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5/26/2009
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NSA-Funded 'Cauldron' Tool Goes Commercial

Vulnerability analysis tool aggregates, correlates, and visually maps attack patterns and possibilities

A vulnerability analysis tool used by the National Security Agency (NSA) and U.S. Department of Homeland Security is now commercially available for enterprises that want to either make sense of their reams of vulnerability data or trace an actual data breach.

The Cauldron tool, which was developed by George Mason University's Center for Secure Information Systems (CSIS) under a research grant by the NSA and Air Force Research Labs, automates the analysis of all of a network's potential attack paths, from the network to the application level. It takes in vulnerability data from scanners, aggregating and correlating that data with vulnerability databases.

The so-called Topological Vulnerability Analysis (TVA) technology also provides graphical representations of exploit sequences and paths that attackers can use to break into a network or application. "The [GMU] project looked at ways to improve on the efficiency of reviewing vulnerabilities and trying to focus on what vulnerabilities should be resolved first -- with tons of network scans and data," says Oscar Fuster, vice president of marketing for Epok, a software and integration firm that is offering Cauldron to its clients as well as for direct sale. "That's what the product does: It aggregates these globs of data and different scans, and correlates and maps it so you can visually see what an attack pattern might look like -- and not just an attack from the outside."

Vulnerability management isn't new. Vendors such as RedSeal and Skybox offer similar analysis, notes Ivan Arce, CTO for Core Security Technologies, which sells penetration testing tools. "[Cauldron] does [resonate] with what we have been saying for years: Attackers use multistep attacks and do not constrain themselves to single-attack vectors," Arce says.

But the approach used by Cauldron is based on data from third-party vulnerability scanners and IDSes, he says -- data that is "purely theoretical" when it comes to attacks. "Therefore, its quality is derived purely on the quality of the inputs and on whether their model is actually valid and realistic," Arce says. "To address this problem from a theoretical model is one thing, and it's another thing to have some real means of demonstrating when this or that happens or not...when trying to compromise a system. That's what penetration testing is good for."

Fuster says Cauldron is more specialized than related vulnerability analysis tools in the market because it focuses specifically on aggregating, correlating, and visualizing, he says. "How would someone attack my database server? It draws you all of the attack paths someone could take by exploiting all of those vulnerabilities [in the network]," he says.

Vulnerabilty data is imported into Cauldron via an XML-based tool so that enterprises can analyze how bugs could be used to attack their critical assets, enabling them to pinpoint and prioritize fixes, Fuster says. And it can also be used to illustrate all of the attack paths once a breach is under way, or to conduct forensics after an attack.

Epok is marketing the tool to other government agencies, as well as companies in financial services and pharmaceuticals, for instance, as part of integration projects. Cauldron is also available for direct sale from Epok, starting at $15,000 for up to four subnets, and up to several hundred thousands of dollars for larger networks.

According to Cauldron's creators, among other functions the tool also lets users compare possible resource expenditures in the network to determine the effect on security overall, as well as "immediately observe any changes to individual machine configurations that increase the overall risk to the enterprise," GMU researchers wrote in a paper about the technology.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is Senior Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, ... View Full Bio

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