Red team vs. blue team cybersecurity: what’s the difference?

| By:
Drew Sanford

Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, and Lebron James. What do they all have in common? 

The numerous championship titles, majors, or Super Bowl rings are the obvious answer, but there’s something else underlying all their success: practice.

Much like sports, when it comes to cybersecurity, your team has no chance of being prepared without practice. A key practice equivalent in the cybersecurity world is red team cybersecurity and blue team cybersecurity. These terms and roles are vital to the success of your clients’ cybersecurity protection.

But what are they, exactly? How do they operate and help MSPs with their work? Read on to learn all that and more.

What is a red team in cybersecurity?

Sports are an excellent analogy for this subject. Not only do they illustrate the need for practice, but they can help us further break down the concept of red team cybersecurity vs. blue team cybersecurity as separate sides of the same “game.”

In most sporting events, both teams need to play offense and defense. To better understand what red team security is, you may want to think of them as the offense. The role of this team is to launch coordinated penetration attacks to test the strength and coverage of an overall security system. 

An IT professional will assume the role of attackers or threat actors to see what loopholes or vulnerabilities could pose a major threat by being exploited during a real-world attack. The goal here is not to hold anything back. Successful red team and blue team operations require the “practice attacks” to mimic what would occur in the real world as closely as possible. 

For that reason, many organizations choose not to use internal staff to test their own system with red team and blue team cybersecurity drills. Companies will hire an outside consultant or third-party vendor to “attack” their system in several different ways. In doing so, they’re not only testing a system, but they’re also testing the employees’ ability to conduct themselves safely and securely as they perform daily operations on their individual end terminals.

Here are a few of the main attack types red team members will employ when testing systems:

  • Phishing attacks. These help to test the cybersecurity training of your clients’ non-IT staff. They’ll be made aware of any cybersecurity exposure on the human level, as well as within your email system.
  • Social engineering. These are attacks that play on your clients’ team members' psychology or emotional response. While phishing falls under this category, it may also include more targeted attacks like spear phishing, vishing, whaling, baiting, and more.
  • Employee impersonation. Some attacks will come from threat actors who pretend to be employees within the organization. The goal of these attacks is to obtain admin access to sensitive files and information. If not stopped quickly, these types of attacks can be particularly devastating.

By launching these varied attacks, red teams play an integral role in testing the functionality of your clients’ cybersecurity strategy. The data and intel red team exercises provide go a long way toward preventing future data breaches and adequately equipping your clients’ overall system.

What is a blue team in cybersecurity?

If the red team is the offense, think of the blue team as the defense of the red and blue team cybersecurity scenario. Their role is to respond to the attacks launched by the red team.

As the red team launches their attacks, the blue team should be working to strengthen defenses and take whatever steps necessary to enhance incident response. This means they’re responsible for responding to red team attacks, but they also need to handle much more.

The blue team is tasked with constantly strengthening the overall cybersecurity posture for your clients. In addition to defending against the red team attacks, blue team members also need to remain ever-vigilant of unusual or suspicious activity.

To do this effectively, blue team cybersecurity squads will employ one or more of the following tools:

  • Log and memory analysis. IT staff will analyze the information contained in system memory dumps. They will look at volatile data and use memory forensics techniques to identify attacks that may not leave a trace on hard drive data like traditional attacks.
  • PCAP. Short for packet capture, PCAP is a method of using third-party API software to capture packets of data as they enter a network or system. These collections of system traffic data offer valuable insight into file analysis and network monitoring.
  • Risk intelligence data analysis. As time goes on and more attacks are attempted on your clients’ systems, you should be assembling a running library of risk intelligence. Informed threat intelligence based on hard evidence and actionable insights can better position your team to respond to threats and protect your clients’ company assets.
  • Digital footprint analysis. As organizations conduct business, visit websites and share things online, they begin to leave a digital “paper trail.” Members of your blue cybersecurity team will examine this online footprint and see what steps can be taken to minimize its size and exposure.
  • DDoS testing. In addition to red team cybersecurity attacks, the blue team will also run tests against typical DDoS threats. Typically, these are 4 or 7-layer attacks conducted to test the resilience of a network’s service availability.
  • Developing risk scenarios. Part of a blue team’s cybersecurity defense is identifying the specifics of potential attack scenarios. Developing detailed descriptions of possible future IT events can be critical in helping you protect your clients from future breaches or interruptions of service.
  • Reverse engineering. History is the best teacher. Data from previous attacks, or even reviewing case studies of attacks in similar industries, should be part of any robust protection plan. Reviewing past events and asking what went wrong or what could be done better is essential for improving cybersecurity measures.
  • Security audits. Regularly scheduled, detailed audits of your clients’ systems help you take a proactive role in their cybersecurity. Routine maintenance tasks like DNS audits ensure the security of data packets being passed back and forth through the system. With so many outside threat actors to worry about, conducting these standard protocols is crucial to ensure your team’s energy and resources are used in the best way possible.

Proper blue team cybersecurity helps MSPs gain a holistic cybersecurity perspective. Seeing what loopholes and vulnerabilities your red team can exploit is just one piece of the puzzle. Threat detection and threat response are just as important – if not more important – and blue team cybersecurity measures help strengthen your clients’ systems to that end. 

What are the differences between red team and blue team security?

For red team and blue team cybersecurity efforts to be effective, they need to work together. Both teams are different and view the overall cybersecurity infrastructure through their own unique lens. Together, they both play pivotal roles in strengthening cybersecurity systems at large.

While red team cybersecurity is focused on offense and exposing cybersecurity vulnerabilities and loopholes, blue team measures are focused on constant monitoring and protection. The blue team’s continuous monitoring is valuable for the long-term strength and health of the system and making sure defenses remain strong.

Although valuable in determining vulnerabilities, the red team doesn’t have the same holistic view. The loopholes and exposures they discover within a client’s system are critical for informing the blue team’s defense strategy. Still, the red team only operates from a current, “present-moment” view of a company’s cybersecurity measures.

What skills do red and blue cybersecurity teams need?

Since both teams provide their own unique perspective to your clients’ overall cybersecurity, it would stand to reason that each team requires its own set of skills to be effective. 

Red team members should be able to:

  • Leverage knowledge of software development to develop custom tools effective in infiltrating standard cybersecurity measures.
  • Call on previous experience with penetration testing that enables them to test more “under the radar” threat actor TTPs that aren’t normally detected or defended against.
  • Create clever social engineering attack scenarios that mimic the psychological/emotional manipulation non-IT team members may face in real-world attacks.
  • Use their familiarity with computer systems, as well as common security protocols and safeguards, to keep the blue team “on their toes.”

Since members of the blue team are approaching cybersecurity from a completely different angle, effective blue team members should be able to:

  • Take a holistic, bird’s-eye view of the company’s entire security strategy. Their focus should be on people as well as tools.
  • Identify and prioritize threat responses accordingly.
  • Prevent phishing, DNS, and other popular attacks using hardening techniques.
  • Show proficiency in monitoring and coordinating the organization’s current cybersecurity tools and threat alerts.

Although both red and blue cybersecurity teams possess their own skills and do their own jobs, cybersecurity is most effective when they work together.


What is a purple team?

When red team and blue teams come together to provide an airtight blanket of cybersecurity, this is known as a purple team.

Occasionally, organizations may hire a third-party IT firm to run red team and blue team cybersecurity exercises. If that’s the case, these outside threat actors may not completely inform internal red or blue teams of the TTPs they’ll use during the exercises. As a result, red and blue cybersecurity teams need to combine forces to ward off the attacks of an outside party. This unified front, or blending of red and blue efforts, forms a purple cybersecurity team.

When should you run red and blue team cybersecurity exercises?

Red team and blue team cybersecurity exercises should be scheduled regularly. Many cybersecurity attacks and threats go undetected for a long time – much longer than they should. 

Research shows the average dwell time for threat actors is on the rise. This means your clients’ network infrastructure or sensitive customer data can be exposed more than long enough for hackers to take advantage. 

By allowing hackers to remain in a system this long, you may be allowing them to create multiple backdoors into the system or other points of access. Red, blue, and even purple team cybersecurity efforts are essential in preventing these damaging IT events before they start.

Why do MSPs need red and blue teams for cybersecurity?

Managed service providers (MSPs) should be leveraging red and blue team cybersecurity measures to ensure the best service possible for clients. Not only do regularly scheduled red vs. blue team exercises strengthen security, but they also minimize your team’s workload as an MSP. 

By running red vs. blue team exercises, you engage in proactive security measures. Loopholes, vulnerabilities, and dwell times will be minimal, and threat response will be well-equipped to stop attacks and breaches before they cause significant damage. As an MSP, you’ll be left with happy, protected clients and a happy internal staff who’s not overworked and can devote their time and energy to the most important tasks.

Cybersecurity’s most valuable players

Red team cybersecurity and blue team cybersecurity are essential parts of your overall IT framework. Done correctly, your clients can leverage red and blue team exercises to increase threat response, better protect your digital assets, and proactively manage your organization’s network protection. And, as an MSP, satisfied clients are the surest way of winning yourself more business.

Want to learn more? Check out our cybersecurity management cheat sheet for more information or contact a ConnectWise representative today.


What is the role of the red team in cybersecurity?

The red team’s goal is to expose any potential vulnerabilities or loopholes in an organization’s cybersecurity by thinking like a threat actor. Their goal is to launch ethical cyber-attacks that mimic those seen in the real world in an effort to boost the organization’s cybersecurity.

What is the role of the blue team in cybersecurity?

The blue team’s goal is to secure and strengthen an organization’s cybersecurity defenses. They are responsible for responding to the threats launched by the red team, constantly monitoring long-term cybersecurity protocols, and improving overall threat response