Mainframe's midlife crisis: Security

Twenty years ago, mainframes sat in tight glass houses, accessed by a limited list of select employees. Today, mainframes remain a mainstay of enterprise operations. All predictions of the mainframe's imminent demise have disappeared as quickly as those predicting the end of brick-and-mortar retailing. In fact, industry sources estimate that 30 billion Cobol transactions occur daily; that's more than the number of Web page hits in the same time period.

In today's enterprise, mainframes have shattered their glass houses and are accessible by a variety of network services. In addition to conventional users of core CICS or IMS-based transactions, large organizations (including many financial services companies) are shifting applications from Wintel to Linux on the mainframe to save costs and increase performance and reliability. And Web-based applications hosted on the mainframe's Linux or Unix environment enable millions of customers to access the core transactional data needed to conduct business.

With so much traffic from so many sources -- and new government regulations aimed at consumer privacy and corporate diligence -- it's time for companies to rethink how they secure the mainframe.

Fatigue, inexperience and overconfidence trump security

Marooned on islands, with limited outside connectivity, mainframes have always been relatively easy to administer and secure. It wasn't uncommon for an organization to literally have one mainframe technician per user. Now, it's one technician per 1,000 users. Across our customer base of more than 300 large companies, we're seeing the trend: Experienced mainframe help is overworked and hard to find. You can't just plug in a firewall administrator and expect him to find his way around a spaghetti works of applications and services that were written before that administrator was even born.

In addition to increased connectivity and staff scarcity and knowledge, one of the largest challenges for mainframe security is complacency and overconfidence. Most companies assume that mainframes are secure, simply because of their glass-house heritage. I recently visited a very large European bank that boasted about mainframe security. I made the wrong assumption; with so many applications hosted on the mainframe, it was relatively easy for an insider to abuse and compromise the system. Sensitive data could be copied, records deleted, and all traces of this activity could be removed.

In particular, mainframes are vulnerable to three major types of threats:

  1. Malicious data access: Hackers and trusted users have increased potential to access the mainframe's core data repository just like any other platform. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) and other standards all point to the need to protect data accountability and integrity. The mainframe can't be an exception.
  2. Self-inflicted mistakes: A generation of mainframe masters is quickly retiring, and less qualified or less experienced technical staffers (often rushed and overworked) can inadvertently change code or settings to open up holes or deliver too much authorization to the system.
  3. Aged software: The strength of the mainframe is that you can continue to run the old reliable software without too much maintenance. But even mainframe software needs checks, patches and updates to close gaps or simply improve security.

Teaching an old dog new tricks

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Advice
Rob van Hoboken
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Organizations need to take a deep breath and start applying traditional best-of-breed security practices to the mainframe. Here's a quick checklist of the types of practices that dramatically improve security on mainframes:

  • Create a mainframe security dashboard: With fewer staffers on the job and more threats daily, organizations need to install a mainframe security dashboard to show the progress of security initiatives. A dashboard should include an overview of who is accessing data on the mainframe, which data groups are accessed most and, ideally, if access violates your security policy.

    Similarly, an overview of the number of users who have been added and removed, the number of dormant accounts and the weakest passwords will provide you with assurance that your mainframe security team is on top of the job.
  • Smart centralization: You need to better leverage the mainframe knowledge base you have by wisely centralizing some of the security functions -- particularly administration and auditing -- to less-specialized resources. This can be done with "dummy-proof" mainframe software or with enterprise systems that allow for role-based and policy-driven provisioning of users and auditing of file access and configurations across the enterprise. Your mainframe experts should be leveraged for their expertise, while your central security team and help desk should take on many of the mundane tasks of auditing and administering the mainframe as they do with open systems.
  • Reinvigorated audits: Many customers I visit are proud of the number of access violations they were able to prevent when they look at log-on and data-access failures. What about those you didn't prevent -- that is, the vast majority?

    Make it a point to properly configure logging of the mainframe operating systems and the applications on it to ensure you can establish a trail of who touched what data. Then systematically look at key files (data sets), particularly those governed by federal regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, GLBA or HIPAA, and make sure your policies are being enforced. Automated tools that enable such monitoring allow this type of routine auditing without requiring an army of administrators.
  • Enhanced controls: Look to improve the security controls on the mainframe. Real-time alerting for access violations or misconfigurations is worth considering. You've installed such intrusion-detection systems on the open system; make sure you have similar confidence in your mainframe security. Similarly, ensure that you have solutions that can prevent the mistakes that will be made by the less experienced and less technical staff that you'll need to employ to pick up the administrative burden of the mainframe.

Finally, ensure that your administration and audit functions are indeed separate and serve to check and balance each other.

Even though security threats to the mainframe may not be as glamorous as well-publicized viruses and worms, they are indeed a viable threat to the mission-critical services and information typically found in the glass house. The good news: Technologies for monitoring security have come a long way, and even the simple measures outlined above can have a dramatic affect on mainframe security without requiring a fortune in staff or software.

You can teach an old dog new tricks. You just need to try.

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