hodgson, director of the Network Defence competition at QinetiQ, said: “We are not just looking for technically competent people. The skills we are testing with these competitions are in demand across the whole sector right now, especially in areas like penetration testing, digital investigations, information assurance consultancy, network administration and development of cyber strategy.”

Terry Neal, EMEA director at SANS Institute, said: “Whilst this initial stage is aimed at the intermediate players you find in college and universities, we believe these games can inspire a group of already proficient amateur talent to focus their further education and career development down this particular path.”

The winners from both of these competitions will take their place in the next round of the Cyber Security Challenge programme, where successful candidates are brought together for a series of in-person face-offs at the start of next year.

Successful candidates in the Network Defence competition will be invited to one of QinetiQ's secure facilities to work in teams to defend networks against a series of realistic cyber attacks thrown at them by QinetiQ's experts. For the SANS winners, the Sophos Malware Hunt awaits, where they will need to assess and nullify a range of real malicious codes from the vaults at Sophos Labs, in a bid to prevent data theft and system failure.