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RASP helps apps protect themselves, but is it ready for the enterprise?

A new technology called runtime application self-protection is being touted as a next big thing in application security. But not everyone is singing its praises.

In the application economy, a perimeter defense is no longer a good offense. With the proliferation of mobile devices and cloud-based technologies, perimeters are all but disappearing, according to Joseph Feiman, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "The more we move from place to place with our mobile devices, the less reliable perimeter-based technology becomes," he said.

Joseph FeimanJoseph Feiman

Firewalls and intrusion prevention systems, which enterprises spent an estimated $9.1 billion on last year, still serve a vital purpose. But, given the enterprise infrastructure's growing sprawl, CIOs should be thinking about security breadth as well as security depth and how to scale their strategies down to the applications themselves, even building in a strikingly human feature: self-awareness.

A new tool for the application security toolbox known as runtime application self-protection (RASP) could help CIOs get there, but, according to one expert, it's no silver bullet.

Guarding the application

The security measures many CIOs have in place don't do much to safeguard actual applications, according to Feiman. Network firewalls, identity access management, intrusion detection or endpoint protection provide security at different levels, but none of them can see beyond the application layer. "Can you imagine a person who walks out of the house and into the city always surrounded by bodyguards because he has no muscles and no skills," Feiman said. "That is a direct analogy with the application." Strip away features like perimeter firewalls, and the application is basically defenseless.

Defenseless applications leave enterprises vulnerable to external -- and internal -- threats. "High-profile security breaches illustrate the growing determination and sophistication of attackers," said Johann Schleier-Smith, CTO at if(we), a social and mobile technology company based in San Francisco. "They have also forced the industry to confront the limitations of traditional security measures."

Gary McGrawGary McGraw

Application security testing tools help detect flaws and weaknesses, but the tools aren't comprehensive, Feiman said during a Gartner Security and Risk Management Summit last summer. Static application security testing, for example, analyzes source, binary or byte code to uncover bugs but only before the application is operational. Dynamic application security testing, on the other hand, simulates attacks on the application while it's operational and analyzes the response but only for Web applications that use HTTP, according to Gary McGraw, CTO of the software security consulting firm Cigital Inc.

Even when taken together, these two technologies still can't see what happens inside the application while it's operational. And, according to Feiman's research report Stop Protecting Your Apps; It's Time for Apps to Protect Themselves, published in September 2014, static and dynamic testing, whether accomplished with premises-based tools or purchased as a service, can be time-consuming and hard to scale as the enterprise app portfolio multiplies.

Is RASP the answer?

That's why Feiman is keeping an eye on a budding technology Gartner calls RASP or runtime application self-protection. "It is the only technology that has complete insight into what's going on in the application," he said.

RASP, which can be applied to Web and non-Web applications, doesn't affect the application design itself; instead, detection and protection features are added to the servers an application runs on. "Being a part of the virtual machine, RASP sees every instruction being executed, and it can see whether a set of instructions is an attack or not," he said. The technology works in two modes: It can be set to diagnostic mode to sound an alarm; or it can be set to self-protection mode to "stop an execution that would lead to a malicious exploit," Feiman said.

The technology is offered by a handful of vendors. Many, such as Waratek, founded in 2009, are new to the market, but CIOs will recognize at least one vendor getting into the RASP game: Hewlett-Packard. Currently, RASP technology is built for the two popular application servers: Java virtual machine and .NET Common Language Runtime. Additional implementations are expected to be rolled out as the technology matures.

While Feiman pointed to the technology's "unmatched accuracy," he did note a couple of challenges: The technology is language dependent, which means the technology will have to be implemented separately for Java virtual machine versus .NET CLR. Because RASP sits on the application server, it uses CPUs. "Emerging RASP vendors report 2% to 3% of performance overhead, and some other evidence reports 10% or more," Feiman wrote in Runtime Application Self-Protection: Technical Capabilities, published in 2012.

Is it ready for primetime?

Not everyone is ready to endorse RASP. "I don't think it's ready for primetime," said Cigital's McGraw. RASP isn't a bad idea in principle, he said, "but in practice, it's only worked for one or two weak categories of bugs."

The statement was echoed by if(we)'s Schleier-Smith: "What remains to be seen is whether the value RASP brings beyond Web application firewalls and other established technologies offsets the potential additional complexity," he said.

CIOs may be better off creating an inventory of applications segmented by type -- mobile, cloud-based, Web-facing. "And choose the [security] technology stack most appropriate for the types of applications found in their portfolio," McGraw said.

Even Feiman stressed that CIOs need to find a use case for the technology and consider how aggressive in general the organization is when adopting emerging technologies. For more conservative organizations, investing in RASP could still be two to five years out, he said.

To strengthen application security right now, McGraw urged CIOs to remember the power of static testing, which works on all kinds of software. And he suggested they investigate how thoroughly tools such as static and dynamic testing are being utilized by their staff. "The security people are not really testing people," he said, referring to software developers. "So when they first applied dynamic testing to security, nobody bothered to check how much of the code was actually tested. And the answer was: Not very much."

An even better strategy: Rather than place too much emphasis on RASP or SAST or DAST, application security should start with application design. "Half of software security issues are design problems and not silly little bugs," McGraw said.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

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