License server glitch exposes SonicWall users to e-mail security threats

Vendor says it has fixed problem; angry customers blast company in user forum

A technical problem in a license management server at SonicWall Inc. created havoc earlier today for users of the company's e-mail security products, leaving many customers temporarily unprotected against spam, phishing and malware threats while others were unable to log into their own systems.

Colleen Nichols, a spokeswoman for SonicWall, said Tuesday evening that the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based vendor had resolved the server issue as of noontime PST and that affected customers could "resynchronize their licenses" by visiting the customer support section of the company's Web site.

It wasn't immediately clear how many customers were affected by the license server glitch. But numerous users posted angry messages on a forum on the SonicWall site during a period that lasted for several hours.

According to a user who reported the problem to Computerworld via e-mail, the glitch affected all customers of SonicWall's ES series of e-mail security appliances, based on what he was told by a person he described as the vendor's "general support ticket-taker."

The user, who asked not to be identified, said that during the overnight hours from Monday into Tuesday, SonicWall's license manager erroneously reset the license keys for products installed on his systems and those of other customers, thereby making the licenses appear to be invalid.

"Very early this morning," Nichols confirmed via e-mail, "one server in SonicWall's licensing server pool that handles distribution of [antivirus] signatures and license keys malfunctioned." The malfunction caused "some" license keys to be reset, requiring them to later be resynchronized with SonicWall's servers, she said.

The company shut off the problematic license server "shortly after it began malfunctioning, and at the same time proactively stopped automatic license key updates while we verified the integrity of the rest of our licensing servers," Nichols wrote. During that period, customers were still able to manually download updates and resynchronize their licenses through the company's Web site, she added.

Nichols said that SonicWall was working to contact customers believed to have been affected by the problem to ensure them that the technical issues had been resolved.

In posts on the user forum, a person named Jody Spoor who identified himself as a senior technical support engineer at SonicWall said that the company had been alerted about the problem "as early as we could be" and had taken immediate steps to prevent the issue from spreading further.

Typically, a problem with a license server shouldn't result in local product registration information being lost, Spoor said in one post. But for some reason, the registration information was lost "for a number of units," he added. Spoor recommended a manual work-around for affected customers while SonicWall worked to fix the technical snafu.

The glitch sparked outrage among some SonicWall customers who vented their frustrations on the user forum, which can be accessed from the company's main support page but requires registration.

"I'll say it to whoever I need to say it to. This is unacceptable," wrote a customer using the handle "rhouseholder." "We are a 100 million dollar 'technology' defense contractor with serious security considerations, and I can't just have SPAM and VIRUSES pouring into my network for half a day because your license server went down."

One forum poster, who works at an educational institution that has nearly 30,000 students and is hit by more than 2 million spam messages daily, fumed at the fact that the manual work-around recommended by SonicWall didn't work for the school.

That user also complained that e-mails and phone calls to SonicWall's tech support department had gone unreturned for hours. "There comes a time when you need to stop waiting for tech support to call you back and just call your own internal legal department," the user wrote.

Another customer said several schools that rely on SonicWall products for content filtering had decided to disconnect their Internet access until the license server problem was resolved.

"Say goodbye to one customer — I will not be renewing," wrote another user who was identified as "pcicanada" on the forum. In that post, pcicanada added that although the problem eventually was resolved, the entire episode was completely inexcusable.

"What exactly is it," pcicanada wrote, "that I am paying for? My systems spent most of the day completely exposed because the wizards at Sonicwall have no mechanisms in place for dealing with something like this!"

Other users also lamented about the apparent lack of a backup plan at SonicWall for handling the crisis, and blasted the company for leaving them exposed to e-mail threats for a prolonged period of time because of a license server glitch. Some demanded a prompt and complete explanation of what had happened so they could tell their managers why their companies had been left completely open to e-mail security threats.

One user, who said his SonicWall system had been down for more than eight hours, called the situation "ridiculous" in a forum post. "I had no idea they were running real-time licensing, but since they were, they should have some redundancy," the user wrote. "This is BS. I'm livid."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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