Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Risk of Complexity

It is human nature to desire a shiny new technology based on marketing claims and feature promises. But many times during my career in information technology and security I have really questioned the “value add” of a particular solution or system. Will it really lower costs, improve employee performance, and facilitate collaboration? Will it provide the seamless interoperability between complex systems as advertised? Will it do all this and still provide stability and security? Or are we just attempting to throw complex technology at managerial, organizational, and performance issues as a fix?

Often, adding more complexity to technology will only make the issues associated with that technology more complex. These issues include security. Generally speaking, with more complexity comes less security. This is not necessarily because the ability to secure the technology does not exist but because it becomes out of reach due to resource limitations. These resource limitations include limitations in finances, time, and expertise. Complexity can increase the attack surface area of a network hence decreasing its security posture unless the proper training, planning, and defensive resources have been budgeted and obtained. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Moreover, much of the technology used to secure and defend such solutions can increase the complexity of one’s information systems even further, potentially causing an endless loop of new features and defensive solutions.

Virtualization is a great example of this. The ability to virtualize operating systems, resources, and applications has many advantages in IT infrastructure and business. But the ease of virtualizing systems, combined with a lack of planning and available expertise in these products has the potential of creating an out of control scenario of misconfiguration and mismanagement. Proper change control, build procedures, code review, monitoring, disaster recovery planning, and documentation still need to be addressed. The security risk associated with virtualization needs to be assessed, managed, mitigated, and re-assessed on a regular basis. This can be a daunting task without the proper resources. Such resources may not have been factored in during the budgeting and planning process or may no longer exist during economic downturns.

I am not downplaying the incredible benefits of virtualization. I use virtualization too. However, much like any technology, it has its place and I don’t believe the “lets virtualize everything” mantra. The idiom of “don't put all your eggs in one basket” comes to mind. Doing so can be a serious mistake with dire consequences in assuring the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of data. I only use virtualization as an example, due to its prevalence in our industry and the complex baggage that often comes with it. There are dozens of other examples that could be used, but like most, I cite examples that I am familiar and comfortable with.

The recent compromise of Vaserv.com, a UK ISP, has been reported to affect over 100,000 hosted web sites which may never recover. Some have reported the attack was a result of vulnerability in the virtualization technology the web hosts were running on while others claim bad administrative practices are to blame. Some have questioned Vaserv’s disaster recovery and incident response procedures, or lack thereof. Most likely, it is a combination of these factors that contributed to this colossal failure. Was the complexity of the technology to blame? Was Vaserv.com na├»ve to think they could increase their profit margin by decreasing engineering and administrative costs through the use of virtualization? Or was the company putting all its “eggs in one basket” and ignoring the fundamentals of security?

These are only speculations on my part as I am, like most, not privy with the details of the compromise. The irony of this example is Vaserv.com was marketed as a low cost hosting solution. One may speculate that many companies and individuals chose their hosting services to save money only to incur a substantial financial loss associated with the incident. Some may feel I am simplifying the issue at hand but sometimes that is all that is needed.

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