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Direct Access at NEBytes

Tonight was the second NEBytes event, and after the launch event I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately the turn out wasn’t as good as the first event, 56 were registered but I only counted approximately 22 in the audience. The topic I was most interested in was a discussion of Microsoft’s Direct Access (DA), this was billed as an ‘evolution in remote access capabilities’. Being a security guy, obviously this piqued my interest.

Tonight’s speaker covering DA was Dr Dan Oliver, managing director at Sa-V. Before I start I want to state that I have/had no prior knowledge of DA, and my entire understanding comes from the presentation/sales-pitch by Dan tonight, if anyone with more knowledge once to point out any inaccuracies in my understanding or thoughts I’d more than welcome getting a better understanding of the technology.

DA is an ‘alternative’ to VPNs (discussed more later) for a Microsoft environment. The premise is that it provides seamless access to core resources whether a user is in the office or mobile. The requirements are fairly steep, and as Dan discussed on several occasions may be a stumbling block for an organisation to implement DA immediately. These are (some of) the requirements:

  • At least one Windows 2008 R2 server for AD and DNS services
  • A Certificate Authority
  • Recent, high-end client OS: Windows 7, Ultimate or Enterprise SKU only.
  • IPv6 capable clients (DA will work with IPv6 to IPv4 technologies)

As few organisations have a complete Win7 roll-out, and even less have the resources available to roll-out the higher end versions Dan was asked why the requirement. Answer: ‘Microsoft want to sell new versions, sorry’.

With DA pitched as an alternative to VPN at numerous points in the presentation the was a comparison between the two solutions, and to me the sales pitch for DA seemed schizophrenic. Dan kept switching between DA being an improvement to the current VPN solutions completely, and DA being suitable for access to lower priority services and data but organisation may prefer to remain with VPNs for more sensitive data. At this point I couldn’t help thinking ‘why add DA to the environment if you’re still going to have VPN technologies as well’. This was especially the case as Dan stated (and I can’t verify) that Microsoft do not intend to stop providing VPN functionality in their technologies.

From a usability and support perspective DA is recommended as it does not require additional authentication to create a secure connection to ‘internal’ services. Apparently having to provide an additional username/password (with RSA token/smartcard/etc.) needed to establish a VPN connection is beyond the capabilities of the average user.

One aspect that I did agree with (and if you listen to Exotic Liability you will be familiar with) is the concept of re-perimeterisation. The concept that the traditional perimeter of assets internal to a firewall is no longer relevent to protect resources in the modern environment, and that the modern perimeter is where data and users are, not tied to a particular geographical location or network segment. However, rather than the perimeter expending to encorporate any end user device that may access or store sensitive data, Dan claimed that DA would shrink the perimeter to only include the data centre, effectively no longer being concerned with the securityof the client system (be it desktop, laptop, etc.).

This point made me very concerned for the model of DA, if the client machine has seamless, always on access to ‘internal’ corporate services and systems I would be even more concerned for the security of the end user machine. If a virus/trojan/worm infects the system with the same access as the user account, then it too has seamless, always on access to the same internal services. I’m hoping this weakness is only my understanding of the technology, seems like a gaping whole in technology. If anyone can shed any light on this aspect of DA I’d appreciate some additional pointers to help clear up my understanding.

At this point I still can’t see an advantage to implementing DA over more established alternatives, my gut feeling is that DA will either become ubiquitous over the coming years or disappear without making an impact. Due to the fact it doesn’t play nice with the most widely implemented MS technologies, let alone ‘nix or OSX clients and the strict requiremented making a roll-out expensive I expect it to be the latter, but I’ve been wrong before.

At this point I decided to make a speedy exit from the event (after enjoying some rather good pizza) as the second event was dev based (Dynamic consumption in C# 4.0, Oliver Sturm) and I definitely fit in the ‘IT Pro’ camp of NEBytes audience.

Dispite my misgivings from the DA presentation I still enjoyed the event and look forward to the next. If you were at either of the events please let the organisers know your thoughts and ideas for future events by completing this (very) short survey. Thanks Guys.

— Andrew Waite

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Categories: Event, MS Windows, Presentation

NEBytes Launch Event

Last night (2010-01-20) I had the pleasure of attending the launch event for NEBytes.

North East Bytes (NEBytes) is a User Group covering the North East and Cumbrian regions of the United Kingdom.  We have technical meetings covering Development and IT Pro topics every month. About

SharePoint 2010

The launch event was done in conjuction with the Sharepoint User Group UK (SUGUK), so was no surprise when the first topic of the night covered Sharepoint 2010, delivered very enthusiastically by Steve Smith. I’ve got no experience with Sharepoint so can’t comment too much on the material, but from the architectural changes I got the impression that it 2010 may be more secure that previous versions as the back-end is becoming more segmented, with different parts of the whole have discrete, dedicated databases. While it might not limit the threat of a vulnerability, it should be able to reduce the exposure in the event of a single breach.

Steve also highlight that there is some very granular accountability logging, in that every part of the application and every piece of data recieves a unique ‘Correlation ID’. The scenarios highlighted suggested that this allows for indepth debugging to determine the exact nature of a crash or system failure, by the same system this should allow for some good forensic pointers when investigating a potential compromise or breach.

Again viewing the material from a security stand point I was concerned that the defaults that appeared as part of Steve’s walkthrough defaulted to less secure options, NTLM authentication not Kerberos and non encrypted communication over SSL. One of Steve’s recommendations did concern me, to participate in the Customer Experience Improvement Program. While I’ve got no evidence to support it, I’m always nervous about passing debugging and troubleshooting information to a third party, never know what information might get leaked with it.

Silverlight

Second session of the night was Silverlight, covered by Mike Taulty (and should be worth pointing out that this session came after a decent quantity of freely provided pizza and sandwiches). As with Sharepoint I had no prior experience of Silverlight other than hearing various people complain about it via twitter, so found the talk really informative. For those that don’t know, Silverlight is designed to be a cross-browser and cross-platform ‘unified framework’ (providing your browser/platform supports Silverlight…)

From a developer and designer perspective Silverlight must be great, the built in functionality provide access to capabilities that I could only dream about when I was looking at becoming a dev in a past life. The intergration between Visual Studio for coding and Blend for design was equally impressive.

Again I viewed the talk’s content from a security perspective. Mike pressed on the fact that Silverlight runs within a tightly controlled sandbox to limit functionality and provide added security. For example the code can make HTTP[S] connections out from the browsing machine, but is limited to the same origin as the code or cross domain code providing the target allows cross domain from the same origin.

However, Silverlight applications can be installed locally in ‘Trusted’ mode, which reduces the restrictions in place by the sandbox. Before installing the app, the sandbox will inform the user that the app is to be ‘trusted’ and warn of the implications. This is great, as we all know users read these things before clicking next when wanting to get to the promised videos of cute kitties… I did query this point with Mike after the presentation and he, rightly, pointed out that any application installed locally would have the ability access all the resources that aren’t protected when in trusted mode. I agree with Mike, but I’m concerned that average Joe User will think ‘OK, it’s only a browser plugin’ (not that this is the case anyway) where they might be more cautious if a website asked them to install a full blown application. Users have been conditioned to install plugins to provide the web experience they expect (flash etc.)

Hyper-V

The final talk was actually the one I was most interested in at the start of the night, and was presented by James O’Neil. In the end I was disappointed, unlike the other topics I didn’t get too much that was new to me from the session, I’m guessing because virtualisation solutions are something I encounter on a regular basis. Only real take-away from the talk was the James gets my Urgh! award for using the phrase ‘private cloud infrastructure’ without cracking a smile at the same time.

Summary

The night was great, so a big thanks to the guys that setup and ran the event (with costs coming out of their own pockets too). The event was free, the topics and speakers were high quality and to top it off there were some fairly impressive give aways as well, from the usual stickers and pens to boxed Win7 Ultimate packs.

If you’re a dev or IT professional, I’d definitely recommend getting down to the next event.

— Andrew Waite

Categories: Event