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Why Amazon Web Services (AWS) Is the Best Thing To Happen To Security & Why I Desperately Want It To Succeed

November 29th, 2012 15 comments

Many people who may only casually read my blog or peer at the timeline of my tweets may come away with the opinion that I suffer from confirmation bias when I speak about security and Cloud.

That is, many conclude that I am pro Private Cloud and against Public Cloud.

I find this deliciously ironic and wildly inaccurate. However, I must also take responsibility for this, as anytime one threads the needle and attempts to present a view from both sides with regard to incendiary topics without planting a polarizing stake in the ground, it gets confusing.

Let me clear some things up.

Digging deeper into what I believe, one would actually find that my blog, tweets, presentations, talks and keynotes highlight deficiencies in current security practices and solutions on the part of providers, practitioners and users in both Public AND Private Cloud, and in my own estimation, deliver an operationally-centric perspective that is reasonably critical and yet sensitive to emergent paths as well as the well-trodden path behind us.

I’m not a developer.  I dabble in little bits of code (interpreted and compiled) for humor and to try and remain relevant.  Nor am I an application security expert for the same reason.  However, I spend a lot of time around developers of all sorts, those that write code for machines whose end goal isn’t to deliver applications directly, but rather help deliver them securely.  Which may seem odd as you read on…

The name of this blog, Rational Survivability, highlights my belief that the last two decades of security architecture and practices — while useful in foundation — requires a rather aggressive tune-up of priorities.

Our trust models, architecture, and operational silos have not kept pace with the velocity of the environments they were initially designed to support and unfortunately as defenders, we’ve been outpaced by both developers and attackers.

Since we’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as perfect security, “survivability” is a better goal.  Survivability leverages “security” and is ultimately a subset of resilience but is defined as the “…capability of a system to fulfill its mission, in a timely manner, in the presence of attacks, failures, or accidents.”  You might be interested in this little ditty from back in 2007 on the topic.

Sharp readers will immediately recognize the parallels between this definition of “survivability,” how security applies within context, and how phrases like “design for failure” align.  In fact, this is one of the calling cards of a company that has become synonymous with (IaaS) Public Cloud: Amazon Web Services (AWS.)  I’ll use them as an example going forward.

So here’s a line in the sand that I think will be polarizing enough:

I really hope that AWS continues to gain traction with the Enterprise.  I hope that AWS continues to disrupt the network and security ecosystem.  I hope that AWS continues to pressure the status quo and I hope that they do it quickly.

Why?

Almost a decade ago, the  Open Group’s Jericho Forum published their Commandments.  Designed to promote a change in thinking and operational constructs with respect to security, what they presciently released upon the world describes a point at which one might imagine taking one’s most important assets and connecting them directly to the Internet and the shifts required to understand what that would mean to “security”:

  1. The scope and level of protection should be specific and appropriate to the asset at risk.
  2. Security mechanisms must be pervasive, simple, scalable, and easy to manage.
  3. Assume context at your peril.
  4. Devices and applications must communicate using open, secure protocols.
  5. All devices must be capable of maintaining their security policy on an un-trusted network.
  6. All people, processes, and technology must have declared and transparent levels of trust for any transaction to take place.
  7. Mutual trust assurance levels must be determinable.
  8. Authentication, authorization, and accountability must interoperate/exchange outside of your locus/area of control
  9. Access to data should be controlled by security attributes of the data itself
  10. Data privacy (and security of any asset of sufficiently high value) requires a segregation of duties/privileges
  11. By default, data must be appropriately secured when stored, in transit, and in use.

These seem harmless enough today, but were quite unsettling when paired with the notion of “de-perimieterization” which was often misconstrued to mean the immediate disposal of firewalls.  Many security professionals appreciated the commandments for what they expressed, but the the design patterns, availability of solutions and belief systems of traditionalists constrained traction.

Interestingly enough, now that the technology, platforms, and utility services have evolved to enable these sorts of capabilities, and in fact have stressed our approaches to date, these exact tenets are what Public Cloud forces us to come to terms with.

If one were to look at what public cloud services like AWS mean when aligned to traditional “enterprise” security architecture, operations and solutions, and map that against the Jericho Forum’s Commandments, it enables such a perfect rethink.

Instead of being focused on implementing “security” to protect applications and information based at the network layer — which is more often than not blind to both, contextually and semantically — public cloud computing forces us to shift our security models back to protecting the things that matter most: the information and the conduits that traffic in them (applications.)

As networks become more abstracted, it means that existing security models do also.  This means that we must think about security programatticaly and embedded as a functional delivery requirement of the application.

“Security” in complex, distributed and networked systems is NOT a tidy simple atomic service.  It is, unfortunately, represented as such because we choose to use a single noun to represent an aggregate of many sub-services, shotgunned across many layers, each with its own context, metadata, protocols and consumption models.

As the use cases for public cloud obscure and abstract these layers — flattens them — we’re left with the core of that which we should focus:

Build secure, reliable, resilient, and survivable systems of applications, comprised of secure services, atop platforms that are themselves engineered to do the same in way in which the information which transits them inherits these qualities.

So if Public Cloud forces one to think this way, how does one relate this to practices of today?

Frankly, enterprise (network) security design patterns are a crutch.  The screened-subnet DMZ patterns with perimeters is outmoded. As Gunnar Peterson eloquently described, our best attempts at “security” over time are always some variation of firewalls and SSL.  This is the sux0r.  Importantly, this is not stated to blame anyone or suggest that a bad job is being done, but rather that a better one can be.

It’s not like we don’t know *what* the problems are, we just don’t invest in solving them as long term projects.  Instead, we deploy compensation that defers what is now becoming more inevitable: the compromise of applications that are poorly engineered and defended by systems that have no knowledge or context of the things they are defending.

We all know this, but yet looking at most private cloud platforms and implementations, we gravitate toward replicating these traditional design patterns logically after we’ve gone to so much trouble to articulate our way around them.  Public clouds make us approach what, where and how we apply “security” differently because we don’t have these crutches.

Either we learn to walk without them or simply not move forward.

Now, let me be clear.  I’m not suggesting that we don’t need security controls, but I do mean that we need a different and better application of them at a different level, protecting things that aren’t tied to physical topology or addressing schemes…or operating systems (inclusive of things like hypervisors, also.)

I think we’re getting closer.  Beyond infrastructure as a service, platform as a service gets us even closer.

Interestingly, at the same time we see the evolution of computing with Public Cloud, networking is also undergoing a renaissance, and as this occurs, security is coming along for the ride.  Because it has to.

As I was writing this blog (ironically in the parking lot of VMware awaiting the start of a meeting to discuss abstraction, networking and security,) James Staten (Forrester) tweeted something from @Werner Vogels keynote at AWS re:invent:

I couldn’t have said it better myself :)

So while I may have been, and will continue to be, a thorn in the side of platform providers to improve the “survivability” capabilities to help us get from there to there, I reiterate the title of this scribbling: Amazon Web Services (AWS) Is the Best Thing To Happen To Security & I Desperately Want It To Succeed.

I trust that’s clear?

/Hoff

P.S. There’s so much more I could/should write, but I’m late for the meeting :)

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Past Life Regressions & Why Security Is a Petunia (Or a Whale) Depending Upon Where You Stand

January 26th, 2011 1 comment
42, The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Lif...
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In Douglas Adam’s epic “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” we read about an organism experiencing a bit of a identity crisis at 30,000 feet:

It is important to note that suddenly, and against all probability, a Sperm Whale had been called into existence, several miles above the surface of an alien planet and since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity. This is what it thought, as it fell:

The Whale: Ahhh! Woooh! What’s happening? Who am I? Why am I here? What’s my purpose in life? What do I mean by who am I? Okay okay, calm down calm down get a grip now. Ooh, this is an interesting sensation. What is it? Its a sort of tingling in my… well I suppose I better start finding names for things. Lets call it a… tail! Yeah! Tail! And hey, what’s this roaring sound, whooshing past what I’m suddenly gonna call my head? Wind! Is that a good name? It’ll do. Yeah, this is really exciting. I’m dizzy with anticipation! Or is it the wind? There’s an awful lot of that now isn’t it? And what’s this thing coming toward me very fast? So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like ‘Ow’, ‘Ownge’, ‘Round’, ‘Ground’! That’s it! Ground! Ha! I wonder if it’ll be friends with me? Hello Ground!
[
dies]

Curiously the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias, as it fell, was, ‘Oh no, not again.’ Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly *why* the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.

“Security” is facing a similar problem.

To that end, and without meaning to, Gunnar Petersen and Lenny Zeltser* unintentionally wrote about this whale of a problem in two thought provoking blogs describing what they portray as the sorry state of security today; specifically the inappropriate mission focus and misallocation of investment (Gunnar) and the need for remedying the skills gap and broadening the “information security toolbox” (Lenny)  that exists in an overly infrastructure-centric model used today.

Gunnar followed up with another post titled: “Is infosec busy being born or busy dying?”  Fitting.

Both gents suggest that we need to re-evaluate what, why and how we do what we do and where we invest by engaging in a more elevated service delivery role with a focus on enablement, architecture and cost-efficiency based on models that align spend to a posture I can only say reflects the mantra of survivability (see: A Primer on Information Survivability: Changing Your Perspective On Information Security):

[Gunnar] The budget dollars in infosec are not based on protecting the assets the company needs to conduct business, they are not spent on where the threats and vulnerabilities lie, rather they are spent on infrastructure which happens to be the historical background and hobby interest of the majority of technical people in the industry.

[Lenny] When the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail, wrote Abraham Maslow a few decades ago. Given this observation, it’s not surprising that most of today’s information security efforts seem to focus on networks and systems.

Hard to disagree.

It’s interesting that both Gunnar and Lenny refer to this condition as being a result of our “information security” efforts since, as defined, it would appear to me that their very point is that we don’t practice “information security.”  In fact, I’d say what they really mean is that we primarily practice “network security” and pitter-patter around the other elements of the “stack:”

This is a “confused discipline” indeed.  Fact is, we need infrastructure security. We need application security.  We need information security.  We need all of these elements addressed by a comprehensive architecture and portfolio management process driven by protecting the things that matter most at the points where the maximum benefit can be applied to manage risk for the lowest cost.

Yes.

That’s. Freaking. Hard.

This is exactly why we have the Security Hamster Sine Wave of Pain…we cyclically iterate between host, application, information, user, and network-centric solutions to problems that adapt at a pace that far exceeds our ability to adjust to them let alone align to true business impact:

Whales and Petunias…

The problem is that people like to put things in neat little boxes which is why we have neat, little boxes and the corresponding piles of cash and people distributed to each of them (however unfortunate the ratio.)  Further, the industry that provides solutions across this stack are not incentivized to solve long term problems and innovative solutions brought to bear on emerging problems are often a victim of poor timing.  People don’t buy solutions that solve problems that are 5 years out, they buy solutions that fix short-term problems even if they are themselves predicated on 20 year old issues.

Fixing stuff in infrastructure has been easy up until now; buy another box.

Infrastructure has been pretty much static and thus the apps and information have bouyed about, tethered to the anchor of a static infrastructure.  Now that the infrastructure itself is becoming more dynamic, fixing problems upstack in dynamic applications and information — woohoo, that’s HARD, especially when we’re not organized to do any one of those things well, let alone all of them at once!

Frankly, the issue is one where the tactical impacts of the blending and convergence of new threats, vulnerabilities, socio-economic, political, cultural and technology curves chips away at our ability to intelligently respond without an overall re-engineering of what we do.  We’d have to completely blow up the role of “security” as we know it to deliver what Gunnar and Lenny suggest.

This isn’t a bad idea, it’s just profoundly difficult.  I ought to know. I’ve done it.  It took years to even get to the point where we could chip away at the PEOPLE who were clinging on to what they know as the truth…it’s as much generational and cultural as it is technical.

The issue I have is that it’s important to also realize that we’ve been here before and we’ll be here again and more importantly WHY.  I don’t think it’s a vast conspiracy theory but rather an unfortunate side-effect of our past lives.

I don’t disagree with the need to improve and/or reinvent ourselves as an industry — both from the perspective of the suppliers of solutions, the operators or the architects.  We do every 5 years anyway what with every “next big thing” that hits.

To round this back to the present, new “phase shifts” like Cloud computing are great forcing functions that completely change our perspective on where, how, who, and why we practice “security.”  I’d suggest that we leverage this positively and march to that drum beat Lenny and Gunnar are banging away on, but without the notion that we’re all somehow guilty of doing the wrong things.

BTW, has anyone seen my Improbability Drive?

/Hoff

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