18 - May - 2016

When Poor Security Practices Go Bad

Post by Dylan S Dylan S

In this blog post I'll discuss some methods of ensuring that your software is kept up to date, and some recent examples of why you should consider security to be among your top priorities instead of viewing it as an inconvenience or hassle.

Critics often attack the stability and security of Open Source due to the frequent releases and updates as projects evolve through constant contributions to their code from the community. They claim that open source requires too many patches to stay secure, and too much maintenance as a result.

This is easily countered with the explanation that by having so many individuals working with the source code of these projects, and so many eyes on them, potential vulnerabilities and bugs are uncovered much faster than with programs built on proprietary code. It is difficult for maintainers to ignore or delay the release of updates and patches with so much public pressure and visibility, and this should be seen as a positive thing.

The reality is that achieving a secure open source infrastructure and application environment requires much the same approach as with commercial software. The same principles apply, with only the implementation details differing. The most prominent difference is the transparency that exists with open source software.

Making Headlines

Open Source software often makes headlines when it is blamed for security breaches or data loss. The most recent high profile example would be the Mossack Fonseca “Panama Papers” breach, which was blamed on either WordPress or Drupal. It would be more accurate to blame the firm itself for having poor security practices, including severely outdated software throughout the company and a lack of even basic encryption.

Mossack Fonseca were using an outdated version of Drupal: 7.23. This version was released on 8 Aug 2013, almost 3 years ago as of the time of writing. That version has at least 25 known vulnerabilities. Several of these are incredibly serious, and were responsible for the infamous “Drupalgeddon” event which led to many sites being remotely exploited. Drupal.org warned users that “anyone running anything below version 7.32 within seven hours of its release should have assumed they’d been hacked”.

Protection by Automation

Probably the most effective way to keep your software updated is to automate and enforce the process. Don’t leave it in the hands of users or clients to apply or approve updates. The complexity of this will vary depending on what you need to update, and how, but it can often be as simple as enabling the built-in automatic updates that your software may already provide, or scheduling a daily command to apply any outstanding updates.

Once you've got it automated (the easy part) you will want to think about testing these changes before they hit production systems. Depending on the impact of the security exploits that you're patching, it may be more important to install updates even without complete testing; a broken site is often better than a vulnerable site! You may not have an automated way of testing every payment permutation on a large e-commerce site, for example, but that should not dissuade you from applying a critical update that exposes credit card data. Just be sure you aren't using this rationale as an excuse to avoid implementing automated testing.

The simple way

As a very common example of how simple the application of high priority updates can be, most Linux distributions will have a tried and tested method of automatically deploying security updates through their package management systems. For example, Ubuntu/Debian have the unattended-upgrades package, and Redhat-based systems have yum-cron. At the very least you will be able to schedule the system’s package manager to perform nightly updates yourself. This will cover the OS itself as well as any officially supported software that you have installed through the package manager. This means that you probably already have a reliable method of updating 95% of the open source software that you're using with minimal effort, and potentially any third-party software if you're installing from a compatible software repository. Consult the documentation for your Linux distro (or Google!) to find out how to enable this, and you can ensure that you are applying updates as soon as they are made available.

The complex way

For larger or more complex infrastructure where you may be using configuration management software (such as Ansible, Chef, or Puppet) to enforce state and install packages, you have more options. Config management software will allow you to apply updates to your test systems first, and report back on any immediate issues applying these updates. If a service fails to restart, a service does not respond on the expected port after the upgrade, or anything goes wrong, this should be enough to stop these changes reaching production until the situation is resolved. This is the same process that you should already be following for all config changes or package upgrades, so no special measures should be necessary.

The decision to make security updates a separate scheduled task, or to implement them directly in your config management process will depend on the implementation, and it would be impossible to cover every possible method here.

Risk Management

Automatically upgrading software packages on production systems is not without risks. Many of these can be mitigated with a good workflow for applying changes (of any kind) to your servers, and confidence can be added with automated testing.


  • You need to have backups of your configuration files, or be enforcing them with config management software. You may lose custom configuration files if they are not flagged correctly in the package, or the package manager does not behave how you expect when updating the software.
  • Changes to base packages like openssl, the kernel, or system libraries can have an unexpected effect on many other packages.
  • There may be bugs or regressions in the new version. Performance may be degraded.
  • Automatic updates may not complete the entire process needed to make the system secure. For example, a kernel update will generally require a reboot, or multiple services may need to be restarted. If this does not happen as part of the process, you may still be running unsafe versions of the software despite installing upgrades.

Reasons to apply updates automatically

  • The server is not critical and occasional unplanned outages are acceptable.
  • You are unlikely to apply updates manually to this server.
  • You have a way to recover the machine if remote access via SSH becomes unavailable.
  • You have full backups of any data on the machine, or no important data is stored on it.

Reasons to NOT apply updates automatically

  • The server provides a critical service and has no failover in place, and you cannot risk unplanned outages.
  • You have custom software installed manually, or complex version dependencies that may be broken during upgrades. This includes custom kernels or kernel modules.
  • You need to follow a strict change control process on this environment.

Reboot Often

Most update systems will also be able to automatically reboot for you if this is required (such as a kernel update), and you should not be afraid of this or delay it unless you're running a critical system. If you are running a critical system, you should already have a method of hot-patching the affected systems, performing rolling/staggered reboots behind a load-balancer, or some other cloud wizardry that does not interrupt service.

Decide on a maintenance window and schedule your update system to use it whenever a reboot is required. Have monitoring in place to alert you in the event of failures, and schedule reboots within business hours wherever possible.

Drupal and Other Web-based Applications

Most web-based CMS software such as Drupal and Wordpress offer automated updates, or at least notifications. Drupal security updates for both core and contributed modules can be applied by Drush, which can in turn be scheduled easily using cron or a task-runner like Jenkins. This may not be a solution if you follow anything but the most basic of deployment workflows and/or rely on a version control system such as Git for your development (which is where these updates should go, not direct to the web server). Having your production site automatically update itself will mean that it no longer matches what you deployed, nor what is in your version control repository, and it will be bypassing any CI/testing that you have in place. It is still an option worth considering if you lack all of these things or just want to guarantee that your public-facing site is getting patches as a priority over all else.

You could make this approach work by serving the Git repo as the document root, updating Drupal automatically (using Drush in 'security only' upgrade mode on cron), then committing those changes (which should not conflict with your custom code/modules) back to the repo. Not ideal, but better than having exploitable security holes on your live servers.

If your Linux distribution (or the CMS maintainers themselves) provide the web-based software as a package, and security updates are applied to it regularly, you may even consider using their version of the application. You can treat Drupal as just another piece of software in the stack, and the only thing that you're committing to version control and deploying to servers is any custom modules to be layered on top of the (presumably) secure version provided as part of the OS.

Some options that may fit better into the common CI/Git workflows might be:

  • Detect, apply, and test security patches off-site on a dedicated server or container. If successful, commit them back to version control to your dev/integration branch.
  • Check for security updates as part of your CI system. Apply, test and merge any updates into your integration branch.

Third-party Drupal Modules (contrib)

Due to the nature of contrib Drupal modules (ie, those provided by the community) it can be difficult to update them without also bringing in other changes, such as new features (and bugs!) that the author may have introduced since the version you are currently running. Best practice would be to try to keep all of the contrib that the site uses up to date where possible, and to treat this with the same care and testing as you would updates to Drupal itself. Contrib modules often receive important bug fixes and performance improvements that you may be missing out on if you only ever update in the event of a security announcements.


  • Ensure that updates are coming from a trusted and secure (SSL) source, such as your Linux distribution's packaging repositories or the official Git repositories for your software.
  • If you do not trust the security updates enough to apply them automatically, you should probably not be using the software in the first place.
  • Ensure that you are alerted in the event of any failures in your automation.
  • Subscribe to relevant security mailing lists, RSS feeds, and user groups for your software.
  • Prove to yourself and your customers that your update method is reliable.
  • Do not allow your users, client, or boss to postpone or delay security updates without an incredibly good reason.

You are putting your faith in the maintainer's' ability to provide timely updates that will not break your systems when applied. This is a risk you will have to take if you automate the process, but it can be mitigated through automated or manual testing.

Leave It All To Somebody Else

If all this feels like too much responsibility and hard work then it’s something Ixis have many years of experience in. We have dedicated infrastructure and application support teams to keep your systems secure and updated. Get in touch to see how we can ensure you're secure now and in the future whilst enjoying the use and benefits of open source software.

Dylan S

Dylan S

Head of Infrastructure


First of all, thanks for the great article! I think this topic is really important and deserves more attention, as Drupal's main (well, one of..) competitor - WP, does provide this feature, and does it quite well. But we, as Drupal developers, just can't afford ourselves to jump on the "automatic updates" bandwagon, as there are just too many "proper" ways of doing updates.

Like the most common is - detect that update is available, notify the responsible person, apply an update to the feature branch, spin up an instance for the QA, trigger the CI to run tests, deploy, manage the task in your project management system. And this is just a simple one ;)

So you have a choice of maintaining this complex workflow manually, build the semi-automatic custom solution in house, or rely on the update automation tools like Drop Guard which also has own workflows to configure, but you just do it once and then it works for you. Not sure if other similar solutions exist... If any, I'd like to give them a try as well!


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