September 2012

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When Worse is Better

For the internet of things, it is essential to keep your systems' interfaces, small enough that they can be truly understood.

Toby ConsidineToby Considine
TC9 Inc

The New Daedalus

Contributing Editor

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A common theme has popped up this week in several internet groups I watch, for XML development, for ontology, and for SCADA security, in discussions asking when is a worse solution better than a good solution. The XML groups are interested in the interfaces between systems, that is, in the information models that accompany distributed architectures. The ontology groups look to identify the meaning in system information, and to ensure that the same meaning is applied everywhere. The SCADA security groups are pondering how to make systems that allow only the right people to do the right things.

I would call it humility vs. arrogance, but those words are unfairly loaded. As we create the internet of things, and most systems may interact with dozens or even hundreds of other systems, the engineered world, the world of buildings, and systems, and sensors will have to come to terms with this dichotomy.

Systems in the intern of things are always resource constrained. They may demand constraints on power use to stay inside a battery budget. They may require constraints of memory or processing, to stay inside a hardware budget. One way or another, the developer / engineer is rewarded for precise understanding, precise specification, and precise control. Those who build these systems naturally try to extend these same approaches to the world of interconnected systems.

The conversation arose on an XML list because XML is used to connect between systems There's no point to putting XML inside a small system that communicates only with itself. The purpose of XML is to exchange understandable messages between systems. This requires that the messages be minimal. If the message is as complex as the entire system, then it can only be understood, fully understood, by someone who understands that system as well as its designer.

In the internet of things, a single device, or type of device, may communicate with thousands of other systems. If every one of those must fully understand that device, then by symmetry, that small device must fully understand all of them. In the internet of things, devices may last for a decade or more, which would mean  that that they will interact with systems not yet invented when they are deployed, and understand them as well.

Ontologists strive for completeness, to establish common meaning across many systems. Consistent ontology is the key to consistent business rules, and consistent policy across an enterprise or across an industry. A well-made ontology defines how systems can interact, and establishes constancy across complex multi-participant environments. Yet each new definition can be a barrier to entry, can prevent a new value proposition, or a new system from joining. With fewer users, an ontology is less useful, and its adoption less compelling. An ontology must be useful enough for people to want to break any barrier, so wide adoption and simplicity are essential.

Such problems can only be managed by understanding less, by creating the smallest information exchange you can devise, and then making it smaller. Many partners and a long time creates a huge burden of diversity. Such diversity can only be managed by hiding it. If this is a worse interface, and a worse interaction, than worse is better.

Security for engineered systems presents similar dilemmas. Many systems are not secured at all, but those that are, carefully consider list scenarios and sequences, and create rules. A typical rule states “only authorized people are allowed to invoke sequence 35”. The SCADA Security designer must define not only sequences, but sequences of sequences, and secure each of them. This approach can recurse to infinite, and the engineering time to define will not grow to match.

Combinations of sequences create different security problems than do the identified sequences. "If an infinite number of monkeys on infinite SCADA control consoles execute an infinite set of sequences then they will create an indeterminate number of failure scenarios". I remember one of the first executive information systems, an advanced  product of Digital Equipment Corp in the early 80s. The development team boasted that it allowed managers to query comparative information without ever being able to find personally identifiable information. At the internal roll-out, a clever manager walked up and queried "What is the average salary of female VP's". (There was one). So much for "No unauthorized individual information".

In the famed Aurora demonstration, simple routine controls were repeatedly executed in ways which caused a large dynamo to destroy itself, and to rip itself off its mountings.  To the Aurora demonstration, the systems susceptible to the attack functioned exactly as expected. One interpretation is that the system exposed too much information, and too many controls. If given many options, bad guys can always figure out one more combination, one never anticipated by the designer. It is far better to give them fewer choices, and a smaller interface, one so small that the designing engineer really can anticipate all scenarios.

By analogy here, we could talk about the flexibility of C++, and how it led to buffer overruns, but that is another discussion

System access should be limited to actions, rather than to low level control. Then, with a limited simple interface, the system should notice and record when the SCADA monkeys start trying unusual sequences of sequences. This would bring attention to Aurora scenarios, and possibly would bring attention to the Stuxnet scenarios. However, it is a different level of monitoring, of noticing changes of patterns of routine, and legal events, of recognizing that the system is moving into unanticipated territory.

There is a legend about a Chinese emperor who loved maps. He loved maps so much that he had his subjects build a scale model of his kingdom at a scale of one inch to the mile. The map was beautiful. Tiny little mountains towered over tiny little rivers. The emperor enjoyed it so much that he ordered another map; his entire kingdom at a scale of one foot to the mile. The map took years to complete, and was an absolute wonder. The rivers of china were represented by rivers of liquid mercury, running slowly through delicately sculpted countryside. Each tiny little house was visible on the map, carved by skilled sculptors of cameos and jade. The map nearly bankrupted the kingdom

The map filled an entire island in the river that ran beside the imperial city. The emperor spent months walking on the island, observing his realm. But of course, it was not enough. Soon he conceived the idea that he could have a map that was better still…If only he could see the people of China, each one inch tall.  And so he ordered another map.

The emperor’ ministers counseled him that the new map would bankrupt the country. The emperor would hear no opposition. Surely the newer, more detailed map would be even more wonderful than the one that he already had. He ordered his workers to proceed.

Within two weeks the emperor was dead, seized by a sudden illness. Some say that his son and heir had poisoned him, but there was never any proof. He died because he could not recognize when his solution was good enough.

For the internet of things, it is essential to keep your systems' interfaces, small enough that they can be truly understood. Expose few enough functions that you really can define the security scenarios. And even then, every system that exposes an interface should know enough to know when it is being asked to do the unusual.


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