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Battle joined for future of open source IPS

Snort bares teeth at DHS-backed project

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Analysis The battle to develop the next generation of open source intrusion prevention systems (IPS) technology is intensifying between incumbent Snort and a US government-backed project, the Open Information Security Foundation (OISF).

Disagreements over technical issues such as the relative importance of developing IPS systems that support multi-threading have lately been accompanied by increasingly acrimonious exchanges that have taken a political dimension, with the Snort camp accusing the OISF of having nothing to show for $1m in public funding. Au contraire, OISF members argue.

The OISF project is in an advanced stage of development (see the project status report here) and is only needed in the first place because the Snort camp sat on its laurels and failed to innovate.

Network bouncers

IPS systems act as high-tech network bouncers - monitoring systems for malicious activities, such as malware or intrusion by hackers, and attempting to block these cyberassaults. The technology also carries out logging functions.

IPS systems are used by enterprises alongside firewalls and anti-virus as components of a defence in depth designed to safeguard against hacking attacks. Snort is a free and open source network intrusion prevention system (NIPS) created by Martin Roesch, and has enjoyed great success over the last ten years.

Roesch went on to establish Sourcefire, which markets a commercial version of Snort. Sourcefire maintains close ties with the Snort community.

Snort was until recently seen as one of the great success stories of the open source movement, and with good reason. The technology, which has been downloaded nearly four million times, boasts nearly 300,000 registered users. Almost 100 vendors integrate Snort's ruleset into UTM (universal threat management) and other network security devices. Snort's IPS rule set boasts more than double the number of vulnerability-based rules as its next closest competitor, according to Sourcefire.

Falling out

The reliance of federal government agencies on Snort led to US government opposition against a planned takeover of Sourcefire by Israeli firewall pioneer Check Point in 2006.

Fast forward four years however and the formerly close and protective relationship between the US federal government and Sourcefire/Snort has soured to the point that the Department of Homeland Security is funding an alternative through the OISF foundation. The Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command  (SPAWAR) and commercial partners are also contributing to the development of Suricata, OISF's open source IPS.

Apache security expert Ivan Ristic is working as a programmer on the project and Jose Nazario, senior security researcher with Arbor Networks, sits on its board. Other firms involved include Breach Security and IOActive.

Matthew Jonkman, president of OISF, a former Army air traffic control RADAR and communications technician, explained that the DHS is funding the project to "spur a round of innovation in the industry". He outlined some of the gripes the DHS holds against Snort.

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

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