Mitigating risks, part 5 - application firewalls


Sven Vermeulen Wed 05 October 2011

The last isolation-related aspect on risk mitigation is called application firewalls. Like more "regular" firewalls, its purpose is to be put in front of a service, controlling which data/connections get through and which don't. But unlike these regular firewalls, application firewalls work on higher-level protocols (like HTTP, FTP) that deal with user data rather than with connection routing. I'm going to call these firewalls "network firewalls", although most modern network firewalls have some application firewall functionality as well.

The purpose and necessity of network firewalls is well known and understood: make sure that the service is only accessible from the right location, check if connections aren't abused (or too many connections are made), etc. But what if the connection itself is valid? After all, most abuse of services is not because they originate from the wrong location or try to access the wrong service. Instead, such abuse comes from valid access to the application, but with less kosher intentions. So what can application firewalls do in this case?

  • Because they perform inspection of the data that is transferred itself, application firewalls can detect malicious data fragments or attempts to abuse the service. These detection rules can be based on general, heuristic rules (well-known examples are detection rules for cross-site scripting attacks (XSS) or SQL Injection) but can also be very specific to a particular application.
  • Because all data is transferred through the firewall and the firewall has knowledge of the application itself, these firewalls offer advanced auditing features since they can detect authentication steps, user data, application-specific transactions and more.
  • With knowledge of the users' session and behavior (application-level) and origin (network level), application firewalls can detect and prevent unauthorized sessions, such as the case with session hijacking or even man-in-the-middle attacks (based on behavior detection)

Implementing an application firewall however doesn't only mean that you improve access controls on it. It has other advantages that make application firewalls an important part in many architectures:

  • If all service access is forced through the application firewall (for instance through an IP filter on the service that only allows connections from the application firewalls) you can implement rules that deter known attacks/vulnerabilities without needing to fix the code itself (or if fixing is possible, lower the time pressure). For instance, for Apache-based services, such an application firewall could detect or even change the Range: header on malicious requests to lower the impact of this potentially nasty DoS vulnerability
  • Depending on the complexity, some functional application bug fixing might even be possible. For instance changing content types on requests/replies (HTTP), adding a domain on an FTP accounts' login statement, ...
  • Many application firewalls (or gateways) offer proxy functionality which might improve response times. This is not a sure-given, since most applications are session-aware so the advantage is only for session-agnostic requests (be it static content or specific SQL statements in case of a database firewall). But also in case of session-aware statements can an improvement be found. Consider a database firewall which translates SQL statements from an unsupported application towards better defined statements (for instance using proper indexes or materialized views).
  • In some cases, you might even be able to upgrade a backend of an unsupported application (which previously required an outdated version of that database) by translating the backend requests when they are incompatible with the new backend version. So you can improve integration or support unsupported upgrades.
  • In case of risk reduction, application firewalls also allow you to move a service elsewhere (even in the public cloud) and still keep the access under control.

Of course, it would be TGTBT (Too Good To Be True) if there isn't an (important) downside: maintaining the application firewall is a daunting task. Because of its flexibility, you'll need deep knowledge in the application firewall administration and development, keep track of all rules you have (and why you have them), do lots and lots of testing on each rule (since it might affect the functioning of the application) and still be aware that subtle differences introduced by the application firewall rules can pop up unexpectedly. Also, integrating an application firewall is another service between your customer and his service, which might influence performance but also makes the underlying architecture more complex. Finally, you'll need to consider that an application firewall requires lots of resources (CPU/memory), especially when it needs to perform SSL/TLS termination. Oh, and they're often expensive too.

Still, even with these downsides, application firewalls are an important part of the service isolation strategy, which is a key aspect in the risk mitigation strategy which this series started with. We've focused on three now: service isolation (network-wise), process isolation (through mandatory access control) and now access isolation through application firewalls. And with proper hardening in place, I believe that you have done all you can do to reduce the risks when running unsupported software (apart from upgrading it or switching towards supported software).

If you have other ideas that benefit risk mitigation, with specific focus on unsupported software, I would be glad to hear about them.