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Hey, big spender. Are you as secure as a whitebox vendor?

The Internet of Stuff is a HUGE LIABILITY

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Sysadmin blog Security flaws are a great source of inter-company marketing FUD, but it is how a company responds to them that determines how trustworthy they are. Can you bet your business – or your personal data – on a company that simply brushes flaws under a rug? Where does the vendor's responsibility end and that of the customer begin?

As the "internet of things" becomes the new reality there are an increasing number of "unmanaged" computers connected to the internet. These range from home automation, to Google's Nest, to a diverse array of industrial sensors – and even the baseband management controllers that provide lights out management for our servers.

This last is an important canary for the problems the Internet of Things will present. A BMC is a computer in its own right. These small embedded computers allow administrators to remotely access the larger, more powerful servers they serve at a level "below" the operating system. This allows administrators to remotely update the larger server's BIOS, change firmware settings or install operating systems.

BMCs typically adhere to the IPMI standard, often with unique twists, features or functionality depending on the manufacturer. They go by different names, depending on the manufacturer: HP calls their implementation ILIO; Dell has DRAC; Supermicro simply uses IPMI.

BMCs blur the lines between managed and unmanaged computers. The servers that the BMCs are designed to augment are typically actively maintained. Unfortunately, while the server operating systems and applications often receive regular patching, security scans and so forth, the BMCs are all too often neglected.

Vulnerabilities and how you handle them

The most basic response that any company provide is to issue patches for known issues. A security researcher detects and issue, raises it with the company in question and – in a perfect world – that company creates a patch and releases it for customers to install.

This doesn't always happen. There are innumerable vulnerable home routers still in service that will never see patches. These serve as examples of just how lax many companies are about these sorts of issues.

Supermicro has recently been in the news regarding security vulnerabilities in their BMC implementations. They are by no means the only company to have BMCs with security vulnerabilities, but their response to the issue is worthy of deeper consideration.

Fortunately, unlike many of the companies cranking out home routers, Supermicro do issue patches. What makes them worthy of interest is that instead of holding to this basic reactionary stance, Supermicro chooses to go that little bit beyond.

According to Zachary Wikholm, senior security engineer for Cari.net, the Security Incident Response Team (CARISIRT) has been cooperative. When asked about specific BMC security issues, they don't simply provide some pre-canned marketing statements, but help researchers dig into other issues, even when they know that information about those security problems will be published.

I had a chance to talk to Arun Kalluri, senior product manager for Supermicro's Software Solutions division, and asked some hard questions in the hopes of getting a better idea of Supermicro's approach to security. Considering that Supermicro is often portrayed as "nothing more than a whitebox vendor", I wanted to dig into what Supermicro could – and is – doing that goes beyond simply reacting. How companies choose to respond to these issues is always of great interest to me.

Supermicro competitors HP, Dell, IBM and so forth all have massive R&D departments. Their resources vastly outstrip anything Supermicro can bring to bear. Acknowledging this, it appears that Supermicro's approach is to forgo the typical vendor secrecy and reach out to both the security community and the academic research community.

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