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Security pros push for secure code

Savvy security execs are deploying new tools to help developers with secure code.

By Michelle Hope, Network World
March 20, 2006 12:03 AM ET

Network World - The Depository Trust and Clearing Corp. isn't taking any chances when protecting its network from application-layer attacks. The company's 450 software developers use an automated scanning tool to make sure that security holes are plugged during the software development life cycle, not after an application has been deployed.

Baking security into the software development process isn't necessarily easy. Experts say using assessment and scanning tools slows down development, thereby increasing the cost of bringing new applications into production. Also, not all developers react positively to the changes.

Analysts say the benefits of writing secure code in the first place, rather than conducting vulnerability scans after the software has been deployed and having to patch holes, far outweighs the extra effort required.


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Before James Routh, chief information security officer at DTCC, which handles more than $1 quadrillion in securities transactions annually, integrated Secure Software's CodeAssure static code scanner into the software-development process, several of the company's top developers were invited to a four-week security training boot camp.

Application-layer attacks on the rise
The proliferation of firewalls, VPNs and intrusion-detection systems attest to the growing security focus on the network perimeter.

As the most glaring security holes are plugged at the network layer, however, a new breed of profit-driven hackers has targeted richer hunting ground: the application layer.

Most companies use a variety of commercial and custom-developed applications for Web-driven and customer-facing activities, as well as key company functions.

In many cases, the core data repositories for these applications are ripe with highly regulated personal and financial information of great interest to potential hackers.

How likely is it that an average organization's applications could be attacked?

It's likely enough for information security organizations such as the Web Application Security Consortium to maintain a running tally of the latest application hacks perpetrated on companies. Many organizations may not yet have felt an attack firsthand, but research from Gartner also indicates it's only a matter of time. A recent Gartner research report on application security estimated that 80% of companies will suffer an application security incident by 2009.

This growing threat, along with compliance drivers like those from the credit card industry's PCI standards, have caused a growing number of organizations to look at how best to integrate application-security methods and tools into their own software development life cycles.

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After the first week, one developer went back to a fairly recent application-development project he'd worked on and turned CodeAssure loose. He was surprised when it turned up significant gaps and vulnerabilities that neither he nor anyone else had spotted.

"When developers take time out to walk through code line by line, it becomes a very labor-intensive and costly effort. Using scanning technology, the vulnerability scans are now done automatically," Routh says. He adds that tools like CodeAssure are important, because over time they help developers become better at writing secure code. "Our experience with CodeAssure has taught us that the better the contextual help is at explaining the vulnerability, the more valuable it becomes as an education tool that developers will understand and incorporate going forward," he says.

According to Gartner analyst Neil MacDonald, a variety of application software-scanning and -assessment tools now help make applications more secure. These include both static and dynamic tools (see graphic "Application-level security toolkit"). Typically, these tools analyze the state of uncompiled code or a compiled application and produce detailed reports that identify the types of security threats found in the application, while advising about ways to prevent or correct the threat.

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