Sunday, October 14, 2012

Application Architecture Review - Security

In continuation of the Architecture review series, let us focus on security review in this blog. With information security breaches hitting the news headlines quite frequently, many enterprises are realizing the real need to manage this security risk and be resilient. As such, it is possible that as an Architect, you might have been called for to perform a security review of the existing applications. I have tried to put together the following areas of concern, which need a closer look to form an opinion whether the application architecture is secure enough.
In general the broad areas of concern for the security architects should be the following:
Authentication – Review the tools, technology and the approach used by the application to establish the identity of the application users for possible deficiencies. In this connection the following specific areas need attention.
  • Look for identification of the legitimate human and system users of the application in the requirements document which in turn are validated with appropriate business scenarios. 
  • If the application exposes interface to external systems, understand how access by such systems are identified and authenticated. Also understand how secure such other external systems are and if possible ask for a security assessment of such other systems.
  • Identify how users are authenticated, whether two factor or three factor authentication.
  • Check if Single Sign On is implemented and in such case, understand how it is implemented, what tools and technology are used. If the Identity provider is external to the system boundary, then also check how the information in transit between the identity provider and the application is secured.
  • In case of external identity providers, it would also be worth checking the security practices followed by the Service Provider and whether they are being subject to regular external independent security assessment.
  • If the application maintains the user information locally and authenticates against it, ensure whether identity related data is secured appropriately from unauthorized access.
  • It would also be worth understanding how the database servers authenticate the application or the application user. If the application users happen to be the users of the database as well, then the mechanisms implemented to prevent such users directly accessing the database needs to be scrutinized.
Authorization - Each of the identified human or system users would be operating on the application by assuming defined roles and the authorization to access various components or information should be dependent on such roles. Get a clear view of how the roles and authorization are implemented in the application. The following specific areas are worth the attention in this regard.
  • Check if there exists an information sensitivity policy or information privacy policy as relevant to the data or information being accessed or managed by the application.
  • Understand how the defined roles are mapped to the various datasets in terms of the permission to the Create, Read, Update and Delete. It would also be good to examine the various roles defined by the organization whether they are in line with that of the principles of segregation of duties and look for how the users with multiple or overlapping roles are handled by the system.
  • With a view to improve application performance, developers tend to create interfaces (both visual and non-visual) in such a way they are chunky as against being chatty. While this holds good in terms of application performance, the datasets being served need to be reviewed with respect to the information sensitivity and the role based permission restrictions should be applied to all internal and external APIs and interfaces.
Availability / Scalabiltiy – Systems are designed to process data in the expected and timely manner so that the information users make the most of it, and perform the business operations efficiently and effectively. The general experience is that the systems perform very well in the initial testing phase and when it is deployed in production its behaviour could be different and might slow down considerably due to various environment and load related issues. As an architect it is essential that the proper estimation is done for expected user and data growth and the application is designed to meet such needs. Examination of the following areas might reveal how the application meets this concern.
Auditability – The systems should be designed to log certain events, which could be potentially lead to security breach. These logs should be readable when needed by users with appropriate roles and should be monitored periodically. Event alerts also help notifying the administrators on the occurrence of certain type of events, which may require immediate attention. Examine the following areas of the application design to form an opinion on this concern.
  • Review the Application architecture to understand how the event alert and logging mechanism is implemented. 
  • Review for completeness of various events that are being handled and the relevant data is being logged. Examine if any sensitive data is being logged and if so, whether role based access restrictions is also implemented around the log data. 
  • Check how the event log data is organized and stored and also look for existence of any policy or procedures around managing such log data.
  • Understand the regulatory needs, which many times govern the data to be logged and how long such log data need to be retained.
  • The log data grows too fast and many times if the storage of log data is within the same production database of the application, there is a possibility that this growth may impact the performance of the application itself impacting the Availability needs. Depending on the volume and growth rate of the data, ensure that the chosen tools and technology is adequate and appropriate.
This blog is not an exhaustive checklist and just intended to bring out the broad concerns which at a minimum should be considered in the Architecture Review. TOGAF 9.1 has in its ADM Guidelines and Techniques has listed the design considerations with respect to building security as part of the design and architecture. These security design considerations can be used for an exhaustive security review, which also covers the implementation, change management and the IT infrastructure.

Also check out my own blog titled as Building Secure Application, which is abour making security part of the SDLC.

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