Last week I provided some advice regarding database security to a friend’s company, which who is starting a database security program. Based on the business requirements they provided, I made several recommendations on products and processes they need to consider to secure their repositories. As some of my answers were not what they expected, I had to provide a lot of detailed analysis of why I provided the answers I did. At the end of the discussion I began asking some questions about their research and how they had formed some of their opinions. It turns out they are a customer of some of the larger research firms and they had been combing the research libraries on database security. These white papers formed the basis for their database security program and identified the technologies they would consider. They allowed me to look at one of the white papers that was most influential in forming their opinions, and I immediately saw why we had a disconnect in our viewpoints.

The white paper was written by two analysts I both know and respect. While I have some nit-picks about the content, all in all it was informative and a fairly good overview document … with one glaring exception: There was no mention of vulnerability assessment! This is a serious omission as assessment is one of the core technologies for database security. Since I had placed considerable focus on assessment for configuration and vulnerabilities in our discussion, and this was at odds with the customer’s understanding based upon the paper, we rehashed a lot of the issues of preventative vs. detective security, and why assessment is a lot more than just looking for missing database patches.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a major advocate and fan of several different database security tools, most notably database activity monitoring. DAM is a very powerful technology with a myriad of uses for security and compliance. My previous firm, as well as a couple of our competitors, were in such a hurry to offer this trend-setting, segment-altering technology that we under-funded assessment R&D for several years. But make no mistake, if you implement a database security program, assessment is a must-have component of that effort, and most likely your starting point for the entire process. When I was on the vendor side, a full 60% of the technical requirements customers provided us in RFP/RFI submission requests were addressed through assessment technology! Forget DAM, encryption, obfuscation, access & authorization, label security, input validation, and other technologies. The majority of requirements were fulfilled by decidedly non-sexy assessment technologies. And with good reason. Few people understand the internal complexities of database systems. So as long as the database ran trouble-free, database administrators enjoyed the luxury of implicit trust that the systems under their control were secure. Attackers demonstrate how easy it is to exploit un-patched systems, gain access to accounts with default passwords, and leverage administrative components to steal data. Database security cannot be assumed, but it must be verified. The problem is that security teams and internal auditors lack the technical skills to query database internals; this makes database assessment tools mandatory for automation of complex tasks, analysis of obscure settings, and separation of duties between audit and administrative roles.

Keep in mind that we are not talking about network or OS level inspection – rather we are talking about database assessment, which is decidedly different. Assessment technologies for database platforms have continued to evolve and are completely differentiated from OS and network level scans, and must be evaluated under a different set of requirements than those other solutions. And as relational database platforms have multiple communication gateways, a complete access control and authorization scheme, and potentially multiple databases and database schemas all within a single installation, the sheer complexity requires more than a cursory inspection of patch levels and default passwords. I am defining database assessment as the following:

Database Assessment is the analysis of database configuration, patch status, and security settings; it is performed by examining the database system both internally and externally – in relation to known threats, industry best practices, and IT operations guidelines.

Because database assessment is continually under-covered in the media and analyst community, and because assessment is one of the core building blocks to the Securosis database security program, I figured this was a good time for the official kick-off of our blog series on Understanding and Selecting a Database Vulnerability Assessment Solution. In this series we will cover:

  • Configuration data collection options
  • Security & vulnerability analysis
  • Operational best practices
  • Policy management and remediation
  • Security & compliance reporting
  • Integration & advanced features

I will also cover some of the evolutions in database platform technology and how assessment technologies must adapt to meet new challenges. As always, if you feel we are off the mark or missing something, tell us. Reader comments and critiques are encouraged, and if they alter or research position, we credit commentors in any research papers we produce. We have comment moderation turned on to address blog spambots, so your comment will not be immediately viewable, but Rich and I are pretty good about getting comments published during business hours.