Talking about Ransomware

 Architecture, Backup theory, General thoughts, Recovery, Security  Comments Off on Talking about Ransomware
Sep 062017

The “Wannacry” Ransomware strike saw a particularly large number of systems infected and garnered a great deal of media attention.

Ransomware Image

As you’d expect, many companies discussed ransomware and their solutions for it. There was also backlash from many quarters suggesting people were using a ransomware attack to unethically spruik their solutions. It almost seems to be the IT equivalent of calling lawyers “ambulance chasers”.

We are (albeit briefly, I am sure), between major ransomware outbreaks. So, logically that’ll mean it’s OK to talk about ransomware.

Now, there’s a few things to note about ransomware and defending against it. It’s not as simplistic as “I only have to do X and I’ll solve the problem”. It’s a multi-layered issue requiring user education, appropriate systems patching, appropriate security, appropriate data protection, and so on.

Focusing even on data protection, that’s a multi-layered approach as well. In order to have a data protection environment that can assuredly protect you from ransomware, you need to do the basics, such as operating system level protection for backup servers, storage nodes, etc. That’s just the beginning. The next step is making sure your backup environment itself follows appropriate security protocols. That’s something I’ve been banging on about for several years now. That’s not the full picture though. Once you’ve got operating systems and backup systems secured via best practices, you need to then look at hardening your backup environment. There’s a difference between standard security processes and hardened security processes, and if you’re worried about ransomware this is something you should be thinking about doing. Then, of course, if you really want to ensure you can recover your most critical data from a serious hactivism and ransomware (or outright data destruction) breach, you need to look at IRS as well.

But let’s step back, because I think it’s important to make a point here about when we can talk about ransomware.

I’ve worked in data protection my entire professional career. (Even when I was a system administrator for the first four years of it, I was the primary backup administrator as well. It’s always been a focus.)

If there’s one thing I’ve observed in my career in data protection is that having a “head in the sand” approach to data loss risk is a lamentably common thing. Even in 2017 I’m still hearing things like “We can’t back this environment up because the project which spun it up didn’t budget for backup”, and “We’ll worry about backup later”. Not to mention the old chestnut, “it’s out of warranty so we’ll do an Icarus support contract“.

Now the flipside of the above paragraph is this: if things go wrong in any of those situations, suddenly there’s a very real interest in talking about options to prevent a future issue.

It may be a career limiting move to say this, but I’m not in sales to make sales. I’m in sales to positively change things for my customers. I want to help customers resolve problems, and deliver better outcomes to their users. I’ve been doing data protection for over 20 years. The only reason someone stays in data protection that long is because they’re passionate about it, and the reason we’re passionate about it is because we are fundamentally averse to data loss.

So why do we want to talk about defending against or recovering from ransomware during a ransomware outbreak? It’s simple. At the point of a ransomware outbreak, there’s a few things we can be sure of:

  • Business attention is focused on ransomware
  • People are talking about ransomware
  • People are being directly impacted by ransomware

This isn’t ambulance chasing. This is about making the best of a bad situation – I don’t want businesses to lose data, or have it encrypted and see them have to pay a ransom to get it back – but if they are in that situation, I want them to know there are techniques and options to prevent it from striking them again. And at that point in time – during a ransomware attack – people are interested in understanding how to stop it from happening again.

Now, we have to still be considerate in how we discuss such situations. That’s a given. But it doesn’t mean the discussion can’t be had.

To me this is also an ethical consideration. Too often the focus on ethics in professional IT is around the basics: don’t break the law (note: law ≠ ethics), don’t be sexist, don’t be discriminatory, etc. That’s not really a focus on ethics, but a focus on professional conduct. Focusing on professional conduct is good, but there must also be a focus on the ethical obligations of protecting data. It’s my belief that if we fail to make the best of a bad situation to get an important message of data protection across, we’re failing our ethical obligations as data protection professionals.

Of course, in an ideal world, we’d never need to discuss how to mitigate or recover from a ransomware outbreak during said outbreak, because everyone would already be protected. But harking back to an earlier point, I’m still being told production systems were installed without consideration for data protection, so I think we’re a long way from that point.

So I’ll keep talking about protecting data from all sorts of loss situations, including ransomware, and I’ll keep having those discussions before, during and after ransomware outbreaks. That’s my job, and that’s my passion: data protection. It’s not gloating, it’s not ambulance chasing, it’s let’s make sure this doesn’t happen again.

On another note, sales are really great for my book, Data Protection: Ensuring Data Availability, released earlier this year. I have to admit, I may have squealed a little when I got my first royalty statement. So, if you’ve already purchased my book: you have my sincere thanks. If you’ve not, that means you’re missing out on an epic story of protecting data in the face of amazing odds. So check it out, it’s in eBook or Paperback format on Amazon (prior link), or if you’d prefer to, you can buy direct from the publisher. And thanks again for being such an awesome reader.

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.

Nov 162016

Years ago when NetWorker Management Console was first introduced, Australians (and no doubt people in other countries with a similarly named tax law) found themselves either amused or annoyed having to type commands such as:

# /etc/init.d/gst start

Who would want to start a goods and services tax, after all? In the case of NetWorker, GST didn’t stand for a tax on purchases, but the master control software for NMC.

It’s amusing then to be back in the realm of using an overloaded three letter acronym which for many (in this case) US citizens refers to the tax-man – IRS. In this case though, IRS stands for Isolated Recovery Site.

Our view of ‘disaster recovery’ situations by and large hasn’t changed much over the two decades I’ve been working in IT. While we’ve moved from active/passive datacentres to active/active datacentres as being the norm, the types of situations that might lead to invoking disaster recovery and transitioning services from one location to another have remained largely the same, such as:

  • Site loss
  • Site access loss
  • Catastrophic hardware failure
  • Disaster recovery testing

In fact, they’re pretty much the key four reasons why we need to invoke DR – either granularly or for an entire datacentre.

The concept of an IRS is not to provide assistance in any of the above four situations. (In theory it could be utilised partly for any of the above, in practice that’s what your normal disaster recovery datacentre is about, regardless of whether it’s in an active/active or active/passive configuration with your primary.)


Deploying an IRS solution within your environment is about protecting you from modern threat vectors. It represents a business maturity that accepts any, many or all of the following scenarios:

  • Users not understanding what they’re doing represent a threat vector that can no longer be casually protected against by using anti-virus software and firewalls
  • Administrators can make mistakes – not just little ‘boo-boos’, but catastrophic mistakes
  • On-platform protection should only form part of a holistic data protection environment
  • It is no longer a case of keeping malicious individuals out of your IT infrastructure, but also recognising they may already be inside
  • Protests are no longer confined to letter writing campaigns, boycotts and demonstrations

Before I explain some of those situations, it would be helpful to provide a high level overview of what one kind of IRS layout might look like:

Basic High Level IRS

The key things to understand in an IRS configuration such as the above are:

  • Your tertiary data copy (the IRS copy) is not, in the conventional sense of the word, connected to your network
  • You either use physical network separation (with periodic plugging of cables in) or automated control of network separation, with control accessible only within the IRS bunker
  • The Data Domain in your IRS bunker will optimally be configured with governance and retention lock
  • Your primary backup environment will not be aware of the tertiary Data Domain

IRS is not for traditional Business As Usual (BAU) or disaster recovery. You will still run those standard recovery operations out of your primary and/or disaster recovery sites in the same way as you would normally.

So what are some of the examples where you might resort to an IRS copy?

  • Tired/or disgruntled admin triggers deletion of primary and DR storage, including snapshots
  • Ransomware infects a primary file server, encrypting data and flooding the snapshot pool to the point the system can’t be recovered from
  • Hactivists penetrate the network and prior to deleting production system data, delete backup data.

These aren’t ‘example’ use cases, they’ve happened. In the first two if you’re using off-platform protection, you’re probably safe – but if you’re not, you’ve lost data. In the third example, there have been several examples over the last few years where this penetration has successfully been carried out by hactivists.

Maybe you feel your environment is not of interest from hactivists. If you work in the finance industry, you’re wrong. If you work in government, you’re wrong. OK, maybe you don’t work in either of those areas.

With the increasing availability of tools and broader surface area for malicious individuals or groups to strike with, hactivism isn’t limited to just the ‘conventional’ high profile industry verticals. Maybe you’re a pharmaceutical company that purchased the patent on a cheap drug then enraged communities by increasing prices by 400 times. Maybe you’re a theatre chain showing a movie a certain group has taken significant offence at. Maybe you’re a retail company selling products containing palm oil, or toilet paper not sourced from environmentally sustainable forests. Maybe you’re an energy company. Maybe you’re a company doing a really good job but have a few ex-employees with an axe to grind. If you’ve ever read an online forum thread, you’ll probably recognise that some people are trollish enough to do it just for the fun of it.

Gone are the days where you worried about hactivism if you happened to be running a nuclear enrichment programme.

IRS is about protecting you from those sorts of scenarios. By keeping at least a core of your critical data on a tertiary, locked down Data Domain that’s not accessible via the network, you’re not only leveraging the industry leading Data Invulnerability Architecture (DIA) to ensure what’s written is what’s read, you’re also ensuring that tertiary copy is off platform to the rest of your environment.

And the great thing is, products like NetWorker are basically designed from the ground up to be used in an IRS configuration. NetWorker’s long and rich history of command automation means you can build into that Control & Verification service area whatever you need to take read-write snapshots of replicated data, DR an isolated NetWorker server and perform automated test recoveries.

One last point – something I’ve discussed with a few customers recently – you might be having an ahah! moment and point to a box of tapes somewhere and say “There’s my IRS solution!” I can answer that with one simple question: If you went to your business and said you could scrap a disaster recovery site and instead rely on tape to perform all the required recoveries, what would they say? Tape isn’t an IRS option except perhaps for the most lackadaisical data protection environments. (I’d suggest it’d even be an Icarus IRS solution – trusting that wax won’t melt when you fly your business too close to the sun.)

There’s some coverage of IRS in my upcoming book, Data Protection: Ensuring Data Availability, and of course, you can read up on Dell EMC’s IRS offerings too. A good starting point is this solution overview. If you’re in IT – Infrastructure or Security – have a chat to your risk officers and ask them what they think about those sorts of challenges outlined above. Chances are they’re already worried about them, and you could very well be bringing them the solution that’ll let everyone sleep easily at night. You might one day find yourself saying “I love the IRS”.

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