DBA Security Frustration

One of the most common frustrations for the Oracle DBA is dealing with security.  There are many common DBA tasks that require root or administrator access, and acquiring that access can be a frustrating and time consuming task, especially in larger organizations.

In the world of virtualization (sometime called the private cloud), those security concerns are much easier to handle, even though the security teams  in large organizations have not caught up with that fact in most cases.  Even the primary providers of the private cloud, VMware, seem to be unaware of the how a major side-effect of their product is a real reduction in security concerns.

A connection to a Virtual Machine (VM) looks exactly like a connection to a physical machine, whether Unix or Windows based.  And when a user is logged into a VM, as with a physical machine, the user can only see and access what is on that particular VM.  This seems obvious, so what is my point, right? 

My point is this:  virtualization allows an organization to create a VM for each individual application within an organization.  The native networking components of virtualization products allow for even more isolation.  Typically, in a large organization, the intent of security is to prevent an individual from accessing data outside his or her particular area of application.  Meaning, for example, the DBA in charge of medical records database should not be able to access a financial database 

Virtualization allows the database for health care records to reside on one VM, while financial data can reside on another VM, even on another network, without increasing the Oracle licensing costs. 

The use of VM’s allows the DBA in charge of health care records database to be restricted to the VM or VM’s on which that data resides.  He or she can be granted full root and Oracle access on that server, without any risk of the DBA being able to access the financial database, which he is not authorized to see.

In order to access the financial data, the health care records DBA would need to acquire a completely different set of passwords and access, which is easy to restrict at the server level.  This means that the security team can grant the DBA full access to every server that his or her data is on, without risking access to data to which he is not entitled. Although the same strategy could be used in the physical world, the cost would soon become prohibitive and extremely inefficient in terms of hardware resources.

Of course this does not alleviate all security concerns. There is always the possibility of a fully compromised server. This is most often the result of an external attack rather than internal. However, a fully compromised server inside the company firewall can be a nightmare. And as the number of servers increase, whether physical or virtual, the chance of a compromised server increases. On the other hand, the chance that a virtual server becomes fully compromised is roughly the same as that of a physical server, regardless of the role based security being used.

In addition, the risks of a compromised server can be minimized by the appropriate use of physical and virtual firewall appliances, and appropriate rules to segregate servers by function. VMware NSX is specifically designed for this sort of network micro-segmentation and isolation, and is the logical method for achieving the required network isolation within a VMware environment.

The use of virtualization as a security method in and of itself is a completely new paradigm for the typical security team.  Normally separation of duties would require that the DBA either have no root access at all, or be restricted to specific commands in order to ensure that they cannot access information to which they are not entitled.  But with the appropriate use of VM’s, the DBA can have full and unfettered access to the server with their data, without putting any other data at risk.

This does not absolve the DBA of basic responsibilities of course.  When installing Oracle patches that require root access, they must still take the basic precautions, backing up the database, snapshotting the operating system drive and perhaps the oracle binaries installation, and taking any other basic precautions that are required.  The DBA should also take the time to learn some operating system basics, and perhaps chat with a system administrator if they are not sure of what they are doing.  At the same time, this high level of access should allow the DBA to get their job done more quickly, and with much less frustration.

In summary, VMware and other suppliers for the private cloud have unintentionally provided an easy and effective method of improving organizational security, with very little additional effort required.

2 Responses to “DBA Security Frustration”

  1. Hemant K Chitale Says:

    Nope. Even with VMs, DBAs are not granted root in their DB Server VMs.

    • dbakerber Says:

      It depends on company policies. And the contention of this blog is there is no real risk in granting it full time using VMs. Anytime a DBA patches he needs some root access.

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