Collaborative systems and Ajax/RIA security
Office collaboration services look like 1985
Microsoft Outlook and Exchange server have been the staple for office collaboration for over 10 years, with a model that has been around since Novell and Lotus in the mid-80's. Collaboration services are clunky, bloaty, and every IT administrator and techie hates both of them with a serious passion. Outlook Web Access... -- never mind, I'm not even going to finish this sentence. When people say that Microsoft stifles innovation this is exactly what they are talking about. I don't mean to pick on Microsoft -- because Apple, IBM Lotus Notes, and the open-source community (no CTO is going to approve anything with `Squirrel' in the name) have not stepped up to provide anything equivalent.
SaaS makes collaboration worse
Everyone and every organization does their mail, address-books, calendaring, time management, conference-room reservations, and public folder sharing a little different. Some people like to download everything from the server and save it locally. Others keep all their mail on the server. Some do both. Email retention and anti-spam are a big deal for a lot of Enterprises, so much that people even outsource these or all collaboration services.
Organizations are also moving their data more online, to Google Analytics, Salesforce, NetSuite, et al. Do you trust your CRM or ERP to a SaaS solution, even if you are a small business? Even if you do trust them, how are you going to integrate these solutions, especially with your Exchange server?
Google's answer is their GApps, an integration of GPages, GMail, GTalk/Chat, GDocs, and all their GAPI's. Have you heard of an SMB or Enterprise that has moved their collaborative efforts to GApps? My guess is that not many have.
I've seen many businesses struggle with SaaS and outsourcing of collaboration services. When considering outsourcing, a normal strategy is to look at moving 20 to 40 percent of non-core business services to managed services. Groupware should be considered a core business service/need in a large majority of cases, as it really drives the day-to-day business and contains much of the documented and hidden processes that occur inside any organization.
It's almost 2008. Stop using Exchange server already
Enter Zimbra's Collaborative Suite (ZCS) -- a groupware server with Outlook compatibility that was recently purchased by Yahoo for $345M. Zimbra has been around for at least 2.5 years, so that fact that you haven't heard of them is strange. Even Mike Rothman daily debates switching over everything to Zimbra, but his worry about costs shouldn't scare you.
Zimbra's ZCS Server runs on Linux (or Mac OS X). Linux can handle all of your Windows clients, file sharing, and printing with Samba, can run LTSP to PXE boot your environment into FreeNX/Windows-TS, and can cluster it all for free. I've done so using Ubuntu LTSP inside Xen guests on CentOS along with keepalived. The architecture becomes lightweight if you have a 5U chassis (and cold, empty standby) with 24 spindles and 8 TB of hardware RAID-1 running CentOS and IET. Then you have two powerful 1U or 2U machines running CentOS with cman/fencing, clvmd, and iSCSI-initiators mounting filesystems as OCFS2. Xen guests are booted from the shared storage. For an example without shared storage, see clustering Zimbra from Ben Rockwood.
Compare the above reference architecture to Exchange. You'll need NLB for everything except Exchange clustering, which requires MCS because of MS SQL Server. To get anywhere near the equivalent of the above, you'll want VirtualIron or VMWare ESX Server. The enormous licensing costs are building in my head as I think it through. There is no way to do this with shared storage, and this is a heavyweight solution with lots of overhead.
The differences in clients are very similarly disparate -- Zimbra is lightweight and Exchange/Outlook is not. There are a few other solutions such as OpenGroupware+ZideLook or DeskNow that provide similar Outlook compatibility as Zimbra. They have support for the DAV's, iCalendar, and other good groupware features. Zimbra, however is especially unique in many ways.
Zimbra on Ajax security
The benefits and drawbacks to using Ajax are summarized very well in a ComputerWorld article by Paul Krill. Scott Dietzen, president and CTO of Zimbra, elaborated very well to both points in this excellent article. He says that he favors Ajax to Flash, and Ajax frameworks to Flex2. I would say that any RIA framework is capable of providing these sorts of services, but Ajax has been around the longest.
The interesting part is when Dietzen talks about Ajax security:
Dietzen did cite AJAX security issues such as cross-site scripting attacks, in which user data can get interpreted in the browser, creating a breach. Also noted as a security concern was use of source code in the browser.
[ ... ]
With the recent release of the book, Ajax Security, by Billy Hoffman and Bryan Sullivan -- hopefully Ajax developers and CTO's such as Dietzen will be able to be armed with the best resources for protecting their applications and userbase.
Collaborative systems need Web services support
Zimbra has support for SOAP, REST, and JSON, but certainly Web services will also need to be provided securely. I couldn't even imagine how great it would be to combine my collaborative Office tools with my collaborative personal research. If I could even import/export betwen my Google Reader RSS feeds and my Office feeds (using OPML), that would be extremely useful. Web services take this sort of technology to the next level.
It would be great to combine XMethods and mashups into your groupware system for a number of reasons. This level of customization is going to be a driver for innovation in groupware products. I'd like to see some of best mashups done with Enterprise data and shared as groupware. ChicagoCrime and HousingMaps are great, but we can do many more interesting things in the Enteprise.
The security of Web services and Ajax gateways/proxies for building mashups comes into question here. The commercial version of SOAPSonar only costs around seven-hundred dollars, and supports XSD-Mutation, and automated vulnerability assessment/detection. There are plenty of open-source tools for testing web services, such as those mentioned in my post on 2007 Security Testing tools in review. If well tested, Zimbra (and others like it) will be able to provide mashups along with Web services support, and do so securely. JSON is also vulnerable to API hijacking, and the Ajax Security book provides interesting solutions to its defense that you absolutely have to check out.
Collaborative systems need offline applications support
Exchange has beat out many open-source groupware services because of the requirement for supporting offline applications. Users cite issues such as travel and intermittent Internet connectivity, while others simply prefer working both offline and on. Zimbra has amazing offline application support, here are some quotes from the ComputerWorld article:
"The answer for occasionally connected apps is to provide a cache on the client side that allows the application to interact locally with a data set, and then synchronize over the network when the network is available," said Dietzen.
[ ... ]
But Zimbra used another approach. "What we did at Zimbra is we actually took Zimbra server code, which was written in Java, and we created a microserver that runs on my local client," said Dietzen.
Zimbra also has a great PDF presentation called Ajax Unplugged, where they compare their Zimbra Desktop offline technology, including Zimlets, to Adobe Apollo, Dojo.Offline, Joyent Slingshot, and Mozilla's Firefox 3 Offline support and XULRunner. The Ajax Security book dedicates an entire chapter, but only details Google Gears and Dojo.Offline, while minimally mentioning WHATWG (FF3 work), Joyent Slingshot, and Adobe Apollo. I'm also partially surprised that there was no mention of Zimbra, who has chosen to build their own solution.
However, Billy and Bryan's coverage of the attack surface for Ajax offline applications is no joke. Apparently, Billy Hoffman plans to release a new tool to take advantage of some of these attacks against Google Gears in a tool called GGHOOK. GGHOOK is based on another tool called HOOK (covered in an earlier chapter on Ajax function hijacking) -- both of which will be released on his website shortly. The biggest take from the book's chapter on offline applications is how client-side input validation has become relevant again. The sad part is that the Ajax frameworks aren't providing a lot in the way of client-side input validation for this purpose.
One of the largest problems for a system like Zimbra is XSS for the client-side data stores. We all know that XSS is capable of stealing cookies and controlling the browser, but imagine the damage it would be able to do in this scenario, especially as wormable. Thankfully, ZCS Server is a local solution and doesn't even have to be Internet accessible, which would minimize some of the damage from this theoretical attack. In the case of Google Gears, all of the data can be stolen using GGHOOK, which locates the Google Gears database object and queries the local SQLite tables. Ajax security testing will also be important to solve these sorts of issues.
Besides providing Web services into the Zimbra/Zimlets API, providing a feed reader, and taking Zimbra offline -- they have also done some other notable things to increase collaboration.
Dietzen mentioned the AJAX technique of **`AJAX Linking and Embedding (ALE) <http://www.zimbra.com/blog/archives/2006/04/zimbra_ale-ajax_linking_and_embedding.html>`_*, in which one document can be embedded inside another. This expands content-sharing.* He also cited a technique called [ **`Lazy Loading <http://www.zimbra.com/blog/archives/2007/03/lazy_loading.html>`_* ] which cuts down loading time for Web pages. With lazy loading, the page loads but other parts of the application, such as calendaring, are loaded only as needed.*
Besides supporting various mail thick-clients, including Outlook and Apple Mail -- Zimbra has their ZCS web client aka "clientless mode". With the "lazy loading" support, this makes using Zimbra more powerful, faster, and cleaner than using a fat application client. However, it also exposes it to all of the web application and Ajax security problems.
Documents embedded in documents and HTML/JS embedded in HTML/JS are interesting concepts for web applications. The ALE specification provided by Zimbra is a good way of engineering this type of technology. Modern browsers have a concept known as "design mode" where the browser becomes the HTML editor.
Similarly, there's design mode in GMail, GDocs, and other web applications you may be familiar with. It has been argued between web application security scanner vendors that if scanning Ajax is difficult -- scanning "design mode" is nearly impossible. I'd like to see more specifications such as ALE come out, possibly as a standard. If so, testing Ajax-driven "design modes" could be much easier to automate.
Issues with Ajax security testing tools
Google has ways of automating their Ajax testing -- they use distributed Selenium (using grid technology) and WebDriver in order to accomplish these tasks. For commercial solutions, I like froglogic's Squish for Web more than PushToTest orHP Mercury Interactive's QTP -- but all of these are viable Ajax testing solutions. Combining security-driven fault-injection tests into these data-driven frameworks is currently the best way to test for Ajax security issues.
For theory, your best current bet is to read the Ajax Security book. The authors fail to mention tools that test Ajax. Well, they mention their own commercial scanner (nice, guys!) and one other open-source tool. I haven't mentioned it before, avoiding it as a topic for several reasons -- not even on my post about Why crawling doesn't matter. Billy and Bryan are quick to point out that the tool not only requires MS SQL Server, but also that the tool only tests the Microsoft ASP.NET AJAX framework (possible future support of GWT is mentioned). Here's a link to it anyways, as maybe the attacks in it are worth re-purposing -- the OWASP Sprajax Project.
The future of Ajax security testing tools is ripe for both the Technika Security Framework and the future-work in the w3af scanning tool, as each will be well-balanced browser-drivers. Until such a time, we are stuck with either quality testing tools (which lack the vulnerability and attack data), commercial web application security scanners (which lack critical testing capabilities), and less than a handful of open-source tools such as the Blueinfy tools, OWASP Interceptor tool, and w3af's DOM-based XSS module.
Ajax isn't the only security problem
I've also mentioned Flash and other RIA frameworks in the past, but I don't want to go too much in-depth in this post. Hopefully, I've opened up your mind to a few of the problems with modern applications and testing them for security.blog comments powered by Disqus