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Chapter: Security in Computing : Program Security

Configuration Management

When we develop software, it is important to know who is making which changes to what and when:

Configuration Management


When we develop software, it is important to know who is making which changes to what and when:


  corrective changes: maintaining control of the system's day-to-day functions


  adaptive changes: maintaining control over system modifications


  perfective changes: perfecting existing acceptable functions


  preventive changes: preventing system performance from degrading to unacceptable levels


We want some degree of control over the software changes so that one change does not inadvertently undo the effect of a previous change. And we want to control what is often a proliferation of different versions and releases. For instance, a product might run on several different platforms or in several different environments, necessitating different code to support the same functionality. Configuration management is the process by which we control changes during development and maintenance, and it offers several advantages in security. In particular, configuration management scrutinizes new and changed code to ensure, among other things, that security flaws have not been inserted, intentionally or accidentally.


Four activities are involved in configuration management:


           configuration identification


           configuration control and change management


           configuration auditing


           status accounting


Configuration identification sets up baselines to which all other code will be compared after changes are made. That is, we build and document an inventory of all components that comprise the system. The inventory includes not only the code you and your colleagues may have created, but also database management systems, third-party software, libraries, test cases, documents, and more. Then, we "freeze" the baseline and carefully control what happens to it. When a change is proposed and made, it is described in terms of how the baseline changes.


Configuration control and configuration management ensure we can coordinate separate, related versions. For example, there may be closely related versions of a system to execute on 16-bit and 32-bit processors. Three ways to control the changes are separate files, deltas, and conditional compilation. If we use separate files, we have different files for each release or version. For example, we might build an encryption system in two configurations: one that uses a short key length, to comply with the law in certain countries, and another that uses a long key. Then, version 1 may be composed of components A1 through Ak and B1, while version 2 is A1 through A k and B2, where B1

and B2 do key length. That is, the versions are the same except for the separate key processing files.


Alternatively, we can designate a particular version as the main version of a system and then define other versions in terms of what is different. The difference file, called a delta, contains editing commands to describe the ways to transform the main version into the variation.


Finally, we can do conditional compilation, whereby a single code component addresses all versions, relying on the compiler to determine which statements to apply to which versions. This approach seems appealing for security applications because all the code appears in one place. However, if the variations are very complex, the code may be very difficult to read and understand.


Once a configuration management technique is chosen and applied, the system should be audited regularly. A configuration audit confirms that the baseline is complete and accurate, that changes are recorded, that recorded changes are made, and that the actual software (that is, the software as used in the field) is reflected accurately in the documents. Audits are usually done by independent parties taking one of two approaches: reviewing every entry in the baseline and comparing it with the software in use or sampling from a larger set just to confirm compliance. For systems with strict security constraints, the first approach is preferable, but the second approach may be more practical.


Finally, status accounting records information about the components: where they came from (for instance, purchased, reused, or written from scratch), the current version, the change history, and pending change requests.


All four sets of activities are performed by a configuration and change control board, or CCB. The CCB contains representatives from all organizations with a vested interest in the system, perhaps including customers, users, and developers. The board reviews all proposed changes and approves changes based on need, design integrity, future plans for the software, cost, and more. The developers implementing and testing the change work with a program librarian to control and update relevant documents and components; they also write detailed documentation about the changes and test results.


Configuration management offers two advantages to those of us with security concerns: protecting against unintentional threats and guarding against malicious ones. Both goals are addressed when the configuration management processes protect the integrity of programs and documentation. Because changes occur only after explicit approval from a configuration management authority, all changes are also carefully evaluated for side effects. With configuration management, previous versions of programs are archived, so a developer can retract a faulty change when necessary.


Malicious modification is made quite difficult with a strong review and configuration management process in place. In fact, as presented in Sidebar 3-8, poor configuration control has resulted in at least one system failure; that sidebar also confirms the principle of easiest penetration from Chapter 1. Once a reviewed program is accepted for inclusion in a system, the developer cannot sneak in to make small, subtle changes, such as inserting trapdoors. The developer has access to the running production program only through the CCB, whose members are alert to such security breaches.

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