Virtual Patching: What is it and why you should be doing it

Yesterday I was privileged to co-host a webinar with WhiteHat Security's Jeremiah Grossman on preventing SQL injection and Cross-Site scripting using a technique called "virtual patching". While I was familiar with F5's partnership with WhiteHat and our integrated solution, I wasn't familiar with the term. Virtual patching should put an end to the endless religious warring that goes on between the secure coding and web application firewall camps whenever the topic of web application security is raised.

The premise of virtual patching is that a web application firewall is not, I repeat is not a replacement for secure coding. It is, in fact, an augmentation of existing security systems and practices that, in fact, enables secure development to occur without being rushed or outright ignored in favor of rushing a fix out the door.

"The remediation challenges most organizations face are the time consuming process of allocating the proper personnel, prioritizing the tasks, QA / regression testing the fix, and finally scheduling a production release."
-- WhiteHat Security, "WhiteHat Website Security Statistic Reports", December 2008

The WhiteHat report goes on to discuss the average number of days it took for organizations to address the top five urgent - not critical, not high, but urgent - severity vulnerabilities discovered. The fewest number of days to resolve a vulnerability (SQL Injection) was 28 in 2008, which is actually an improvement over previous years.

28 days. That's a lifetime on the Internet when your site is vulnerable to exploitation and attackers are massing at the gates faster than ants to a picnic.

But you can't rush finding and fixing the vulnerability, and the option to shut down the web application may not be an option at all, especially if you rely on that application as a revenue stream, as an integration point with partners, or as part of a critical business process with a strict SLA governing its uptime. So do you leave it vulnerable? According to White Hat's data, apparently that's the decision made for many organizations given the limited options.

The heads of many security professionals just exploded. My apologies if any of the detritus mussed your screen.

If you're one of the ones whose head is still intact, there is a solution. Virtual patching provides the means by which you can prevent the exploitation of the vulnerability while it is addressed through whatever organizational processes are required to resolve it.

Virtual patching is essentially the process of putting in place a rule on a web application firewall to prevent the exploitation of a vulnerability. This process is often times a manual one, but in the case of WhiteHat and F5 the process has been made as easy as clicking a button. When WhiteHat's Sentinel, which provides vulnerability scanning as a service, uncovers a vulnerability the operator (that's you) can decide to virtually patch the hole by adding a rule to the appropriate policy on F5's BIG-IP Application Security Manager (ASM) with the click of a button.

Once the vulnerability has been addressed, you can remove the rule from the policy or leave it in place, as is your wont. It's up to you.

Virtual patching provides the opportunity to close a vulnerability quickly but doesn't require that you necessarily abandon secure coding practices. Virtual patching actual enables and encourages secure coding by giving developers some breathing room in which to implement a thorough, secure solution to the vulnerability.

It isn't an either-or solution, it's both, and leverages both solutions to provide the most comprehensive security coverage possible. And given statistics regarding the number of sites infected of late, that's something everyone should be able to get behind.

Virtual patching as a technique does not require WhiteHat or F5, but other solutions will require a manual process to put in place rules to address vulnerabilities. The advantage of a WhiteHat-F5 solution is its tight integration via iControl and ability to immediately close discovered security holes, and of course a lengthy list of cool security options and features to further secure web applications available with ASM.

You can read more about the integration between WhiteHat and F5 here or here or view a short overview of the way virtual patching works between Sentinel and ASM.


AddThis Feed Button Bookmark and Share

Published Jan 29, 2009
Version 1.0

Was this article helpful?