Design for Upgradability and the Rails DigiD Outage

On January 9th, the Dutch DigiD system was taken offline for 9 hours. The reason was a vulnerability (CVE-2013-0155 and CVE-2013-0156) in the underlying Ruby on Rails system used. According to the exploit, it enables attackers to bypass authentication, inject SQL, perform a denial of service, or execute arbitrary code.

DigiD is a Dutch authentication system used by over 600 organizations, including the national taxes. Over 9 million Dutch citizens have a DigiD account, which they must use for various interactions with the government, such as filing taxes electronically. The organization responsible for DigiD maintenance, Logius, decided to take DigiD off line when it heard about the vulnerability. It then updated the Rails system to a patched version. The total downtime of DigiD was about 9 hours (from 12:20 until 21:30). Luckily, it seems DigiD was never comprimised.

The threat was real enough, though, as illustrated by the Bitcoin digital currency system: the Bitcoin currency exchange called Vircurex actually was compromised. According to Vircurex, it was able to “deploy fixes within five minutes after receiving the notification from the Rails security mailing list.”

To better understand the DigiD outage, I contacted spokesman Michiel Groeneveld from Logius. He stated that (1) applying the fix was relatively easy, and that (2) most of the down time was caused by “extensively testing” the new release.

Thus, the real lesson to be learned here is that speed of upgrading is crucial to reduce downtime (ensure high availability) in case a third party component turns into a security vulnerability. The software architect caring about both security and availability, must apply design for upgradability (categorized under replaceability in ISO 25010).

Any upgrade can introduce incompatibilities. Even the patch for this Rails vulnerability introduced a regression. Design for upgradability is about dealing with such regressions. It involves:

  1. Isolation of depedencies on the external components, for example through the use of wrappers or aspects in order to reduce the impact of incompatibilities.

  2. Dependency hygiene, ensuring the newest versions of external components are used as soon as they are available (which is good security policy anyway). This helps avoid the accumulation of incompatibilities, which may cause updates to take weeks rather than minutes (or even hours). Hot security fixes may even be unavailable for older versions: For Ruby on Rails, which is now in version 3.x, the most popular comment at the fix site was a telling “lots of love from people stuck on 2.3

  3. Test automation, in order to reduce the execution time of regression tests for the system working with the upgraded component. This will include end-to-end system tests, but can also include dedicated tests ensuring that the wrappers built meet the behavior expected from the component.

  4. Continuous deployment, ensuring that once the source code can deal with the upgraded library, the actual system can be deployed with a push on the button.

None of these comes for free. In other words, the product owner should be willing to invest in these. It is the responsibility of the architect to make clear what the costs and benefits are, and what the risks are of not investing in isolation, dependency hygiene, test automation, and continuous deployment. In this explanation, the architect can point to additional benefits, such as better maintainability, but these may be harder to sell than security and availability.

This brings me to two research connections of this case.

The first relates to regression testing. A hot fix for a system that is down is a case where it actually matters how long the execution of an (automated) regression test suite takes: test execution time in this case equals down time. Intuitively, test cases covering functionality for which Rails is not even used, need not be executed. This is where the research area of selective regression testing comes in. The typical technique uses control flow analysis in order to reduce a large regression test suite given a particular change. This is classic software engineering research dating back to the 90s: For a representative article have a look at Rothermel and Harrold’s Safe, Efficient Regression Test Selection Technique.

Design for upgradability also relates to some of the research I’m involved in.
What an architect caring about upgradability can do is estimate the anticipated upgrading costs of an external component. This could be based on a library’s “compatibility reputation”. But how can we create such a compatibility rating?

At the time of writing, we are working on various metrics that use a library’s release history in order to predict API stability. We are using the (huge) maven repository to learn about breaking changes in libraries in the wild, and we are investigating to what extent encapsulation practices are effective. With that in place, we hope to be able to provide decision support concerning the maintainability costs of using third party libraries.

For our first results, have a look at our ICSM 2012 paper on Measuring Library Stability Through Historical Version Analysis — for the rest, stay tuned, as there is more to come.

EDIT (February 4, 2013)

For a more detailed account of the impact of the Rails vulnerabilites, have a look at What The Rails Security Issue Means For Your Startup by Patrick McKenzie. The many (sometimes critical) comments on that post are also an indication for how hard upgrading in practice is (“How does this help me … when I have a multitude of apps running some Rails 1.x or 2.x version?“).

An interesting connection with API design is provided by Ned Batchelder, who suggests to rename .load and .safe_load to .dangerous_load and .load, respectively (in a Python setting in which similar security issues exist).

EDIT (April 4, 2013)

As another (separate) example of an urgent security fix, today (April 4, 2013), the PostgreSQL Global Development Group has released a security update to all current versions of the PostgreSQL database system. The most important security issue fixed in this release, CVE-2013-1899, makes it possible for a connection request containing a database name that begins with “-” to be crafted that can damage or destroy files within a server’s data directory.

Here again, all users of the affected versions are strongly urged to apply the update immediately, illustrating once more the need to be able to upgrade rapidly.

2 thoughts on “Design for Upgradability and the Rails DigiD Outage

  1. Hi Arie,

    Very interesting blog post! I see a lot of overleap with my work. The encouragement that product owners should invest in upgradability is something that I always stress out to people in the field.

    I think there are still some research connections missing :P

    Indeed, a system should take upgradability in mind and must be continuously tested and deployed. But apart from being able to deploy a system continuously, also the question of *how* to do that properly is very important.

    For example, in DigiD’s case, the fact that the entire system has been taken down for hours comes partially from the inability to reproduce the deployment architecture of a system elsewhere to safely test and upgrade it, without interruption of the system in production.

    Non-functional deployment attributes such as reproducibility, reliability and efficiency are (in my opininion) properties that must also be taken into account, in addition to being able to automatically deploy a system.

    Of course, Nix (and Nix related-tools) that I’m involved with, have a significant investment in these properties (such as being able to safely isolate packages and their dependencies), but Nix cannot be adopted by everybody and in practice it’s not always easy to apply on a system that has architectural deficiencies.

    I wrote a blog post a while ago from my industrial experience with some practical recommendations about deployment, which can be applied in any context or build system: http://sandervanderburg.blogspot.com/2011/12/techniques-and-lessons-for-improvement.html

  2. Thanks! Yes, the Nix line of research is clearly connected!

    The (responses to the) post by Patrick McKenzie I added also make clear that upgrading / patching is too hard at the moment, calling for a more structured solution on the long run (a la Nix).

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