1.2. Web Application Architecture Blueprints
I will now present several different ways of looking at a typical web application architecture. The whole thing is too complex to depict on a single illustration and that's why we need to use the power of abstraction to cope with the complexity. Broken into three different views, the problem becomes easier to manage. The three views presented are the following:
Each view comes with its own set of problems, which need to be addressed one at a time until all problems are resolved. The three views together practically map out the contents of this book. Where appropriate, I will point you to sections where further discussion takes place.
1.2.1. User View
The first view, presented in Figure 1-1, is deceptively simple. Its only purpose is to demonstrate how a typical installation has many types of users. When designing the figure, I chose a typical business installation with the following user classes:
Figure 1-1. Web architecture: user view
Members of any of these classes are potential adversaries for one reason or another. To secure an installation you must analyze the access requirements of each class individually and implement access restrictions so members of each class have access only to those parts of the system they need. Restrictions are implemented through the combination of design decisions, firewall restrictions, and application-based access controls.
Technical issues are generally relatively easy to solve provided you have sufficient resources (time, money, or both). People issues, on the other hand, have been a constant source of security-related problems for which there is no clear solution. For the most part, users are not actively involved in the security process and, therefore, do not understand the importance and consequences of their actions. Every serious plan must include sections dedicated to user involvement and user education.
1.2.2. Network View
Network design and network security are areas where, traditionally, most of the security effort lies. Consequently, the network view is well understood and supported in the literature. With the exception of reverse proxies and web application firewalls, most techniques employed at this level lie outside the scope of this book, but you will find plenty of recommendations for additional reading throughout. The relevant issues for us are covered in Chapter 9, with references to other materials (books, and documents available online) that offer more detailed coverage. Chapter 12 describes a network-level technique relevant to Apache security, that of web intrusion detection.
The network view is illustrated in Figure 1-2. Common network-level components include:
Figure 1-2. Web architecture: network view
1.2.3. Apache View
The Apache view is the most interesting way of looking at a system and the most complicated. It includes all the components you know are there but often do not think of in that way and often not at the same time:
The Apache view is illustrated in Figure 1-3. Making a distinction between applications running within the same process as Apache (e.g., mod_php) and those running outside, as a separate process (e.g., PHP executed as a CGI script), is important for overall security. It is especially important in situations where server resources are shared with other parties that cannot be trusted completely. Several such deployment scenarios are discussed in Chapter 6.
Figure 1-3. Web architecture: Apache view
The components shown in the illustration above are situated close together. They can interact, and the interaction is what makes web application security complex. I have not even included a myriad of possible external components that make life more difficult. Each type of external system (a database, an LDAP server, a web service) uses a different "language" and allows for different ways of attack. Between every two components lies a boundary. Every boundary is an opportunity for something to be misconfigured or not configured securely enough. Web application security is discussed in Chapter 10 and Chapter 11.
Though there is a lot to do to maintain security throughout the life of a system, the overall security posture is established before installation takes place. The basic decisions made at this time are the foundations for everything that follows. What remains after that can be seen as a routine, but still something that needs to be executed without a fatal flaw.