Architecture or Engineering?

It’s not exactly the great debate. There may not be that many folks on the planet who care what we call this emerging discipline in which I’m involved? Still, those of us who are involved are trying to work through our differences. We don’t yet have a clear consensus definition. Though I would offer that a consensus on the field of security architecture is beginning to coalesce within the practitioner community. (call the discipline what-you-will)

One of the lively discussions here at the SANS What Works In Security Architecture is, “What do we call ourselves?”

Clearly, there are at least two threads. One thread (my practice) is to call what I do “Information Security Architecture”. The other thread is “Systems Security Engineer”.

I read one of the formative documents from the “Systems Security Engineer” position last month (it’s not yet announced; so I’m sure if I can say from whom, yet?)¬† And what was described was pretty close to what I’ve been calling “Security Architecture”.

Here’s the interesting part to me: that no matter the name, collectively, we’re realizing that we require this set of functions to be fulfilled. I’ll try to make a succinct statement about the consensus task list that I think is emerging:

  • Study of a proposed system architecture for security needs
  • Discussion with the proposers of the system (“the business” in parlance) about what the system is meant to do and the required security posture
  • Translation of required security posture into security requirements
  • Translation of the security requirements into specific security controls within a system design
  • Given an architecture, assessing the security risk based upon a strong understanding of information security threats for that organization and that type of architecture

In some organizations, the security architect task is complete at delivery of the plan. In others, the architect is expected to help design the specific controls into the system. And then, possibly, the architect is also responsible for the due diligence task of assuring that the controls were actually implemented. In my experience, I am responsible for all of these tasks and I’m called a “Security Architect”.

From the other perspective, the role is called “Systems Security Engineer”. And, it is also expected that the upfront tasks of discussion and analysis are performed by a security architect who is no longer engaged after delivery of the high level items (listed above).

That’s not how it works in my world. And, I would offer that this “leave it after analysis” model might lead to “Ivory Tower” type pronouncements. I’ll never forget one of my early big errors. I was told that “all external SSL communications were required to be bi-directionally authenticated” OK – I’d specify that for every external SSL project. Smile

Then projects started coming back to me, sometimes months later, having been asking for bi-directional authentication, and being told that on the shared java environment,”no can do”.

The way that this environment was set up, it didn’t support bi-directional authentication at an application granularity. And that was the requirement that I had given, not once but several times. I was “following the established standard”, right?

I submit to your comment and discussion that

  1. There’s more than one way to achieve similar security control (in this case, bi-directionally authenticated encrypted tunnels)
  2. It’s very important to specify requirements that can be met
  3. A security architect must understand the existing capabilities before writing requirements.

Instead of ivory tower pronouncements, if I believe that there is a technology gap, my job is to surface and make the gap as transparent as possible to the eventual owners of the system under analysis (“the business”).
How can I do this job if all I have to do is work from paper standards¬† and then walk away. Frankly, I’d lose all credibility. The only thing that saved me early on was my willingness to admit my errors and then pitch in wholeheartedly to solve any problems that I’d help create (or, really, anything that comes up!)

Some definitions for your consideration:

  • Architecture: the structure and organization of a computer’s hardware or system software
  • Engineering:¬† the discipline dealing with the art or science of applying scientific knowledge to practical problems

Engineers apply say, cryptography, an algorithm to solve problems. Architects plan that cryptography will be required for a particular set of transmissions or for storage of a set of data.

At least, these are my working definitions for the moment.

So, after listening to both sides, in my typically equivocal manner, I’m wondering if this role that I practice is really a good and full slice of architecture, combined with a good and full slice of engineering?

Practitioners, it seems to me from my experience, need both of these if they are to gain credibility with the various groups with whom they must interact. And “no”, I don’t want to perpetuate any ivory towers!

Send me your ideas for a better name, a combinatorial name. what-have-you

cheers,

/brook

from Las Vegas airport

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