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Thought Leaders


Table of Contents


John Pirc, IBM, ISS Product Line & Services Executive: Security and Intelligent Network

Stephen Northcutt - February 17th, 2009


John Pirc from IBM's Network Security Solutions has agreed to be interviewed by the Securitylab and we certainly thank him for his time and for sharing his knowledge with us.


John, what can you tell me about how networks have changed over the years? What is the biggest difference, speed, intelligence, or reliability?


Stephen, just think back to the original networks where we started playing with the thick Ethernet cable. How much intelligence does the big thick Ethernet cable have? Absolutely none. But, over time, we have been adding devices, firewalls, etc., each of those are a computer running a software application. We have been increasing the intelligence built into the network and that trend is going faster and faster with a significant focus on reliability, consolidation and high security content fidelity. As we move into the next IT paradigm shift of a dynamic infrastructure, which includes things like virtualization and cloud based models, we can start to talk about key network protection technologies such as Unified Threat Management.


Thank you for that John, how do you define the control zones in an intelligent network?

We have three major dimensions of the network where we can apply controls: Access Control, Network Awareness & Threat Mitigation, and finally Content Control. The original security device was the firewall. Marcus Ranum had to invent the first firewall and put it into place; since then we have used other devices to give ourselves access control. After we had access control put in place, we wanted insight into the network traffic and Todd Heberlein invented the first IDS. That gave us a sense of what traffic was going over our networks, and IDS and Network Forensics have continued to evolve. Finally, we have the need to manage content. After they invented the world wide web, it was only a matter of time till people started going to dangerous places and we had to develop web filtering technology that have evolved today into your data loss prevention tools.


John, I have a strong sense that there is another major change happening with our networks, they call it convergence, they call it virtualization, but everything is becoming abstract. What are your thoughts about that?

Stephen, the key point is you can touch appliances or servers. You can put a sniffer on the one side and a second sniffer on the other end and see what the device is doing with network traffic. Today it feels fuzzy, especially when we have software appliances that provide various applications inside of a virtual machine. Another example is Software as Service (SaaS) where instead of running our own commercial application we might go ahead and just sign up for some kind of a service. It is convenient, however our data is now stored on the SaaS provider's server. Which is a great segue into the ultimate buzz word of 2009 “Cloud Computing” where you are likely to be running in a multi tenant environment. Abstract, fuzzy, however you want to define it, but it is a major change.


And as we get fuzzy, the threat landscape is changing, true?

Certainly, who would have guessed we would have to deal with hacking as a service (HaaS)? Today you can buy or lease exploit code to attack different operating systems or applications. There are attack platforms available on a pay per visit or pay per infection basis. If you can't break in, you get your money back.

The browser has absolutely replaced the operating system in terms of some of the biggest numbers of attacks that we see today. 51% of all browser attacks are focused on plug-ins and multimedia vulnerabilities are following close behind. Adobe, Microsoft Office, etc., are emerging as predominant targets.

According to FBI statistics, cybercrime has surpassed drug trafficking. It is a one trillion dollar business.


OK, so what you are telling me is that defensive technology is more fuzzy and the attacks are more specific. Is there a reason for hope?

Today many security functions may be accomplished by a single physical device, the Unified Threat Manager or UTM. Firewalls absolutely serve their purpose, but firewalls won’t stop browser based attacks. They wouldn’t stop the latest DNS vulnerability. However, combining firewall SSL, VPN, IPS and content awareness all on one device provides a high level of assurance against the majority of the threats that we see today. And when we start looking at the UTM market the UTM market is growing at such an incredible rate and the majority of network security vendors have embraced this technology because this technology is smart, it can be deployed not just at the gateway, it can be deployed at B2B network, recent M&A etc.

When I talk about commoditized security appliances, I am talking primarily about firewalls and IPS. These two traditional standalone point products can be added as functions in the networks that we are building. We used to put these devices on the "front door" or the perimeter, but your perimeter is pretty much everywhere nowadays. Also, we can add these functions into 1 gig networks to 10 g networks.

Instead of fuzzy, the more accurate way to view the coming security paradigm is levels of abstraction. The concept of the intelligent framework includes data and event proliferation management. The framework is made up of people, process, technology, collection and correlation.

IAM, an acronym for Identity and Access Management, is an up and coming technology that has become vitality important to this framework. In the future we will not just log events by machine name or IP address, we will include the identity of the person behind that event. In enterprise log management we have events that are propagated to these multiple collectors. The next step is correlation which is the task of the Security Information Event Manager, the SIEM.


Ah yes, the SIEM. I know the auditors are pushing log management for compliance reasons, do you think there is a tangible return on investment for these technologies?

Stephen, manual analysis and human correlation do not scale, especially when your network is melting down. Think of working at an enterprise organization and fighting fires on the collection side without a SIEM. You have to go to the IDS to see what event triggered. Then you might have to go to the firewall and pull those logs. There might be routers or switches with information you need. And how do you know which system internally is involved; you have to consult the DHCP table, etc. These activities take a lot of time, a lot of analysis. Meanwhile, the correlation which really makes up the intelligence of the framework, and complements the technology related to the collection of events, is easily automated. The last thing you want to do is have a security analyst running down rabbit holes when these tasks can be automated and the professional can put their focus on what happened, what does it mean, what do we need to do.

In the future we will be working with information that is more powerful than event data. To really get an operational picture we will use full session information and continuous packet captures.

With a SIEM, it is really important to understand the scalability of the solution; one of the most common reasons for deployment failure is an inadequate database. Other metrics include events-per-second, that’s important for sizing your network and making sure that you are buying the correct device from the right vendor. And again, most of them will work with you and have this type of information.


Another potential gotcha with a SIEM is their integration with third party event feeds? Do they have an API that can be leveraged? How much online or network attached storage does the SIEM have? Also, how much offline storage can it manage?

Some of the SIEMs support automatic responses. As an example, can it reach back to a router and add an ACL, or make a UTM or firewall rule change? The Intelligent Network is made up of people, process, technology, collection and correlation. So, obviously, you want to take all of the intelligence that we have on the network and boil it down into some human readable format so you are not spending hours and hours going through data, that’s really meaningless.


Thanks John. I certainly agree that correlation scaling is a hard problem, alright. The second most advanced home grown system I have ever seen is the San Diego Supercomputing Facility. One of the biggest attacks they discovered was simply because the number of events they were tracking doubled, so they knew something must be going on. Of course usually event detection is lot more subtle. Let's talk a bit about virtualization since that is the way most vendors create UTMs.

OK, Stephen we have come full circle. At one point, servers were so expensive you ran as much on one as possible. Before timesharing became a term for vacation rentals, the term was used to define servers that hosted multiple users and processes like Multics.

After the Morris Worm in 1988 we learned, it might not be good practice to run a whole bunch of services on a server because if the server goes down under an attack like the Morris Worm, everything goes down.

For the next 10-15 years good practice was to run one service on a server. However that is expensive and it is not green to have the server waiting for hours to perform a task that takes seconds, and so we are moving towards virtualization. Virtualization is not new, goes back to IBM mainframes in 1960.

Virtualization provides a lot of benefits, server consolidation, reduction of carbon footprint, etc. And, since it is software, it can be attacked. Our X-Force research team has seen significant uptake in virtualization vulnerabilities. So, with the adoption of any new technologies such as virtualization over time, you will start to see vulnerabilities increase. This increase is due to the popularity and unexplored risk of x86 virtualization.

The traditional threats have the same applicability in the virtual environment so SQL Injection and Cross Site Scripting are just as likely to work on a virtual machine. Remember, the applications have no idea they are being virtualized in the first place. As I said, if the attack will work against a real machine, it will work on a virtual machine, but the problem is even greater than that. The virtual machine is a file that could be easily taken off the system if not protected correctly.

The ultimate direction we all need to focus on is securing virtualization by integrating security that was purpose built for virtual environments.
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Thanks John, I know there are a number of UTM vendors, do you have a suggested question that we ought to be asking when considering a purchase?

One important question is how does a UTM help protect against browser-based attacks. There is a great paper called All Your iFRAMEs Point to Us, written by researchers at Google. The paper gives a really great explanation from start to finish of what a browser attack using iFrames. A UTM has to understand HTTP Content-Coding or Compression. This is really important. Much of our web traffic today is compressed. If you were to run Ethereal or some sort of packet capture on it, you would see that the packets have content coding for gzip, compress, or zlib. The UTM must have the capability of doing decompression on the wire at network speed. The Adobe Flash plug-in vulnerability released earlier this year is being exploited through compression. If a security device cannot decompress, you’re at a significant risk to this attack if you don't have another compensating control such as IBM Proventia Server, Savant Pro, Bit9 or CoreTrace on the endpoints.

If PCI DSS, the Payment Card Industry and Data Security Standard applies to your organization, you want a UTM that can help you secure Primary Account Number (PAN) and other Payment Card data. The ability to do document parsing and decompress documents is huge. Can your UTM solution look at traffic carrying Microsoft Office documents, PDFs, Rich Text Format, XML, etc.,

If credit card information, names or Social Security Card numbers get out of your network, that can cause a lot of problems, possibly multiple class action law suits. IPS, UTM, and, some firewall vendors have these capabilities as well as standalone Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions.

Another feature you need is Protocol independent inspection. It should not matter what port traffic is coming to or from, the UTM should be able to determine the protocol.

And, of course, look for third party Independent Verification & Validation Testing houses like NSS, ICSA, Tolly, etc., are extremely important then also looking at federal testing. And, don't forget regulatory compliance.


Thank you John, one of the things we like to do is give people a bully pulpit, a chance to sound off about what matters to them. Would you be willing to talk about what IBM offers to help secure the intelligent network?

Certainly, Stephen. IBM Internet Security Services (ISS) has long recognized that threats would evolve over time. Besides integrating with the network and endpoint, protection must also transition easily into other attack mitigation scenarios that require in-depth protocol analysis like data loss prevention (DLP), Web application protection, etc. This means that today we can deliver protection on the client’s platform of choice, be it appliance, blade or virtual form factors, and tomorrow we’ll be able to adapt the protection to deal with virtual server and network environments. We are able to deliver high fidelity security content provided by X-Force through our Protocol Analysis Module which can be found in our Network intrusion-prevention (Proventia GX), Unified Threat Management (Proventia MX), Message Security (Proventia Mail security and also for Lotus Notes). Additionally, the Proventia line provides content inspection similar to that of DLP but limited to Personal Identifiable Information. Lastly, we provide 3rd party Network DLP solutions through Fidelis. For a full list of all the security solutions that IBM provides, check out: http://www.ibm.com/security


Very good, John, I just have one last question. Can you tell us just a bit about John the person, what are you doing when you are not in front of a computer?

With my rigorous Domestic/International travel schedule, I enjoy spending my free time with my family, kite boarding, mountain biking and security research.