Monthly Archives: February 2012

Upcoming RSA Conference Talk: Hacking’s Gilded Age—How APIs Will Increase Risk and Chaos

I’m going to be speaking about API security at next week’s 2012 RSA conference. I gave this talk the provocative title Hacking’s Gilded Age—How APIs Will Increase Risk and Chaos. It’s scheduled for Friday, March 2, 2012 at 10:10am in room 302.

Here’s the long form of the abstract, which gives a little more detail of what I’m going to cover in the talk than the short abstract that’s online:

This session will explore why APIs (which are largely RESTful services) are fundamentally different than conventional web sites, despite the fact that they share common elements such as the HTTP protocol. Web sites abstract back end applications behind a veneer of HTML that should—if it well designed—constrain capability and thus limit an organization’s security exposure. APIs in contrast are a more explicit interface leading directly into applications. These often self-document their intent, and thus provide a hacker with important clues that may reveal potential attack vectors—from penetration to denial-of-service. Because of this, APIs require a much more sophisticated model for access control, confidentiality around parameters, integrity of transactions, attack detection, throttling, and auditing.

But aside from the technological differences, there are cultural differences in the web development community that considerably increase the risk profile of using APIs. Many API developers have a background in web site development, and fail to understand why APIs demand a more rigorous security model that the web sites they were trained on. In a misguided attempt to promote agility, convenience is often chosen over precaution and rigor. The astonishingly rapid rise of RESTful services over SOAP, OAuth over SAML, API keys over certificates, and SSL (or nothing) over WS-Security is a testament to fast and informal prevailing over complex and standardized.

Nevertheless, it is certainly possible to build secure APIs, and this session will demonstrate specifically how you can spearhead a secure and scalable API strategy. For every bad practice, we will offer an alternative pattern that is simple-but-secure. We will explicitly show how the API community is dangerously extending some web paradigms, such as avoiding general use of SSL or not protecting security tokens, into the API world where the cost of failure is far greater. And finally, we will prescribe a series of directives that will steer developers away from the risky behaviors that are the norm on the conventional web.

I hope you can attend. And if you do, please come up after the talk and say hello.

See you next week in San Francisco.

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The Resilient Cloud for Defense: Maintaining Service in the Face of Developing Threats

Skill at computing comes naturally to those who are adept at abstraction. The best developers can instantly change focus—one moment they are orchestrating high level connections between abstract entities; the next they are sweating through the side effects of each individual line of code. Abstraction in computing not only provides necessary containment, but also offers clear boundaries. There is also something very liberating about that line you don’t need to cross. When I write Java code I’m happy to never think about byte code (unless something is going terribly wrong). And when I did board-level digital design, I could stop at the chip and not think much about individual gates or even transistors. It is undeniably important to understand the entire stack; but nothing would ever get done without sustained focus applied to a narrow segment.

Cloud is the latest in a long line of valuable abstractions that extend the computing stack. It pushes down complex details of systems and their management under a view that promotes self-service and elastic computing. In this way, cloud is as liberating for developers as objects were over assembler.

The physical location of resources is one of the first and most important casualties of such a model. Cloud means you should never have to worry about the day a power failure hits the data center. Of course the truth is that as you move down the stack from cloud to system through transistor to electron, physical location matters a lot. So any cloud is only as good as its ability to accommodate any failure of the real systems that underpin the resource abstraction.

Layer 7 has recently become involved in an interesting project that will showcase how cloud providers (public or private) can manage cloud workloads in the face of threats to their underlying infrastructure. The inspiration for this project is the following display from ESRI, one of the world’s leading GIS vendors:

ESRI developed this display to illustrate wireless outages as a storm rips through central Florida. But suppose now that instead of a wireless base station, each green diamond represents a data center that contributes its hardware resources to a cloud. As the storm moves through the state, it may affect power, communications, and even physical premises. Work loads in the cloud, which ultimately could map to hardware hosted inside at-risk sites, must be shifted transparently to locations that are at less of a risk of a catastrophic failure.

Today, few clouds offer the mass physical dispersion of compute hardware suggested by this display. Amazon Web Services, for instance, has the concept of an availability zone, which consists of several massive data centers interconnected within a region (such as US-East, which is in the Dulles area, or EU, which is hosted in Ireland). Their cloud is designed to leverage this regional redundancy to provide continuous service in the event of a site failure.

This big data center approach makes perfect sense for a service like Amazon. There will always be a place for the large data center that leverages commodity hardware deployed on a breathtaking scale. But there is an alternative that I think is set to become increasingly important. This is the cloud composed of many smaller compute facilities. We will increasingly see large clouds coalesce out of multiple small independent hardware sites—more SETI@home than supercomputer. This is where our initiative provides real value.

These highly mobile, micro-clouds make particular sense in the defense sector. Here, compute resources can be highly mobile, and face threats more diverse and much less predictable than hurricanes. This is an arena in which the physical shape of the cloud may be in continuous change.

This project is being done as a catalyst within the TM Forum, and we will show it at the TM Forum Management World 2012 show in Dublin this May. Catalysts are projects that showcase new technology for executives in the telecommunications and defense industries. This catalyst is sponsored by Telstra, and brings together a number of important contributors, including:

Keep an eye on my blog for more information. Hope to see you in Dublin.

Security in the Clouds: The IPT Swiss IT Challenge

Probably the best part of my job as CTO of Layer 7 Technologies is having the opportunity to spend time with our customers. They challenge my assumptions, push me for commitments, and take me to task for any issues; but they also flatter the whole Layer 7 team for the many things we do right as a company. And for every good idea I think I have, I probably get two or three great ones out of each and every meeting with the people who use SecureSpan to solve real problems on a daily basis.

All of that is good, but I’ve learned that if you add skiing into the mix, it becomes even better. Layer 7 is fortunate to have an excellent partnership with IPT, a very successful IT services company out of Zug, Switzerland. Each year they hold a customer meeting up in Gstaad, which I think surely gives them an unfair advantage over their competitors in countries less naturally blessed. I finally managed to draw the long straw in our company, was able to join my colleagues from IPT at their annual event earlier this January.

Growing up in Vancouver, with Whistler practically looming in my backyard, I learned to ski early and ski well. Or so I thought, until I had to try and keep up to a crew of Swiss who surely were born with skis on their feet. But being challenged is always good, and I can say the same for what I learned from my Swiss friends about technology and its impact on the local market.

The Swiss IT market is much more diverse than people from outside of it may think. Yes, there are the famous banks; but it is also an interesting microcosm of the greater European market—albeit run with a natural attention to detail and extraordinary efficiency. It’s the different local challenges which shape technology needs and lead to different emphasis.

SOA and Web services are very mature and indeed are pushed to their limits, but the API market is still in its very early stages. The informal, wild west character of RESTful services doesn’t seem to resonate in the corridors of power in Zurich. Cloud appears in patches, but it is hampered by very real privacy concerns, and this of course represents a great opportunity. Secure private clouds are made for this place.

I always find Switzerland very compelling and difficult to leave. Perhaps it’s the miniscule drop of Swiss ancestry I can claim. But more likely it’s just that I think that the Swiss have got this life thing all worked out.

Looking forward to going back.