[AfrICANN-discuss] In Defense of BIND: Open Source DNS Software Yields a Better Breed of Secure Product

Anne-Rachel Inné annerachel at gmail.com
Tue May 25 21:46:49 SAST 2010

In Defense of BIND: Open Source DNS Software Yields a Better Breed of Secure
By Ram Mohan <http://www.securityweek.com/authors/ram-mohan> on May 25, 2010
ShareThis <javascript:void(0)>
 Buzz  <http://www.google.com/buzz/post>

*BIND*, the *Berkeley Internet Name Domain*, is the market share leader for
domain name system (DNS) server software, with something like 85 per cent of
installations worldwide. That's getting into Windows' market-share
territory, so it's hardly surprising that the software has received more
than its fair share of security criticism over the years. Malicious hackers
and white-hat vulnerability researchers tend to focus their efforts on the
most widely deployed software. After all, it brings the quickest outcome for
expended effort. In reality, open source software is already part of most IT
infrastructure1, with[image: BIND DNS] little negative impact. Just like
much of the Internet, open source has become both ubiquitous and essential.

Over the years, BIND has been criticized for the sheer number of software
vulnerabilities that have been disclosed, and the relatively large number of
software patches that have been issued to handle these bugs2. Vendors of
competing products have shown this as evidence of the superiority of their
own proprietary software, but clam up when asked to produce equivalent
statistics of the number of bugs and exploits fixed in their products.

As Forrester Research’s Michael Goulde3 says, “North American companies are
more likely to have embraced open source for mission-critical use. Companies
are finding open source suitable for certain types of critical business
applications.” We know now that the very openness of BIND has led to many
individuals and companies examining each version of the product, discovering
design problems and programming errors, and correcting them within days of
discovery – a far cry from the traditional once a year upgrade cycle of
proprietary software.

As a result, the open source nature of BIND has resulted in it being
considered more secure than proprietary DNS solutions. After all, BIND gets
updated an order of magnitude more frequently than its proprietary
competitors, creating a much smaller opportunity for exploits to remain in
the open.

Some say that malicious hackers have an easier time finding vulnerabilities
in software when they have access to the underlying source code. But when
one considers how vulnerability hunters, both white-hat and black-hat, go
about the work of hacking into software, this is an unreliable argument.
More vulnerabilities are discovered via probing and reverse engineering,
trying to break into the software from the outside, rather than wading
through the endless guts of programs, hoping to get lucky. Even relatively
lightweight software such as BIND can contain tens of thousands of lines of
source code. And it is likely that proprietary software has as high a
propensity for vulnerabilities in it as open source BIND, if not more.
Sunlight tends to be a great disinfectant, and that openness effect holds
good in the software industry as well.

Consider the tools the good guys use to test their own security. While it is
possible to obtain commercial or non-commercial software capable of scanning
source code for potential vulnerabilities, these types of applications are
far outnumbered by security tools and hacking programs that conduct “black
box” testing against compiled or live code, in which the vulnerability
scanner sometimes assumes the role of an attacker. One of the reasons for
this is that analyzing millions of lines of source code is a considerably
more challenging problem, even for software, than simulating known attack
vectors to beat on the surface of an application until it breaks.

Take one of the most famous DNS vulnerabilities, the “Kaminsky Bug.” Did Dan
Kaminsky spend months poring over source code to find the vulnerability,
which had been sitting there undiscovered in all kinds of DNS
implementations for years? No. He used Scapy, a network packet manipulation
tool, to prod and probe for holes in production DNS servers4. What he found
was essentially a hole in DNS itself, rather than BIND alone, but the
principle remains: it is much more effective for vulnerability hunters to
search the attack surface of live object code than its source. To put this
in simpler terms, a burglar walking down a quiet street trying door handles
will have a higher success rate than a burglar who spends all of his time
studying the blueprints of a Yale lock. [image: Domain Extensions]

To extend the analogy, if a homeowner has left their house unlocked for
whatever reason, hoping that a burglar will not simply walk down their
street trying handles, that person is relying on a principle known as
security through obscurity. This notion, especially as it applies to
cryptography, has been discredited by some of the world's top security
experts, starting with Auguste Kerckhoffs in the late 19th century5. Keeping
source code secret and proprietary does not mean it does not contain

Proprietary solutions do offer several advantages – technical support,
training, published upgrades, APIs, great user interfaces, etc. However,
BIND, powered by the California not-for-profit Internet Systems Consortium,
provides all of these features, albeit in the style of a not-for-profit
organization. Perhaps the biggest thing that BIND does not offer is a
targeted marketing message that reduces dissonance after a buying decision,
which its proprietary counterparts do a great job of. When someone is on the
phone congratulating you for spending your money on their product, sends you
whitepapers and invites you to industry conferences that validate your
decision, it is easier to defend the purchase, as compared to receiving
security update after security update from BIND’s active mailing list. At
the C-level executive suite, this lack of dissonance reduction is probably
the single biggest reason why BIND continues to be replaced with expensive
proprietary solutions once companies decide to invest more fully in a robust
DNS infrastructure.

Of course, proprietary solutions also pursue a vendor lock-in model, where
migration out of one solution to another is typically a painful and often
troublesome experience. Combine this with an uncertain feature upgrade and
release cycle and maintenance costs that tend to quickly be as much as the
price of the software itself, the cost benefit analysis of BIND shows it to
be a very attractive solution. In the case of open source software like
BIND, which has a professional non-profit entity as well as an expert
user/developer community behind it, users get some of the benefits of both
worlds. When every user is also potentially a developer or patcher, the
number of eyeballs keeping the code secure increases exponentially and the
time to discover and resolve issues is drastically reduced.

Of course, at the end of the day, it comes down to accountability. If your
BIND installation fails, who can you call? Is there dedicated support
available to help configure your software, or do you need to troll through
message boards and wait on email responses while your web site is suffering?
User experience is varied here, but my suggestion is that for all mission
critical software installed in your enterprise, you should secure proper
support contracts and also train people in-house to ensure that you are not
in trouble when a problem occurs, as it inevitably will. BIND provides
how-to guides, a searchable database of problems, and may even provide
training under contract.

Human beings are fallible, so all software is buggy and can have security
vulnerabilities. It's a fact of life that more widely deployed software like
BIND is more likely to be attacked than less popular alternatives. It's also
a fact of life that BIND’s open source development process acts to minimize,
over time, the total number of vulnerabilities, creating a much more
resilient piece of software. We put our faith in it, and it has not let us

*Disclosure:* *The author’s firm, Afilias, uses BIND software extensively in
its global computer network and sponsors development and innovation of BIND

*Ram Mohan is the Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at
Afilias, a global provider of Internet infrastructure services including
domain name registry and DNS solutions. Ram also serves as the Security &
Stability Advisory Committee's liaison to ICANN’s Board of Directors and has
helped direct and write numerous policies effecting domain name registration
and DNS security. *
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: https://lists.afrinic.net/pipermail/africann/attachments/20100525/7e1ff0b9/attachment.htm

More information about the AfrICANN mailing list