Cutting Through The Mystique Of Testing The Mainframe

Mainframes are not enterprise dinosaurs -- they're modern systems running mission-critical data that must be scrutinized as much as any other part of the IT infrastructure

BLACK HAT USA -- Las Vegas -- While most IT security teams tend to lump mainframe systems into the category of legacy systems unnecessary or impossible to scrutinize during regular audits, that couldn't be farther from the truth, says a researcher at Black Hat USA who this week released a number of free tools meant to help bridge the understanding gap between mainframe experts and security professionals.

"I see them described as legacy all the time: 'Oh, we don't need to implement this policy because it's a legacy system.' Calling a mainframe legacy is like calling Windows 2012 Server legacy because parts of the Window NT kernel are still in the code. Or it's like calling my car legacy because it's still got tires," said Philip "Soldier of Fortran" Young, explaining that most enterprise mainframes today run off the IBM z/OS platform. "It's not an old operating system -- it's got all the same security controls you'd expect from other modern operating systems."

Additionally, security folks shouldn't fall for the common misconception that mainframes are somehow slowly going the way of the dodo. In fact, Young mentioned the fact that they're still going strong and that 70% of Fortune 500 companies run mainframes.

"These companies are large companies and they're processing their critical data through a mainframe," he said. "They're not running their email servers on it and they're not running their internal intranet sites. They're running critical data."

The difficulty with securing these highly sensitive environments is that the people tasked with testing and assessing mainframes generally have limited knowledge about how mainframes work. To demonstrate this, he took a straw poll amongst his audience members about who had ever been responsible for assessing or analyzing mainframes for security. He then asked those large number with their hands up to keep them up if they'd ever administered or implemented a mainframe before. Only one hand stayed up.

Meanwhile, he asked a similar question about how many people had been responsible for assessing Linux or Unix boxes and nearly all of the hands stayed up when he asked if they had ever administered or built those systems before.

Young stressed that not only is it really important for security people to push for better access to mainframes, work as a community to develop better tools for assessing them and dedicate the time to learning more about these systems,but time is of the essence. Because mainframes aren't legacy systems and they're not going to be retired from the enterprise anytime soon, the people who know the most about them will be. He pointed to statistics that show that over 75% of mainframe administrators are over 50.

In addition to walking the audience through a number of techniques to probe a mainframe's security (PDF), Young said he hoped to spur the industry on to come together and develop better tools to automate mainframe security testing. He expressed particular frustration at the state of testing tools for the mainframe, which up until now have been virtually non-existent.

"There's really nothing out there, it's really frustrating," he said. The tools that are there are out of date or they're wrong. And there's no framework that includes z/OS. No Nessus, no NMAP and no Metasploit," he said.

Young has done his part to start getting auditors and testers the tools they need by showcasing at Black Hat a number of tools he developed that offer functionality like user enumeration, password sniffing and a way to turn a vulnerability in the fundamental way mainframes handle FTP traffic to execute commands on z/OS. However, he said there is more work to be done and he hopes other people can help as well.

"I'm working on getting some of these things implemented in Metasploit, and I need everyone's help because it's a very challenging environment -- you can understand that some people don't want these things developed so I can't ask for help from them," he said, explaining that even if security folk can't get access to their corporate mainframes due to worries about bringing down a mission critical production system, they can start experimenting on emulators, including the IBM zPDT and Hercules emulators.

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About the Author(s)

Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer

Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.

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