Application Security // Database Security
12/27/2012
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Don't Throw Away Your DAM Money

Make the most out of database activity monitoring through better tuning

After being in the technology vendor space for a long time, Caleb Barlow had an attitude adjustment coming when he started meeting with customers of IBM's Guardium database activity monitoring (DAM) product. He found that their biggest complaint wasn't about what isn't in the product, but what is there -- and they just don't know about yet.

"What ends up happening is people bought Guardium or an equivalent product because they had to, because some auditor needs to know everybody that touched the database," says Barlow, director of application, data, and mobile security for IBM Security Solutions. So they bought it, put it in place, and a year later they've collected all this data and haven't done anything with it."

Like many check-box compliance products, DAM suffers from the doldrums when enterprises put the initial P.O. in for the software, but don't requisition money for its care and feeding. Database security experts say that organizations that make the right investments in the people needed to tune these systems stand to reap far-reaching ROI from that spend.

"Having a good understanding of your database security posture, understanding where your databases are, how they are configured, and then monitoring the activity on those databases will prevent you from becoming the next item on the news," says Slavik Markovich, vice president and CTO of database security for McAfee.

[How can database-centric practices change your risk profile in 2013? See Making Database Security Your No. 1 2013 Resolution.]

So what does it take to tune and maintain a DAM? People and time, experts like say.

"Anecdotally, from big organizations we work with, this stuff can take months if they're really into it," says Alex Rothacker, director of security research for Application Security, who says the first steps in the process should be dedicated to configuring the databases themselves, mapping out schemas, and discovering which tables hold the most sensitive data.

"Make sure you tailor your policies to really alert when funny things are going on in those tables or in those databases," he says. "Because if you just go and blankly monitor all traffic, you will just be overwhelmed with the amount of data. You really have to focus on where the important data is and set up filters and signatures that will show the anomalies."

Barlow agrees that database discovery is the foundation of a good tuning process. Also key is discovering and identifying privileged users with access to those databases.

"No matter what the answer is on privileged users, I'd have the strategy to reduce that number by 50 percent -- just eliminate half of them because you don't need them all," he says. "The ones you still need, you need to have a strategy for monitoring their activities, deciding what's normal behavior, and what's not. Once you know normal behavior, then it becomes really easy to set up rules."

But like Rothacker, Barlow stresses that the resources need to be in place to properly maintain effective DAM usage.

"Whether you contract those out or you have them in house, this is somebody's job," he says. "It is someone's full-time gig. They'll spend the time learning it, figuring out how to tune it, and when they're good at it, they're going to take a lot of pride in it."

Dedicated resources will make it possible to elevate DAM from simply a firehose of recorded information to a tool that can effectively monitor and block activity, while still maintaining the level of transparency necessary to keep user activities flowing seamlessly.

"The goal is that the user should never know that they're there," Barlow says. "They shouldn't be standing in the way of people using the database, but they should also be catching stuff because there's always going to be instances of fraud, inappropriate insider activity, and so on."

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