Dec 21, 2021

How Legacy AST Tools Fail to Secure Cloud Native Applications

Ron Vider
CTO & Co-Founder
Originally published on CloudSecurityAlliance December 17th, 2021


Organizations worldwide are building and deploying cloud native applications, where the architecture is quite different from yesterday’s monolithic counterparts. What used to be a custom code block installed on a single bare metal server or a virtual machine has morphed into hundreds of small, independent pieces of code. These are installed on loosely-coupled microservices, executed as orchestrated containers, and deployed in the cloud.

Distributed cloud based applications pose challenges to yesterday’s application security testing (AST) solutions. Herein is an overview of AST and the challenges DAST, SAST, IAST, and SCA tools face when assessing vulnerabilities in cloud native applications.

As part of the SDLC process, companies leverage legacy AST tools to run security scans against their applications. But these generate many false positives and miss critical vulnerabilities. They fail in their effort to secure cloud native applications.

More specifically, they don’t fully secure today’s containerized applications built using distributed microservices. What used to be a vulnerability that starts and ends with the same monolithic code segment is now an exposed vulnerable flow involving multiple microservices and infrastructure layers.

Many organizations report to us that AST tools are outdated and don’t provide effective results – leading to frustration and waste of development resources. Migration to the cloud has a major effect on how vulnerabilities come into existence, such that cloud native application security testing requires a new approach.

The AST spectrum

Not having been designed to test cloud native applications,  AST tools can be divided into the following categories:

  • Dynamic application security testing (DAST)
  • Static application security testing (SAST)
  • Interactive application security testing (IAST)
  • Software composition analysis (SCA)
  • API security testing tools, manual testing tools, and fuzzers

We’ll rank each category for the following vectors: developer friendliness, security coverage, and accuracy of results. (Our scoring system isn’t scientific in any way; rather, it provides an impression of the aspects of each tool category.)

DAST – Assessing vulnerabilities in cloud native applications at runtime is the function of DAST tools. But DAST scanners only test exposed HTTP and HTML application interfaces. They crawl a web application, collecting information about exposed entry points (e.g., URLs, parameters, cookies), then actively initiate attacks such as SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS).  On the plus side, modern tools can also perform scans at the individual microservice level.

Developer friendliness – 3 External tool created for penetration testers. Doesn’t provide code-level remediation guidance
Testing coverage – 5 Highly dependent on application crawling quality
Results accuracy – 7 Findings are usually exploitable and accurate, might miss vulnerabilities due to poor application coverage

SAST – Looking for coding and design conditions indicative of security vulnerabilities, these tools analyze application source code, byte code, and binaries in a non-running (static) state. To locate application layer vulnerabilities, SAST tools detect the source function – the “entery point” where user input is entered – and the sink function (e.g., database call, system call) that eventually uses the user input.

Developer friendliness – 10 Dev-centric, integrated into IDEs, provides code-level remediation guidance
Testing coverage – 8 Sees most of the code base, but lacks visibility into external components such as public cloud services
Results accuracy – 5 Highly prone to false positives and usually reports non-exploitable issues; often oblivious to custom input sanitization or validation functions

IAST – IAST tools use instrumentation that combines DAST and SAST techniques to increase accuracy. It permits DAST-like confirmation of exploit success and SAST-like application code coverage. In some cases, IAST enables security self-testing during general application testing.

Developer friendliness – 8 Geared toward developers by flagging vulnerable lines of code, stack trace information, and reproduction scenario
Testing coverage – 5 Dependent on application crawling or testing quality
Results accuracy – 7 Similar to DAST

SCA – To secure all open source components, their license, and any known security vulnerabilities, SCA tools scan an application’s source code – including related artifacts such as containers and registries.

Developer friendliness – 10 Perfect for developers, integrated into CI/CD process
Testing coverage – 2 Only flags known vulnerable open source packages, but disregards any custom application code and logic
Results accuracy – 5 Accurately flags known issues in open source packages, but fails to find vulnerabilities in the remainder of application

API testing & manual fuzzers

Web API testing performs fuzz testing of input parameters. Setting them to unusual values causes unexpected behavior and errors in the API backend. This helps with discovering bugs and potential security issues that other QA processes might miss.

Developer friendliness – 3 Aimed at penetration testers or software quality testers
Testing coverage – 2 Only flags issues in components that have been manually crawled or functionally tested
Results accuracy – 3 Usually flags behavior anomalies without fully understanding issues at hand or potential exploitability

The diagram below summarizes the scoring for each of the tool categories:

Competitive analysis chart of SAST, DAST, SCA, IAST and API testings and fuzzers

This table lists the shortcomings of existing/legacy AST tools in relation to efficiently scanning cloud native applications:

AST Category Why It Doesn’t Work Scan Outcome
DAST DAST results are based on inspection of external behavior (reaction), rather than on inner microservices activity Many false negatives arise due to lack of proper coverage and inability to detect internal vulnerabilities. Lack of context results in false positives
SAST Tests each microservice separately while ignoring context and the big picture False negatives/positives due to scanner inability to assess full context and application flow
IAST Cloud native applications require deployment and maintenance of dozens or even hundreds of IAST agents When deployed properly, has the highest chances of producing quality results. Might miss vulnerabilities due to improper coverage (similar to DAST)
SCA Only flags known issues in open source packages Extremely low testing coverage. Completely disregards custom application code
API testing tools & fuzzers Only capable of finding local issues in each microservice. Doesn’t see the full context and completely disregards application logic Some application behavior anomalies can be detected at the individual microservice level

You now understand the challenges legacy AST tools face when assessing vulnerabilities. Cloud native application security testing requires a different paradigm with respect to how vulnerabilities are found, assessed, and resolved. Stay tuned for a deeper analysis of each technology and their shortcomings when scanning cloud native applications.

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