Is Microsoft Really Building the Ferrari of Encryption?

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2004-05-25

Is Microsoft Really Building the Ferrari of Encryption?

Microsofts spark plugs must be sizzling with pride. Now Redmond is claiming to be building the "Ferrari" of database encryption, compared with archrivals Oracle Corp. and IBM, whose supposedly pokey database security Microsoft Director of Product Management for SQL Server Tom Rizzo calls the "Hyundais" of encryption.

What Microsoft is crowing about, of course, is its Tuesday announcement at its conference in San Diego that it will embed native data encryption into the upcoming SQL Server 2005 version of its relational database, formerly code-named Yukon.

No snickers, please. Or cracks about Slammer-induced whiplash. Database encryption is a serious issue, and when it comes from a security-beleaguered source such as Microsoft, theres cause aplenty to celebrate.

Click here to read more about the SQL Slammer worm.

Indeed, some folks site Microsofts need to bolster security as an explanation for the serial delays in SQL Server 2005s release. So its nice to see those efforts and delays reap such benefits.

Security at the database level has been virtually ignored in the past as enterprises instead focused on securing the network level, but thats been changing of late. Database security is a hot market right now, and Forrester Research analyst Noel Yuhanna told me hes getting plenty of inquiries from clients who are looking to lock down their databases.

"We definitely have seen a demand for encryption of data at this level, driven by industries such as financial institutions as well as other insurance- and health-related industries," he said.

The feedback Ive received from SQL Server 2005 beta testers is that native encryption at the database level will make a huge difference.

For example, currently, a company like TSYS—the worlds largest third-party credit-card processor—has up to now been using third-party encryption products from vendors such as Protegrity Inc. and/or Application Security Inc. However, the introduction of native encryption in the database will mean that the encryption overhead will be handled by the database product itself. That means that native encryption buys you a lot of CPU power to handle your overhead, Technology Director Tim Kelly told me.

Microsofts Rizzo did concede that encryption comes at a price—a performance price, naturally. Kelly reports that speed and capacity thus far arent showing up as issues, however, and that the encryption has been "very well-engineered."

Of course, TYSYS is the epitome of the kind of company you want to see lock down their database tables beyond airtight. Take those credit-card numbers and vacuum-tube them, indeed. With the coming of native encryption, the company plans a lot more database encryption, whereas before, like many enterprises, it focused on encrypting traffic.

Its a big win also for Long and Foster, a real estate company that covers the seven-state Mid-Atlantic region. Long and Foster runs almost exclusively on SQL Server for all its applications and has some 120 SQL Server instances. The company, based in Fairfax, Va., has been beta testing SQL Server 2005 some three years—thats practically since it was barely a glimmer in Tom Rizzos eye.

Native encryption in SQL Server 2005 is going to offload plenty of handholding for the companys eStore project, a spot where all its marketing products and services will be sold online to its 13,000 agents. Senior Manager for E-Commerce and Software Development Lance Morimoto told me that his staff had been developing, managing and running security components itself for the eStore—in other words, the group has had a lot more code to maintain than would be optimal.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, check out Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.

When you move from build-your-own or third-party products and into native encryption support, it helps the application development process by giving you less code to maintain. Also, it certainly helps with licensing issues.

Consider the hassle of upgrading, for example. When you have to deploy across a farm of servers, licensing and compatibility issues can bog you down. With everything on SQL Server, were now in a situation where we dont have to maintain and purchase and worry about licensing for all the separate tools and development languages, which is a major relief.

Next Page: The Ferrari-Hyundai Comparison Examined

The Ferrari

-Hyundai Comparison Examined">

What interests me particularly, though, is the Ferrari-Hyundai comparison.

According to Microsofts Rizzo, the key differentiator to Oracle and IBM is that Microsoft supports key management. Not only can you encrypt the data with passwords, you can also use standard certificates to encrypt and decrypt all passwords. Rizzo said Oracle has a tool kit you have to download, and DB2 has some built-in capabilities but only supports passwords. That means you have to put a password on every bit of built-in encryption, leading storms of amnesiac users to pester the IT help desk with calls to reset passwords.

Still, Im taking that claim with a grain of salt until Oracle and IBM get back to me on current and future plans for data encryption, though.

According to this article by Paul Zikopoulos, database specialist at IBM, Stinger will have the ability to encrypt data "on the wire" between the client and server. It will start out as 56-bit encryption in order to maintain compatibility across the DB2 Universal Database family and into the DB2 UDB for z/OS platform.

As for Oracle Database 10g, it looks like youll still need to download a package for encryption, although Oracle alleges that the new package is easier to use and contains more cryptographic algorithms than the one available in Oracle8i and 9i.

Does this sound as if IBM and Oracle are encryption Hyundais? Oh, I dont know about that. More likely, Microsoft is just trying to stake some claims in an area—i.e., security—in which its long been criticized.

As Mike Schiff, vice president of BI and e-business with Current Analysis of Sterling, Va., put it: the two giants are fighting in a battlefield where Microsoft cant play—namely, to be the commercial database of choice on Linux.

Of course, Microsoft has "issues" with hackers, Schiff said, which is something of an understatement. Whatever else native database encryption does, it will certainly position the company as taking security seriously.

Sounds like a win-win for SQL Server customers and Microsoft alike.

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