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Can Containers Fix Java's Legacy Security Vulnerabilities?

I reported last week on Oracle's latest Critical Patch Update, which included 169 new security vulnerability fixes across the company's product lines, including 19 for Java. The folks at Java security provider Waratek pointed out to me that 16 of those Java fixes addressed new sandbox bypass vulnerabilities that affect both legacy and current versions of the platform. That heads-up prompted a conversation with Waratek CTO and founder John Matthew Holt and Waratek's security strategist Jonathan Gohstand about their container-based approach to one of the most persistent data center security vulnerabilities: outdated Java code.

Holt reminded me that the amount of Java legacy code in the enterprise is about to experience a kind of growth spurt, as Oracle stops posting updates of Java SE 7 to its public download sites in April.

"When you walk into virtually any large enterprise and you ask them which version of Java they're running, the answer almost always is, every version but the current one," Holt said. "That situation is not getting better."

Outdated Java code with well documented security vulnerabilities persists in most data centers, Gohstand said, which is where it's often the target during attacks. The reasons that legacy Java persists, in spite of its security risks (and the widespread knowledge that it's there), is up for debate. But Waratek's unconventional approach to solving that problem (and what Holt calls "the continued and persistent insecurity of Java applications at any level of the Java software stack") is a specialized version of a very hot trend.

Containers are not new, of course, but they're part of a trend that appears to have legs (thanks largely, let's face it, to Docker). Containers are lightweight, in that they carry no operating system; apps within a container start up immediately, almost as fast as apps running on an OS; they are fully isolated; they consume fewer physical resources; and there's little of the performance overhead associated with virtualization -- no "virtualization tax."

Waratek's containerization technology, called Java Virtual Containers, is a lightweight, quarantined environment that runs inside the JVM. It was developed in response to a legacy from the primordial Java environment of the 1990s, Holt said.

"It was a trendy idea at the time to have a security class sitting side-by-side with a malicious class inside the same namespace in the JVM," he said. "Sun engineers believed that the security manager would be able to differentiate between the classes that belonged to malicious code and those that belonged to the security enforcement code. But that led to a very complicated programming model that is maintained by state. And states are difficult to maintain. When we looked at the security models that have succeeded historically, we saw right away that they were based on separation of privileges."

Waratek began as a research project based in Dublin in 2010, an effort to "retrofit this kind of privilege and domain separation" into the JVM, Holt said. That research led to the company's Java virtual container technology. "Suddenly you have parts of the JVM that you know are safe, because they are in a different code space," he said.

Holt pointed out that containerization is a technique, not a technology, and he argued that that is a good thing.

"It means that it doesn't matter what containerization technology you use," he said. "People are starting to wake up to the value of putting applications into containers—which are really locked boxes. But the choice of one container doesn't exclude the use of another. You can nest them together. This is really important, because it means that people can assume that containers are going to be part of their roadmap going forward. Then the conversation turns to what added value can I get for this locked box."

Holt and company went on to build in a new type of security capability into their containers, called Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP), producing in the process a product called Locker. Gartner has defined RASP as "a security technology built in or linked to an application or app runtime environment, and capable of controlling app execution and detecting and preventing real-time attacks." In other words, it's tech that makes it possible for apps to protect themselves.

"We see this as an opportunity to insert security in a place where security is going to be more operationally viable and scalable," Gohstand said.

Gohstand is set to give a presentation today (Wednesday) on this very topic at the AppSec Conference in Santa Monica.

Posted by John K. Waters on January 28, 2015