root cause of security issue in rsyslog

If you have followed the rsyslog mailing list, you have noticed that we had a small, but still noteworthy, security issue in rsyslog recently. In short words, the $AllowedSender directive was accepted but no longer honored, given potentially any remote system a chance to send messages to the instance in question (its a minor issue because most people rightfully tend to use firewalls to carry out that kind of access control).

After this is now settled, I sat back, relaxed and meditated a bit about the root cause of the issue. Acutally, I didn’t need to think very hard. The problem was introduced when I implemented the netstream driver class. During that implementation, I shuffled a lot of code to the now-modular interfaces. Among them were the access control lists, whose roots were kept in global variables at this time.

I screwed up the first time when I allowed them to remain global variables. We all know that global variables are evil, especially when making publically accessible. Now that we moved to a proper interface, I should have replaced them by a function call. Doing that in the first place had prevented the problem. Why? Because I just initialized the now-interface specific global variable “representative” with the value at time of interface creation, which meant NULL in all cases. So whoever used the interface, always got an empty list, which meant no access control was configured.

Any user-configuration still hit the global variable, which caused the ACLs to be created, but no part of the code ever accessed it any longer. One may argue if that is a simple coding error, and there is some truth in it, but I’d still say its primarily a design issue (bad design promises to provide the quick solution, but it seldom does…).

And as it always takes at least two faults to really screw up, the next major issue wasn’t around to far. Rsyslog had not – and still has not! – a formal test suite that you can simply run each time code changes. I have begun to employ some limited test cases via “make check”, but they cover primarily exotic aspects and do not yet contain any serious test case that involves actually running rsyslogd against any serious number of messages. One of the reasons is that I had no good tool for doing so, or that I considered building the test suite to be too expensive (in comparison what else needed to do). As a small excuse I would like to mention that some others have encouraged this view. But I always new it is a lame excuse…

So it exactly happened what usually happens in such cases: the test case vital to discover this problem was not present in the series of test I ran against the new code. As usual, the programmer himself tests whatever he thinks needs testing. And, also as usual, this means that the programmer doesn’t test those things that he can not think of being wrong. Usually, these are the real problems, because if the programmer did not think of a potential problem, he did not implement, or at least carefully check, for it. This is just another example, why external testers are needed.

In open source, users adopting the devel and beta releases are often considered to be these testers. Quite frankly, I could not afford a full testing lab and continue developing the project. I think this is true for most open source projects. “Free testing” by early adopters is a major advantage over closed source. But this time, this failed, too. Probably the (small) club of early adopters also did not think about this issue. Maybe that’s because the more knowledgeable folks prefer to solve this problem with a firewall, which is the better approach to use for various reasons (not to be outlined here, see security advisory for details).

Finally, the issue came up in the form of a bug report. Unfortunately quite later, month after the initial release. But it was reported and so I could fix it as quickly as possible once I knew.

The important lesson to learn is that it usually takes more than one error to cause real problems. But these things happen!

I think the case also strengthens the need for good, systematic testing. Some time ago, I began to look into the DejaGnu testing suite and asked the mailing list if somebody had some experience in it. Unfortunately, nobody showed up. I’ll now give it another shot. There have been too-often small problems that were rooted in things not being consistently tested. Most often, it were only really small issues, like missing files, or some variables not defined in some conditional path. Since I improved my “make distcheck” settings, many of these small items no longer appear. Even the small set of current exotic tests reveal a problem from time to time.

So I think it would be wise to try to expand the test cases that rsyslog runs on regular basis. Frankly, I will not be able to create a full suite from the ground up. But the idea is if I once manage to get DejaGNU – or something similar – up and running, and acquire the necessary knowledge, I could gradually add tests as I go along. So over time, the tests would increase and we could finally very much better, automatic, that existing functionality is no longer broken by new features.

I will try to get the focus for my next release steps on DejaGNU. Obviously, any help in doing so is appreciated.