30 September, 2007

Running IDS Inline

When do you run IDS inline?

Although the idea of running an IDS inline to prevent attacks rather than just detect them is appealing, reality is harsh. There are a lot of problems running an IDS inline.

The first and most significant problem with running IDS inline is that most people don't adequately tune IDS. This is a problem whether you run inline or passive IDS. I get the feeling that the general management view towards IDS, perpetuated by marketing, is that you should be able to drop an IDS on the network and it is ready to go. This is far from the truth. Network monitoring requires tuning all involved systems and humans to analyze the information provided by the systems.

When I set up my first Snort deployment, I spent countless hours tuning and tweaking the configuration, rules, performance and more. Along the way, I added Sguil, which was useful both for more thorough analysis and more effective tuning based on those analyses. Even after all that, tuning is a daily requirement and never should stop.

Every time you update rules, you should tune. Every time the network changes, you may need to tune. Every time your IDS itself is updated, you may need to tune. Every time a new attack is discovered, you may need to tune. Tuning does not and should not end unless you want your network security monitoring to become less effective over time. I would be willing to bet that a majority of inline IDS don't come close to taking full advantage of blocking features because of a lack of tuning. Passive IDS suffers from the same problem, but the results can be even worse if an inline IDS starts blocking legitimate traffic.

Another problem, somewhat related to tuning, with running IDS inline is that rules are never perfect. Do you trust your enabled rules to be 100% perfect? If not, what percentage of alerts from a given rule must be accurate to make the rule acceptable in blocking mode? Even good rules will sometimes or often trigger on benign traffic.

For Snort, one of the most reliable rule sets are policy violations. Both VRT rules and Bleeding rules are extremely reliable when detecting policy violations with a minimal number of alerts triggered on unrelated network traffic. Spyware rules are similarly accurate.

Rules designed to detect more serious malicious activity are much less consistent. Most are simply not reliable enough to use in a mode that blocks the traffic the rule is designed to detect. That does not mean the rules are necessarily bad! Good rules still aren't perfect. This is one of many reasons why there will always be work for security analysts. IDS or other NSM systems are no substitute for the analysis that an experienced human can provide. They simply are tools to to be used by the analyst.

Last, don't forget that running anything inline can seriously impact the network. If my Snort process at home dies for some reason, I can survive without Internet access until I get it restarted. This isn't always the case for businesses, so consider whether your traffic should be going through a system that fails open if there are problems. Even at home I don't queue port 22 to snort_inline because I want to be able to SSH into the box from the Internet if there are problems.

The real question that has to be answered is whether the benefits of dropping traffic iare worth the risks of running inline.

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