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Partner TechTip: IBM i's Greatest Strength Is Also Its Worst Security Weakness

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What happens when reputation collides with reality?

 

According to IBM's website, "the IBM i operating system is considered one of the most secure systems in the industry." It's true that IBM i has a near-legendary reputation as a secure system based on its world-class integrity features and security controls. But, as the author of PowerTech's annual "State of IBM i Security Study" for the past seven years, I feel the description as "secure" is often dangerously misunderstood.

 

Security Gaps: Operating System vs. Application

For the most part, the IBM i operating system is preconfigured with the appropriate authorities. Security experts warn of a few areas, such as the root folder of the IFS, being wide open, but other IBM-supplied directories and the QSYS library are typically shipped in a secure state. But describing the server in simplistic terms like "secure" suggests to those who are less familiar with security that all the work has been done and the applications and server are impenetrable.

 

"Securable" would be a more accurate adjective, and this subtle word alteration has dramatic implications. It's imperative to understand that IBM i creates new objects in an "allow all" state. The primary source of this is the QCRTAUT system value. The value's default setting of *CHANGE grants sufficient authority on new objects for users to be able to read, change, and delete data in a file, as well as execute a program. Unfortunately, public authority often remains open even on servers utilizing commercial applications, leaving the database susceptible to abuse from users.

 

The Greatest Strength and Weakness

If you've ever worked on any flavor of AS/400, iSeries, or Power Systems server running IBM i, you'll probably agree that any top 10 list of favorite features would likely reference its unique forward-compatibility. Assuming you have a compatible tape drive, save media created on a Model B10 in 1988 can be restored onto the latest server in 2015, where it will likely run without modification. If that investment protection weren't impressive enough, the restored objects will take full advantage of the latest iteration of the operating system and server's nth generation 64-bit hardware. This incredible achievement is testament to the platform's amazing technology-independent architecture.

 

From a security perspective, this enviable capability is a double-edged sword. Many shops continue to leverage the same applications and user base that were first created many years before. Overly privileged profiles and objects with permissive authorities are migrated forward with each new generation of the server. In fact, the measure of a successful migration is the fact that everything runs exactly as it did before. But how often do we pause to clean up that old configuration? Most of us would say never. Or, at least, not often enough.

 

This means that far too many applications mistakenly expect simple menus and command-line restrictions on the green-screen to limit access to the database. The availability of network access methodologies, such as FTP and ODBC, mean that data reliant on this security model is not adequately protected and may be leaked or damaged without a trace. Even environments with secured objects—a rarity in most IBM i circles—are vulnerable to users operating with commonly migrated privileges like All Object (*ALLOBJ) special authority. These users often still number in the hundreds, despite most regulations—and common sense—dictating that powerful administrative privileges should be limited to only a handful of accounts.

 

Security Starts with Discovery

According to the chronology of data breaches tracked on consumer advocate website privacyrights.org, barely a day passes without some exposure of private information. Don't be fooled into thinking it's just Sony, Home Depot, and Target that are at risk. Every organization needs to acknowledge that virtually any data can be turned into profit and that security should be a conscious business decision—not left to unexamined default settings or the unrealistic expectations of a misguided reputation.

 

Any security initiative must begin with discovering the vulnerabilities on your system and understanding the risk each one presents. For organizations running on IBM i, this process is quick and easy. PowerTech's ever-popular Security Scan is free and you can schedule your scan today. Once you know what challenges you're facing, you can formulate a plan of attack, which might include incorporating software solutions or getting help from security experts. The HelpSystems acquisition of SkyView Partners has resulted in expanded security offerings with additional products, plus an expansive menu of security services that include a comprehensive security assessment, penetration testing, and an entire portfolio of remediation services.

 

 

Robin Tatam

Robin Tatam is the Director of Security Technologies for PowerTech, a leading provider of security solutions for the System i. As a frequent speaker on security topics, he was also co-author of the Redbook IBM System i Security: Protecting i5/OS Data with Encryption. Robin can be reached at 952.563.2768 or robin.tatam@powertech.com.

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