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Understanding and Selecting RASP: Use Cases

By Adrian Lane

As you might expect, the primary function of RASP is to protect web applications against known and emerging threats; it is typically deployed to block attacks at the application layer, before vulnerabilities can be exploited. There is no question that the industry needs application security platforms – major new vulnerabilities are disclosed just about every week. And there are good reasons companies look to outside security vendors to help protect their applications. Most often we hear that firms simply have too many critical vulnerabilities to fix in a timely manner, with many reporting their backlog would take years to fix. In many cases the issue is legacy applications – ones which probably should never have been put on the Internet. These applications are often unsupported, with the engineers who developed them no longer available, or the platforms so fragile that they become unstable if security fixes are applied. And in many cases it is simply economics: the cost of securing the application itself is financially unfeasible, so companies are willing to accept the risk, instead choosing to address threats externally as best they can.

But if these were the only reasons, organizations could simply use one of the many older technologies to application security, rather than needing RASP. Astute readers will notice that these are, by and large, the classic use cases for Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) and Web Application Firewalls (WAFs). So why do people select RASP in lieu of more mature – and in many cases already purchased and deployed – technologies like IDS or WAF?

The simple answer is that the use cases are different enough to justify a different solution. RASP integrates security one large step from “security bolted on” toward “security from within”. But to understand the differences between use cases, you first need to understand how user requirements differ, and where they are not adequately addressed by those older technologies. The core requirements above are givens, but the differences in how RASP is employed are best illustrated by a handful of use cases.

Use Cases

  • APIs & Automation: Most of our readers know what Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are, and how they are used. Less clear is the greatly expanding need for programatic interfaces in security products, thanks to application delivery disruptions caused by cloud computing. Cloud service models – whether deployment is private, public, or hybrid – enable much greater efficiencies as networks, servers, and applications can all be constructed and tested as software. APIs are how we orchestrate building, testing, and deployment of applications. Security products like RASP – unlike IDS and most WAFs – offer their full platform functionality via APIs, enabling software engineers to work with RASP in the manner their native metaphor.
  • Development Processes: As more application development teams tackle application vulnerabilities within the development cycle, they bring different product requirements than IT or security teams applying security controls post-deployment. It’s not enough for security products to identify and address vulnerabilities – they need to fit the development model. Software development processes are evolving (notably via continuous integration, continuous deployment, and DevOps) to leverage advantages of virtualization and cloud services. Speed is imperative, so RASP embedded within the application stack, providing real-time monitoring and blocking, supports more agile approaches.
  • Application Awareness: As attackers continue to move up the stack, from networks to servers and then to applications, it is becoming more distinguish attacks from normal usage. RASP is differentiated by its ability to include application context in security policies. Many WAFs offer ‘positive’ security capabilities (particularly whitelisting valid application requests), but being embedded within applications provides additional application knowledge and instrumentation capabilities to RASP deployments. Further, some RASP platforms help developers by specifically reference modules or lines of suspect code. For many development teams, potentially better detection capabilities are less valuable than having RASP pinpoint vulnerable code.
  • Pre-Deployment Validation: For cars, pacemakers, and software, it has been proven over decades that the earlier in the production cycle errors are discovered, the easier – and cheaper – they are to fix. This means testing in general, and security testing specifically, works better earlier into the development process. Rather than relying on vulnerability scanners and penetration testers after an application has been launched, we see more and more application security testing performed prior to deployment. Again, this is not impossible with other application-centric tools, but RASP is easier to build into automated testing.

Our next post will talk about deployment, and working RASP into development pipelines.

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