Platform as a Service and the Network gap

Barriers to using PaaS for service based architectures

I'm a big fan of the Platform as a Service (PaaS) model of operating web application infrastructure. But I'm a much bigger user and exponent of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) products within my current role working for the UK Government. This post describes why that is, and hopefully helps anyone else inside other large enterprise organisations reason about the advantages and disadvantages, and helps PaaS vendors and developers understand what I personally thing is a barrier to adoption in that type of organisation.

A quick word of caution, I don’t know every product inside out. It’s very possible a PaaS product exists that deals with the problems I will describe. If you know of such a product do let me know.

A simple use case

PaaS products make for the very best demos. Have a working application? Deployment is probably as simple as:

git push azure master 

Your app has started to run slowly because visitors are flooding in? Just scale out with something like:

heroku ps:scale web+2

The amount of complexity being hidden is astounding and the ability to move incredibly quickly is obvious for anyone with experience of doing this in a more traditional organisation.

A not so simple use case

Even small systems are often being built out of many small services these days. Many large organisations have been up to this for a while under the banner of Service Orientated Architecture. I'm a big fan of this approach, in my view it moves operational and organisational complexity back into the development team where its impact can often be minimised by automation. But that’s a topic for another post.

In a PaaS world having many services is fine. We just have more applications running on the Platform which can be independently scaled out to meet our needs. But services need to communicate with each other somehow, and this is where our problems start. We’ll keep things simple here by assuming communication is over HTTPS (which should be pretty typical) but I don’t think other protocols make the problem I have go away. The same problem applies if you’re using a SaaS database for example.

It’s the network, stupid

Over what network does my HTTPS internal service call travel? The internet? The internal PaaS vendor’s network? If the latter, is my traffic travelling over the same network as other clients on the platform? Maybe I'm running my own PaaS in-house. But do I trust everyone else in my very large organisation and want my traffic on the same network as other things I don’t even know about? Even if it’s just me do I want internal service traffic mixing with requests coming from the internet? And are all my services created equally with regards what they can and cannot access?

Throw in questions like: is the PaaS supplier running on infrastructure provided by a public IaaS suppliers who you don’t have a relationship with and you start to question the suitability of the current public PaaS products for building secure service based systems.

A journey into Enterprise Architectures

You might be thinking, pah, what’s the worst that can happen? If you work for a small company or a shiny startup that might be completely valid. If on the other hand you’re working in a regulated environment (say PCI) or dealing with large volumes of highly sensitive information you’re very likely to have to build systems that provide layers of trust, and to be doing inspection, filtering and integrity checking as requests flow between those layers.

Imagine that I have a service dealing with some sensitive data. If I control the infrastructure (virtualised or not, IaaS provided or not) I’ll make sure that service endpoint isn’t available to anything that doesn’t need access to it via my network configuration. If I’m being more thorough I’ll filter traffic through some sort of proxy that does checking of the content; It should be JSON (or XML), it should meet this schema, It shouldn’t exceed this rate, it shouldn’t exceed this payload size or response size, etc. That is before anything even reaches the services application. And that’s on top of SSL and maybe client certificates.

If I don’t control the infrastructure, for example when running on a PaaS, I lose some of the ability to have the network protect me. I can probably get some of this back by running my own PaaS on my own infrastructure, but without awareness and a nice interface to that functionality at the PaaS layer I’m going to lose lots of the benefits of running the PaaS in the first place. It’s nice that I can scale my application out, but if new instances can’t connect to the required backend services without some additional network configuration that’s invisible to the PaaS what use is that?

The question becomes; how to implement security layers within existing PaaS products (without changing them). And my answer is “I don’t know”. Yet.

Why isn’t SSL enough?

SSL doesn’t help as much as you’d like to think here because if I’m an attacker what I’m probably going to attack is your buggy code rather than the transport mechanism. SSL doesn’t protect you from SQL injection or unpatched software or zero-day exploits. If the only thing that my backend service will talk to is my frontend application, an attacker has to compromise two things rather than just ignore the frontend and go after the data. Throw in a filter as described above and it’s really three things that need to be overcome.

The PaaS/IaaS interface

I think part of the solution lies in exposing some of the underlying infrastructure via the PaaS interface. IaaS is often characterised as compute, storage and network. In my experience everyone forgets the network part. In a PaaS world I don’t want to be exposed to storage details (I just want it to appear infinite and pay for what I use) or virtual machines (I just care about computing power, say RAM, not the number of machines I’m running on) but I think I do, sometimes, want to be exposed to the (virtual) network configuration.

Hopefully someone working on OpenShift or CloudFoundry or Azure or Heroku or DotCloud or insert PaaS here is already working on this. If not maybe this post will prompt someone to do so.