Jan 112017

There are currently a significant number of vulnerable MongoDB databases which are being attacked by ransomware attackers, and even though the attacks are ongoing, it’s worth taking a moment or two to reflect on some key lessons that can be drawn from it.

If you’ve not heard of it, you may want to check out some of the details linked to above. The short summary though is that MongoDB’s default deployment model has been a rather insecure one, and it’s turned out there’s a lot of unsecured public-facing databases out there. A lot of them have been hit by hackers recently, with the contents of the databases deleted and the owners being told to pay a ransom to get their data back. As to whether that will get them their data back is of course, another issue.

Ransomware Image

The first lesson of course is that data protection is not a single topic. More so than a lot of other data loss situations, the MongoDB scenario points to the simple, root lesson for any IT environment: data protection is also a data security factor:

Data Protection

For the most part, when I talk about Data Protection I’m referring to storage protection – backup and recovery, snapshots, replication, continuous data protection, and so on. That’s the focus of my next book, as you might imagine. But a sister process in data protection has been and will always be data security. So in the first instance in the MongoDB attacks, we’re seeing the incoming threat vector entirely from the simple scenario of unsecured systems. A lackadaisical approach to security is exactly what’s happened – for developers and deployers alike – in the MongoDB space, and the result to date is estimated to be around 93TB of data wiped. That number will only go up.

The next lesson though is that backups are still needed. In The MongoDB attacks: 93 terabytes of data wiped out (linked again from above), Dissent writes that of 1138 victims analysed:

Only 13 report that they had recently backed up the now-wiped database; the rest reported no recent backups

That number is awful. Just over 11% of impacted sites had recent backups. That’s not data protection, that’s data recklessness. (And as the report mentions, 73% of the databases were flagged as being production.) In one instance:

A French healthcare research entity had its database with cancer research wiped out. They reported no recent backup.

That’s another lesson there: data protection isn’t just about bits and bytes, it’s about people’s lives. If we maintain data, we have an ethical obligation to protect it. What if that cancer data above held some clue, some key, to saving someone’s life? Data loss isn’t just data loss: it can lead to loss of money, loss of livelihood, or perhaps even loss of life.

Those details are from a sample of 118 sourced from a broader category of 27,000 hit systems.

So the next lesson is that even now, 2017, we’re still having to talk about backup as if it’s a new thing. During the late 90s I thought there was a light at the end of the tunnel for discussions about “do I need backup?”, and I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact I’ll likely still be having those conversations up until the day I retire, but it’s a chilling reminder of the ease at which systems can now be deployed without adequate protection. One of the common responses you’ll see to “we can’t back this up”, particularly in larger databases, is the time taken to complete a backup. That’s something Dell EMC has been focused on for a while now. There’s storage integrated data protection via ProtectPoint, and more recently, there’s BoostFS for Data Domain, giving systems distributed segment processing directly onto the database server for high speed deduplicated backups. (And yes, MongoDB was one of the systems in mind when BoostFS was developed.) If you’ve not heard of BoostFS yet, it was included in DDOS 6, released last year.

It’s not just backup though – for systems with higher criticality there should be multi-layered protection strategies: backups will give you potentially longer term retention, and off-platform protection, but if you need really fast recovery times with very low RPOs and RTOs, your system will likely need replication and snapshots as well. Data protection isn’t a “one size fits all” scenario that some might try to preach; it’s multi-layered and it can encompass a broad range of technology. (And if the data is super business critical you might even want to go the next level and add IRS protection for it, protecting yourself not only from conventional data loss, but also situations where your business is hacked as well.)

The fallout and the data loss from the MongoDB attacks will undoubtedly continue for some time. If one thing comes out of it, I’m hoping it’ll be a stronger understanding from businesses in 2017 that data protection is still a very real topic.


A speculative lesson: What’s the percentage of these MongoDB deployments that fall under the banner of ‘Shadow IT’? I.e., non-IT deployments of systems. By developers, other business groups, etc., within organisations? Does this also serve as a reminder of the risks that can be introduced when non-IT groups deploy IT systems without appropriate processes and rigour? We may never know the percentage breakdown between IT-led deployments and Shadow IT led deployments, but it’s certainly food for thought.

Jun 212011

In “Distribute.IT reveals shared server data loss – News – iTnews Mobile Edition” (June 21, 2011), we’re told:

Distribute.IT has revealed that production data and backups for four of its shared servers were erased in a debilitating hack on its systems over a week ago.

“In assessing the situation, our greatest fears have been confirmed that not only was the production data erased during the attack, but also key backups, snapshots and other information that would allow us to reconstruct these Servers from the remaining data,” the company reported.

You may think that I’m saying the hack is wrong – and anyone conducting such a malicious attack is certainly being particularly unpleasant. But the simple truth is that such an attack should not be capable of rendering a company unable to recover its data.

It suggests multiple design failures on behalf of Distribute.IT:

  • Backups were not physically isolated; regardless of whether you can erase the current backup, or all the backups on nearline storage, there should be backup copies that are sent off-site and removed from such attack;
  • Alternatively, if there were offsite backups – if they were physically isolated, they were not sufficiently secured;
  • Retention policies seem inappropriately small; why could they not recover from say, a week ago, or two weeks ago? The loss of some data even under a sustained hack should be somewhat reversible if longer-term backups can be recovered from. Instead, we’re told: “we have been advised by the recovery teams that the chances for recovery beyond the data and files so far retrieved are slim”.

It’s also worth noting that this goes to demonstrate a worst case scenario about snapshots – they’re typically reliant on some preservation of original data (either running disks, or ensuring that the amount of data deleted/corrupted doesn’t exceed snapshot capacity).

I’m not crowing about data loss – I completely sympathise with Distribute.IT on this incident. However, it is undoubtedly the case that with an appropriately designed backup system, this level of data destruction should not have happened to them.

37 Signals and the “end of the IT department”

 Architecture, Aside, Data loss, General Technology, General thoughts  Comments Off on 37 Signals and the “end of the IT department”
Mar 022011

The folks over at 37 Signals published a little piece of what I would have to describe as crazy fiction, about how the combination of cloud and more technically savvy users means that we’re now seeing the end of the IT department.

I thought long and hard about writing a rebuttal here, but quite frankly, their lack of logic made me too mad to publish the article on my main blog, where I try to be a little more polite.

So, if you don’t mind a few strong words and want to read a rebuttal to 37 Signals, check out my response here.

Oct 122009

The net has been rife with reports of an extreme data loss event occurring at Microsoft/Danger/T-Mobile for the Sidekick service over the weekend.

As a backup professional, this doesn’t disappoint me, it doesn’t gall me – it makes me furious on behalf of the affected users that companies would continue to take such a cavalier attitude towards enterprise data protection.

This doesn’t represent just a failure to have a backup in place (which in and of itself is more than sufficient for significant condemnation), but a lack of professionalism in the processes. I.e., there should be some serious head kicking going on regarding this, most notably regarding the following sorts of questions:

  • Why wasn’t there a backup?
  • Where was their change control that prevented the work being done due to the backup not being available?
  • Why wasn’t the system able to handle the failure of a single array?
  • When will the class action law suits start to roll in?

I don’t buy into any nonsense that maybe the backup couldn’t be done because of the amount of data and the time required to do it. That’s just a fanciful workgroup take on what should be a straight forward enterprise level of data backup. Not only that, the system was obviously not designed for redundancy at all … I’ve got (relatively, compared to MS, T-Mobile, etc) small customers using array replication so that if a SAN fails they can at least fall back to a broken off replica. Furthermore, this begs the question: For such a service, why aren’t they running a properly isolated DR site? Restoring access to data should have been as simple as altering the paths to a snapped off replica on an alternate, non-upgraded array.

This points to an utterly untrustworthy system – at the absolute best it smacks of a system where bean counters have prohibited the use of appropriate data protection and redundancy technologies for the scope of the services being provided. At worst, it smacks of an ineptly designed system, an ineptly designed set of maintenance procedures, an inept appreciation of enterprise data protection strategies, and a perhaps even level of contempt for the data of users.

(For any vendor that would wish to crow, based on the reports, that it was a Hitachi SAN that was being upgraded by Hitachi staff and therefore it’s a Hitachi problem: pull your heads in – SANs can fail, particularly during upgrade processes where human errors can creep in, and since every vendor continues to employee humans, they’re all susceptible to such catastrophic failures.)

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