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How Important Is Security?

How Important Is Security?

Recently, Paris Hilton's cell phone was hacked, and all her contact information was released on the Internet. Although I wasn't important enough to rate a listing, many other celebrities were apparently flooded with phone calls after their private numbers became oh-so-public. While the incident didn't involve Web services, it certainly did involve security, or rather a failure of security. And once again, security itself is the focus of this month's issue.

Security has been a topic of this magazine almost since its inception - and we tend to get proposals regarding security on a year-round basis. Initially, when the number of Web services specifications could be counted on one hand, security was a huge concern, and a serious impediment for enterprise adoption of Web services (and rightfully so when the only security provided was SSL).

Over the past several years however, that situation has been remedied by a large number of standards, most of which have been implemented in some fashion. These include WS-Security and things like digital signatures. If you dig into the security area you will find there is actually a large number of things you can do to protect your Web service. Some are targeted at the message and some at authentication; some even look at the content by validating that the message is a valid request.

Part of the initial resistance to Web services revolved around the need for security, and that did make sense. Now however, when we have a plethora of standards for combating the deficiencies of the original specifications, it's possible to put the general concern that Web services cannot be secured to rest.

Companies can now concentrate on Web services and security from an opportunistic standpoint. Whereas previously IT professionals had to fight the battle of "Web services aren't secure," they can now point to the standards and tools and say, "How secure do you want them to be?"

The nice thing about the various Web services standards is twofold; they are layered, and you can choose whether or not to use many of them. The layered approach makes it easier to design and build Web services. Later, someone can decide how to secure those services, or how to deploy them, or manage them. Not having to decide at design time how to implement the various strategies (or even whether to implement them) is a key advantage in Web services usage. Naturally, it's not a new concept - the application server people use it all the time with their deployment descriptors.

Regardless of where the idea came from, the separation of layers is a very useful thing. Web services security needs to run the gamut from absolutely none necessary to absolutely paranoid, with most services falling in between. That's because Web services are an edge technology, and sometimes the edge must be protected, but sometimes you want to expose it.

There are some well-known Web services such as Google and Amazon, which need little in the way of security. It isn't important to the use of these services to establish identity, so applying SAML would be a needless overhead, and would likely reduce the number of users, rather than increase them. Many services are like this - more or less wide open because the information transferred is of value only to the user. The fact that I search for "books by Sean Rhody" is interesting only to Amazon, who processes the request, and to myself. Well, and to my legions of fans of course. The point though is that my identity is irrelevant and securing the service is fairly unimportant because what is transferred has value only between Amazon and me.

On the other hand, if I were transferring money between my checking account and my savings account, I would want very strong security. I'm not rich, but I want what money I have to stay mine. I also don't want anyone else knowing how much money I do have - I get enough solicitations as it is despite the Do Not Call act.

We now have the tools to secure Web services as needed, without choking the services that can be designed without the need for heavy-duty security. And that's comforting, especially when we see other services being hacked and phone numbers being distributed on the Internet. Oh, and Paris - why haven't you called back?

More Stories By Sean Rhody

Sean Rhody is the founding-editor (1999) and editor-in-chief of SOA World Magazine. He is a respected industry expert on SOA and Web Services and a consultant with a leading consulting services company. Most recently, Sean served as the tech chair of SOA World Conference & Expo 2007 East.

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