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Code from the Cloud: Are You Getting More Than You Bargained For?

Data from Skyhigh reveals that popularity, not risk, will get you blocked, leaving some of the riskiest services available

It was at my very first job as a developer that I learned about code reviews (and that I intuitively hated them, a characteristic I share with many developers I've then since learned). We wrote and maintained software that automated tax preparation (yes, you may in fact be using services that contain code I touched long ago - caveat emptor ;-)) and going over code was an important part of the process. In addition to making sure we were following coding standards with respect to source formatting there was also the opportunity for improvements and to find potential mistakes that might be disastrous given the nature of the software we developed.

Fast forward a number of years (right, like I was going to tell you how many) and code reviews are still a part of the development process. The thing is that the reasons for reviewing source code have expanded, primarily thanks to the success of open source.

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that the practice of "code reviews" needs to expand in terms of groups who conduct them, as well, as "code" moves out of the walled application development garden and spills out into devops and networking teams as well.

Yes, as a matter of fact, those Chef recipes and PERL and Python scripts are a kind of code. As are the OpenStack packages you downloaded, and that OSS SDN controller just as surely as that node.js package - Restify - that an application developer grabbed is code. Given the rising importance of automation and orchestration to realize continuous delivery and improve network service velocity, scripts and code that drive such systems should be carefully reviewed to ensure a simple mistake (ever misplace a semi-colon in an if statement? Hmmm?) does not lead to disastrous downtime or disruption.

It needs to be reviewed. Carefully. Not necessarily for style, but for substance. Not only because it coding errors can lead to downtime and disruption, but because code acquired from third-party services are ripe for exploitation by the omnipresent "bad guys" looking for an opportunity to inject malware into an organization for fun and/or profit, no matter what use the code is intended to serve.

If you think that's fanciful paranoia - think again. As Skyhigh Networks points out in their first annual Cloud Adoption & Risk Report, code sharing services have, in fact, seen compromise in recent years. Some of us will recall, of course, similar issues with tainted Linux RPMs many (more) years ago.


It's unrealistic to believe that every code review of OSS acquired code will find a risk - even if they exist. Hundreds of thousands - to millions - of lines of code are shared and wind up included in software every day. That's a lot of code to review. But someone should take a look through it - whether using automated static analysis tools (even I can write a grep statement to scan for the use of sockets and files and the like to point out potential areas in need of closer examination) or manual evaluation.

And it shouldn't matter whether the code was acquired for inclusion in a web application, in devops, or for automating the network. Code is code, it should be reviewed with an eye toward the very real risk it presents to the organization.

The same goes for the other risky services Skyhigh found prevalent in just about every organization across its report. With 3,000,000 users of cloud services included, its findings are not ones you should ignore.

Popularity Trumps Risk

The best way to sum up Skyhigh's findings is that popularity trumps actual risk. For a significant portion of organizations, the popularity - and thus awareness of - cloud services is what gets you banned from crossing the data center firewall. They are, according to Skyhigh, blocking services based on (perceived0 productivity loss - not risk.

Granted, productivity loss is a risk - a business risk - but that kind of risk can often be managed better through behavioral management techniques, not technological ones.

The bigger problem is not the blocking of popular social media and cloud service sites, but the reasons why they come to the attention of policy makers that lay down the blocking law in the first place. It's all about popularity, about awareness.

Cloud services today are primarily blocked based on the almost certain probability that because a service is well known and our firewall logs show connections to those sites in our Top Ten Eye Candy Report, it's cutting into our time. Thus it is blocked.

Those sites that don't appear in the Top Ten (or even Top Twenty) but carry with them even more risk (because they are less well used and likely less mature in terms of security and addressing enterprise concerns) are left available to corporate users.

This is evident as you peruse Skyhigh's Report, with sites like DropBox blocked on a regular basis but up and coming Rapidgator? It's barely noticed, despite its higher risk rating. GitHub? Blocked 21 percent of the time but high-risk service Codehaus?  Blocked only 1% of the time. Because it's not got the mindshare and popularity of Github. But it only takes one user, after all, to use a risky service and unintentionally introduce malware or malicious code to take out a corporate network.

That's why visibility - awareness - is so important. It's critical to ensuring that third-party source as well as services used, accessed, and acquired from the cloud is acceptable for use within an organization. Skyhigh claims that cloud service usage is at least 10 times higher than actually believed within organizations. Its data certainly appears to back that up.

Whether it's understanding what services - and what risks they pose - or what code is being included in applications, visibility is the key to being able to set policies that address real risks, rather than those inferred by popularity.

You can find Skyhigh Networks' report here - I definitely suggest a read through, it's eye-opening stuff.

More Stories By Lori MacVittie

Lori MacVittie is responsible for education and evangelism of application services available across F5’s entire product suite. Her role includes authorship of technical materials and participation in a number of community-based forums and industry standards organizations, among other efforts. MacVittie has extensive programming experience as an application architect, as well as network and systems development and administration expertise. Prior to joining F5, MacVittie was an award-winning Senior Technology Editor at Network Computing Magazine, where she conducted product research and evaluation focused on integration with application and network architectures, and authored articles on a variety of topics aimed at IT professionals. Her most recent area of focus included SOA-related products and architectures. She holds a B.S. in Information and Computing Science from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.

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