The convenience behind providing web-based services is undeniable.
Having a website, web application and web portal for customers, employees and partners to access and interact with your business, brand or organization is an absolute must these days. Larger companies are crawling with web applications. Even small local businesses and mom-and-pop stores are increasingly embracing the power of the web and improving their online presence in order to attract more customers.
But one of the biggest challenges of providing web-based services in any form is securing them. In fact, websites are in many ways more difficult to protect than other online assets, and a vulnerable website can be more damaging than beneficial to your business.
What makes website security different?
Companies and organizations possess many different types of digital assets. Some of these, such as file servers and databases, are meant to be accessed and used by the organization’s staff, making them much easier to protect. Traditional security tools such as firewalls can protect these assets by simply limiting access to specific networks.
Other security solutions such as Intrusion Detection and Prevention Systems (IDS/IPS) protect online assets by monitoring the network traffic and detecting and reacting to anomalies and packets that match predefined signatures of malicious commands. These safeguards can help prevent damaging attacks such as Denial of Service (DoS) and brute-force attempts at getting access to resources.
But the nature and characteristics of websites make their protection through traditional security solutions difficult – if not impossible. Firstly, many web applications are meant to be accessed through public networks, which means plain vanilla firewalls cannot be used to secure them.
Secondly, web applications are very diverse in scope and functionality. They come in all sizes and shapes and there are a myriad of platforms, blog engines, CMS engines, scripting languages and whatnot that can produce web applications. This makes it orders of magnitude more complicated to fend off attacks against them and will naturally make it possible to compromise them in complex ways that will not account as anomalous behavior. Some of the most dangerous web attacks are carried out through completely legitimate and inconspicuous commands, robbing you of your most sensitive information without your firewall and IPS ever taking note.
A compromised web application can propagate its damage and often give attackers access to some of the more critical and highly protected assets.
How do Web Application Firewalls protect websites?
Comprehensive security for web applications can be provided by a solution that understands how they work and how they can be compromised. This is where Web Application Firewalls (WAF) enter the fray, a special breed of security products that detect attacks against web applications in more depth than other security tools.
Like IPS solutions, WAFs are deployed as a secure layer in front of web servers, and they monitor traffic to and from web applications. Their difference is in performing analysis at layer 7, the application logic level, which effectively means they can make sense of the requests that are sent to web applications and responses that are returned.
This scheme gives WAFs the special ability to detect known attacks such as SQL Injection and Cross Site Scripting (XSS), which are typically embedded within forms sent with HTTP requests. WAFs are also able to detect, alert and possibly prevent unknown (aka zero day) attacks. For instance, if a WAF detects that a web application is dishing out much more data than it is expected to, it can block the transfer and alert the web administrator.
WAFs are very useful in high-traffic production environments, where you can’t afford to shut down your website for security maintenance. So when you detect a new flaw in your web application’s code base, your WAF can keep watch on that vulnerability while your developers apply fixes to the code.
Even if you lack in-house coding expertise or don’t have access to the source code of the web application, WAF whitelists and blacklists can plug any possible security flaw that might pop up in your application.
WAFs have turned into an indispensable security tool for organizations and firms that are running websites, especially after the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) compliance was mandated by credit card brands, requiring web applications that process payment card transactions to be fortified through WAFs or regular source code review.
Why the cloud?
WAFs come in different flavors, including hardware-based, on-premise software and cloud-based. While every type has its advantages, cloud-based security services, otherwise known as Security as a Service, offer the most flexible, scalable and cost-effective solution. In fact, cloud-based security services are gaining traction in all cybersecurity verticals, according to a research by Gartner.
The deployment of cloud-based WAF security is much easier than the other options, often requiring no more than a DNS change to redirect traffic through the WAF service provider. It also requires no updates and patches as everything is handled by the provider.
But the biggest advantage of a cloud based solution is having the constant backing of a team of experts that manages and fine tunes security rules and settings to meet the needs of your organization. On top of this, you can also gather knowledge of new threats and apply them to all of its customers in near-real-time.
Web applications are one of the most valuable components of every company’s online business. They are also one of the most popular targets of malicious actors. Therefore, their protection should be among the top level items in the agenda of every company’s security staff. Web Application Firewalls are specialized for protecting web apps against known and unknown attacks, and using them is a good way to add an important layer of protection to your defensive line.