When you really want to master cyber security concepts, nothing beats hands-on practice. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Not everyone can fork over loads of cash to buy enterprise routers, switches, WAPs, and servers to learn advanced networking. We are also certain your neighbors won’t be too happy with you practicing your hacking techniques on their home wifi.
Fortunately, there are many excellent labs available to you, both free and paid, to allow you to play with these different concepts in a safe, isolated, and inexpensive environment.
Whether you want to defend and secure a real system, hack a website, or just master the fine art of building a large-scale functioning network, there are labs for you.
We’ve compiled a list that provides everything you need to gain the hands-on skills necessary for cyber security wherever you are on your journey.
If you’re ready to see the best labs available, read on to explore the options.
Benefits of Cyber Security Labs
Why would you want to use labs anyway? Cyber security requires more than knowing threats, tools, and exploits. It demands real-world skills.
These labs provide safe environments to experiment, test techniques, and make mistakes without consequences.
Practicing in a simulated environment can develop the hands-on abilities crucial for cyber security work. The labs enable you to move beyond conceptual knowledge and gain practical experience.
Cloud-Based vs. Laptop Labs
When we discuss labs, we generally put them into two distinct categories—cloud-based and laptop labs.
Cloud-based labs are hosted on a server and provided to you generally at a cost. These labs can be instantly spun up as needed and accessed online. This provides flexibility to practice hands-on skills anytime, from anywhere.
Laptop labs, on the other hand, are labs you build out yourself at home, usually in a virtual environment, using software such as VirtualBox or VMware.
Laptop labs can often be set up with free or relatively low-cost software. However, the hardware (your laptop or PC) must have sufficient processing power, memory, and storage to handle the virtualized environments.
These laptop labs can also provide you with skills such as installing operating systems, configuring networks, and managing virtual machines.
Network Simulation Labs
Network simulation labs allow you to design, test, and simulate different network configurations and analyze and test network performance using various conditions. These labs help you understand core routing and switching principles, gain proficiency in configuring routers/switches, practice network builds without affecting production systems, and prepare you for working with live networking equipment.
Cisco Packet Tracer
Cisco Packet Tracer is a powerful network simulation software available for free download when you sign up for a Cisco Packet Tracer course. You only need to enroll in the short “Getting Started with Cisco Packet Tracer” course to download the latest version.
Packer Tracer provides powerful network modeling, visualization, configuration, and more. It enables you to simulate network infrastructure and practice skills such as network configuration and troubleshooting using your computer without buying expensive networking equipment.
With Packet Tracer, you can design and test IP addressing schemes, configure wireless access points, and set up IoT devices. This allows you to create a simulated smart home environment with components like a smart thermostat and smoke detector. Additionally, you can observe data flowing across the network in real time and analyze packet information
As a versatile learning tool, Packet Tracer is ideal for anyone pursuing a career in cyber security or expanding their technical skills. It provides fundamental networking skills that are traditionally hard to obtain without practical experience.
Packet Tracer enables users at any level to learn how to configure and troubleshoot networks effectively.
Check out our CompTIA Network+ Cheat Sheet (Updated for Latest Exam)
The network emulator known as GNS3, or Graphical Network Simulator 3, enables you to create and customize virtual networks. Drag and drop routers, switches, firewalls, and other network devices to build complex network topologies.
GNS3 is a free, open-source network simulation tool. You’ll need an account to download the software by visiting the registration page. Once that’s complete, you can head to the download page and download the appropriate package for your operating system.
GNS3's primary advantage is that it enables you to test configurations and hone skills without needing pricey physical equipment. GNS3 provides high realism for lab environments by simulating network devices' boot processes and operating systems like Cisco and Juniper routers and switches.
Despite being free and open source, the GNS3 software still requires users to supply operating system images for the virtual devices. You need a current Cisco IOS license to use Cisco images. However, GNS3 provides a GNS3 VM with a few devices already set up, so you can get going.
GNS3 offers flexible network lab resources for students, IT professionals, certification candidates, and anyone looking to experiment with network configurations and protocols. It is an extremely valuable tool for learning and honing practical networking skills.
Cyber Security Fundamentals Labs
Cyber security fundamental labs provide the skills to understand cyber security's core concepts and tools. This can involve understanding how to use Linux (an operating system heavily used in cyber security) and learning how to write and comprehend basic bash and Python scripts.
Developing these core skills will introduce you to the essential knowledge and techniques required for an entry-level cyber security role.
The online interactive labs and challenges below are excellent tools for building these core cyber security skills. These practical learning platforms will help you gain fundamental knowledge, a crucial step before moving on to more advanced learning.
Through engaging, interactive games, the OverTheWire community's free “wargames” can assist you in learning and practicing cyber security concepts.
The games are categorized by subject and degree of difficulty. Some concentrate on low-level programming, system administration, network protocols, and Linux commands.
Others teach you how to crack passwords, identify weaknesses, and exploit bugs. Each game begins at level zero, and to advance to the next, progressively harder level, you must complete the previous one. This structure enables you to start with fundamentals and work up to more sophisticated techniques.
OverTheWire emphasizes self-directed learning. The games intentionally provide minimal guidance, pushing you to research, experiment, and consult write-ups when stuck. This teaches vital cyber security skills in independent problem-solving.
Check Out These Cyber Security Articles.
JetBrains' free, web-based Python lab, Python Principles, is ideal for learning Python through hands-on coding. The interactive lessons explain fundamental programming concepts like data types and functions. Coding exercises after each lesson allow you to practice the new skills.
Python Principles provides interactive learning to build proficiency by coupling instruction with challenges. This combination of lessons and applied exercises teaches Python concepts and practical coding skills.
Beginning with the fundamentals and progressing to more advanced features like tuples, objects, and methods, Python Principles focuses on practical skills. The interactive browser-based format provides an engaging learning environment.
The wide range of practice problems and challenges helps students develop the fundamental programming skills and problem-solving strategies necessary for careers in cyber security.
Blue Team Cyber Security Labs
Blue Team labs allow you to practice the defensive side of cyber security.
You can investigate PCAP files or perform security operations, incident response, digital forensics, or reverse engineering.
These lab resources will give you the skills you need to pursue a career in cyber security as a SOC analyst, malware analyst, forensic investigator, or even a security engineer.
Blue Team Labs Online
- Free and Pro subscriptions
PRO subscription pricing:
- 1 Month: £15 ($18.91 USD)
- 3 Months: £40.50 ($51.07 USD)
- 6 Months: £76.50 ($96.47 USD)
- 1 Year: £144 ($181.58 USD)
Blue Team Labs is an online interactive platform that helps you improve your blue team skills through hands-on labs. It offers investigations and challenges for learning things like system hardening, network defense, log analysis, digital forensics, incident response, and more.
The platform makes learning fun using a gamified system akin to Hack the Box (discussed below). You solve investigation labs based on real-world scenarios, helping you get better at spotting threats, looking for vulnerabilities, and mitigating security issues in a safe environment. Achievements, ranks, and leaderboards make the labs more interesting.
Blue Team Labs has free content and paid PRO subscriptions that start at £15 ($18.91 USD) per month. PRO gives you access to the library of more than 129 virtual investigations covering core subjects. For team training, there are also plans for businesses.
Blue Team Labs provides an effective way to build real-world defensive cyber security skills through hands-on exercises. The interactive platform aims to develop proficiency in the demanding abilities required of blue teams.
- Free - Access to downloadable "challenges" needing local setup.
- Pro - Unlimited access to premium "labs" hosted in the cloud and accessible via browser.
- Monthly $20
- Yearly $200
Through simulated labs and challenges, CyberDefenders offers an online platform for building blue team skills. The labs provide a great user experience, and premium labs hosted in the cloud are accessible from any location using a browser.
The content is up-to-date and current in various areas, such as digital forensics, threat hunting, and malware analysis. The interactive simulation labs enhance your skills through realistic practice in blue team areas.
CyberDefenders uses gamification with leaderboards, ranks, badges, and titles as users demonstrate skills.
Downloadable "Challenges" that require VM setup are free and provide you with a laptop lab environment. The premium cloud-based section, "Labs," is only available with a Pro subscription.
These labs and challenges are designed to cultivate the hands-on skills required for defensive security roles like SOC analyst. The simulated scenarios equip you with experience in core responsibilities, including threat hunting, intrusion detection, vulnerability analysis, forensic investigation, and incident response.
Downloadable PCAP Files
Analyzing PCAP (packet capture) files from public sources is a great way to practice core blue team skills using real attack data in a laptop lab. PCAPs record network traffic, which can be loaded into Wireshark to study threats like malware and unauthorized access.
Public PCAP sites share files containing labeled anomalies. This allows practicing detection and response without access to live networks. Analyzing PCAPs builds vital skills for security roles, like identifying suspicious activity and tracing it back to the source.
You can load PCAPs into home labs to test threat hunting abilities. This helps validate analytical processes and assumptions.
The diversity of real PCAPs from actual attacks improves pattern recognition and intuition for malicious traffic. Practicing detection with PCAPs hones threat analysis skills essential for security operations.
See Our Wireshark Articles.
Red Team Cyber Security Labs
Red Team labs allow you to practice your skills from an offensive position. This is generally known as hacking or penetration testing. You hone your skills by learning how to perform testing on networks, websites, databases, and email servers or by exploiting common vulnerabilities.
The skills you obtain by using these labs give you the hands-on experience you need to pursue a career in offensive security.
Hack The Box
- Regular Membership - Free
- VIP Membership - $14/Month or $135/Year
- VIP Plus: $20/Month or $203/Year
- Pro Labs: $49/Month or $490/Year
Hack The Box is an online cloud-based platform that allows you to practice your skills as a hacker or penetration tester.
The machines provided range in complexity from easy to insane and cover various attack methods. The machines can either be Linux or Windows-based. These can include common exploits, insecure services, unpatched systems, web app hacking, and more.
When completing a machine, your goal is to capture two flags. One is the “user” flag, and the second is the “system” flag, which can be found by performing either Linux privilege escalation or Windows privilege escalation.
Advanced students and professionals can access Pro Labs and Endgames, which offer a realistic and cutting-edge penetration testing environment that mimics corporate networks in the real world.
Pro Labs is a realistic and immersive environment where you are challenged by multiple machines, simulated users, and sophisticated infrastructure to break into an enterprise-level network. Each completed Pro Lab comes with a certificate of completion.
VulnHub is a platform with numerous VMs (Virtual Machines) that you download and install on your system, either on VirtualBox or VMWare.
These machines enable you to practice your red team skills by exploiting various services such as websites, databases, and email servers. Systems similar to those that hackers might encounter in the real world can be attacked and compromised safely and legally.
We offer specific walkthroughs for installing Kali Linux on VirtualBox or VMware Workstation virtual environments if you want a pre-made hacking virtual machine to stage your attacks. Follow our guides for easy step-by-step instructions.
OWASP Juice Shop
OWASP Juice Shop is a web app pentesting lab that mimics an e-commerce store with all the features you would expect to see but with many, many vulnerabilities.
You will encounter vulnerabilities based on the OWASP top ten, a list of the most critical web application security risks, such as injection, broken authentication, and sensitive data exposure.
Juice Shop is intentionally designed to feel like a game, with challenges, achievements, and a scoreboard. As you find and exploit vulnerabilities, you unlock achievements. The challenges are rated with a difficulty level between one and six stars.
You have many options to run OWASP Juice Shop. In addition to being offered as a packaged distribution for Windows, MacOS, and Linux, it can be run in a Docker container or even hosted on a cloud platform. It can be easily installed in Kali with the command:
sudo apt install juice-shop
Do you need help deciding between a red or blue team pathway?
See our article: Red Team vs Blue Team: Which Is the Best Choice for You?
As you can see, there are many types of cyber security labs. Whether you are looking for networking, fundamentals, blue team, or red team labs, our list provides various ways to practice these essential hands-on skills.
These labs provide a safe space to develop essential cyber security skills through practice. You can strengthen your critical thinking, technical abilities, and problem-solving by detecting, defending, and attacking.
Hands-on application is key for building proficiency. Cyber security requires more than conceptual knowledge - it demands the practical skills to assess threats, harden defenses, and identify vulnerabilities.