IBM/Bytware Agreement Forges Stronger Security for iSeries IFS

Analysis of News Events
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At the spring COMMON Conference, IBM and Bytware, Inc. jointly announced an agreement that allows Bytware's StandGuard Anti-Virus for iSeries to be shipped with all distributions of IBM's new iSeries operating system, i5/OS.

IBM has enabled the i5/OS (essentially, OS/400 V5R3) to support virus scanning, and the revolutionary functionality called On-Access scanning lets third-party native anti-virus solutions scan files dynamically, as they are accessed and changed.

On-Access Scanning Strengthens OS/400 Supremacy in Security

This agreement, which is the result of IBM and Bytware's combined efforts to fulfill the growing demand for virus protection of PC files stored on iSeries servers, strengthens the iSeries' legacy of being one of the safest platforms available today.

On-Access scanning in V5R3 itself does not scan, detect, or clean viruses, but instead provides the necessary enhancements to allow a third-party native anti-virus solution to scan files upon open and close (On-Access). The feature is designed to tie into a native anti-virus solution to scan for, detect, and clean viruses. The addition of a native anti-virus solution is required in order to use this new On-Access functionality of V5R3.

Bytware's Role with StandGuard Anti-Virus

According to Bytware, it has worked very closely with IBM's Security and Integrated File System team to re-engineer Bytware's StandGuard Anti-Virus to take advantage of the new V5R3 enablement. The results are a seamless integration of StandGuard Anti-Virus with i5/OS and the closure of the virus threat to iSeries servers.

Agreement Makes Try-and-Buy Trial a Part of the Shipped Release

By shipping StandGuard Anti-Virus with all V5R3 systems and upgrades, customers will have the ability to immediately test the new function on their new operating system.

The IBM/Bytware agreement is a try-and-buy offering. The anti-virus product will begin shipping with all iSeries V5R3 servers and with upgrades to V5R3. The On-Access feature of the operating system will be set to an On position as the units are shipped, enabling the StandGuard Anti-Virus software to begin functioning.

Customers can request full-featured trial activation by going to Bytware's Web site or by calling 775.851.2900. Bytware will work directly with customers and has expanded its U.S.-based operations to include 18 new partners in 10 time zones worldwide.

A Historic Alliance

The announcement between Bytware and IBM is unique in that IBM has chosen to use a third party to provide this anti-virus support for the iSeries, while simultaneously making the On-Access scanning feature available for other future vendors to interface with it. It's the hope of IBM that Bytware's offering will be the first of many third-party solutions for anti-virus scanning, but the market advantage that this agreement gives to Bytware is, at the moment, quite impressive.

StandGuard Anti-Virus is the first native OS/400 (i5/OS) solution; it's specifically designed for OS/400's unique characteristics. The product itself is based on a separate special agreement with Network Associates: StandGuard uses the virus definitions of Network Associates' McAfee anti-virus software.

Why Virus Scanning Is Needed on the iSeries

In the past, anti-virus solutions for the iSeries and AS/400 platforms relied upon an attached PC to scan data and email messages that were stored on the iSeries' Integrated File System (IFS). But this kind of scanning required that the iSeries IFS be shut off from use while the PC scanned the disk for rogue software, a process that could take hours of processing time.

By comparison, the On-Access functionality coupled with Bytware's native StandGuard Anti-Virus really raises the bar for virus protection--not only for OS/400 customers, but for the server industry as a whole.

How the iSeries Was Vulnerable

On other operating systems, application executables and application data are indistinguishable to the hosting operating systems. As far as those operating systems are concerned, there is no significant difference in how a file is to be treated. This lack of distinction has allowed virus architects to attach rogue code segments to both applications and data in these operating systems--code that is designed to compromise the security of the system itself.

Flaws in Microsoft's operating systems are legion, including flaws that allow buffers in key operating system components to overflow, enabling hackers to devise code specifically to overrun the buffers and steal control of the machine. As recently as May 2, 2004, Microsoft announced the discovery that these flaws were being exploited in new ways and that new software patches were being issued.

The OS/400 IFS Security Hole

OS/400, by comparison, approaches the question of security from an entirely different and more rigorous track. OS/400 treats every file and program as a self-contained object with specific characteristics and security capabilities. It also monitors the access of every natively defined object within its purview.

As an object is loaded into memory, the operating system compares the characteristics of the object to the catalogue of characteristics that are known for the object, and if they are not the same, the object is flagged as "damaged." The operator is notified of the condition, and the process of loading the native object is aborted. For this reason, hackers and virus architects have been hard-pressed to attach rogue code to existing native OS/400 objects.

However, the iSeries also supports the increasingly important IFS, a separate file system that mimics the tree-like file structures of UNIX and Microsoft file systems. While the IFS was initially designed to transparently mirror the functionality of these other file systems, it also mimicked their vulnerabilities to harbor rogue code in files, email messages, and Microsoft-based executables that might be stored there. Though the rogue code that may be contained in the IFS cannot directly impact OS/400 itself, the code can infect machines that access it on the IFS.

Plugging the IFS Hole Has Taken Time

Until IBM announced On-Access scanning for V5R3, OS/400 could maintain only the security of the overall IFS, not the individual files or executables contained within. And since some Microsoft executables are self-modifying, there was no way by which OS/400 could accurately compare the characteristics of these particular files to some known reference. As a result, until V5R3, the IFS was essentially a no-man's land that might harbor all sorts of malicious agents that could do massive damage to attached computers that used the IFS for storage. Until StandGuard, the only remedy was for customers to attach an external PC to the iSeries and scan the IFS across the network to locate and isolate virus and worm code.

But last year Bytware came up with an ingenious solution. It was the first company to start attacking the virus/worm issue of the IFS with a native OS/400 scanning technology. Bytware's StandGuard Anti-Virus enables customers to subscribe to and download anti-virus signature definitions that are engineered for Network Associates' McAfee anti-virus software. These virus signature definitions are used to spot infected files and programs.

Bytware's StandGuard Anti-Virus Advantage

The advantage of approaching the IFS virus problem with a native OS/400 solution is that it increases the performance of the scanning mechanism, while not requiring the IFS to be shut off from user access. And by using virus definitions engineered for the McAfee PC product, Bytware's product is tacitly supported by the same anti-virus minds that are fighting the battle of viruses on the PC.

V5R3 On-Access: The Final Puzzle Piece

The final piece of the IFS security puzzle has now been laid into place by IBM's V5R3 On-Access scanning. Instead of requiring the complete scan of every file contained on the IFS, On-Access scanning is activated as soon as a file is accessed for use. Before the file is loaded or transferred through the iSeries, it is turned over to the anti-virus scanning software, which then analyzes the bits and bytes to determine if there are rogue code segments attached that match the code signatures of known viruses. If the code is found to contain a virus, a message is returned to abort the process. In effect, this technique restores a new level of security to the iSeries that makes it unparalleled as a secure server.

The "What-Ifs"

As I mentioned, Microsoft is struggling again with the latest attack on its operating system, an attack that takes advantage of a key communication buffer overrun problem. This malicious exploit, which was discovered just recently by non-Microsoft engineers, attacks the Windows operating system through a communications port, overwhelms it with command strings, and then spills into the free memory space of the machine. Then, it begins executing, taking control of the machine and going after others through the same process. Once it has gained control of the machine, the originator of the virus can remotely take over, downloading any data it finds, including financial and personal data.

What if the operating system were OS/400 instead of Microsoft Windows? What if Microsoft turned to the engineers at IBM and asked for some help? What if there was an equivalent function similar to On-Access scanning within the Microsoft operating system?

The damage caused by Microsoft virus and worm exploits is now topping $8 billion annually. That's more than the world's annual expenditure for combating real biological viruses, like HIV or AIDS.

The computing industry has appropriated the term "virus" from the health community to describe the infection of rogue code in insecure operating systems, operating systems with compromised "immune systems." The anti-virus industry is now a $4 billion industry.

What if Microsoft were really serious about security? Where might those resources be better spent? If our industry can misappropriate the terms of an epidemic to describe flawed software, why can't the health organizations of the world re-appropriate some of the funds that we are lavishing upon inanimate objects and push forward with a battle against real viruses that impact real lives? I leave it to your imagination to calculate what might be accomplished.

Kudos to IBM and Bytware!

Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.