Leveling the field between customers, product marketers

LAS VEGAS'How can a network administrator separate the hype from the functionality in a product being pitched by a vendor?

"It's all about quantifying risk and letting people evaluate what works and what doesn't," said independent researcher and author Jeremy Rauch.

Rauch and long-time friend Thomas Ptacek, author and security researcher for Arbor Networks Inc. of Lexington, Mass., shared their expertise this week in IT training sessions to help even the playing field for customers and vendors.

Officials responsible for security product acquisition often lack the skills and tools for translating marketing-speak and penetrating the product hype, they said. "Plus, we just think it's fun" to poke at proprietary products and discover their strengths and weaknesses, said Ptacek.

Rauch and Ptacek presented a two-day class, titled 'Black Box Bakeoffs: Evaluating Security Technology,' at the Black Hat Training sessions, a precursor to this week's Black Hat Briefings security conference.

"It's not that all vendors are evil," said Ptacek, who has worked in marketing as well as in product development. "But their job is to portray the product in the best way possible," Rauch added.

Security vendors are under the same pressures as other developers to quickly bring new products and features to market, Ptacek said. "And everybody ships software with bugs." That means administrators often end up relying on buggy security products to protect critical systems and data.

Ptacek said he became aware of the problem in 1997 when he co-authored a paper on problems common in intrusion detection systems.

"They were very aggressively marketed," he said. "It turned out, if you looked carefully at these tools, they didn't work. The people who relied on them had problems."

Some vendors fixed those problems; some did not. "We still find vulnerabilities that were described in that paper today," Ptacek said.

"People have no effective way to differentiate between products that resolved those problems and those that haven't," Rauch said.

Administrators who must select network security tools listen to vendor spiels, read the product specs and maybe consult published product reviews.

In the end, "there's always a bakeoff," Ptacek said. Two or three finalists are plugged into a testbed and put through their paces. "But there is no methodology in place" to define how the bakeoff should be decided and how to make it conform to the customer's specific operational environment and threat model.

The Black Box Bakeoff is intended to help administrators establish effective methodologies and metrics for testing security products.

"The objective is to arm people with the best tools possible," Ptacek said. Some of those tools are open-source and proprietary commercial products for analyzing performance. Students also learn to set up test criteria and document results.

Also important is the ability to understand the vendor and marketer's perspective so as to be informed consumers. Believe it or not, marketing people don't always stick to the plain, unvarnished truth.

"There are security products that claim to do things that can't be done," Ptacek said. For example, some products claim to discover covert channels for sneaking sensitive data out of an enterprise. "It is impossible to find every possible way to tunnel out," but that distinction is not made when the box is checked off on the product feature chart.

The class provides hands-on experience as well as theory, and participants evaluate two products using their own notebook computers during the sessions. The class focuses on network security tools, specifically multifeature firewall IPS and VPN boxes, which now are hot in the industry. But the methods used in the class are not specific to particular products, the instructor said.

"I'd like to think that the same sort of testing would be applicable to other technology," Rauch said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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