Saturday, July 7, 2012

Direct Database Updates – A Cause of Concern

Many organizations still have the practice of directly updating the production databases to fix data integrity issues. This shows that the one or more applications deployed on top of the database are not reliable enough to maintain the database integrity. This is one of the biggest concerns for the information security auditors as this requires certain resources being granted he access privilege to the production databases. This opens up opportunity for internal hackers to indulge into fraudulent activities.

There could be a multitude of reasons which could lead to such a situation, needing frequent database updates. The following are some such reasons that impact the reliability:
  • Incomplete requirements – It may be possible that the business rules and / or validations are not completely gathered and documented. 
  • Design deficiencies – Design deficiencies like inappropriate error handling, managing the concurrency, etc. could also lead to data integrity issues.
  • Shared database across multiple applications – When multiple applications use a shared database, it might possible that some business rules or data validation requirements might be implemented differently or some applications might have technology or design limitations leading to introducing data integrity issues.
  • Creeping code complexity over a period of application maintenance – As the applications move into maintenance cycle, and as newer resources may get on to maintain the application code base, chances are high that due to the growing complexity and lack of complete knowledge, issues might slip through the development and sometimes QA phase as well.
  • Lack of adequate QA / Reviews – Review is a very effective technique to identify potential issues way ahead in the application development life cycle. But, unfortunately, most organizations does not give importance to requirement, design and code reviews or don’t get it done effectively. This review or QA deficiency could impact the reliability. 
Though the software development process has matured enough, organizations tend to compromise in some of the quality attributes which might lead to a situation of the application being not reliable. Thus, it may not be possible to completely eliminate the need for direct database updates. However, a process with adequate checks and controls should be put in place around this activity to ensure that the chances of security breach through this channel are under control. At a minimum, he following checks and controls need to be in place to have the database updates in control.
  • Every request for database update should originate from business function heads and should formally be supported by a service request as logged in to an appropriate tracking system or into a register.
  • Every such request shall be reviewed by the analysts and / or architects to identify whether the data update is necessary and there not another way of fixing this using any of the application features.
  • The review should also suggest two solutions, one being the isolating the specific data table and columns that need to be updated (corrective action) and the other being the possible enhancement to the application(s) to prevent such integrity issue from occurring in the future. The review should also identify the constraints in implementing the data fix, for instance some of the fixes may warrant that they should be executed ahead or after a specific scheduled job or sometimes may need the database to be taken offline before execution.
  • In most cases, these issues would be very hard to investigate, as the occurrence would be rare and upon encountering a unique combination of data / program flow. It would be beneficial if the result of such review flows into the process and necessary checks and controls are put in place to prevent such issues slipping through the review and testing phases of the SDLC.
  • On completion of the review, developers may be engaged to create necessary SQL scripts that are required for such updates.
  • This shall be subject to review by the analysts and / or architects and then subject to testing by the QA team. 
  • Once the review and test results are clear the scripts shall be forwarded to the DBAs who should execute the scripts in production. Ideally such data updates should be performed in batches and the affected tables / objects should be backed up prior to execution, so that the old data can be restored when needed.
  • The DBAs should maintain a record of such execution and the resulting log data and the same shall be subject to periodic audit, so as to ensure that the scripts remain unaltered and that no additional unwanted activities happen along with script execution.
  • None of the resources involved in this process except the DBAs should have access to production database. For the purpose of investigation or troubleshooting certain cases, a clone of the production data may be made available on request and should be taken off when the its intended purpose is complete. It is important to have a practice of masking sensitive data while making such production clones and also should have restricted access over the network.
  • It is important that the responsibilities are divided amongst different groups and the associated employees should have demonstrated high credibility in the past and the accountability should be well established.
  • A periodic end to end audit should be performed, which should track right from the origination of the service request to its execution in the production database and any non-compliance must be seriously dealt with.

More than these checks and controls, the organization should look for declining database update requests over a period of time, which is an indicator of improving system reliablity. Another way to look at the improvement is that the recurring requests of the same nature should vanish after two or three occurrances. The organization's software engineering process also should call far adequate checks and controls which will contribute to improved system reliability.


  1. Very true in case of most organizations. This is an area of concern and should be taken seriously. Thanks for sharing ...

  2. Thanks for acknowledging the concern around this area.

  3. Here is a related article.

    Though published back in 2007 the problem still exists and the solution still holds good.

  4. Kannan,

    You said it well and yes, the very presence of frequent Database updates to the production databases is a clear indicator that the application is not complete in meeting user expectations or it is not reliable enough to ensure database integrity. On top of it, you have called it out right that it is one of the biggest security weakness of the organization if these database update requests are not appropriately controlled and monitored. Thanks for writing this up.

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