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Architecture Analysis

Architecture Analysis encompasses capturing software architecture in concise diagrams, applying lists of risks and threats, adopting a process for review (such as STRIDE or Architecture Risk Analysis), and building an assessment and remediation plan for the organization.

Architecture Analysis Level 1

[AA1.1: 113] Perform security feature review.

Security-aware reviewers identify application security features, review these features against application security requirements and runtime parameters, and determine if each feature can adequately perform its intended function—usually referred to as threat modeling. The goal is to quickly identify missing security features and requirements, or bad deployment configuration (authentication, access control, use of cryptography, etc.), and address them. For example, threat modeling would identify both a system that was subject to escalation of privilege attacks because of broken access control as well as a mobile application that incorrectly puts PII in local storage. Use of the firm’s secure-by-design components often streamlines this process (see [SFD2.1]). Many modern applications are no longer simply “3-tier” but instead involve components architected to interact across a variety of tiers—browser/endpoint, embedded, web, microservices, orchestration engines, deployment pipelines, third-party SaaS, and so on. Some of these environments might provide robust security feature sets, whereas others might have key capability gaps that require careful analysis, so organizations should consider the applicability and correct use of security features across all tiers that constitute the architecture and operational environment.

[AA1.2: 53] Perform design review for high-risk applications.

Perform a design review to determine whether security features and deployment configuration are resistant to attack in an attempt to break the design. The goal is to extend the more formulaic approach of a security feature review (see [AA1.1]) to model application behavior in the context of real-world attackers and attacks. Reviewers must have some experience beyond simple threat modeling to include performing detailed design reviews and breaking the design under consideration. Rather than security feature guidance, a design review should produce a set of flaws and a plan to mitigate them. An organization can use consultants to do this work, but it should participate actively. A review focused only on whether a software project has performed the right process steps won’t generate useful results about flaws. Note that a sufficiently robust design review process can’t be executed at CI/CD speed, so organizations should focus on a few high-risk applications to start (see [AA1.4]).

[AA1.4: 69] Use a risk methodology to rank applications.

Use a defined risk methodology to collect information about each application in order to assign a risk classification and associated prioritization. It is important to use this information in prioritizing what applications or projects are in scope for testing, including security feature and design reviews. Information collection can be implemented via questionnaire or similar method, whether manual or automated. Information needed for classification might include, “Which programming languages is the application written in?” or “Who uses the application?” or “Is the application’s deployment software-orchestrated?” Typically, a qualified member of the application team provides the information, but the process should be short enough to take only a few minutes. The SSG can use the answers to categorize the application as, for example, high, medium, or low risk. Because a risk questionnaire can be easy to game, it’s important to put into place some spot-checking for validity and accuracy—an overreliance on self-reporting can render this activity useless.

Architecture Analysis Level 2

[AA2.1: 31] Perform architecture analysis using a defined process.

Define and use a process for architecture analysis (AA) that extends the design review (see [AA1.2]) to also document business risk in addition to technical flaws. The goal is to identify application design flaws as well as the associated risk (e.g., impact of exploitation), such as through frequency or probability analysis, to properly inform stakeholder risk management efforts. The AA process includes a standardized approach for thinking about attacks, vulnerabilities, and various security properties. The process is defined well enough that people outside the SSG can carry it out. It’s important to document both the architecture under review and any security flaws uncovered, as well as risk information that people can understand and use. Microsoft Threat Modeling, Versprite PASTA, and Synopsys ARA are examples of such a process, although these will likely need to be tailored to a given environment. In some cases, performing AA and documenting business risk is done by different teams working together in a single process. Uncalibrated or ad hoc AA approaches don’t count as a defined process.

[AA2.2: 32] Standardize architectural descriptions.

Threat modeling, design review, or AA processes use an agreed-upon format (e.g., diagramming language and icons, not a Word document template) to describe architecture, including a means for representing data flow. Standardizing architecture descriptions between those who generate the models and those who analyze and annotate them makes analysis more tractable and scalable. High-level network diagrams, data flow, and authorization flows are always useful, but the model should also go into detail about how the software itself is structured. A standard architecture description can be enhanced to provide an explicit picture of information assets that require protection, including useful metadata. Standardized icons that are consistently used in diagrams, templates, and dry-erase board squiggles are especially useful, too.

[AA2.4: 38] Have SSG lead design review efforts.

The SSG takes a lead role in performing design review (see [AA1.2]) to uncover flaws. Breaking down an architecture is enough of an art that the SSG, or other reviewers outside the application team, must be proficient, and proficiency requires practice. This practice might then enable, for example, champions to take the day-to-day lead while the SSG maintains leadership around knowledge and process. The SSG can’t be successful on its own, either—it will likely need help from architects or implementers to understand the design. With a clear design in hand, the SSG might be able to carry out a detailed review with a minimum of interaction with the project team. Approaches to design review evolve over time, so it’s wise to not expect to set a process and use it forever. Outsourcing design review might be necessary, but it’s also an opportunity to participate and learn.

Architecture Analysis Level 3

[AA3.1: 20] Have engineering teams lead AA process.

Engineering teams lead AA to uncover technical flaws and document business risk. This effort requires a well-understood and well-documented process (see [AA2.1]). Even with a good process, consistency is difficult to attain because breaking architecture requires experience, so be sure to provide architects with SSG or outside expertise in an advisory capacity. Engineering teams performing AA might normally have responsibilities such as development, DevOps, cloud security, operations security, security architecture, or a variety of similar roles. The process is more useful if the AA team is different from the design team.

[AA3.2: 4] Drive analysis results into standard design patterns.

Failures identified during threat modeling, design review, or AA are fed back to security and engineering teams so that similar mistakes can be prevented in the future through improved design patterns, whether local to a team or formally approved for everyone (see [SFD3.1]). This typically requires a root-cause analysis process that determines the cause of security flaws, searches for the process that should have prevented the flaw, and makes the necessary improvements in documented security design patterns. Note that security design patterns can interact in surprising ways that break security, so apply analysis processes even when vetted design patterns are in standard use. For cloud services, providers have learned a lot about how their platforms and services fail to resist attack and have codified this experience into patterns for secure use. Organizations that heavily rely on these services might base their application-layer patterns on those building blocks provided by the cloud service provider (for example, AWS CloudFormation and Azure Blueprints) when making their own.

[AA3.3: 15] Make the SSG available as an AA resource or mentor.

To build organizational AA capability, the SSG advertises experts as resources or mentors for teams using the AA process (see [AA2.1]). This effort might enable, for example, security champions, site reliability engineers, DevSecOps engineers, and others to take the lead while the SSG offers advice. As one example, mentors help tailor AA process inputs (such as design or attack patterns) to make them more actionable for specific technology stacks. This reusable guidance helps protect the team’s time so they can focus on the problems that require creative solutions rather than enumerating known bad habits. While the SSG might answer AA questions during office hours (see [T3.5]), they will often assign a mentor to work with a team, perhaps comprising both security-aware engineers and risk analysts, for the duration of the analysis. In the case of high-risk software, the SSG should play a more active mentorship role in applying the AA process.