Tips for developing secure Microsoft apps

[ADT's PROGRAMMERS REPORT, January 14, 2003] -- Microsoft's in-house development groups last year took a well-publicized sabbatical to try to better ensure the security of the company's software. Best practices developed during and since that ''trip to the woodshed'' have now led to guides and suggestions the company offers to all developers working on its Windows -- now .NET -- platform.

Mike Kass, product manager for Microsoft's .NET Framework, recently spoke with Programmers Report about some early conclusions Microsoft has reached about best developers' practices for security. Some arise from work the company did as it prepared its entry for theĀ  popular OpenHack security contest staged by eWeek magazine.

Kass said much effort has been addressed at a new code-access security architecture. Developers, he said, should also begin to better acquaint themselves with a whole series of cryptographic library elements Microsoft has recently made available.

''The crypto [components] give you a broad, intuitive array of algorithms for encrypting such things as database data, credit information or signing XML SOAP messages with digital signatures,'' said Kass.

An important over-arching design element to consider, he noted, is Microsoft's unfolding concept of ''role-based security,'' which defines how developers implement important authorization and authentication functions.

Many readers are now familiar with the hurtful memory overruns that nefarious hackers have instigated in unsafe Web-enabled systems. Kass points to ''type verification processes,'' an important tool on the workbench of the developer who must guard against such events.

Microsoft software builders, like others, have learned the importance of careful input validation in a networked world. ''You must validate all input data,'' advises Kass. ''You don't want to allow a script fragment to be accepted when you are in fact looking for a social security number.

''In the past, you were on your own to make sure someone wasn't going to cram 128 bytes down your throat when you expected six [bytes],'' he added.

The .NET Common Language Runtime takes care of much of this effort now. ''It will not load code if it exposes itself to this type of attack,'' said Kass.

Kass indicated that the new Microsoft philosophy will be clear to system administrators. Microsoft has often put ease of use before security in the past. ''We're resetting the dial between ease of use and security,'' said Kass. They are setting that imagined dial on security, he added. ''The system is now locked down by default.'' Security before, in fact, was a selected function, rather than a default.

Microsoft recently released a whitepaper detailing the best security practices as they are applied in the OpenHack security contest. See the link below.

''Building and Configuring More Secure Web Sites,'' a Microsoft whitepaper, Dec. 2002,

''Building Secure ASP.NET Applications, Authentication, Authorization, and Secure Communication,'' a Microsoft technical article, Nov. 2002,

''Security and the Microsoft .NET Framework,'' a Microsoft technical article, May 2002,

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About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.