I read with interest an article on port knocking as a mechanism for securing SOA services on CIO.com. If you aren't familiar with port knocking (I wasn't) then you'll find it somewhat interesting:

From Nicholas Petreley's "There is More to SOA Security Than Authorization and Authentication"

For the sake of argument, let's say you have an SOA server component for your custom client software that uses port 4000. Port knocking can close off port 4000 (and every other port) to anyone who doesn't know the "secret method" for opening it. Any cracker who scans your server for open ports will never discover that you have an SOA service available on that port. All ports will appear unresponsive, which makes your server appear to offer no services at all.

Ironically, your client gains access to port 4000 in a way similar to the way crackers discover existing open ports. As described above, port scanners step through all available ports sequentially, knocking on each one to see if there's an answer. By default, a port knocking-enabled firewall never answers on any port. The secret to unlocking any given port is in the non-sequential order your client uses to check for open ports.

For example, your client software might check ports 22, 8000, 45, 1056, in that order. Each time, there will be no answer. But the server will recognize that your device —running the legitimate client software—knocked on just the right ports in the right order, like the key to a combination lock. Having gotten the right combination, the firewall will open port 4000 to the authenticated device and only to that device. Port 4000 will continue to look closed and unused to the rest of the world.

A great description is also available here along with client and server side software.

At first I thought "this is way cool". Then I thought about it some more and thought "Wow. That's going to destroy performance, increase development and support costs, and put a big target on your services. Still cool from a technical perspective, but from an enterprise architecture point of view? Not so cool."

While the initial value of port knocking - making it more difficult to find services to attack in the first place - seems obvious, there are better ways to secure access to services than by hiding them and requiring modifications to clients (or requiring custom clients in the first place) to access them.

The description from Nicolas includes "running the legitimate client software", which implies there is some method of identifying legitimate - and therefore illegitimate - clients. There are much less intrusive methods of determining the legitimacy of clients such as client certificates, custom HTTP headers, and, for SOA specific applications, digital signatures.

The use of port knocking necessarily adds additional requests, which degrades the responsiveness of applications simply because it requires more time to "get into" the application. SOA applications aren't all that speedy in the first place, so adding more latency into the equation is certainly not going to improve user adoption or satisfaction with the application in terms of performance.

Requiring special clients increases the support costs for any application as well as introduces variability that can delay development and deployment, such as OS platform support. Will all the clients be .NET? Java? What versions? What about patching and upgrades? What do the port knocking libraries support? How secure are they? Do they even exist?

It also destroys ubiquitous web access to services through a browser, which destroys the benefits of reusability of services. If you need a special client it's not likely that browser-based access is going to be possible.

And what about changes to your infrastructure? Port knocking requires a port knocking enabled firewall or server, and it almost certainly will be need to be deployed on the outside perimeter, in front of your enterprise firewall, because all ports need to be "open and answerable" in order to port forward the client to the "next door" in the sequence. This changes your network infrastructure and requires that you add yet another point of failure in the security chain.

SOA has some well defined security that goes further than just authentication and authorization in WS-Security 1.1. The use of encryption, digital signatures, and SSL goes a long way toward securing your SOA. Hiding the existence of services makes it harder to find them, as the article points out. But attackers aren't stupid; if you go to extreme lengths to hide those services then they must be worth finding. Will it stop script kiddies? Certainly. Will it stop the hard-core organized attack squads? Absolutely not.

Hiding your services with port knocking is a lot like turning off all the lights and pretending not to be home. Thieves generally don't go after the well-lit, occupied homes. They like the empty ones, or the ones just pretending to be empty.

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