Monday, December 19, 2005

My thoughts on Monoculture

As an avid reader of both of Tom Ptacek and Richard Bejtlichs blogs, I think these two may need to be separated to avoid further disruption of the rest of the class. These guys never agree on anything, kind of like the Siskel and Ebert of computer security (or is that Roper now…) All kidding aside, both sides of the argument are correct and have their merits, and at the same time, neither are the final, correct answer. Let me explain my view on this.

First, let me give you the Cliffs Notes version of this debate. It is a widely known fact that the monopoly held by Microsoft Windows on the desktop market is a security nightmare due to the number of vulnerabilities, speed of disclosure and time to market for security updates. This brought up the debate about a single platform everyone uses being a security weakness both for individuals and for national security. This lack of diversity in the market is being labeled as a “Monoculture” (although I think I am going to use this term to refer to the skanky one-night stands at bars, it seems more appropriate). In Dan Geers article “Monoculture on the Back of the Envelope”, he is arguing for diversity of platforms, which I will label as a “Polyculture”, for the IT industry.

The “Monoculture” has several advantages, which is what makes it so popular. First, is standardization. Ideally, all systems in the environment are running on the same platform and have the same software. It is very easy to administer a network with a standard desktop image and similar software. Time to rollout administrative policies, software updates, and security fixes are minimized in this type of environment. The downside to this is if there is an exploit for vulnerability on this platform, the intruder basically has the keys to the kingdom.

The “Polyculture” on the other hand, limits this. In a “Polyculture”, a vulnerability on one single platform can be contained and only affects the vulnerable systems. However, as Halvar Flake points out (which I would normally discount as invalid due to the arrogance of his tone, but I will ignore and count as a valid point anyway) if there is a valuable piece of information, such as the source to Company A software package, distributed on different platforms, an intruder only needs to exploit one vulnerable platform to have access to that valuable piece of information. So if the goal of the intruder is to get that valuable piece of information, this paradigm is severely flawed. Also, once one system is owned, it is only a matter of time before a skilled intruder can research and exploit the diverse platforms, making the intruder not only a bigger threat to the compromised organization, but other organizations as well.

So here are my thoughts on this. I believe there is very little evidence to credit a “Monoculture” as a major security weakness or strength for all scenarios. In some scenarios, such as Halvar’s example, it can be a potential strength. In other examples, such as with worms, it is a major detriment. I believe a “Polyculture” is a natural evolution from a “Monoculture”, and is more than likely a Windows shop diversifying into a Windows/Linux/MacOS shop. Therefore, chances are that the weakest link in the chain more than likely is a vulnerability in the software that exists in the “Monoculture” as well as the “Polyculture” since that vulnerable system will exist in both environments. The whole “Monoculture” argument is smoke and mirrors, another example of security through obscurity by diversifying the environment, another example of the argument of sacrificing usability vs. security, and a chance for someone to write a “paper” to get a new buzzword out there for us to all argue about. Both sides have their pros and their cons, leading to the conclusion that once again, security researchers have created a ruckus and have failed to find that security “silver bullet”, distracting us from the real issues of piss-poor security policies, piss-poor management, and failure to communicate risk effectively to management. The concept of diversifying the environment is just another tool in the security toolkit, and may not be appropriate for all scenarios. A well-managed Windows only network will be just as secure as a hybrid network consisting of multiple platforms; the only difference is the increased difficulty in management.

My final thoughts on this, this seems to me like a thinly veiled argument to “ditch Windows in favor of authors favorite platform X, but start slow and only do a few systems at a time”. If you don’t like Windows, don’t use it, but don’t make up these ridiculous arguments about IT cultural diversity and complain about how only 30 percent of the laptops you see at conferences are Macs, just call it what it is.

Update (12-20-2005): Thomas Ptacek updated his post and just about hit the nail on the head as far as I am concerned. “But the problem with the monoculture argument is that it simply isn't real” is absolutly, 100 percent, right on the money. The monoculture argument is an argument that is best left out of the security equation and left more to the management to decide the best path to productivity (example: Mac for the graphic artists, PC’s for the programmers, *nix for the servers, etc). And kudos for going one step further and pointing out that there are other “Monocultures” out there.

No comments: