Infrastructure Security: The Application Level

10/12/2010 6:08:16 PM
Application or software security should be a critical element of your security program. Most enterprises with information security programs have yet to institute an application security program to address this realm. Designing and implementing applications targeted for deployment on a cloud platform will require that existing application security programs reevaluate current practices and standards. The application security spectrum ranges from standalone single-user applications to sophisticated multiuser e-commerce applications used by millions of users. Web applications such as content management systems (CMSs), wikis, portals, bulletin boards, and discussion forums are used by small and large organizations. A large number of organizations also develop and maintain custom-built web applications for their businesses using various web frameworks (PHP,[23] .NET,[24] J2EE,[25] Ruby on Rails, Python, etc.). According to SANS, until 2007 few criminals attacked vulnerable websites because other attack vectors were more likely to lead to an advantage in unauthorized economic or information access. Increasingly, however, advances in cross-site scripting (XSS) and other attacks have demonstrated that criminals looking for financial gain can exploit vulnerabilities resulting from web programming errors as new ways to penetrate important organizations. In this section, we will limit our discussion to web application security: web applications in the cloud accessed by users with standard Internet browsers, such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Safari, from any computer connected to the Internet.

[23] See

[24] See

[25] See

Since the browser has emerged as the end user client for accessing in-cloud applications, it is important for application security programs to include browser security into the scope of application security. Together they determine the strength of end-to-end cloud security that helps protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of the information processed by cloud services.

1. Application-Level Security Threats

According to SANS,[26] web application vulnerabilities in open source as well as custom-built applications accounted for almost half the total number of vulnerabilities discovered between November 2006 and October 2007.[27] The existing threats exploit well-known application vulnerabilities (e.g., the OWASP Top 10; see, including cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL injection, malicious file execution, and other vulnerabilities resulting from programming errors and design flaws. Armed with knowledge and tools, hackers are constantly scanning web applications (accessible from the Internet) for application vulnerabilities. They are then exploiting the vulnerabilities they discover for various illegal activities including financial fraud, intellectual property theft, converting trusted websites into malicious servers serving client-side exploits, and phishing scams. All web frameworks and all types of web applications are at risk of web application security defects, ranging from insufficient validation to application logic errors.

[26] See

[27] See

It has been a common practice to use a combination of perimeter security controls and network- and host-based access controls to protect web applications deployed in a tightly controlled environment, including corporate intranets and private clouds, from external hackers. Web applications built and deployed in a public cloud platform will be subjected to a high threat level, attacked, and potentially exploited by hackers to support fraudulent and illegal activities. In that threat model, web applications deployed in a public cloud (the SPI model) must be designed for an Internet threat model, and security must be embedded into the Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC); see Figure 31.

Figure 1. The SDLC

2. DoS and EDoS

Additionally, you should be cognizant of application-level DoS and DDoS attacks that can potentially disrupt cloud services for an extended time. These attacks typically originate from compromised computer systems attached to the Internet (routinely, hackers hijack and control computers infected by way of viruses/worms/malware and, in some cases, powerful unprotected servers). Application-level DoS attacks could manifest themselves as high-volume web page reloads, XML[28] web services requests (over HTTP or HTTPS), or protocol-specific requests supported by a cloud service. Since these malicious requests blend with the legitimate traffic, it is extremely difficult to selectively filter the malicious traffic without impacting the service as a whole. For example, a DDoS attack on Twitter on August 6, 2009, brought the service down for several hours (see Figure 2).

[28] XML stands for eXtensible Markup Language; see

Figure 2. DDoS attack on Twitter

Apart from disrupting cloud services, resulting in poor user experience and service-level impacts, DoS attacks can quickly drain your company’s cloud services budget. DoS attacks on pay-as-you-go cloud applications will result in a dramatic increase in your cloud utility bill: you’ll see increased use of network bandwidth, CPU, and storage consumption. This type of attack is also being characterized as economic denial of sustainability (EDoS).[29]

[29] See, for example,

The low barriers for small and medium-size enterprises to adopt cloud computing for legitimate use are also leveling the field for hackers. Using hijacked or exploited cloud accounts, hackers will be able to link together computing resources to achieve massive amounts of computing without any of the capital infrastructure costs. In the not-so-distant future, you might witness DoS attacks launched from IaaS or PaaS clouds against other cloud services (such hostile and offensive cloud models are being characterized as dark clouds).

3. End User Security

You, as a customer of a cloud service, are responsible for end user security tasks—security procedures to protect your Internet-connected PC—and for practicing “safe surfing.” Protection measures include use of security software, such as anti-malware, antivirus, personal firewalls, security patches, and IPS-type software on your Internet-connected computer. The new mantra of “the browser is your operating system” appropriately conveys the message that browsers have become the ubiquitous “operating systems” for consuming cloud services. All Internet browsers routinely suffer from software vulnerabilities that make them vulnerable to end user security attacks. Hence, our recommendation is that cloud customers take appropriate steps to protect browsers from attacks. To achieve end-to-end security in a cloud, it is essential for customers to maintain good browser hygiene. The means keeping the browser (e.g., Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari) patched and updated to mitigate threats related to browser vulnerabilities. Currently, although browser security add-ons are not commercially available, users are encouraged to frequently check their browser vendor’s website for security updates, use the auto-update feature, and install patches on a timely basis to maintain end user security.[30]

[30] A good reference for browser security is Google’s Browser Security Handbook.

4. Who Is Responsible for Web Application Security in the Cloud?

Depending on the cloud services delivery model (SPI) and service-level agreement (SLA), the scope of security responsibilities will fall on the shoulders of both the customer and the cloud provider. The key is to understand what your security responsibilities are versus those of the CSP. In that context, recent security surveys have highlighted the fact that lack of transparency in security controls and practices employed by CSPs is a barrier to cloud adoption.

To start with, cloud customers do not have the transparency required in the area of software vulnerabilities in cloud services. This prevents customers from managing the operational risk that might come with the vulnerabilities. Furthermore, by treating their software as proprietary, CSPs are impeding security researchers from analyzing the software for security flaws and bugs. (The exception is cloud providers that are operating on open source software.) Due to this lack of transparency, customers are left with no choice but to trust their CSPs to disclose any new vulnerability that may affect the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of their application. For example, as of March 2009, no prominent IaaS, PaaS, or SaaS vendors are participating in the Common Vulnerability and Exposures (CVE) project. Case in point: AWS took 7.5 months to fix a vulnerability that Colin Percival reported in May 2007.[31] This vulnerability was a cryptographic weakness in Amazon’s request signing code that affected its database API (SimpleDB) and EC2 API services, and it was not made public until after it was fixed in December 2008. (Colin does acknowledge that Amazon took this issue seriously at all times, and the lengthy timeline was simply due to the large amount of work involved in rolling out a patch to the affected services.)

[31] See

Enterprise customers should understand the vulnerability disclosure policy of cloud services and factor that into the CSP risk assessment. The following sections discuss the web application security in the context of the SPI cloud service delivery model.

5. SaaS Application Security

The SaaS model dictates that the provider manages the entire suite of applications delivered to users. Therefore, SaaS providers are largely responsible for securing the applications and components they offer to customers. Customers are usually responsible for operational security functions, including user and access management as supported by the provider. It is a common practice for prospective customers, usually under an NDA, to request information related to the provider’s security practices. This information should encompass design, architecture, development, black- and white-box application security testing, and release management. Some customers go to the extent of hiring independent security vendors to perform penetration testing (black-box security testing) of SaaS applications (with consent from the provider) to gain assurance independently. However, penetration testing can be costly and not all providers agree to this type of verification.

Extra attention needs to be paid to the authentication and access control features offered by SaaS CSPs. Usually that is the only security control available to manage risk to information. Most services, including those from and Google, offer a web-based administration user interface tool to manage authentication and access control of the application. Some SaaS applications, such as Google Apps, have built-in features that end users can invoke to assign read and write privileges to other users. However, the privilege management features may not be advanced, fine-grained access and could have weaknesses that may not conform to your organization’s access control standard. One example that captures this issue is the mechanism that Google Docs employs in handling images embedded in documents, as well as access privileges to older versions of a document. Evidently, embedded images stored in Google Docs are not protected in the same way that a document is protected with sharing controls. That means if you have shared a document containing embedded images, the other person will always be able to view those images even after you’ve stopped sharing the document. A blogger[32] discovered this access control quirk and brought it to Google’s attention. Although Google has acknowledged the issue, its response conveys that it believes[33] those concerns do not pose a significant security risk to its users.

[32] Google Docs access control issue:

[33] Google Docs access control response to a weakness issue:

Another incident related to Google Docs was a privacy glitch[34] that inappropriately shared access to a small fraction (Google claims 0.05% of the documents were affected) of word processing and presentation documents stored on its Google Apps cloud service. Though the documents were shared only with people whom the Google Docs users had already shared documents, rather than with the world at large, the problem illustrates the need to evaluate and understand cloud-specific access control mechanisms.

[34] Google Docs privacy glitch:

Cloud customers should try to understand cloud-specific access control mechanisms—including support for strong authentication and privilege management based on user roles and functions—and take the steps necessary to protect information hosted in the cloud. Additional controls should be implemented to manage privileged access to the SaaS administration tool, and enforce segregation of duties to protect the application from insider threats. In line with security standard practices, customers should implement a strong password policy—one that forces users to choose strong passwords when authenticating to an application.

It is a common practice for SaaS providers to commingle their customer data (structured and unstructured) in a single virtual data store and rely on data tagging to enforce isolation between customer data. In that multitenant data store model, where encryption may not be feasible due to key management and other design barriers, data is tagged and stored with a unique customer identifier. This unique data tag makes it possible for the business logic embedded in the application layer to enforce isolation between customers when the data is processed. It is conceivable that the application layer enforcing this isolation could become vulnerable during software upgrades by the CSP. Hence, customers should understand the virtual data store architecture and the preventive mechanisms the SaaS providers use to guarantee the compartmentalization and isolation required in a virtual multitenant environment.

Established SaaS providers, such as, Microsoft, and Google, are known to invest in software security and practice security assurance as part of their SDLC. However, given that there is no industry standard to assess software security, it is almost impossible to benchmark providers against a baseline.[36]

[36] The Payment Application Data Security Standard (PA-DSS) is applicable only to organizations that store, process, or transmit cardholder data—with guidance for software developers and manufacturers of applications and devices used in those transactions.

Table 1 lists security controls at the application level.

Table 1. Security controls at the application level
Threat outlookMedium
Preventive controlsIdentity management, access control assessment, browser hardened with latest patches, multifactor authentication via delegated authentication, endpoint security measures including antivirus and IPS
Detective controlsLogin history and available reports from SaaS vendors

6. PaaS Application Security

PaaS vendors broadly fall into the following two major categories:

  • Software vendors (e.g., Bungee, Etelos, GigaSpaces, Eucalyptus)

  • CSPs (e.g., Google App Engine,’s, Microsoft Azure, Intuit QuickBase)

Organizations evaluating a private cloud may utilize PaaS software to build a solution for internal consumption. Currently, no major public clouds are known to be using commercial off-the-shelf or open source PaaS software such as Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus does offer a limited experimental pilot cloud for developers at,[37] however). Therefore, given the nascent stage of PaaS deployment, we will not discuss software security of standalone PaaS software in this chapter. Nonetheless, it is recommended that organizations evaluating PaaS software perform a risk assessment and apply the software security standard similar to acquiring any enterprise software.

[37] See

By definition, a PaaS cloud (public or private) offers an integrated environment to design, develop, test, deploy, and support custom applications developed in the language the platform supports. PaaS application security encompasses two software layers:

  • Security of the PaaS platform itself (i.e., runtime engine)

  • Security of customer applications deployed on a PaaS platform

Generally speaking, PaaS CSPs (e.g., Google, Microsoft, and are responsible for securing the platform software stack that includes the runtime engine that runs the customer applications. Since PaaS applications may use third-party applications, components, or web services, the third-party application provider may be responsible for securing their services. Hence, customers should understand the dependency of their application on all services and assess risks pertaining to third-party service providers. Until now, CSPs have been reluctant to share information pertaining to platform security using the argument that such security information could provide an advantage for hackers. However, enterprise customers should demand transparency from CSPs and seek information necessary to perform risk assessment and ongoing security management.

6.1. PaaS application container

In the multitenant PaaS service delivery model, the core security tenets are containment and isolation of multitenant applications from each other. In that model, access to your data should be restricted to your enterprise users and to applications that you own and manage. The security model of the PaaS platform runtime engine is the CSP’s intellectual property, and it is essential to delivering the “sandbox” architecture in a multitenant computing model. Hence, the sandbox characteristic of the platform runtime engine is central in maintaining the confidentiality and integrity of your application deployed in the PaaS. CSPs are responsible for monitoring new bugs and vulnerabilities that may be used to exploit the PaaS platform and break out of the sandbox architecture. This type of situation is the worst case scenario for a PaaS service; the privacy implications for customer-sensitive information are undesirable and could be very damaging to your business. Hence, enterprise customers should seek information from the CSP on the containment and isolation architecture of the PaaS service.

Network and host security monitoring outside the PaaS platform is also the responsibility of the PaaS cloud provider (i.e., monitoring of a shared network and system infrastructure hosting customer applications). PaaS customers should understand how PaaS CSPs are managing their platform, including updating of the runtime engine and change, release, and patch management.

7. Customer-Deployed Application Security

PaaS developers need to get familiar with specific APIs to deploy and manage software modules that enforce security controls. Furthermore, given that the API is unique to a PaaS cloud service, developers are required to become familiar with platform-specific security features—available to them in the form of security objects and web services for configuring authentication and authorization controls within the application. When it comes to PaaS API design, currently no standard is available, nor is there any concerted effort by CSPs to develop a ubiquitous and consistent API across clouds—and that makes porting of an application across PaaS clouds a monumental task. Currently, the Google App Engine supports only Python and Java, and’s supports only a proprietary language called Apex. (Apex differs from languages such as C++, Java, and .NET. Unlike those languages, Apex is much more limited in scope and is specific to building business applications on the platform.) In this regard, cloud services have the potential to retain customers more forcefully than traditional software licensing. The lack of an API standard has ramifications for both security management and portability of applications across the cloud.

Developers should expect CSPs to offer a set of security features, including user authentication, single sign-on (SSO) using federation, authorization (privilege management), and SSL or TLS support, made available via the API. Currently, there is no PaaS security management standard: CSPs have unique security models, and security features will vary from provider to provider. In the case of the Google App Engine, a developer using Python or Java objects can configure the user profile and select HTTPS as a transport protocol. Similarly, offers an Apex API to configure security parameters, manipulate various runtime configurations, and assign certain TCP ports for application-to-application connection-type interactions using Apex objects.[38]

[38] For example, see

Based on our assessment of major PaaS CSPs, the security features available to PaaS applications are limited to basic security configuration—SSL configuration, basic privilege management, and user authentication using the provider’s identity store. In only a few cases, user federation is supported using the Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML).

Table 2 lists security controls applicable to PaaS applications.

Table 2. Security controls applicable to PaaS applications
Threat outlookMedium
Preventive controlsUser authentication, account management, browser hardened with latest patches, endpoint security measures including antivirus and IPS
Detective controlsApplication vulnerability scanning

8. IaaS Application Security

IaaS cloud providers (e.g., Amazon EC2, GoGrid, and Joyent) treat the applications on customer virtual instances as a black box, and therefore are completely agnostic to the operations and management of the customer’s applications. The entire stack—customer applications, runtime application platform (Java, .NET, PHP, Ruby on Rails, etc.), and so on—runs on the customer’s virtual servers and is deployed and managed by customers. To that end, customers have full responsibility for securing their applications deployed in the IaaS cloud. Hence, customers should not expect any application security assistance from CSPs other than basic guidance and features related to firewall policy that may affect the application’s communications with other applications, users, or services within or outside the cloud.

Web applications deployed in a public cloud must be designed for an Internet threat model, embedded with standard security countermeasures against common web vulnerabilities (e.g., the OWASP Top 10). In adherence with common security development practices, they should also be periodically tested for vulnerabilities, and most importantly, security should be embedded into the SDLC. Customers are solely responsible for keeping their applications and runtime platform patched to protect the system from malware and hackers scanning for vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to their data in the cloud. It is highly recommended that you design and implement applications with a “least-privileged” runtime model (e.g., configure the application to run using a lower privileged account).

Developers writing applications for IaaS clouds must implement their own features to handle authentication and authorization. In line with enterprise identity management practices, cloud applications should be designed to leverage delegated authentication service features supported by an enterprise Identity Provider (e.g., OpenSSO, Oracle IAM, IBM, CA) or third-party identity service provider (e.g., Ping Identity, Symplified, TriCipher). Any custom implementations of Authentication, Authorization, and Accounting (AAA) features can become a weak link if they are not properly implemented, and you should avoid them when possible.

In summary, the architecture for IaaS hosted applications closely resembles enterprise web applications with an n-tier distributed architecture. In an enterprise, distributed applications run with many controls in place to secure the host and the network connecting the distributed hosts. Comparable controls do not exist by default in an IaaS platform and must be added through a network, user access, or as application-level controls. Customers of IaaS clouds are responsible for all aspects of their application security and should take the steps necessary to protect their application to address application-level threats in a multitenant and hostile Internet environment.

Table 3 lists security controls applicable to IaaS applications.

Table 3. Security controls applicable to IaaS applications
Threat outlookHigh
Preventive controlsApplication developed using security-embedded SDLC process, least-privileged configuration, timely patching of application, user authentication, access control, account management, browser hardened with latest patches, endpoint security measures including antivirus, IPS, host-based IDS, host firewall, and virtual private network (VPN) for administration
Detective controlsLogging, event correlation, application vulnerability scanning and monitoring

9. Public Cloud Security Limitations

Customers evaluating the public cloud should keep in mind that there are limitations to the public cloud when it comes to support for custom security features. Security requirements such as an application firewall, SSL accelerator, cryptography, or rights management using a device that supports PKCS 12 are not supported in a public SaaS, PaaS, or IaaS cloud. In the future, IaaS and PaaS providers may offer some of these more sophisticated security features, depending on customer demand. In general, any mitigation controls that require deployment of an appliance or locally attached peripheral devices in the public IaaS/PaaS cloud are not feasible at this time.

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