Web-based software automates scanning, creates reports
Ease of use once was a nice feature for a software product to have. These days it's fast becoming a requirement. With shrinking budgets and staff, it's rare that an office has the time to devote to esoteric and complex network security products.
Latis Networks Inc.'s StillSecure value-added network basically provides a Web-based front end to the Nessus and Network Mapper (Nmap) security scanners — hence the name VAM, for vulnerability assessment and management. The scanners are free products created by volunteers and published under the open-source GNU general public license. Although they are sophisticated, top-of-the-line products, their functionality pretty much stops at finding vulnerabilities. Latis' VAM wraps around these products, adding value by automating the scanning process, producing actionable reports and generally making life easier for hard-pressed technical staff.
Our installation of the dedicated VAM server couldn't have been easier. The server runs on a hardened Red Hat Inc. Linux computer, but you don't have to have any knowledge of Linux to use it. Simply pop the CD in the drive, enter a few standard IP configurations, and the install program formats the drive and installs the operating system before loading the VAM. Latis promises a hassle-free appliance-style installation — and that is exactly what it delivered.
The server comes in a "hardened" configuration. But we were greedy for even more security and asked Latis support for a method of using the second Network Interface Card in our server to connect to a separate, secure, management-only local-area network (LAN). Any intruder would have little chance of compromising our management of the VAM server from this separate LAN.
Latis' first-level support staff showed their competence by immediately providing us with some script modifications to accomplish this task. But the solution did require some Linux knowledge on our part, and it removed us somewhat from the concept of an appliance-like installation.
We judged VAM's security to be good. Scan results are kept within your organization and do not pass through the file servers of the vendor.
The VAM server is managed from a Web browser on a separate computer. The server interface uses Java Server Pages technology and relies on the open-source Tomcat application server, which is notoriously slow in serving Web pages. At one point, our browser appeared to stall while we were adding hosts to the scan configuration. After a long wait, the browser reported that the Web page could not be found.
Latis support advised us to make a configuration change in our browser, and to our surprise, response time improved greatly. We quickly became used to a solid responsiveness that restored our confidence in the interface.
One of VAM's most important features is the scheduled autodiscovery. Basically, this is an Nmap scan to detect the number and type of each device on the network. The administrator can then assign the devices found into groups. For each grouping, the administrator can assign a level of importance that determines which machines get fixed first, a scan policy that determines what kind of port scan will be applied to each group and when the scans will be performed.
Once the devices are assigned to their groups, they are automatically scanned for vulnerabilities, according to the policies. Impatient administrators can also start scans manually.
VAM does not repair the vulnerabilities itself. Rather, it automatically assigns the correct staff to apply the remediation. For example, router experts can be assigned to routers. VAM organizes the workflow so that the vulnerabilities get fixed in the right order and reports on how the remediation process is coming along.
One helpful feature we would like to see added is the ability to place groups within groups in a hierarchical fashion. Then, router, server and other groups could be placed within physical location groups. These configurations would more closely parallel a large organization's existing structure.
Latis defines staff roles as confirmer and repairer. A confirmer is someone who confirms that vulnerability is real and then assigns the job of fixing it to a repairer. On our first report, we were startled to see no vulnerabilities listed for the computers scanned. We discovered that we had marked all vulnerabilities as found, not realizing that this was not the same as confirmed.
Although the reports are effective and concise, we would like to see more reporting flexibility out of the box. Ideally, we would like to have the ability to report by device groups, not just single devices.
One of the reports, the SANS Institute's Top 20, is offered in an optional comma-separated values format. Security administrators need this feature for all the reports so that they can generate flexible reports as managers need them. Most reports are in HTML. It would be useful to have options for generating them in Adobe Systems Inc. PDF or in Microsoft Corp. Word as well.
Vulnerability assessment is still a maturing industry, so it is not surprising that we identified several features we would like to see added to VAM.
We would like to have Extensible Markup Language/database capabilities that would allow integration with a help-desk ticket system. Latis officials tell us they are already working on this for a future release.
We would like to see graphical network maps, which could be generated from Nmap output.
Another good feature would be log files to tell us who had used VAM at what time. This would be useful if a scan had caused a problem with production computers.
Currently the main vulnerability interface listing shows machines by IP or Domain Name System names only. Listings by operating system could help paint a useful picture of the network.
Overall, we found StillSecure VAM to be a valuable tool, and we wish that it had been available to us when we were managing vulnerabilities in our own networks. It is worth considering for both midsize and large organizations.
Although we have stressed ease of use, we must sound a cautionary note. Any vulnerability assessment product is a loaded gun. Keep passwords secure. Not only do these scanners glaringly point out an organization's security weak points, they also usually have the ability to perform denial-of-service attacks. VAM and the underlying Nessus can be configured to target any machine attached to the Internet, anywhere in the world. You don't want to have officers with badges knocking on your door.
Also, with all vulnerability assessment scanners we recommend getting written permission before performing any scans. We also alert our network and troubleshooting staff before starting a scanning session. There is no such thing as a completely safe vulnerability scan. We have witnessed even Novell Inc. NetWare servers going down as scans revealed that they did not have the latest software modules installed.
Greer and Bishop are network analysts at a large Texas state agency. They can be reached at Earl.Greer@dhs.state.tx.us.
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