Visual Studio Step Up Promotion...The Headache

A few months ago some friends of mine at Microsoft told me about a step-up promotion that was going on for the release of Visual Studio 2010.  If you purchased a license for Visual Studio 2008 through Volume Licensing, it would translate into the next version up for the 2010 version.  Seems fairly straightforward but here is the actual process:


So we upgraded our licenses to benefit from the step up.  Problem was, we couldn’t access any of the applications we were licensed to use (after RTM, obviously).  After a week or so of back and forth with Microsoft we finally got it squared away.  A lot of manual cajoling in the MSDN Sales system, I suspect, took place.  It turns out a lot of people were running into this issue.

Someone told me this issue got elevated to Steve B (not our specific issue, but the step-up issue in general).  I’m curious where things actually went wrong.  I suspect the workflow that was in place at the business level wasn’t in place at the technical level, so everything ended up becoming a manual process.  However, that is purely speculative.  Talk with Steve if you have questions.

In the end, everything worked out.  I got Visual Studio 2010 installed (which fricken rocks, btw), and my productivity will go up immensely once we get TFS deployed.  After of course, it has the necessary drop while I’m downloading and playing with the new MSDN subscription.

For those that are interested in the promotion, it’s still valid until the end of April.  Contact your account rep’s if you are interested.

A Launch Event For Visual Studio

About 10 minutes ago I was told to sit down and open my laptop.  The event is about start, and the place is extremely crowded.  Barnaby Jeans is on stage doing the usual intro.  Twitter, blog, twit tweet tweet tweet #vs2010.

Sean Graglia hits the stage.  Today VS2010 and .NET 4.0 were released.  It makes you a little nostalgic about the old days of development.  The way things were done, the way teams worked, the way we tested.  It’s changed quite a bit since a quarter century ago.  We used to be proud of a user interface that worked on an 80x24 printout.  Notsomuch anymore.

We now need a new way of doing things.  Visual Studio 2010 can help us with this.  Whether we want to deliver to conventional devices, or things like the phone, or even the cloud, Visual Studio can help us from inception to release.

So here we have Keith Yedlin from Corp up to now discuss the value of 2010.  First up is multi-CPU.  .NET 4.0 has created the ability to easily multi-thread processes for faster processing.  That’s actually pretty cool.  Multi-threading applications is for lack of a better word, terrible.  It’s hard to do natively, its hard to do in Managed code, and it’s even harder to figure out what’s going on after the fact.

Now, that brings up an interesting thought.  Debugging can be tricky.  Visual Studio 2010 has introduced something pretty awesome.  You can now create trace files for the debugger, and while that’s not all that interesting, you can load that back into the debugger from a remote PC and run through exactly what happened.  That is pretty fricken awesome.

Team Foundation Server

TFS was first released in 2005.  It was tricky to use, and the learning curve was fairly high.  Oh, and it was bloody expensive.  2010 has changed that entirely.  It’s now easier to use, easier to manage, and cost is much more reasonable (read: free version - FTW).  This can (and does) easily translate into faster time to market, more bug/test coverage, and overall better code.  Win-win-win.

More to come.

Visual Studio 2010 RTM!

Earlier this morning, Microsoft launched Visual Studio 2010.  Woohoo!  here’s the jist:

Watch the Keynote and Channel 9 Live here:

Get the real bits here (if you have an MSDN license):

Get the trial bits here:

Get the Express versions here:

All the important stuff you want/need to know about Visual Studio 2010 development:


ViewStateUserKey, ValidateAntiForgeryToken, and the Security Development Lifecycle

Last week Microsoft published the 5th revision to the SDL.  You can get it here:

Of note, there are additions for .NET -- specifically ASP.NET and the MVC Framework.  Two key things I noticed initially were the addition of System.Web.UI.Page.ViewStateUserKey, and ValidateAntiForgeryToken Attribute in MVC.

Both have existed for a while, but they are now added to requirements for final testing.

ViewStateUserKey is page-specific identifier for a user.  Sort of a viewstate session.  It’s used to prevent forging of Form data from other pages, or in fancy terms it prevents Cross-site Request Forgery attacks.

Imagine a web form that has a couple fields on it – sensitive fields, say money transfer fields: account to, amount, transaction date, etc.  You need to log in, fill in the details, and click submit.  That submit POST’s the data back to the server, and the server processes it.  The only validation that goes on is whether the viewstate hasn’t been tampered with.

Okay, so now consider that you are still logged in to that site, and someone sends you a link to a funny picture of a cat.  Yay, kittehs!  Anyway, on that page is a simple set of hidden form tags with malicious data in it.  Something like their account number, and an obscene number for cash transfer.  On page load, javascript POST’s that form data to the transfer page, and since you are already logged in, the server accepts it.  Sneaky.

The reason this worked is because the viewstate was never modified.  It could be the same viewstate across multiple sessions.  Therefore, the way you fix this to add a session identifier to the viewstate through the ViewStateUserKey.  Be forewarned, you need to do this in Page_Init, otherwise it’ll throw an exception.  The easiest way to accomplish this is:

void Page_Init (object sender, EventArgs e) 
	ViewStateUserKey = Session.SessionID; 

Oddly simple.  I wonder why this isn’t default in the newer versions of ASP.NET?

Next up is the ValidateAntiForgeryToken attribute.

In MVC, you add this attribute to all POST action methods.  This attribute requires all POST’ed forms have a token associated with each request.  Each token is session specific, so if it’s an old or other-session token, the POST will fail.  So given that, you need to add the token to the page.  To do that you use the Html.AntiForgeryToken() helper to add the token to the form.

It prevents the same type of attack as the ViewStateUserKey, albeit in a much simpler fashion.

A Stab at a New Resume

While I am definitely not looking for a new job, I was bored and thought I would take a stab at a stylized resume to see if I could hone some of my (lack of) graphics skills.  It didn’t turn out too badly, but I am certainly no graphics designer.

What do you think?


Putting the I Back into Infrastructure

Tonight at the IT Pro Toronto we did a pre-launch of the Infrastructure 2010 project.  Have you ever been in a position where you just don’t have a clear grasp of a concept or design?  It’s not fun.  As a result, CIPS Toronto, IT Pro Toronto, and TorontoSQL banded together to create a massive event to help make things a little more clear.  To give you a clearer understanding of how corporate networks work.  Perhaps to explain why some decisions are made, and why in retrospect, some are bad decisions.

Infrastructure 2010 is about teaching you everything there is to know about a state-of-the-art, best practices compliant, corporate intranet.  We will build, from the ground up, an entire infrastructure.  We will teach you how to build, from the ground up, an entire infrastructure.

Sessions are minimum 300 level, and content-rich.  Therefore:


Well, maybe.  (P.S. if you work for Microsoft, pretend you didn’t see that picture)

My First CodePlex Project!

A few minutes ago I just finalized my first CodePlex project.  While working on the ever-mysterious Infrastructure 2010 project, I needed to integrate the Live Meeting API into an application we are using.  So I decided to stick it into it’s own assembly for reuse.

I also figured that since it’s a relatively simple project, and because for the life of me I couldn’t find a similar wrapper, I would open source it.  Maybe there is someone out there who can benefit from it.

The code is ugly, but it works.  I suspect I will continue development, and clean it up a little.  With that being said:

  • It needs documentation (obviously).
  • All the StringBuilder stuff should really be converted to XML objects
  • It need's cleaner exception handling
  • It needs API versioning support
  • It needs to implement more API functions

Otherwise it works like a charm.  Check it out!

Visual Studio Output Window Auto-Scrolling

Just a quick one here.

Have you ever been using the output window in Visual Studio, scrolled up, and then lost the auto-scroll functionality?  It’s really annoying when you have a thousand things coming out through the likes of Debug.Write, or even if it’s just a massive build.

To re-enable autoscrolling, while in the output window just hit CTRL+END.

Kinda wished I knew that a year ago…

Six Simple Development Rules (for Writing Secure Code)

I wish I could say that I came up with this list, but alas I did not.  I came across it on the Assessment, Consulting & Engineering Team blog from Microsoft, this morning.  They are a core part of the Microsoft internal IT Security Group, and are around to provide resources for internal and external software developers.  These 6 rules are key to developing secure applications, and they should be followed at all times.

Personally, I try to follow the rules closely, and am working hard at creating an SDL for our department.  Aside from Rule 1, you could consider each step a sort of checklist for when you sign off, or preferably design, the application for production.


Rule #1: Implement a Secure Development Lifecycle in your organization.

This includes the following activities:

  • Train your developers, and testers in secure development and secure testing respectively
  • Establish a team of security experts to be the ‘go to’ group when people want advice on security
  • Implement Threat Modeling in your development process. If you do nothing else, do this!
  • Implement Automatic and Manual Code Reviews for your in-house written applications
  • Ensure you have ‘Right to Inspect’ clauses in your contracts with vendors and third parties that are producing software for you
  • Have your testers include basic security testing in their standard testing practices
  • Do deployment reviews and hardening exercises for your systems
  • Have an emergency response process in place and keep it updated

If you want some good information on doing this, email me and check out this link:

Rule #2: Implement a centralized input validation system (CIVS) in your organization.

These CIVS systems are designed to perform common input validation on commonly accepted input values. Let’s face it, as much as we’d all like to believe that we are the only ones doing things like, registering users, or recording data from visitors it’s actually all the same thing.

When you receive data it will very likely be an integer, decimal, phone number, date, URI, email address, post code, or string. The values and formats of the first 7 of those are very predictable. The string’s are a bit harder to deal with but they can all be validated against known good values. Always remember to check for the three F’s; Form, Fit and Function.

  • Form: Is the data the right type of data that you expect? If you are expecting a quantity, is the data an integer? Always cast data to a strong type as soon as possible to help determine this.
  • Fit: Is the data the right length/size? Will the data fit in the buffer you allocated (including any trailing nulls if applicable). If you are expecting and Int32, or a Short, make sure you didn’t get an Int64 value. Did you get a positive integer for a quantity rather than a negative integer?
  • Function: Can the data you received be used for the purpose it was intended? If you receive a date, is the date value in the right range? If you received an integer to be used as an index, is it in the right range? If you received an int as a value for an Enum, does it match a legitimate Enum value?

In a vast majority of the cases, string data being sent to an application will be 0-9, a-z, A-Z. In some cases such as names or currencies you may want to allow –, $, % and ‘. You will almost never need , <> {} or [] unless you have a special use case such as in which case see Rule #3.

You want to build this as a centralized library so that all of the applications in your organization can use it. This means if you have to fix your phone number validator, everyone gets the fix. By the same token, you have to inspect and scrutinize the crap out of these CIVS to ensure that they are not prone to errors and vulnerabilities because everyone will be relying on it. But, applying heavy scrutiny to a centralized library is far better than having to apply that same scrutiny to every single input value of every single application.  You can be fairly confident that as long as they are using the CIVS, that they are doing the right thing.

Fortunately implementing a CIVS is easy if you start with the Enterprise Library Validation Application Block which is a free download from Microsoft that you can use in all of your applications.

Rule #3: Implement input/output encoding for all externally supplied values.

Due to the prevalence of cross site scripting vulnerabilities, you need to encode any values that came from an outside source that you may display back to the browser. (even embedded browsers in thick client applications). The encoding essentially takes potentially dangerous characters like < or > and converts them into their HTML, HTTP, or URL equivalents.

For example, if you were to HTTP encode <script>alert(‘XSS Bug’)</script> it would look like: &lt;script&gt;alert('XSS Bug')&lt;/script&gt;  A lot of this functionality is build into the .NET system. For example, the code to do the above looks like:

Server.HtmlEncode("<script>alert('XSS Bug')</script>");

However it is important to know that the Server.HTMLEncode only encodes about 4 of the nasty characters you might encounter. It’s better to use a more ‘industrial strength’ library like the Anti Cross Site Scripting library. Another free download from Microsoft. This library does a lot more encoding and will do HTTP and URI encoding based on a white list. The above encoding would look like this in AntiXSS

using Microsoft.Security.Application;
AntiXss.HtmlEncode("<script>alert('XSS Bug')</script>");

You can also run a neat test system that a friend of mine developed to test your application for XSS vulnerabilities in its outputs. It is aptly named XSS Attack Tool.

Rule #4: Abandon Dynamic SQL

There is no reason you should be using dynamic SQL in your applications anymore. If your database does not support parameterized stored procedures in one form or another, get a new database.

Dynamic SQL is when developers try to build a SQL query in code then submit it to the DB to be executed as a string rather than calling a stored procedures and feeding it the values. It usually looks something like this:

(for you VB fans)

dim sql
sql = "Select ArticleTitle, ArticleBody FROM Articles WHERE ArticleID = "
sql = sql & request.querystring("ArticleID")
set results = objConn.execute(sql)

In fact, this article from 2001 is chock full of what NOT to do. Including dynamic SQL in a stored procedure.

Here is an example of a stored procedure that is vulnerable to SQL Injection:

Create Procedure GenericTableSelect @TableName VarChar(100)
Declare @SQL VarChar(1000)
SELECT @SQL = @SQL + @TableName
Exec ( @SQL) GO

See this article for a look at using Parameterized Stored Procedures.

Rule #5: Properly architect your applications for scalability and failover

Applications can be brought down by a simple crash. Or a not so simple one. Architecting your applications so that they can scale easily, vertically or horizontally, and so that they are fault tolerant will give you a lot of breathing room.

Keep in mind that fault tolerant is not just a way to say that they restart when they crash. It means that you have a proper exception handling hierarchy built into the application.  It also means that the application needs to be able to handle situations that result in server failover. This is usually where session management comes in.

The best fault tolerant session management solution is to store session state in SQL Server.  This also helps avoid the server affinity issues some applications have.

You will also want a good load balancer up front. This will help distribute load evenly so that you won’t run into the failover scenario often hopefully.

And by all means do NOT do what they did on the site in the beginning of this article. Set up your routers and switches to properly shunt bad traffic or DOS traffic. Then let your applications handle the input filtering.

Rule #6: Always check the configuration of your production servers

Configuration mistakes are all too popular. When you consider that proper server hardening and standard out of the box deployments are probably a good secure default, there are a lot of people out there changing stuff that shouldn’t be. You may have remembered when Bing went down for about 45 minutes. That was due to configuration issues.

To help address this, we have released the Web Application Configuration Auditor (WACA). This is a free download that you can use on your servers to see if they are configured according to best practice. You can download it at this link.

You should establish a standard SOE for your web servers that is hardened and properly configured. Any variations to that SOE should be scrutinised and go through a very thorough change control process. Test them first before turning them loose on the production environment…please.

So with all that being said, you will be well on your way to stopping the majority of attacks you are likely to encounter on your web applications. Most of the attacks that occur are SQL Injection, XSS, and improper configuration issues. The above rules will knock out most of them. In fact, Input Validation is your best friend. Regardless of inspecting firewalls and things, the applications is the only link in the chain that can make an intelligent and informed decision on if the incoming data is actually legit or not. So put your effort where it will do you the most good.

Security, Security, Security is about Policy, Policy, Policy

The other day I had the opportunity to take part in an interesting meeting with Microsoft. The discussion was security, and the meeting members were 20 or so IT Pro’s, developers, and managers from various Fortune 500 companies in the GTA. It was not a sales call.

Throughout the day, Microsofties Rob Labbe and Mohammad Akif went into significant detail about the current threat landscape facing all technology vendors and departments. There was one point that was paramount. Security is not all about technology.

Security is about the policies implemented at the human level. Blinky-lighted devices look cool, but in the end, they will not likely add value to protecting your network. Here in lies the problem. Not too many people realize this -- hence the purpose of the meeting.

Towards the end of the meeting, as we were all letting the presentations sink in, I asked a relatively simple question:

What resources are out there for new/young people entering the security field?

The response was pretty much exactly what I was (unfortunately) expecting: notta.

Security it seems is mostly a self-taught topic. Yes there are some programs at schools out there, but they tend to be academic – naturally. By this I mean that there is no fluidity in discussion. It’s as if you are studying a snapshot of the IT landscape that was taken 18 months ago. Most security experts will tell you the landscape changes daily, if not multiple times a day. Therefore we need to keep up on the changes in security, and any teacher will tell you, it’s impossible in an academic situation.

Keeping up to date with security is a manual process. You follow blogs, you subscribe to newsgroups and mailing lists, your company gets hacked by a new form of attack, etc., and in the end you have a reasonable idea of what is out there yesterday. And you know what? This is just the attack vectors! You need to follow a whole new set of blogs and mailing lists to understand how to mitigate such attacks. That sucks.

Another issue is the ramp up to being able to follow daily updates. Security is tough when starting out. It involves so many different processes at so many different levels of the application interactions that eyes glaze over at the thought of learning the ins and outs of security.

So here we have two core problems with security:

  1. Security changes daily – it’s hard to keep up
  2. It’s scary when you are new at this

Let’s start by addressing the second issue. Security is a scary topic, but let’s breaks it down into its core components.

  1. Security is about keeping data away from those who shouldn’t see it
  2. Security is about keeping data available for those who need to see it

At its core, security is simple. It starts getting tricky when you jump into the semantics of how to implement the core. So let’s address this too.

A properly working system will do what you intended it to do at a systematic level: calculate numbers, view customer information, launch a missile, etc. This is a fundamental tenant of application development. Security is about understanding the unintended consequences of what a user can do with that system.

These consequences are of the like:

  • SQL Injection
  • Cross Site Scripting attacks
  • Cross Site Forgery attacks
  • Buffer overflow attacks
  • Breaking encryption schemes
  • Session hijacking
  • etc.

Once you understand that these types of attacks can exist, everything is just semantics from this point on. These semantics are along the line of figuring out best practices for system designs, and that’s really just a matter of studying.

Security is about understanding that anything is possible. Once you understand attacks can happen, you learn how they can happen. Then you learn how to prevent them from happening. To use a phrase I really hate using, security is about thinking outside the box.

Most developers do the least amount of work possible to build an application. I am terribly guilty of this. In doing so however, there is a very high likelihood that I didn’t consider what else can be done with the same code. Making this consideration is (again, lame phrase) thinking outside the box.

It is in following this consideration that I can develop a secure system.

So… policies?

At the end of the day however, I am a lazy developer.  I will still do as little work as possible to get the system working, and frankly, this is not conducive to creating a secure system.

The only way to really make this work is to implement security policies that force certain considerations to be made.  Each system is different, and each organization is different.  There is no single policy that will cover the scope of all systems for all organizations, but a policy is simple. 

A policy is a rule that must be followed, and in this case, we are talking about a development rule.  This can include requiring certain types of tests while developing, or following a specific development model like the Security Development Lifecycle.  It is with these policies that we can govern the creation of secure systems.

Policies create an organization-level standard.  Standards are the backbone of security.

These standards fall under the category of semantics, mentioned earlier.  Given that, I propose an idea for learning security.

  • Understand the core ideology of security – mentioned above
  • Understand that policies drive security
  • Jump head first into the semantics starting with security models

The downside is that you will never understand everything there is to know about security.  No one will.

Perhaps its not that flawed of an idea.