Databases Ripe for Attacks

One reason the Slammer worm was able to wreak so much havoc is database administrators are loathe to install patches that haven't been thoroughly tested.

The SQL Slammer worm played a major role in a recently reported spike in security incidents during the first three months of 2003.

The report, put out by security firm Internet Security Systems Inc., found a 37 percent jump in reported security incidents and confirmed attacks from the fourth quarter of 2002 to the first quarter of 2003.

Pete Allor, manager of the companys ISS X-Force Threat Intelligence Services, said that Slammer—which in late January preyed upon servers running Microsoft Corp.s SQL Server 2000 database—was a "huge part" of the substantial increase in security reports. Allor said that in just the two-day period when Slammer had its biggest impact, his group observed over 2 million related security events. To put that into perspective, over the past three months, the group observed some 160 million security events.

Those numbers could point to a few things, Allor said: more hacker activities focused on probing databases and not enough alacrity on the part of DBAs (database administrators) when it comes to installing patches.

"Weve noted for awhile that theres been a lot of scanning for database events," said Allor, in Atlanta. "Weve seen people scan ports, looking to see whats open and what they can connect to. And as youre aware, thats where all the datas at. If youre looking for something to do, [databases] are a great thing to look at."

Databases are also particularly vulnerable to attack, since DBAs are loathe to install patches that havent been thoroughly tested, Allor said. Indeed, six months before the fast-replicating Slammer worm struck, Microsoft Corp. had issued a patch that would have covered the vulnerability the worm exploited. Many DBAs who procrastinated on installing the patch cited the need to test it in a production environment before installing it—a choice that left them vulnerable. "Everyones afraid that if you play with something thats working, youll break it," Allor said. "Theyre very conservative in what they do to upgrade."

Jay Todd, chief financial officer for Service Thread Manufacturing Co., in Laurinburg, N.C., who also manages IT for the industrial thread and yarn manufacturer, said theres simply no excuse for procrastinating on installing patches. "Its ludicrous for everybody to say that Microsofts a big, bad wolf because they cant test every configuration of their product," he said. "They ship it out as a user-configurable product. Theres no way anybody could foresee all the combinations of setups."

Unlike many DBAs, Todd installs service packs as soon as theyre issued. That kept the companys SQL Server 2000 database software safe from Slammer, he said, and it protects the database and other infrastructure from getting attacked by the 15 to 20 e-mail viruses that arrive in his in-box daily.

ISS Allor said that those enterprises that cant test patches so they can be installed quickly should at least throw up more protection around databases. "I understand the issue, that you need to test it," he said. "If thats the course youre taking, wed highly recommend you put more protection around it."

One way to do that is to put up a network segment where patches can be tested in an ongoing manner. "What youre looking to do is put the risk where you can tolerate it," Allor said. "Each organization has to go through its own risk assessment on that: how valuable is the information, how vulnerable is a machine on this network setup, what kind of intrusion detection is in front of it, what kind of firewall protections you have in front of it."

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(Editors Note: This story has been modified since its original posting to correct a statistical error in the ISS report.)