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2/23/2011
10:09 PM
Adrian Lane
Adrian Lane
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Clearing The Air On DAM

There are two very important things to understand: First, a database firewall and a database activity monitor (DAM) are exactly the same things! Second, a database firewall can upset normal IT operations

The recent Oracle press release for the official introduction of the Database Firewall Technology has generated a lot of commotion in the database security industry in the past few days. Oracle's announcement, in an attempt to differentiate its database activity monitoring product from the rest of the DAM products on the market, has rubbed many the wrong way.

There was a lot of talk at the RSA Conference last week on this announcement by Oracle, deemed as intentionally misleading PR. Starting with Ericka Chickowski's post here on the Dark Reading site, there have been a dozen follow-on comments, most notably on Pete Finnigan's Oracle security weblog.

There are two very important things to understand: First, a database firewall and a database activity monitor (DAM) are exactly the same things! A database firewall is nothing more than a deployment option for DAM. Second, a database firewall can upset normal IT operations.

To understand these statements, let's dig into some of the background behind Oracle's acquisition of Secerno technology -- which comprises the foundation of the database firewall offering. I contend Oracle acquired Secerno to protect the database, but not strictly for the sake of security. Yes, Secerno offers Oracle a legitimate DAM product. Yes, it provides the ability to detect SQL Injection attacks and block the queries before they reach the database (provided the customer deploys the product in-line with the application).

However, that was not the principal motivating factor for Oracle's investment in the technology. The pain point cited over and over again by customers is patching is too darn hard. They don't want to apply critical patches every three months. Too difficult and too costly to do. Too likely to cause problems, and when the patches destabilize the database, it's a nightmare to back patches out. Some even encounter data corruption. A database firewall provides the benefit of the patch without the same side effects.

Two points of evidence here I believe supports this assertion. First, from the very day that the acquisition was announced, Oracle referred to Secerno as a "database firewall," with firewalls being well-understood conceptually by IT managers and DBAs. In the same way network firewalls are supposed to block malicious stuff from coming into a network, a database firewall should block stuff from getting to the database. Most IT shops have them, and they are viewed, in general, as a good thing. But "database firewall" is not the name of the market segment and is a poor description of the overall value proposition DAM provides. Oracle went in a different direction and focused on a subset of the value, which was very dangerous because many early adopters of DAM technology -- deployed as a firewall -- were negatively impacted.

But the most important point comes from Vipin Samar of Oracle: "Over time, there will be many advancements coming around to the databases, but customers do not want to have to upgrade their databases to take advantage of these new capabilities."

That is the crux of the issue: customer resistance to persistent changes to the database engine. Changes that quantifiably destabilize critical business processes in exchange for mitigating partially or unquantifiable security risks. Patches break stuff so businesses avoid patching as much as possible. The database firewall provides the benefit of patching with the perception of problems.

While it is marketed that a database firewall requires no changes to the application or database logic, it's given that you will be changing database firewall policies every time the application changes the way it communicates with the database. Remember, you are blocking SQL statements you don't recognize, good or bad. Every time you patch your applications, the communication between the application and database usually changes as well. These changes are not allowed by the firewall until you change the firewall rules. A database firewall can destabilize database operations just as easily as a bad patch, but it is much easier to fix and far less likely to cause data corruption. Building and maintaining database firewall rules, just like network and Web application firewalls, requires you invest time to make rules effective and avoid impact to business processing.

There are no surprises here, and I don't see a problem with the press release. Oracle is announcing exactly what it promised in the past. The product it offers provides the basic value Oracle claims it does, and the announcement is going exactly as predicted nine months ago. But my advice is to recognize there's no free lunch, and that you are trading one effort (policy management) for another (patching).

Adrian Lane is an analyst/CTO with Securosis LLC, an independent security consulting practice. Special to Dark Reading. Adrian Lane is a Security Strategist and brings over 25 years of industry experience to the Securosis team, much of it at the executive level. Adrian specializes in database security, data security, and secure software development. With experience at Ingres, Oracle, and ... View Full Bio

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