If you spend any time at all on Reddit or forums for information security students, you’ll find dozens of questions about preparing for the Penetration Testing with Kali Linux (PWK, aka OSCP) class from Offensive Security. Likewise, I’ve been asked by a number of people I know personally about moving into the security realm. I figured I’d put together some notes on how to prepare and the knowledge that I believe is necessary to succeed with the PWK class. Additionally, all of the skills listed here are skills I would expect even the most junior of penetration testers to possess.
I am not affiliated with Offensive Security, so this is my unofficial guide based on my own experiences as an OSCP and OSCE. This is also designed as an outline and not intended to have all of the answers for two reasons:
- To be successful at OSCP or as a Penetration Tester, you should be able to find answers and do research on your own.
- For those who already have familiarity with some of the topics, reciting all of the information would be both pointless and boring.
- Getting the Most Out of PWK
- Useful Resources (Books, Sites, etc.)
Beyond being able to do research (for example, find manpages, MSDN documentation, exploits, vulnerabilities), time management (to get through the course in a timely fashion), and learning new technical skills, there are some less-obvious basic skills that will still be very useful in taking PWK and passing the OSCP exam.
I know this seems completely unrelated, but trust me: to get the most out of your PWK experience, you should be able to do an effective job of note taking. Figure out how to structure your notes, how to keep data associated with different machines, keeping screenshots with your notes, etc.
There’s no single best way to do this, but I separated my notes into two categories:
- Topical notes, that described information regarding particular vulnerabilities, tools, or techniques. For example, associating particular kernel exploits with the versions that they apply to, or notes on techniques for pivoting through machines.
- Per-machine notes. I detailed information on the OS and applications, applicable vulnerabilities and exploits, and the technique I ultimately used. For most machines, I also produced either a python script or metasploit rc file to quickly re-exploit the machine, since the machines in the lab can be reset at any time by other students.
Linux on the Workstation
It genuinely amazes me that people sign up for a class named “Penetration Testing with Kali Linux” but have never used Linux before, yet there are many reports of this on various forums. Learn to use some form of Linux before you’re paying hundreds of dollars a month for lab access. At a minimum you should have familiarity with:
- The filesystem layout
- Network setup
- Shell familiarity
- How to use SSH
You don’t have to use Kali (although it’s not a bad idea), but since it’s based on Debian Testing, it makes sense to use some kind of Debian derivative. Debian, Ubuntu, and Mint are all good options for this.
The best way to get started is to just download a distribution, throw it into a VM, and start using it for a while. (And if you’ve never run a VM, you should learn that too – the custom Kali build provided is provided as a VM image.) Try doing some “daily driver” tasks, and get used to the interface. Setup and run the SSH server, and try SSHing in.
Bandit from OverTheWire is a great free “wargame” that teaches Linux basics as well. It’s free and a great place to get started. If you can make it through that, you’re well on your way to the basic Linux knowledge to move on with PWK.
Knowing What You Don’t Know
One of the hardest things to do in life is to know what you don’t know. Finding the gaps in your knowledge so you know what to research and how to fill those gaps can be quite challenging. Take a look at the Syllabus for the PWK course. If you find yourself even confused by the headers, you can research more and spend more time getting some basic familiarity with the concepts and terminology.
Obviously, the class will teach you about a lot of the material, but if you’re completely lost with even what the titles mean, you might have a hard time following along and definitely won’t be spending as much time working on the labs as you might like.
IP & Ethernet Networking
Almost all modern networks use IP at the Network Layer (L3). Consequently, you
should be familiar with IP networking. Mostly relevant is IP subnetting and the
difference between routing and switched networks. Learn what RFC1918 is and why
those IP addresses are special. It can be helpful to learn how to translate
between representations of CIDR subnets, such as
You should have an understanding of
No route to host and how to (potentially)
fix or bypass it. Understand how a dual-homed host works and how that differs
from a host acting as a router between two networks. Look at the differences
between broadcast and unicast traffic.
TCP & UDP
You should know about the differences between TCP and UDP. This includes the differences in terms of connection establishment and maintenance, as well as the reliability differences of the two protocols. Knowing common port numbers of well-known services will also be helpful.
Learn a little bit about some of the common protocols used on networks. Even if you don’t learn details or read the RFCs, at least reading the Wikipedia article on some of the most common protocols will be helpful.
Operating Systems & Applications
Knowing how operating systems function at a basic level will be very useful. This includes the differences between operating systems, how processes work, how the filesystems work, and certainly information about authentication & authorization on each operating system.
Understanding the different types of authentication and authorization mechanisms on Linux systems is critical, as well as operating system interfaces and common services.
- The root user
- setuid Binaries
- POSIX Users & Groups
- POSIX Filesystem permissions
- SELinux & AppArmor
- File locations (
- How Services Are Started (SysV
Windows has very different behavior from Linux and POSIX systems in many regards. Most PWK students are probably familiar with Windows on the Desktop, but a multi-user environment or Windows domain may be unfamiliar, unless the student has prior experience in the help desk, system administration, or similar roles.
Some of this is OS-independent, or may differ from OS to OS, but should still be
known. Generally, database servers (MySQL/MSSQL/PostgreSQL) and application
servers are a big part of the attack surface of any modern enterprise, and the
PWK lab is no different. For example, knowing about different webservers
(Apache, nginx, IIS) and mechanisms for loading web applications (
WSGI, and ASP.net). Not all of these are
critical, but a general familiarity will be useful.
In a typical enterprise environment (which the PWK labs and exam are designed to emulate), there will be dozens of web applications, most of which are backed by database servers or other application servers.
Obviously, PWK is mostly about learning security skills, but there should be some fundamental knowledge that a student brings to the table. Having an understanding of security fundamentals will serve the student well during the PWK course.
- The CIA Triad (Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability)
- Authentication vs Authorization
- Memory Corruption Vulnerabilities
- Web Vulnerabilities (perhaps OWASP Top 10)
At a very minimum, being familiar with reading scripts written in Python or Ruby will be useful. Many of the exploits on Exploit-DB are in one of these two languages, so being able to read them will help you to understand them and modify them if necessary. Additionally, Metasploit is written in Ruby, so being able to refer to this as necessary will be helpful.
It’s even better if you can write in one of these languages or another scripting language. This will both help you with reproduction scripts (to re-exploit the same machine again and again after reverts) and will be a very useful skill in the industry.
Getting the Most Out of PWK
Though this post is focused on preparing for the course, I wanted to provide some input on how to get the most out of your coursework and lab time. These are based on my experiences and your learning style and experience may vary.
Document, Document, Document
I put note-taking as one the top skills, and now I’ll put it as one of the activities you should focus on during the course. Taking notes will help you retain your learning more effectively, and, since the exam is open-book, may well help you on the exam. Plus, if you choose to submit a report for the lab as well as the exam, you can use this documentation to produce the lab report.
Documentation can take many forms during the course:
- Notes, whether hand-written or typed
- Network diagrams
- Shell logs/command line logs
- Screenshots (especially useful for Graphical tools)
When in doubt, take extra documentation. A couple of minutes here or there might pay off in the long run. I treated the lab like a “real” penetration test, where I documented each compromised machine with:
- Enumeration/Recon information
- Vulnerability & exploit used to compromise it
- Dumped hashes/accounts found
- Screenshot of machine access
- Privilege escalation information
- Any useful artifacts (documentation, files, mounted file shares, etc.)
I cannot stress enough the value of the recon & enumeration phase. Thoroughly collecting information will help you to identify vulnerabilities and understand how the network fits together. The lab environment is not just a bunch of computers – it truly is a network with interconnected components, and recognizing it as such during the recon phase will make you far more successful. For example, understanding the relationship between machines will dramatically help in pivoting between hosts and network segments. Understanding the role of the machine helps you determine how the machine might benefit you (application servers likely have access to database servers; admin workstations likely have access to a wide variety of things; etc.).
There’s several aspects to your time management throughout the course. I can highly recommend not dividing your time between course material and labs like I did. I barely started watching the lab videos, binge-read the lab book, and then moved directly into the labs online. I never did finish watching the lab videos, and while that happened to work out for me, I don’t think it’s actually a good model to follow.
I recommend skimming the lab book to get an overall understanding of the progression of the course, then going back and going through the labs, videos, and exercises together. If you want to get the most out of your course, I would suggest trying to get through all the course material in about half the lab time, because the course material does not get you every machine in the lab. The other half of the time can be used to work independently on all the rest of the machines in the lab environment.
If you are going for a 60 or 90 day lab period and you worry about not passing the OSCP exam on the first try (I hear it’s quite common to fail before eventually succeeding), I suggest making an exam attempt about 15 days before the end of your lab time. If you do this and fail, you’ll have the opportunity to revisit the lab and brush up on your weak areas before making another exam attempt. (Note that Offensive Security reportedly has a number of different exam setups, so you won’t get the exact same machines, but you should still have a good idea of where your weaknesses lie.)
Useful Resources (Books, Sites, etc.)
- Red Team Field Manual - Good for remembering quick commands and tool executions.
- Kali Linux Revealed - Information about Kali Linux as a penetration testing distribution.
- The TCP/IP Guide - One of the best books I’ve seen for networking protocols.
- security.stackexchange - Use for research, but don’t post questions and expect someone to tell you how to perform the exploit right off the bat.
- /r/netsec, /r/netsecstudents, /r/asknetsec - All great options for learning about security, and lots of students going for PWK and OSCP on /r/netsecstudents
- The Linux Command Line: A Complete Introduction
- Penetration Testing: A Hands-On Introduction to Hacking - Good basics for penetration testing.
- Hacking: The Art of Exploitation - Not necessary for taking PWK/OSCP, but a good resource to expand your knowledge.
Other OSCP Prep Guides
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