Welcome!

Linux Containers Authors: Elizabeth White, Mehdi Daoudi, Yeshim Deniz, Pat Romanski, Liz McMillan

Related Topics: Linux Containers, Containers Expo Blog

Linux Containers: Article

Open Source for Perimeter Security

Two open source projects provide answers

Does the open source community provide world-class security technology? Can organizations stop dealing with commercial vendors for security software?

To avoid any undue suspense, the answers are: "Emphatically yes" and "Maybe, but you probably need to make an investment of some kind." But let's take a look at the evidence - this article references two open source projects: netfilter and Snort.

Escalating Challenges

First, it's clear that the challenges related to security are escalating. Outbreaks of viruses and worms are becoming more virulent and spreading faster. Blended threats and application-specific attacks are becoming more sophisticated and harder to detect. Wireless communications, instant messaging, and peer-to-peer networks are opening new holes in corporate defenses. Top management is taking a sudden and unaccustomed interest in IT security. Yet IT departments are not getting additional resources to meet these growing pressures.

Innovation in Open Source

How can the open source community help? Clearly there is a terrific surge of innovation in the field of IT security coming from open source developers and the supporting infrastructure of Linux- and open source-related organizations, Web sites, and publications.

A search on the word "security" on the freshmeat Web site (http://freshmeat.net) turns up more than 1,200 entries (see Table 1).

Security Advantages of Open Source

There is a lively discussion about the virtues of security applications on Linux versus Windows, and of open source projects versus proprietary software.

There is no doubt that today there are far more worms and exploits on Windows-based systems than on Linux-based products. It is not certain if this is simply because the larger number of Windows systems makes a more inviting target for hackers, or if the architecture of Linux is inherently more resistant to attack.

There is a strong case that Linux does have structural advantages for security. For example, at Astaro we have stripped out elements of Linux that are not needed for our security package. This removes many vulnerabilities that a hacker could use to attack a more complex version of the operating system. Performing this kind of pruning would be far more difficult with Windows.

A more important factor, however, is the fundamental development process used for open source projects.

For major projects, code is rigorously examined and exhaustively tested by hundreds of individuals - far more than even the largest commercial vendor can bring to bear on a single product.

The pace of learning and improvement is also much faster than would be possible in a typical commercial setting. Vulnerabilities are exposed more quickly, and solutions developed and tested more readily.

Perhaps most important, in the open source world it is impossible to hide or downplay security vulnerabilities. The open source development process harnesses human nature to ruthlessly expose and eliminate weaknesses, rather than to deny mistakes or delay remediation.

Myths About Open Source Development

There is a widespread and wholly inaccurate impression that open source development is somehow haphazard and undisciplined, a free-for-all among brilliant but uncoordinated individuals. In fact, most major open source projects are very tightly managed by a small, highly disciplined core team. This team determines the architecture of the software, selects the code to be included, and manages all phases of the development process. It enforces strict source control processes, and establishes detailed coding styles and security guidelines.

Critical mass in the open source world comes from the dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of developers who examine and test existing software and submit new code. These developers provide the quantity of inspiration, innovation, and plain hard work that is impossible to duplicate in a commercial setting. However, the core team is always there to coordinate the work of the masses and select the best work to include in the primary branch of the software.

An Example: The netfilter Project

An excellent example of a cutting-edge open source effort is the netfilter project (www.netfilter.org). This is a Linux-based packet filter that features stateful firewalling, Network Address Translation (NAT), load balancing, and other kinds of packet mangling.

The project was founded in 1999 in Australia and has now grown to more than 100,000 lines of code contributed by over 700 developers. There are currently about 300 active developers submitting about 1,400 postings a month to the development mailing lists.

The netfilter project is managed by a core team of 4 members who winnow down the submissions to an average of 65 code improvements and fixes per month.

This is an excellent illustration of the principles we've been discussing - an effort that utilizes the contributions of hundreds of developers, working on a project they love, managed by a small and disciplined core team.

Limitations of Open Source

Open source projects are an outstanding source of world-class security technology, but they are not a panacea for developers or IT managers who need to deploy reliable, manageable software in a real-world production environment.

The open source community is driven by technical enthusiasm, not commercial needs. While most open source developers understand the requirements of IT departments very well, they cannot reasonably be expected to donate their free time to working on mundane management issues.

As a result, open source projects provide brilliant, innovative solutions to fundamental problems, but ease of use and ease of management are typically afterthoughts.

This tendency can manifest itself in several ways: command-line interfaces or less-than-intuitive GUIs, lack of documentation and help facilities, highly manual methods to update software and threat signatures, and limited reporting capabilities. These shortcomings are minor for the highly skilled developer who enjoys digging into a new piece of technology, but they are fatal for the systems administrator or IT manager who needs to complete a lot of tasks in a short time.

Beyond the level of the individual open source project, there is no incentive to integrate separate packages into what an IT manager would view as a complete solution.

While all open source code is available for inspection, that does not mean that all of it is inspected with equal thoroughness. Many eyes will view the technically exciting parts, but the environment does not lend itself to saying: Will you please review and test the boring parts?

Finally, support options are limited for most open source software.

Harnessing Open Source Software for Security

How can organizations harness the explosive growth and innovation of the open source community (and its low costs) without suffering from limitations?

There are basically two choices:

  1. Allocate sufficient resources to fill the gaps themselves.
  2. Let a commercial vendor integrate and support a complete solution based on open source components.
In both cases the tasks are basically the same:
  • Somebody needs to create the interfaces and the documentation to make the tech-nology readily accessible to the typical overworked user or administrator (who is being distracted by a constant barrage of competing demands).
  • Somebody needs to set up automated processes to validate settings, patch software, update threat signatures, and back up configurations.
  • Somebody needs to create the reports so that the average administrator (who is still distracted and harried) can troubleshoot problems and track trends.
  • And if the solution involves multiple components (which is typical in security), someone needs to integrate the components and do thorough testing to make sure that the pieces work together under all types of hostile conditions.

An Illustration: Preparing Snort for the Typical Administrator

One of the most successful open source projects is Snort (www.snort.org), a network intrusion detection system. Snort's intrusion detection engine is widely considered to be equal to or better than any vendor-developed alternative, and the project supports a database of more than 2,000 intrusion detection rules.

However, the Snort technology in its raw form is much better suited to a highly trained security specialist than to the average systems administrator. Configuring the system and the large number of rules requires a fairly high level of expertise, not to mention a lot of time. Updating the rule set on a regular basis is also a time-consuming manual process.

About a year ago Astaro decided to utilize the Snort project as the core of a new "Intrusion Protection" module of our Linux perimeter security solution (see Figure 1). However, to fit the software to the needs of a typical administrator, we had to add quite a bit of functionality. For example, we:

  • Created a user interface that made it simple to turn intrusion detection rules on and off either individually or in categories relating to different applications and protocols (so, for example, if a particular application or protocol is not in use at a site all of the related rules could be turned off for better performance)
  • Modified the automated update service so that new intrusion threat patterns could be added with the same process that updates the firewall software and virus signatures
  • Integrated the intrusion detection engine with our firewall so that the firewall could immediately block intrusions (and modified the user interface mentioned above so that the administrator could toggle back and forth between "intrusion detection" and "intrusion prevention" for each rule)
  • Removed some of the functionality from the open source project by eliminating some of the intrusion detection rules that we felt would cause too many false positives or slow down per-formance without providing a measurable benefit to security
If you want to make this comparison yourself, you can download a free version of Astaro Security Linux at https://my.astaro.com/download and download the Snort code from www.snort.org/dl.

A Two-Way Street

Commercial companies who utilize open source projects must make significant contributions back to the community, such as funding projects and developers and making versions of proprietary software available at no cost. It's also important to adhere to the various open source licensing rules, for example, by publishing any changes made to the project code. These activities make commercial companies active contributors to the growth and success of the open source movement.

Open Source: Leverage the Pros, Ditch the Cons

Let's come back to the questions we posed at the beginning of this article:
  • Does the open source community provide world-class security technology?
  • Can organizations stop dealing with commercial vendors for security software?
The answer to the first question is clearly yes. In fact, we would argue that the best security technology in the world today is being created by the open source community. The level of expertise, and the number of contributors to security-related open source projects, is truly incredible. And as we discussed earlier, open source development processes are well organized and disciplined.

The answer to the second question is: maybe, but you probably you need to make an investment of some kind:

  • You can use open source security projects "out of the box" if you have a high skill level, a tolerance for rough edges, and no need to rely on less dedicated coworkers.
  • Your organization can commit resources to adding management features, integrating components, and providing support so that the technology can be utilized by your average administrator.
  • You can work with a vendor who integrates and packages open source projects for a commercial audience.
In all three of these cases you can take advantage of a very dynamic source of sophisticated technology at a total cost that is significantly lower than traditional security packages. This is truly an area where everyone can win.

More Stories By Jon Friedman

Jon Friedman is vice president of product marketing at Astaro Corporation. He has 20 years of experience with technology companies in marketing, business planning, market analysis, and sales. He was worked with both start-ups and Fortune 500 companies, including Systems Engineering, ePresence (formerly Banyan Systems), Nortel Networks, EPiCON, Wang Software, and Unisys.

Comments (0)

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


@ThingsExpo Stories
The explosion of new web/cloud/IoT-based applications and the data they generate are transforming our world right before our eyes. In this rush to adopt these new technologies, organizations are often ignoring fundamental questions concerning who owns the data and failing to ask for permission to conduct invasive surveillance of their customers. Organizations that are not transparent about how their systems gather data telemetry without offering shared data ownership risk product rejection, regu...
The Internet of Things is clearly many things: data collection and analytics, wearables, Smart Grids and Smart Cities, the Industrial Internet, and more. Cool platforms like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Intel's Galileo and Edison, and a diverse world of sensors are making the IoT a great toy box for developers in all these areas. In this Power Panel at @ThingsExpo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists discussed what things are the most important, which will have the most profound e...
@ThingsExpo has been named the Most Influential ‘Smart Cities - IIoT' Account and @BigDataExpo has been named fourteenth by Right Relevance (RR), which provides curated information and intelligence on approximately 50,000 topics. In addition, Right Relevance provides an Insights offering that combines the above Topics and Influencers information with real time conversations to provide actionable intelligence with visualizations to enable decision making. The Insights service is applicable to eve...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Grape Up will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct. 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Grape Up is a software company specializing in cloud native application development and professional services related to Cloud Foundry PaaS. With five expert teams that operate in various sectors of the market across the U.S. and Europe, Grape Up works with a variety of customers from emergi...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Hitachi, the leading provider the Internet of Things and Digital Transformation, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Hitachi Data Systems, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hitachi, Ltd., offers an integrated portfolio of services and solutions that enable digital transformation through enhanced data management, governance, mobility and analytics. We help globa...
In his keynote at @ThingsExpo, Chris Matthieu, Director of IoT Engineering at Citrix and co-founder and CTO of Octoblu, focused on building an IoT platform and company. He provided a behind-the-scenes look at Octoblu’s platform, business, and pivots along the way (including the Citrix acquisition of Octoblu).
SYS-CON Events announced today that SoftLayer, an IBM Company, has been named “Gold Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 18th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York, New York. SoftLayer, an IBM Company, provides cloud infrastructure as a service from a growing number of data centers and network points of presence around the world. SoftLayer’s customers range from Web startups to global enterprises.
Multiple data types are pouring into IoT deployments. Data is coming in small packages as well as enormous files and data streams of many sizes. Widespread use of mobile devices adds to the total. In this power panel at @ThingsExpo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists will look at the tools and environments that are being put to use in IoT deployments, as well as the team skills a modern enterprise IT shop needs to keep things running, get a handle on all this data, and deli...
20th Cloud Expo, taking place June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. Cloud computing is now being embraced by a majority of enterprises of all sizes. Yesterday's debate about public vs. private has transformed into the reality of hybrid cloud: a recent survey shows that 74% of enterprises have a hybrid cloud strategy.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Super Micro Computer, Inc., a global leader in compute, storage and networking technologies, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Supermicro (NASDAQ: SMCI), the leading innovator in high-performance, high-efficiency server technology, is a premier provider of advanced server Building Block Solutions® for Data Center, Cloud Computing, Enterprise IT, Hadoop/...
Amazon has gradually rolled out parts of its IoT offerings in the last year, but these are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition to optimizing their back-end AWS offerings, Amazon is laying the ground work to be a major force in IoT – especially in the connected home and office. Amazon is extending its reach by building on its dominant Cloud IoT platform, its Dash Button strategy, recently announced Replenishment Services, the Echo/Alexa voice recognition control platform, the 6-7 strategic...
Bert Loomis was a visionary. This general session will highlight how Bert Loomis and people like him inspire us to build great things with small inventions. In their general session at 19th Cloud Expo, Harold Hannon, Architect at IBM Bluemix, and Michael O'Neill, Strategic Business Development at Nvidia, discussed the accelerating pace of AI development and how IBM Cloud and NVIDIA are partnering to bring AI capabilities to "every day," on-demand. They also reviewed two "free infrastructure" pr...
Judith Hurwitz is president and CEO of Hurwitz & Associates, a Needham, Mass., research and consulting firm focused on emerging technology, including big data, cognitive computing and governance. She is co-author of the book Cognitive Computing and Big Data Analytics, published in 2015. Her Cloud Expo session, "What Is the Business Imperative for Cognitive Computing?" is scheduled for Wednesday, June 8, at 8:40 a.m. In it, she puts cognitive computing into perspective with its value to the busin...
Cognitive Computing is becoming the foundation for a new generation of solutions that have the potential to transform business. Unlike traditional approaches to building solutions, a cognitive computing approach allows the data to help determine the way applications are designed. This contrasts with conventional software development that begins with defining logic based on the current way a business operates. In her session at 18th Cloud Expo, Judith S. Hurwitz, President and CEO of Hurwitz & ...
Financial Technology has become a topic of intense interest throughout the cloud developer and enterprise IT communities. Accordingly, attendees at the upcoming 20th Cloud Expo at the Javits Center in New York, June 6-8, 2017, will find fresh new content in a new track called FinTech.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Interoute, owner-operator of one of Europe's largest networks and a global cloud services platform, has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 20th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017 at the Javits Center in New York, New York. Interoute is the owner-operator of one of Europe's largest networks and a global cloud services platform which encompasses 12 data centers, 14 virtual data centers and 31 colocation centers, with connections to 195 add...
The age of Digital Disruption is evolving into the next era – Digital Cohesion, an age in which applications securely self-assemble and deliver predictive services that continuously adapt to user behavior. Information from devices, sensors and applications around us will drive services seamlessly across mobile and fixed devices/infrastructure. This evolution is happening now in software defined services and secure networking. Four key drivers – Performance, Economics, Interoperability and Trust ...
Grape Up is a software company, specialized in cloud native application development and professional services related to Cloud Foundry PaaS. With five expert teams that operate in various sectors of the market across the USA and Europe, we work with a variety of customers from emerging startups to Fortune 1000 companies.
Cybersecurity is a critical component of software development in many industries including medical devices. However, code is not always written to be robust or secure from the unknown or the unexpected. This gap can make medical devices susceptible to cybersecurity attacks ranging from compromised personal health information to life-sustaining treatment. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Clark Fortney, Software Engineer at Battelle, will discuss how programming oversight using key methods can incre...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Super Micro Computer, Inc., a global leader in compute, storage and networking technologies, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Supermicro (NASDAQ: SMCI), the leading innovator in high-performance, high-efficiency server technology, is a premier provider of advanced server Building Block Solutions® for Data Center, Cloud Computing, Enterprise IT, Hadoop/...