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The world is a graph: How Fix reimagines cloud security using a graph in ArangoDB

‘Guest Blog’

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In 2015, John Lambers, a Corporate Vice President and Security Fellow at Microsoft wrote “Defenders think in lists. Attackers think in graphs. As long as this is true, attackers win.ˮ

The original problem in cloud security is visibility into my assets. If security engineers donʼt know what cloud services are running, they canʼt protect an environment. Unfortunately, first generation cloud security products were built with a list mindset, i.e. “rows and columnsˮ. They generate a list of assets and their configurations – but show no context of the relationships between connected cloud services, such as as a connection that would allow lateral movement between two disparate cloud assets.

Cloud security as a graph

A graph database like ArangoDB provides a powerful way to represent and analyze complex relationships in cloud security.

A graph is the easiest way to understand how one entity in my cloud interacts with another. By representing cloud assets as nodes in a graph and the relationships between them as vertices, I can now gain a better understanding of the nested connections in my cloud infrastructure.

By thinking about cloud resources in terms of ancestors and descendants, a cloud security engineer can solve problems in a way a table canʼt. The graph is an easier way to visualize the relationships between users and any of my cloud resources such as compute instances, functions, storage buckets and databases.

  • Ancestors: The graph helps me understand the root of a security issue. What is the highest ancestor where an issue was introduced? Because I need to go all the way up and fix the problem at its origin.
  • Descendants: The other way around is understanding descendants and blast radius. If I have an Internet-exposed compute instance, where an attacker is maybe able to get credentials off that instance, how many hops can that attacker go in? How much of my infrastructure is exposed due to this initial compromise?

In a cloud-native world, these graph traversal capabilities are fundamental for cloud security. Going forward, any operating model for cloud security should be built on a graph. With Fix, weʼre building such a modern cloud security tool, and weʼre building it with ArangoDB.

But first, a list!

Now that we covered the benefits of using a graph for cloud security, letʼs start with a list. Yes, a list – because sometimes, viewing my cloud assets in a graph might not be the most intuitive or useful thing.

For example, I may just want a list of my compute instance inventory across my AWS accounts. As a cloud security engineer, I want a baseline inventory of resources. I don’t really need a picture for that, I just want the list. And maybe I want to download it in a spreadsheet so I can slice and dice it, with metadata for each particular instance like create date, number of vCPUs and memory. A list is the best way to represent that information.

But if a list is enough, why collect data in a graph in the first place?

Because transformation from a graph to a table is trivial. The other way around, not so much. The graph lets you express things in a way that if you had the same data in a flat table, it would become intractable, with many different tables, foreign key relationships, and creating all kinds of joints all over the place. It just becomes too difficult to reason about.

The hard part is collecting data from cloud APIs and putting it into a graph form. Thatʼs much harder, takes time and is easy to get wrong. There are enough opportunities to make mistakes along the way, and create a representation thatʼs not correct or has bugs. Thatʼs why we believe transparency in how a cloud security product collects data matters. Both ArangoDB and Fix are open source. Our code shows how we collect and store data from cloud APIs in ArangoDB.

Graph-based analysis of cloud resources

The analysis layer of a graph is powerful because it can provide insights that tables cannot. One recent trend in security is that software engineers also take on security engineering tasks. They look after the security of their infrastructure, beyond infrastructure-as-code templates.

While Fix offers out-of-the-box visualizations and pre-built checks of compliance rules, weʼve also built a search syntax on top of the ArangoDB Query Language (AQL). With ArangoDB and AQL, I can store and query rich nested JSON-like document together with their vertices. Itʼs also easier to add and query metadata to the vertices – such as configuration data for a cloud resource. By building our syntax on top of AQL, weʼve made Fix human-friendly. Developers can easily run ad-hoc checks of the security posture of their infrastructure.

For example, activating flow logs in your VPCs is considered a security best practice by AWS. The search below finds all AWS VPCs where flow flogs are deactivated.

 is(aws_vpc) with(empty, --> is(aws_ec2_flow_log))

Breaking it down, the search:

  • first, finds all resources of the kind “aws_vpcˮ, no matter in which account or region they may run.
  • then, filters for the VPCs without a direct relationship (successor) to an “aws_ec2_flow_logˮ resource.

A simple one line statement.

The same query expressed in SQL would require joining different tables with nested select statements, multiple where-clauses and case statements. It would be dozens of lines long and require an engineer to have knowledge of the table architecture and column names.

The power of a graph is that it lets you explore many-to-many relationships in a very easy way, in a way that a traditional row-based database just canʼt. By making security data from cloud resources available in a graph, software engineers with security responsibilities can gain visibility into the environment and reduce risks.

A graph provides context, context is king

The partnership between Fix and the ArangoDB team has brought our customers new security insights only made possible by the multi-dimensional relations of cloud resources stored in a graph. With ArangoDB, using graphs is no longer a complex computer science and operational challenge. For Fix, ArangoDB provides a graph database as a building block that makes it easy to store and query the relationships in your data.

Fix uses ArangoDB to analyze billions of relationships – in every cloud. With ArangoDB, weʼve been able to build a system that can ingest data at scale. One of our retail users ingests data from tens of thousands of cloud accounts in minutes, and then runs any type of analytics in a fraction of a second. The context of the graph helps security engineers to precisely answer questions and identify, prioritize and remediate risks – the “trifectaˮ of cloud security.

The precision, speed, and explainability of finding risks to your business is simply not possible without using a graph. When defenders can think in graphs, attackers lose.

Lars Kamp

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