Standards effort points to automation via common markup language O-ACEML for improved IT compliance, security
July 28, 2011
Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod and Podcast.com. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: The Open Group.
Join this podcast discussion in conjunction with the latest Open Group Conference in Austin, Texas, to examine the Open Automated Compliance Expert Markup Language (O-ACEML), a new standard creation and effort that helps enterprises automate security compliance across their systems in a consistent and cost-saving manner.
O-ACEML helps to achieve compliance with applicable regulations but also achieves major cost savings. From the compliance audit viewpoint, auditors can carry out similarly consistent and more capable audits in less time.
Here to help us understand O-ACEML and managing automated security compliance issues and how the standard is evolving are Jim Hietala, Vice President of Security at The Open Group, and Shawn Mullen, a Power Software Security Architect at IBM. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions. [Disclosure: The Open Group is a Sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]
Here are some excerpts:
Hietala: One of the things you’ve seen in last 10 or 12 years — since the compliance regulations have really come to the fore — is that the more regulation there is, more specific requirements are put down, and the more challenging it is for organizations to manage. Their IT infrastructure needs to be in compliance with whatever regulations impact them, and the cost of doing so becomes significant.
So, anything that could be done to help automate, to drive out cost, and maybe make organizations more effective in complying with the regulations that affect them — whether it’s PCI, HIPAA, or whatever — there’s lot of benefit to large IT organizations in doing that. That’s really what drove us to look at adopting a standard in this area.
W e’re moving to] enable compliance of IT devices specifically around security constraints and the security configuration settings and to some extent, the process. If you look at how people did compliance or managed to compliance without a standard like this, without automation, it tended to be a manual process of setting configuration settings and auditors manually checking on settings. O-ACEML goes to the heart of trying to automate that process and drive some cost out of an equation.
Mullen: This has been going on a while, and we’re seeing it on both classes of customers. On the high-end, we would go from customer-to-customer and they would have their own hardening scripts, their own view of what should be hardened. It may conflict with what compliance organization wanted as far as the settings. This was a standard way of taking what the compliance organization wanted, and also it has an easy way to author it, to change it.
If your own corporate security requirements are more stringent, you can easily change the O-ACEML configuration, so that is satisfies your more stringent corporate compliance or security policy, as well as satisfying the regulatory compliance organization in an easy way to monitor it, to report, and see it.
In addition, on the low end, the small businesses don’t have the expertise to know how to configure their systems. Quite frankly, they don’t want to be security experts. Here is an easy way to print an XML file to harden their systems as it needs to be hardened to meet compliance or just the regular good security practices.
One of the things that we’re seeing in the industry is server consolidation. If you have these hundreds, or in large organizations thousands, of systems and you have to manually configure them, it becomes a very daunting task. Because of that, it’s a one-time shot at doing this, and then the monitoring is even more difficult. With O-ACEML, it’s a way of authoring your security policy as it meets compliance or for your own security policy in pushing that out.
This allows you to have a single XML and push it onto heterogeneous platforms. Everything is configured securely and consistently and it gives you a very easy way to get the tooling to monitor those systems, so they are configured correctly today. You’re checking them weekly or daily to ensure that they remain in that desired state.
[As an example], let’s take a single rule, and we’ll use a simple case like the minimum password length. In PCI the minimum password length, for example, is seven. Sarbanes-Oxley, which relies on COBiT password length would be eight.
But with an O-ACEML XML, it’s very easy to author a rule, and there are three segments to it. The first segment is, it’s very human understandable, where you would put something like “password length equals seven.” You can add a descriptive text with it, and that’s all you have to author.
When that is pushed down on to the platform or the system that’s O-ACEML-aware, it’s able to take that simple ACEML word or directive and map that into an actionable command relevant to that system. When it finds the map into the actionable command, it writes it back into the XML. So that’s completing the second phase of the rule. It executes that command either to implement the setting or to check the setting.
The result of the command is then written back into the XML. So now the XML for particular rule has the first part, the authored high-level directive as a compliance organization, how that particular system mapped into a command, and the result of executing that command either in a setting or checking format.
Now we have all of the artifacts we need to ensure that the system is configured correctly, and to generate audit reports. So when the auditor comes in we can say, “This is exactly how any particular system is configured and we know it to be consistent, because we can point to any particular system, get the O-ACEML XML and see all the artifacts and generate reports from that.”
What’s interesting about O-ACEML — and this is one of our differences from, for example, the security content automation protocol (SCAP) — is that instead of the vendor saying, “This is how we do it. It has a repository of how the checking goes and everything like that,” you let the end point make the determination. The end point is aware of what OS it is and it’s aware of what version it is.
For example, with IBM UNIX, which is AIX, you would say “password check at this different level.” We’ve increased our password strength, we’ve done a lot of security enhancements around that. If you push the ACEML to a newer level of AIX, it would do the checking slightly differently. So, it really relies on the platform, the device itself, to understand ACEML and understand how best to do its checking.
We see with small businesses and even some of the larger corporations that they’re maintaining their own scripts. They’re doing everything manually. They’re logging on to a system and running some of those scripts. Or, they’re not running scripts at all, but are manually making all of these settings.
It’s an extremely long and burdensome process, when you start considering that there are hundreds of thousands of these systems. There are different OSes. You have to find experts for your Linux systems or your HP-UX or AIX. You have to have all those different talents and skills in these different areas, and again the process is quite lengthy.
Hietala: The way to think about it is the universe of IT devices that are in scope for these various compliance regulations. If you think about PCI DSS, it defines pretty tightly what your cardholder data environment consists of. In terms of O-ACEML, it could be networking devices, servers, storage equipment, or any sort of IT device. Broadly speaking, it could apply to lots of different classes of computing devices.
O-ACEML is relatively new. It was just published 60 days ago by The Open Group. The actual specification is on The Open Group website. It’s downloadable, and we would encourage both, system vendors and platform vendors, as well as folks in the security management space or maybe the IT-GRC space, to check it out, take a look at it, and think about adopting it as a way to exchange compliance configuration information with platforms.
We want to encourage adoption by as broad a set of vendors as we can, and we think that having more adoption by the industry, will help make this more available so that end-users can take advantage of it.
Mullen: We had a very interesting presentation here at The Open Group Conference in Austin. Customers are finding the best way they can lower their compliance or their cost of meeting compliance is through automation. If you can automate any part of that compliance process, that’s going to save you time and money. If you can get rid of the manual effort with automation, it greatly reduces your cost.
Cost of compliance
There was a very good study [we released and discussed this week]. It found that the average cost of an organization to be compliant is $3 million. That’s annual cost. What was also interesting was that the cost of being non-compliant, as they called it, was $9 million.
Hietala: The figures that Shawn is referencing come out of the study by the Ponemon Institute. Larry Ponemon does lots of studies around security risk compliance cost. He authors an annual data breach study that’s pretty widely quoted in the security industry that gets to the cost of data breaches on average for companies.
In the numbers that were presented, he recently studied 46 very large companies, looking at their cost to be in compliance with the relevant regulations. It’s like $3.5 million a year, and over $9 million for companies that weren’t compliant, which suggests that companies that are actually actively managing toward compliance are probably little more efficient than those that aren’t.
What O-ACEML has the opportunity to do for those companies that are in compliance is help drive that $3.5 million down to something much less than that by automating and taking manual labor out of process.
Mullen: One of the things that we’re hoping vendors will gravitate toward is the ability to have a central console controlling their IT environment or configuring and monitoring their IT environment. It just has to push out a single XML file. It doesn’t have to push out a special XML for Linux versus AIX versus a network device. It can push out that O-ACEML file to all of the devices. It’s a singular descriptive XML, and each device, in turn, knows how to map it to its own particular platform in security configuring.
Hietala: And O-ACEML goes beyond just the compliance regulations that are inflicted on us or put on us by government organizations to defining a best practice instead of security policies in the organization. Then, using this as a mechanism to push those out to your environment and to ensure that they are being followed and implemented on all the devices in their IT environment.
So, it definitely goes beyond just managing compliance to these external regulations, but to doing a better job of implementing the ideal security configuration settings across your environment.
Moving to the cloud
If you think about how this sort of a standard might apply toward services that are built in somebody’s cloud, you could see using this as a way to both set configuration settings and check on the status of configuration settings and instances of machines that are running in a cloud environment. Shawn, maybe you want to expand on that?
Mullen: It’s interesting that you brought this up, because this is the exact conversation we had earlier today in one of the plenary sessions. They were talking about moving your IT out into the cloud. One of the issues, aside from just the security, was how do you prove that you are meeting these compliance requirements?
ACEML is a way to reach into the cloud to find your particular system and bring back a report that you can present to your auditor. Even though you don’t own the system –it’s not in the data center here in the next office, it’s off in the cloud somewhere — you can bring back all the artifacts necessary to prove to the auditor that you are meeting the regulatory requirements.
Hietala: The standard specification is up on our website. You can go to the “Publications” tab on our website, and do a search for O-ACEML, and you should find the actual technical standard document. Then, you can get involved directly in the security forum by joining The Open Group . As the standard evolves, and as we do more with it, we certainly want more members involved in helping to guide the progress of it over time.
Mullen: That’s a perfect way to start. We do want to invite different compliance organization, everybody from the electrical power grid — they have their own view of security — to ISO, to payment card industry. For the electrical power grid standard, for example — and ISO is the same way — what ACEML helps them with is they don’t need to understand how Linux does it, how AIX does it. They don’t need to have that deep understanding.
In fact, the way ISO describes it in their PDF around password settings, it basically says, use good password settings, and it doesn’t go into any depth beyond that. The way we architected and designed O-ACEML is that you can just say, “I want good password settings,” and it will default to what we decided. What we focused in on collectively as an international standard in The Open Group was, that good password hygiene means you change your password every six months. It should at least carry this many characters, there should be a non-alpha/numeric.
It removes the burden of these different compliance groups from being security experts and it let’s them just use O-ACEML and the default settings that The Open Group came up with.
We want to reach out to those groups and show them the benefits of publishing some of their security standards in O-ACEML. Beyond that, we’ll work with them to have that standard up, and hopefully they can publish it on their website, or maybe we can publish it on The Open Group website.
… It’s an international standard, we want it to be used by multiple compliance organizations. And compliance is a good thing. It’s just good IT governance. It will save companies money in the long run, as we saw with these statistics. The goal is to lower the cost of being compliant, so you get good IT governance, just with a lower cost.
Hietala: You’ll see more from us in terms of adoption of the standard. We’re looking already at case studies and so forth to really describe in terms that everyone can understand what benefits organizations are seeing from using O-ACEML. Given the environment we’re in today, we’re seeing about security breaches and hacktivism and so forth everyday in the newspapers.
I think we can expect to see more regulation and more frequent revisions of regulations and standards affecting IT organizations and their security, which really makes it imperative for engineers in IT environment in such a way that you can accommodate those changes, as they are brought to your organization, do so in an effective way, and at the least cost. Those are really the kinds of things that O-ACEML has targeted, and I think there is a lot of benefit to organizations to using it.
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