Apache is a great web server if for no other reason than it offers more flexibility through modules than just about any other web server. You can plug-in all sorts of modules to enhance the functionality of Apache.

But as I often say, just because you can doesn't mean you should.

One of the modules you can install is mod_security. If you aren't familiar with mod_security, essentially it's a "roll your own" web application firewall plug-in for the Apache web server.

Some of the security functions you can implement via mod_security are: netsec

  • Simple filtering
  • Regular Expression based filtering
  • URL Encoding Validation
  • Unicode Encoding Validation
  • Auditing
  • Null byte attack prevention
  • Upload memory limits
  • Server identity masking
  • Built in Chroot support

Using mod_security you can also implement protocol security, which is an excellent idea for ensuring that holes in protocols aren't exploited. If you aren't sold on protocol security you should read up on the recent DNS vulnerability discovered by Dan Kaminsky - it's all about the protocol and has nothing to do with vulnerabilities introduced by implementation.

mod_security provides many options for validating URLs, URIs, and application data. You are, essentially, implementing a custom web application firewall using configuration directives.

If you're on this path then you probably agree that a web application firewall is a good thing, so why would I caution against using mod_security?

Well, there's four reasons, actually.

  1. It runs on every web server. This is an additional load on the servers that can be easily offloaded for a more efficient architecture. The need for partial duplication of configuration files across multiple machines can also result in the introduction of errors or extraneous configuration that is unnecessary. Running mod_security on every web server decreases capacity to serve users and applications accordingly, which may require additional servers to scale to meet demand.
  2. You have to become a security expert. You have to understand the attacks you are trying to stop in order to write a rule to prevent them. So either you become an expert or you trust a third-party to be the expert. The former takes time and that latter takes guts, as you're introducing unnecessary risk by trusting a third-party.
  3. You have to become a protocol expert. In addition to understanding all the attacks you're trying to prevent, you must become an expert in the HTTP protocol. Part of providing web application security is to sanitize and enforce the HTTP protocol to ensure it isn't abused to create a hole where none previously appeared. You also have to become an expert in Apache configuration directives, and the specific directives used to configure mod_security.
  4. The configuration must be done manually. Unless you're going to purchase a commercially supported version of mod_security, you're writing complex rules manually. You'll need to brush up on your regular expression skills if you're going to attempt this. Maintaining those rules is just as painful, as any update necessarily requires manual intervention.

Of course you could introduce an additional instance of Apache with mod_security installed that essentially proxies all requests through mod_security, thus providing a centralized security architecture, but at that point you've just introduced a huge bottleneck into your infrastructure. If you're already load-balancing multiple instances of a web site or application, then it's not likely that a single instance of Apache with mod_security is going to be able to handle the volume of requests without increasing downtime or degrading performance such that applications might as well be down because they're too painful to use.

Centralizing security can improve performance, reduce the potential avenues of risk through configuration error, and keeps your security up-to-date by providing easy access to updated signatures, patterns, and defenses against existing and emerging web application attacks. Some web application firewalls offer pre-configured templates for specific applications like Microsoft OWA, providing a simple configuration experience that belies the depth of security knowledge applied to protected the application. Web application firewalls can enable compliance with requirement 6.6 of PCI DSS

And they're built to scale, which means the scenario in which mod_security is used as a reverse proxy to protect all web servers from harm but quickly becomes a bottleneck and impediment to performance doesn't happen with purpose-built web application firewalls.

If you're considering using mod_security then you already recognize the value of and need for a web application firewall. That's great. But consider carefully where you will deploy that web application firewall, because the decision will have an impact on the performance and availability of your site and applications.


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