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Leveraging Microsoft Azure security features for PaaS security

Organizations can boost PaaS security late in the game by implementing these stopgap measures.

As I discussed in my previous article, application security expertise is critical for PaaS security. Investments...

in developer education and software development lifecycle processes are imperative for an enterprise using PaaS environments. However, organizations on the whole have been slow to invest in application security.

So for security pros in a PaaS-heavy environment, here’s the challenge: While application security investments are developed, what short-term measures might be useful as a PaaS security stopgap?  For example, in the case of Azure, Microsoft’s numerous development-focused security resources  are fantastic but what if the application is already written? There may not be time to incorporate SDL or Threat Modeling for that particular application. 

There are two things that shops in that position should know: First, the Azure environment itself provides some pretty robust security features to protect applications that live there, including  measures like network-level controls, physical security, host hardening, etc.  But those protections only tell half the story; any environment, no matter how well protected, can still be attacked through application-level issues that aren't addressed.  Fortunately, there are a few features that we can layer on once the application is developed that add some measure of protection at the application layer. 

These stopgaps aren’t the only application security measures available (not by a long shot) -- they don’t include things you should be doing anyway (like SSL), and they’re not universally applicable to every use case.  But these Microsoft Azure security features are  useful for security pros to know about because they’re relatively quick to implement, require mostly minor code changes, and can many times get bolted on to an existing application without requiring extensive retesting of business logic. 

Microsoft Azure security: Partial trust

Windows Azure out-of-the-box provides some level of insulation against attacks of that subvert the application by running user-supplied code as a non-administrator user on the native OS (this is almost entirely transparent from a caller standpoint).  However, organizations can further restrict access permissions available to a role by restricting it to “partial” instead of “full trust.” 

Folks familiar with the security model in a traditional .NET context will recognize the concept, but the idea is to restrict the impact of a security failure in the application itself by limiting what the application itself can do.  Much like some Web servers and applications employ a “jailed” file system or restricted privilege model, the concept of partial trust is similar.  Microsoft provides a full list of functionality available under partial trust and instructions on how to enable it in Visual Studio.

There is a caveat though.  While using partial trust can be a useful avenue to pursue in smaller applications/services, larger or more complicated ones (for example in a direct port from a legacy .NET application) are likely to require the permissions of full trust in order to function. 

Microsoft Azure security: AntiXSS

Many of the issues that arise within an application context (and more specifically, a Web application context) occur as a result of malicious input; in other words, user-supplied input is a common avenue of attack unless input is constrained or validated as part of application processing.  This isn’t easy to do;  it generally takes quite a bit of effort (and training) to get developers of business logic to understand what to filter, why, and how to test that filtering is comprehensive. 

Because of this, Microsoft has made freely available the Web Protection Library (WPL) which provides a canned library of input validation that developers can use to help offset some of these issues.  The AntiXSS library within the WPL provides capabilities that developers can integrate to encode user input, thereby reducing the likelihood that an attacker could subvert the input field to negatively influence application behavior.

Microsoft Azure security: Leveraging diagnostics

The next best thing to being able to prevent an attack is to have some way to know that it happened.   In a traditional on-premise application deployment scenario, security professionals might implement enhanced logging and detection controls to offset application-level security risks.  This same strategy can be applied to Azure. Specifically, the diagnostics capability of Azure can be configured to provide additional security relevant information beyond just the instrumentation that might already exist within the application itself.  IIS logs, infrastructure logs and other logging can be a way to keep an eye on the application once it’s live without the need for extensive planning, coding, and retesting.

Obviously, these measures aren’t a comprehensive answer for PaaS security.  Ideally, the goal for organizations is a long-term sophisticated lifecycle-focused methodology that includes baking in security to the application through SDLC and process changes.  But short-term, when it’s hard to get traction for code changes and there’s pressure to get something out the door in a hurry, these quick steps might help. 

About the author:

Ed Moyle is a senior security strategist with Savvis as well as a founding partner of Security Curve.


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