Battle joined for future of open source IPS
Snort bares teeth at DHS-backed project
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.
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.
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.
"Sourcefire not revealing the development roadmap for Snort, and not accepting community input or code, is what they [the DHS] do not feel is acceptable," Jonkman explained.
Jonkman held out an olive branch to the Snort camp, praising the calibre of its staff and expressing the hope that Sourcefire may yet become a collaborator and partner in the OISF project.
"We want a good relationship as they have some of the best minds in the field on their staff," he told The Register. "But unfortunately things have not been cooperative in the last two years of OISF development. Some of it is misquotes and blown out of proportion statements in the press, and some are genuine misunderstandings."
The OISF is not out to bury Snort but rather to wake the project from its current torpor. "We have not said Snort is dead," Jonkman explained. "I am clearly saying it hasn't innovated in a long time, and we need to push it further."
However attitudes in the Sourcefire/Snort camp are turning against OISF, making an early rapprochement increasingly unlikely.
Matt Olney, a senior researcher in Sourcefire's vulnerability research team, said that he has become disillusioned with the OISF since last December, after initially welcoming the creation of the project.
Olney cites Sourcefire internal testing figures that show Suricata running far slower than Snort on the same hardware. These are not objective tests, even if you disregard the fact that Suricata is still in development, but they irk Olney because OISF has cited performance as a reason to embrace multi-threading, which Sourcefire opposes.
The rejection by the OISF of rule obfuscation is another objection. Obfuscation of rules makes it harder for hackers to figure out the workings of IPS defences. This approach also makes it easier for the likes of Microsoft and Oracle to pass on vulnerability information, according to Sourcefire.
But the most serious gripe from the Sourcefire crowd seems to revolve around OISF's federal funding, as the shouty conclusion to an otherwise technically detailed and lengthy blog post by Olney last week illustrates:
The OISF has spent nearly a million dollars to fulfill their obligation to the DHS to deliver the next generation in IDS [intrusion detection systems - the forerunner to IPS] engines. They have since engaged in all manner of wishful thinking, self-aggrandizement and Snort bashing. They've failed, utterly, to deliver on their promises. This is forgivable on the performance front, that problem is non-trivial.
But in the end, what they've built is a poorly functioning Snort-clone, missing the most powerful detection capability that Snort has. There isn't anything in the way of innovation; they are taking the same approach as everyone else from a detection standpoint. Simply put, rehashing isn't innovation.
Olney all but accuses OISF of socialising information security in a hard-hitting post that shows little scope for compromise. The two sides have arrived at entrenched positions and appeared poised to fight for the future of open source intrusion prevention technology.
It promises to be one hell of a fight, of the sort the networking world hasn't witnessed since the battle between ATM and Token Ring in the 1990s, with political disagreements (and possibly abandonment issues from the Snort camp) adding extra spice to the mix. ®