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RSA Conference Guide 2012: Application Security

By Mike Rothman

See you at RSA 2012...Building security in? Bolting it on? If you develop in-house applications, it’s likely both. Application security will be a key theme of the show. But the preponderance of application security tools will block, scan, mask, shield, ‘reperimeterize’, reconfigure, or reset connections from the outside. Bolt-on is the dominant application security model for the foreseeable future. The good news is that you may not be the one managing it, as there is a whole bunch of new cloud security services and technologies available. Security as a service, anyone? Here’s what we expect to see at this year’s RSA Conference.

SECaaS

Security as a Service, or ‘SECaaS’; basically using ‘the cloud’ to deliver security services. No, it’s not a new concept, but a new label to capture the new variations on this theme. What’s new is that some of the new services are not just SaaS, but delivered for PaaS or IaaS protection as well. And the technologies have progressed well beyond anti-spam and web-site scanning. During the show you will see a lot of ‘cloudwashing’ – where the vendor replaces ‘network’ with ‘cloud’ in their marketing collateral, and suddenly they are a cloud provider – which makes it tough to know who’s legit. Fortunately at the show you will see several vendors who genuinely redesigned products to be delivered as a service from the cloud and/or into cloud environments. Offerings like web application firewalls available from IaaS vendors, code scanning in the cloud, DNS redirectors for web app request and content scanning, and threat intelligence based signature generation, just to name a few. The new cloud service models offers greater simplicity as well as cost reduction, so we are betting these new services will be popular with customers. They’ll certainly be a hit on the show floor.

Securing Applications at Scale

Large enterprises and governments trying to secure thousands of off-the-shelf and homegrown applications live with this problem every day. Limited resources are the key issue – it’s a bit like weathering a poop storm with a paper hat. Not enough protection and the limited resources you have are not suitable for the job. It’s hard to be sympathetic as most of these organizations created their own headaches – remember when you thought it was a good idea to put a web interface on those legacy applications? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. Now you have billions of lines of code, designed to be buried deep within your private token ring, providing content to people outside your company. Part of the reason application security moves at a snail’s pace is because of the sheer scope of the problem. It’s not that companies don’t know their applications – especially web applications – are not secure, but the time and money required to address all the problems are overwhelming. A continuing theme we are seeing is how to deal with application security at scale. It’s both an admission that we’re not fixing everything, and an examination of how to best utilize resources to secure applications. Risk analysis, identifying cross-domain threats, encapsulation, reperimetrization, and multi-dimensional prioritization of bug fixes are all strategies. There’s no embodying product that you’ll see at the show, but we suggest this as a topic of discussion when you chat with folks. Many vendors will be talking about the problem and how their product fits within a specific strategic approach for addressing the issue.

Code Analysis? Meh. DAST? Yeah.

The merits of ‘building security in’ are widely touted but adoption remains sporadic. Awareness, the scale of the issue, and cultural impediments all keep tools that help build secure code a small portion of the overall application security market. Regardless, we expect to hear lots of talk about code analysis and white box testing. These products offer genuine value and several major firms made significant investments in the technology last year. While the hype will be in favor of white box code analysis, the development community remains divided. No one is arguing the value of white box testing, but adoption is slower than we expected. Very large software development firms with lots of money implement a little of each secure code development technique in their arsenal, including white box as a core element, basically because they can. The rest of the market? Not so much. Small firms focus on one or two areas during the design, development, or testing phase. Maybe. And that usually means fuzzing and Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST). Whether it’s developer culture, or mindset, or how security integrates with development tools, or this is just the way customers want to solve security issues – the preference is for semi-black-box web scanning products.

Big Data, Little App Security

You’re going to hear a lot about big data and big data security issues at the conference. Big Data definitely needs to be on the buzzword bingo card. And 99 out of 100 vendors who tell you they have a big data security solution are lying. The market is still determining what the realistic threats are and how to combat them. But we know application security will be a bolt-on affair for a long period, because:

  1. Big data application development has huge support and is growing rapidly
  2. A vanishingly low percentage of developer resources are going into designing secure applications for big data.

SQL injection, command injection, and XSS are commonly found on most of the front-end platforms that support NoSQL development. Some of them did not even have legitimate access controls until recently! Yes, jump into your time machine and set the clock for 10 years ago. Make no mistake – firms are pumping huge amounts of data into production non-relational databases without much more than firewalls and SSL protecting them. So if you have some architects playing around with these technologies (and you do), work on identifying some alternatives to secure them at the show.

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