What 40,000 unsecured MongoDB databases mean for our industry
In the wake of the MongoDB insecurity debacle, Lukas Eder writes that the solution is a wider variety of skills in a developer team.
The news is all over Reddit…
Security is a feature that is often neglected until it’s too late. And when it’s too late, it is often hard to bake it into a well-established architecture without major refactoring efforts.
Every system and thus also every database is always vulnerable. Most databases, however, do offer a significant amount of features to implement a security layer – and MongoDB is no different from any other DBMS here. So, how could this massive security hole happen?
SEE ALSO: MongoDB 3.0 scheduled for March
Security is a cultural thing. Either, a company has security in their DNA, or it doesn’t. The same is true for scalability, or user experience, or any other aspect of software engineering. I’ve worked for companies that are at completely opposite ends of security awareness. Some (in the E-Banking field) were ultra-paranoiac, implementing thorough security checks in around 7 layers of the application. Others were rather lenient with management focusing much more on marketing than anything else. Without any empirical evidence, however, there was a certain correlation between security-awareness in a company and the back-end-orientedness of the same company, E-Banking being a very back-end-oriented business.
Back-end developers are more security aware
This is an over-generalisation and probably doesn’t do justice to many excellent front-end developers out there, but security is where the data is. Where the algorithms are. Where people reason about constraints, workflows, batch jobs, accounting, money, … algorithms. These folks focus on all the users. On the system. And they want to protect it. On the flip side, they might neglect usability.
There is only little security-awareness where the user experience is. Where people reason about layout, formatting, usability, style, … user interfaces. These folks focus on single users. On their experience. And they want to make things easy for the user.
(and again, the same is true for scalability)
It is no coincidence that back-end technology evolves extremely slowly. Java: 20 years and we’ve just finally gotten lambdas. SQL: 30 years and we still don’t have easy ways to reuse code.
At the same time, front-end technology evolves at the “speed of reddit”. The next hype is just 100 karma away, and we’ll throw all the previous tech out of the window, just to be part of the game.
Clearly, security is something that has to be reasoned about way too thoroughly for it to survive in the fast-paced front-end world.
What does MongoDB have to do with it?
The current event isn’t actually directly related to MongoDB (you could probably find just as many unprotected MySQL instances out there). But it strongly correlates with MongoDB’s sales and marketing strategies. MongoDB has done very aggressive and successful marketing in the past, claiming that the reign of the RDBMS is over – just as much as the reign of the RDBMS had been over before, when the astonishing object databases surfaced this planet. Well, we all know where object or XML databases went:
This time, the anti-RDBMS marketing resonated mostly with front-end developers, obviously, because JSON is their favourite data representation format, and MongoDB promised to be able to store data directly from the DOM into the DB. Not only did this mean “the end of the DBA” for some software vendors, but many vendors also hoped that they could omit operations, and perhaps even back-end development. What obviously worked well for prototyping and simple applications doesn’t scale well to applications with sensitive data.
The solution is obvious. Homogeneity kills your business. You should hire a variety of different types of personnel. You should have skilled front-end developers, back-end developers, operations people, DBA, and security experts on your team. You should make them work all together, hear each of their opinions, review each others’ code, learn from each other. Because each one of them has a strong focus and interest on an entirely different, yet equally important aspect of your application.
Do not neglect any of these aspects. Because if you do, and if it’s security, and if you lose sensitive customer data – well, you’re not going to stay in business, you’ll be sued in court.