Wield the Shield: How Trustworthy Is Your OS?

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 05-14-2006 Print Email
So-called trusted operating systems have been used for years to lock down sensitive data, but with security attacks rising, enterprises are looking to fortify their defenses. Red Hat, Novell and Sun are introducing trusted features. eWEEK Labs examines th

Trusted operating systems have been used for some time to lock down the most sensitive of information in the most sensitive of organizations. But with security concerns rising and changing by the hour, it's now a matter of trust for any organization looking to tighten its computing ship.

Several vendors, including Red Hat, Sun Microsystems and Novell, are responding by adding and/or improving trusted elements in their operating system offerings.

Operating systems are designed to do what they're told, and we tell them what to do by running applications. However, whether through bugs or malicious exploits, applications can tell an operating system to do things that no one intended or wanted it to do—at least no one authorized to do so.

Today's mainstream operating systems are trusting—they trust that the applications running on them are doing what users intend the apps to be doing. These operating systems haven't been designed to limit applications from doing more than they're intended to do.

This can be bad enough when you're talking about individual users, whose privileges can be limited enough to ensure that they can't modify system files.

But many applications, including many server apps, require some root-level rights to do their jobs in the first place. Once subverted, one of these applications can be wrangled into causing all manner of mischief (and into covering its tracks, to boot).

Enter trusted operating systems.

Rather than trusting the apps they host, trusted operating systems include functionality that's intended to restrict the damage an exploited application can wreak by limiting it to only those capabilities and rights it requires to get its job done.

While trusted operating systems have a lot to offer, they're famously tricky to manage—with tight application control comes plenty of room for incompatibility.

As a result, trusted operating systems have tended to occupy a slender niche and, in turn, have lacked the full attention of operating system vendors and of the software and hardware vendors whose certifications and support are critical when working with products that are challenging to manage.

However, things have been changing during the past few years, as makers of general-purpose operating systems have been pushed to include trusted functionality in their mainstream products.

Most notably, Sun, Red Hat and Novell are each shipping enterprise-class operating systems with built-in trusted functionality available out of the box—specifically, provisions for finer-grained access controls.

Accordingly, enterprises have more opportunity than ever to defend themselves from software exploits and bugs by relying on operating systems that view the applications they host with a healthy dose of skepticism.

eWEEK Labs has put the application lockdown options from Sun, Red Hat and Novell through their paces, installing and evaluating this lockdown functionality in the context of securing the Apache/MySQL/PHP-based Mediawiki Web application in hopes of providing a starting point for eWEEK readers' own evaluation of these technologies.

Sun and Solaris 10



 

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