Since passing my OSCP exam a few weeks ago I've
been debating whether to add to the vastness of reviews on the PWK course and OSCP exam. It, however, feels
like a right of passage; so here goes.
is the PWK course, I hear you ask. To quote from Offensive
with Kali (PWK) is a self-paced online pen testing course
designed for network administrators and security professionals who want to take
a serious and meaningful step into the world of professional penetration testing.”
It is marketed as an foundational course.
Whilst this is correct in the grand scheme of things, don't let this fool you.
It isn't “foundational” like many other courses with such branding; it is a
course that will ensure you really understand
and can effectively use the tools,
techniques and theory that you are taught. This includes research and thinking
creatively to work round problems.
did I do it?
There are two reasons.
First, I had heard of the course, many others
in the community raving about how good it is, and that people were saying it
was awesome. When someone states
something is awesome you may be inclined to think they are over-rating a course
that they enjoyed; but when so many people in the community, some of which I
know, were telling similar stories; well that is a pattern that cannot be
Second, a more practical reason. Since I've
left my job at a well known global telco I wanted to switch from a core
infrastructure troubleshooter of last resort to a full time pen tester /
security researcher. Whilst I had several SANS certifications such as GXPN,
GPEN, etc, recruiters and companies in the UK were not particularly interested
in them, but instead OSCP and CREST. CREST was very expensive. As I'm self
funded with no income, both this and the reviews of OSCP meant OSCP was the way
do you get?
In addition to the expected course PDF and lots
of video, you get access to what is probably the biggest plus for the course;
access to a lab with in excess of 50 hosts across a number of networks. This
lab has a whole range of challenges, from different operating systems to
applications, designed to practice everything the course aims to teach you.
There are rumours that a Solaris box lurks in the shadows.
Think of the PDF course as a solid and
well-written step-by-step guide and the lab as the “now you know the
principles, go pwn all the boxes”.
You can book lab time in 30, 60 or 90 day
blocks. Each comes with an exam attempt.
The PDF has a number of exercises for you to
do. Some are independent of the labs, some aren't. When it comes to the labs
you are not given that much help (unless you really need it); it is a case of you need to figure out where and what
is the vulnerability and how to exploit it; just like in real life.
If after, to quote their catchphrase you have “Tried
Harder” but still need help, the OffSec admins will give you hints if asked.
The forums, where other students can be found, will give you more obvious
hints. Though the admins will edit out any “spoilers” that a student may
inadvertently add. You won't get the answer; that is for you to figure out.
After all, if you want to be a penetration tester, this is a key attribute you
need to have.
In the exam though; you will get no hints.
When doing the exercises and the labs it is
good to document them. If you document all of the required exercises and ten
lab boxes in a penetration test report (there is a template), you can
potentially get an extra five bonus points for each towards the exam mark for a
total of ten bonus points.
I would strongly recommend you write this
report, and before your exam. You
don't want to be worrying about that as well during the report writing phase of
The OSCP exam consists of a 23 hour 45 minute
block of time to achieve a number of objectives within the exam network; which
includes obtaining the proof.txt file in a shell for a number of targets (with
evidence and recording of this in the appropriate form) proving you have admin
rights. There can be other objectives for the targets such as a local.txt for
an unprivileged shell.
You then have a further 24 hours to write the
report and submit it in the required format (mandatory); along with the lab and
exercise report (optional; which you did prior to the exam, didn't you).
All this is documented on the Offsec website;
details of what I had in my exam (specifics) are under an NDA. See the exam guide for more info.
am I ready for the exam?
OffSec are deliberately non-prescriptive on
this since “it depends”.
They do recommend that you should get all the
lab boxes except the “big three” of pain, sufferance and humble; at which point
you should have the minimum necessary for the exam, but that is no guarantee.
My view is that if you get all the main lab boxes and complete the exercises in
the PDF you have covered all the key areas so should have the skills necessary,
but; see my hints and tips later.
For me, I came from a non-pentesting role,
despite my SANS certs. My expectation was that networks and systems level stuff
would be relatively easier than the web app stuff, since it is in the
infrastructure level stuff that my previous experience is at. Most of my
application level experience involved
the services rather than the apps (e.g. Java JVM analysis/tuning). Also, in my
day job I had all the keys to start with so would need to improve that “black
box” approach to systems.
The result, some web app targets I would
initially spend a couple of days to root whereas pain and sufferance were
straightforward (privilege escalation including the recon was less than 15
minutes on one of them).
So I guess what I'm trying to say is that we
all have different backgrounds and experiences. Something that is easy for some
of us will be hard for others and visa-versa. Find your weaknesses and focus on
those but don't neglect any area. Use the course PDF and labs as a guide to
assess and practice those skills.
did I do?
I took the 90-day lab option. I also took a
couple of weeks off about half way through to recharge; you cannot “pause” the
lab time but I felt a gap was important.
Once I had all of the labs boxes bar a small
number I booked the exam for a months time. This meant the exam was a few days
prior to the end of the lab. I figured if I failed the exam I could then extend
the lab without interruption. Others may take a different approach.
I then spent the first two weeks writing the
lab and exercise report for the bonus points; including re-testing the approach
in the lab from a clean target to ensure a reliable exploit and that the
process documented was correct. In some cases I simplified the approach as my
initial success was more convoluted than needed.
After that, up to the exam, I used the lab time
to finish off the lab boxes I hadn't got (or had only got via Metasploit) and
then redid between 3 and 6 per day without looking at the machine specific
notes I had. This gave me a lot more confidence heading into the exam;
especially when I was finding other ways in and doing all in a good time
(sufficient that if they were exam boxes I would have passed).
In the UK it looks like the earliest exam time
you can book is at 10:00 (BST), so I went for that.
So, exam day comes after a reasonable sleep the
night before. I get up and have a few hours before it starts, I try to take
things easy and not rush anything; chill out as best I can.
10:00 the exam starts and the emails duly
arrive from OffSec. I set up the VPN, connect and read the exam objectives I
have been given. Each objective has a points value and you need a total of 70
out of 100 to pass (did I mention there are potentially 10 further bonus points
for the lab / exercise report).
I notice one of the high value objectives is a
very strong area for me but may take a bit of time, so for the next two hours I
focus on that one whilst performing some background recon on the others.
Once that is in the bag I go for lunch, during
which time the first problem occurs. A power blackout!!! Arrrrgh. I shall not
quote the words that came out of my mouth.
Fortunately this only lasted just over five
minutes, which meant my UPS was able to handle the issue (the perils living in
a rural location). Time to get my blood pressure back under control and relax
for the rest of my lunch.
I then spend the next hour and a bit on a low
value target and getting a low priv shell on another. Time for another rest.
It is another 4.5 hours before I get my next
success. Cycling through the remaining targets doing a bit of analysis until I
feel I'm not making progress and moving on; then I suddenly spot the way to
escalate privs on the one with the low priv shell. Yey; I am root. Time for
Back from dinner it is then not until 21:01
that I get low priv on my next target. Hint. If you think that you have tried
something and it should have worked, retry it very carefully. You may find that you could have avoided wasting
some precious time.
21:19 and I now have root. Yey. Time to take
I now have the final target that has been
teasing me for most of the exam. However, I can now focus on this one;
02:21 and I get low-priv. My mistake - OSCP is
a foundational course so you appreciate that the solutions are easy (once you
know how); this doesn't mean that if something appears complicated it is.
Then 03:04 I finally get root on the last box.
Final root dance.
It ain't over yet.
Whilst I still have access to the exam network,
I review all the objectives and make sure I have met them, submitted my proofs
and have all the information I need for the report. Circa 03:30 I can now
finally make a direct b-line for the bed and don't need to worry if I
The next day, or should that be later that day,
I get up knowing that I now need to write the report; as no report = no pass.
As I've already written the lab and exercise
report I only need to do the same for the exam objectives. I can afford to take
my time and not rush things. Once written I can re-read it then update until
I'm happy that it is up to an acceptable standard for submission.
I submit the report later that day and get
confirmation from OffSec at 17:48 they have received it. At 19:47 the following
day I get the results.
are happy to inform you that you have successfully completed the Penetration
Testing with Kali Linux certification exam and have obtained your Offensive
Security Certified Professional (OSCP) certification.”
Read the other reviews out there. Collectively
they paint a good picture about what to expect from the course and exam and
hopefully you'll find at least one that is a good match for your background and
Remember this is a foundational course; so the “way
in” is going to be straightforward. You still need to find it, but don't need
to write a 0day or anything close to that.
If you are writing a 0day or similar it is
probably a rabbit hole.
Don't over-think things.
If it is too obvious to be the way-in; it might
be the way in.
Whilst not required to take the exam, getting
all the lab boxes except the “big three” is a good measure as to whether you
are ready; though there are no guarantees.
Did I mention there are bonus points for the
lab / exercise report. Writing this before the exam removes the pressure of
being just short of passing and having to write that report in addition to the
exam report in the 24 hour report period you have.
If you need to seek out help to get a lab box,
figure out how you could have done things differently so as to avoid needing
that help. Avoid if possible being too specific for that particular target.
Remember; there are no hints on the exam.
Document everything; a searchable reference
other than Google may come in handy.
Take regular breaks. Aim to spend no more than
two hours at a time on the computer. You need to recharge, rest, relax to aid
in concentration. This is a 24 hour exam after all.
Plan meals, etc beforehand so you only have to
think about the exam on the exam day.
Try not to panic or stress out. If you are
stuck or struggling take a time-out or move on to another target and re-visit
that one at a later date. That distraction can lead to a eureka moment or allow
you to re-focus on that problem when you return to it.
Read g0tmi1k's article for 'alpha' on the PWK
forum (contains spoilers; so perhaps not straight away but certainly before the
exam). Focus more on the strategy and approach he uses and think about how you
can apply that to the other lab boxes and the exam boxes.
If you don't pass the first time don't give up.
Know that many people have been there before, have come so close, but not let
this stop them. If you feel like it, blog about it and how you dealt with it.
This is something missing from most reviews that several people have stated
would have helped.
…. and finally; beware, penetration testing
comes in red pills and is highly addictive.
I can safely say that the PWK course and even
the OSCP exam were some of the most enjoyable I've experienced (how often can
you say you have thoroughly enjoyed an exam?).
What I especially like is that it is designed
to get you to think for yourself. The exam tests this; and in my view is vastly
more valuable than an exam that tests whether you can remember the exact switch
or option to a command that you would normally just look up if you didn't know.
Well, I was thinking covfefe ….. er CTP/OSCE. I
got bored waiting for the PWK course to start so had a go at the
pre-registration challenge and liked it. I start in a few days.