(ISC)2 Security Congress 2016

I recently attended the (ISC)2 Annual Security Congress (in conjunction with ASIS International) in Orlando, Florida. (ISC)2 Security Congress is a premier 4-day conference attended by hundreds of IT security professionals from around the world. This year featured a line-up of excellent speakers including keynote speeches from journalist Ted Koppel and foreign policy expert Elliott Abrams.

Here are the top IT security topics I gathered from the conference:

  1. Cloud security. As more and more companies are migrating to the cloud, IT security professionals are seeking the best practices for securing applications and data in the cloud.
  2. IoT (Internet of Things) security. It’s still a wild west out there. Manufacturers are making IOT devices (sensors, cameras, appliances, etc) that are insecure. There is a lack of standardization. People are putting devices on the Internet with default settings and passwords which make them vulnerable. Inside most companies, there is usually no process of putting these IOT devices on the network.
  3. Ransomware. They are getting more prevalent and sophisticated. Some perpetrators have a solid business model around this, including a call center/ help desk to help victims pay the ransom and recover their data.
  4. Resiliency. It’s better to build your network for resiliency. Every company will be a victim of an attack at some point, even with the best defenses in place. Resilient networks are those that can recover quickly after a breach.
  5. Common sense security. There are plenty of discussions on using time-tested security practices such as hardening of devices (replacing default passwords for instance), patching on time, and constant security awareness for users.
  6. Cyberwar.  There’s a mounting occurrence of cyber incidents and the next big threat to our civilization is cyberwar. Bad actors (state-sponsored hackers, hacktivists, criminals, etc.) may be able to hack into our industrial systems that are controlling our electrical and water supply, and be able to disrupt or destroy them.
  7. Shortage of cybersecurity experts.  The industry is predicting a shortage of cybersecurity professionals in the near future.

Hyper-converged Infrastructure: Hype or For Real?

One of the hottest emerging technologies in IT is hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI). What is the hype all about? Is it here to stay?

As defined by Techtarget, hyper-convergence infrastructure (HCI) is a system with a software-centric architecture that tightly integrates compute, storage, networking, virtualization resources (hypervisor, virtual storage, virtual networking) and other technologies (such as data protection and deduplication) in a commodity hardware box (usually x86) supported by a single vendor.

Hyper-convergence grew out of the concept of converged infrastructure, where engineers took it a little further – using very small hardware footprint, tight integration of components and simplified management. It is a relatively new technology. On the technology adoption curve, it is still at the early adopters stage.

Nutanix is the first vendor to offer hyper-converged solution, followed by Simplivity, and Scale Computing. Not to be outdone, VMWare developed its EVO-RAIL, then opened it for hardware vendors to OEM the product. Major vendors, including EMC, NetApp, Dell, HP, and Hitachi began selling EVO-RAIL products.

One of the best HCI product that I’ve seen is VxRail. Jointly engineered by VMware and EMC, the “VxRail appliance family takes full advantage of VMware Hyper-Converged Software capabilities and provides additional hardware and lifecycle management features and rich EMC data services, delivered in a turnkey appliance with integrated support.”

What are the advantages of HCI and where can it be used? Customers who are looking to start small and be able to scale out overtime, will find the HCI solution very attractive. It is a perfect fit for small to medium size companies, to be able to build their own data center without spending huge amount of money. It is simple (because it eliminates a lot of hardware clutter) and highly scalable (because it can be scaled very easily by adding small standardized x86 nodes). Since it is scalable, it will ease the burden of growth. Finally, its performance is comparable to big infrastructures because leveraging SSD storage and bringing the data close to the compute enables high IOPS at very low latencies.

References:

1. Techtarget
2. VMware Hyper-Converged Infrastructure: What’s All the Fuss About?

Replicating Massive NAS Data to a Disaster Recovery Site

Replicating Network Attached Storage (NAS) data to a Disaster Recovery (DR) site is quite easy when using big named NAS appliances such as NetApp or Isilon. Replication software is already built-in on these appliances – Snapmirror for NetApp and SyncIQ for Isilon. They just need to be licensed to work.

But how do you replicate terabytes, even petabytes of data, to a DR site when the Wide Area Network (WAN) bandwidth is a limiting factor? Replicating a petabyte of data may take weeks, if not months to complete even on a 622 Mbps WAN link, leaving the company’s DR plan vulnerable.

One way to accomplish this is to use a temporary swing array by (1) replicating data from the source array to the swing array locally, (2) shipping the swing frame to the DR site, (3) copying the data to the destination array, and finally (4) resyncing the source array with the destination array.

On NetaApp, this is accomplished by using the Snapmirror resync command. On Isilon, this is accomplished by turning on the option “target-compare-initial” in SynqIQ which compares the files between the source and destination arrays and sends only data that are different over the wire.

When this technique is used, huge company data sitting on NAS devices can be well protected right away on the DR site.

Protecting Data Located at Remote Sites

One of the challenges of remote offices with limited bandwidth and plenty of data is how to protect that data. Building a local backup infrastructure can be cost prohibitive and usually the best option is to backup the data to the company’s data center or to a cloud provider.

But how do you initially bring the data to the backup server without impacting the business users using the wide area network (WAN)?

There are three options:

1. The first option is to “seed” the initial backup. Start the backup locally to a USB drive, ship the drive to the data center, copy the data, then perform subsequent backups to the data center.

2. Use the WAN to backup the data but throttle the bandwidth until it completes. WAN utilization will be low, but it may take some time to complete.

3. Use the WAN to backup data and divvy up the data into smaller chunks. So that the users will not be affected during business hours, run the backup jobs only during off-hours and during the weekends. This may also take some time to complete.

Book Review: The Industries of the Future

I came across this book while browsing the New Arrivals section at a local bookstore. As a technology enthusiast, the title has piqued my interest. However, the other reason why I wanted to read this book was to find an answer to the question “How do we prepare our children for the future?” As a father of a teenage daughter, I would like to provide her with all the opportunities and exposure she needs to enable her to make the right career choice and be better prepared for the future.

The author Alec Ross states in the introduction, “This book is about the next economy. It is written for everyone who wants to know how the next wave of innovation and globalization will affect our countries, our societies, and ourselves.”

The industries of the future are:

1. Robotics. Robots have been around for many years, but the ubiquity of network connection, availability of big data, and faster processors are making significant progress in robotics.

2. Genomics. If the last century is the age of Physics, the coming century will be the the age of Biology. The sequencing of genomics has opened the door to many opportunities in life sciences.

3. Blockchains. The financial industry and the way we handle commerce will be transformed by this technology.

4. Cybersecurity. The Internet will be the next place where war between nations will be waged.

5. Big Data. Use of predictive analytics or other advanced methods to extract value from data will allow us to “perform predictions of outcomes and behaviors” and alter the way we live.

There is nothing new about these technologies. However, what made the book really worth reading were the examples, anecdotes and interesting stories told by Ross. The author has traveled extensively around the world and has first hand experience of these technologies.

Back to the question, “How do we prepare our children for the future?” —  the best thing we can do is to encourage them to pursue a career in science and technology and allow them to travel so they will be comfortable in a multicultural world.

Translating Business Problems into Technology Solutions

One of the most important jobs of IT Consultants/Architects is to translate business problems into technology solutions. Many companies today and in the future will need to solve business problems to remain competitive. Exponential advances in information technology will enable businesses to solve problems.

But translating business problems into technology solutions is often hard. Most of the time there is a disconnect between business people and technology people. For example, business people speak of vision, strategy, processes, and functional requirements, whereas technology folks speak about programming, infrastructure, big data and technical requirements. In addition, people who understand the business typically are not smart about technology, and vice versa – technology folks often do not understand business challenges. Both have totally different perspectives – business folks are concerned about business opportunities, business climate, and business objectives, while technology folks are concerned about technology challenges, technical resources, and technical skills.

To be successful, IT Consultants/Architects should bridge the gap and provide businesses the services and the solution they need. IT Consultants/Architects need to translate business objectives into actions. In order to do this, they should be able to identify business problems, determine the requirements to solve problems, determine the technology available to help solve them, and architect the best solution. In addition, they should be able to identify strategic partners that will help move the project and determine likely barriers.

Most importantly though, IT Consultants/Architects should be able to manage expectations. It’s always better to under promise and over deliver.

Object Storage

A couple of days ago, a business user asked me if our enterprise IT provides object-based storage. I heard the term object storage before but I have little knowledge about it. I only know it’s a type of storage that is data aware. I replied “No, we don’t offer it yet.” But in the back of my mind, I was asking myself, should we be offering object storage to our users? Are we so behind, we haven’t implemented this cool technology? Is our business losing its competitive advantage because we haven’t been using it?

As I research more on the topic, I understood what it entails, its advantages and disadvantages.

Object storage is one of the hot technologies that is expected to grow adoption this year. As defined by Wikipedia, object storage, “is a storage architecture that manages data as objects, as opposed to other storage architectures like file systems which manage data as a file hierarchy and block storage which manages data as blocks within sectors and tracks. Each object typically includes the data itself, a variable amount of metadata, and a globally unique identifier.”

Its extended metadata allows for some intelligence in the data. For example, a user or application can tag a data object what type of file it is, how it should be used, who will use it, its contents, how long it should live, and so on. That metadata information could, in turn, inform a backup application, for instance, that the object is classified or that it should be deleted on a certain date. This makes tasks like automation and management simpler for the administrator.

The globally unique identifier allows a server or end user to retrieve the data without needing to know the physical location or hierarchical location of the data. This makes it a useful data storage for long-term data retention, backup, file-sharing, and cloud application. In fact, Facebook uses object storage when you upload a picture.

One drawback of object storage is performance – slow throughput and latency due to the amount of metadata. Another drawback is that data consistency is achieved slowly. Whenever an object is updated, the change has to be propagated to all of the replicas which takes time before the latest version becomes available. With these properties, it’s well suited for data that doesn’t change much, like backups, archives, video, and audio files. That’s why it’s heavily used by Facebook, Spotify, and other cloud companies because once you upload a picture or music file, it doesn’t change much and it stays forever.

Object storage may be one of the hottest technologies in the storage space, but for now, I don’t see compelling use cases in enterprise IT. Object storage is unsuitable for data that changes frequently. File systems and block storage do just fine in storing data that rarely changes or data that frequently changes. Enterprise backup systems are versatile as well for long-term data retention and backups. Object storage may provide more information about the data, but storage administrators primary concerns are to deliver the data faster and more efficiently, as well as to protect its integrity.

Object storage distributed nature enables IT shops to use low cost storage, but in reality, in enterprise IT, NAS and SAN are prevalent because they are reliable and easier to manage.

We need well defined use cases and compelling advantages for object-based storage to be widely used in enterprise IT.

How to Restore from Replicated Data

When the primary backup server goes down due to hardware error, a site disaster, or other causes, the only way to restore is via the replicated data, assuming the backup server was configured to replicate to a DR (Disaster Recovery) or secondary site.

In Avamar, replicated data is restored from the REPLICATE domain of the target Avamar server. All restores of replicated data are directed restores, because from the point of view of the Avamar target server, the restore destination is a different machine from the original one.

The procedure to restore files and directories are:

  1. Re-register and activate the server to the Avamar replication target server.
  2. Perform file/directory restore.
    • Select the data that you want to restore from the replicated backups for the clients within the REPLICATE domain
    • Select Actions > Restore Now
    • On the Restore Options window, notice that the only destination choice is blank so that a new client must be selected
    • Click Browse and select a client and destination from among the listed clients. Note that these clients are clients that are activated with the target server and are not under the REPLICATE domain.

If the Windows or UNIX/Linux server was part of the disaster, then the way to restore data is to build a new server first, then follow the procedure above to restore files and directories to that server. The other way is to perform a bare metal restore which is supported by Avamar on Windows 2008 and above.

Backup Replication Best Practices

Backup infrastructures that are utilizing disks to backup data on premise and not using tapes to store copies offsite must replicate their data to a disaster recovery or secondary site, in order to mitigate the risks of losing data when the primary sites go away due to disaster.

Popular backup solutions such as Avamar usually include replication feature that logically copies data from one or more source backup servers to a destination or target backup server. In addition, Avamar uses deduplication methodology at the source server, transferring unique data only to the target server and encrypting the data during transmission. Avamar replication is accomplished via asynchronous IP transfer and can be configured to run on a scheduled basis.

Some of the best practices of Avamar replication are:

1. Replicate during low backup activity and outside of the routine server maintenance
2. Replicate all backup clients
3. Avoid filtering backup data because it may inadvertently miss backups
4. Ensure available bandwidth is adequate to replicate all daily changed data within a 4-hour period.

Backing Up Virtual Machines Using Avamar Image-Level Backup

Avamar can backup virtual machines using guest level backup or image-level backup.

The advantages of VMware guest backup are that it allows backup administrators to leverage identical backup methods for physical and virtual machines, which reduces administrative complexity, and it provides the highest level of data deduplication, which reduces the amount of backup data across the virtual machines.

The second way to backup virtual machines is via the Avamar image-level backup. It is faster and more efficient and it also supports file level restores.

Avamar integrates with VMware VADP (vStorage API for Data Protection) to provide image level backups. Integration is achieved through the use of the Avamar VMware Image plug-in. Simply put, the VMware Image backup creates a temporary snapshot of the virtual machine, and uses a virtual machine proxy to perform the image backup.

Backup can occur while the virtual machines are powered on or off. Since the backup is handled by a proxy, CPU cycles of the target virtual machines are not used.

Avamar provides two ways for restoring virtual machine data: image restores, which can restore an entire image or selected drives; and file-level restores, which can restore specific folders or files.

However, file-level restores are only supported on Windows and Linux. In addition, it has the following limitations:

1. File-level restores are more resource intensive and are best used to restore a relatively small amounts of data. In fact, you cannot restore more than 5,000 folders or files.

2. The latest VMware Tools must be installed on the target virtual machine, in order to successfuly restore files and folders.

3. Dynamic disks, GPT disks, deduplicated NTFS, ReFS, extended partitions, bootloaders, encrypted and compressed partitions virtual disk configurations are not supported.

4. ACLs are not restored.

5. Symbolic links cannot be restored.

6. When restoring files or folders to the original virtual machine, only SCSI disks are supported; IDE disks are not supported.

If you must restore folders or files, and you ran into the limitations mentioned above, you can restore an entire image or selected drives to a temporary location (for example, a new temporary virtual machine), then copy those files and folders to the desired location following the restore.