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21 Jun 2006: Hip to be ... OVAL

Earlier this month Red Hat started publishing Open Vulnerability and Assessment Language (OVAL) definitions for Red Hat Enterprise Linux security issues and today we obtained official compatibility. But what are these definitions, how do you use them, and why are they important?

One of the goals of Red Hat Enterprise Linux is to maintain backward compatibility of the packages we ship where possible. This goal means making sure that when we release security updates to fix vulnerabilities that we include just the security fixes in isolation, a process known as backporting. Backporting security fixes has the advantage that it makes installing updates safer and easier for customers, but has the disadvantage that it can cause confusion to people unfamiliar with the process who try to use the version number of a particular piece of software to determine it's patch status.

In 2002, Red Hat started publishing Common Vulnerability and Exposures (CVE) vulnerability identifiers on every security advisory in order to make it easy to see what we fixed and how. Customers need only know the CVE identifiers for the vulnerabilities they are interested in and can then find out quickly and easily which of our updates addressed that particular vulnerability. CVE is now used on security advisories from nearly all the major vendors.

Red Hat has a single common mechanism for keeping systems up to date with security errata, the Red Hat Network. The Red Hat Network looks at a customers machines to determine which updates are required and gives anything from a customised notification that an update is available through to automated installation. Third party patch auditing tools don't have such an easy time figuring out what up dates are required: they have to maintain their own list of Red Hat package versions against vulnerability names. As this list is different for each operating system version from each potential vendors, these tools are prone to many errors and lag behind our updates.

We've also found customers that query the Red Hat Network errata pages directly to gather information about our security advisories and put them into a format they can integrate with their own processes. Many customers take feeds of vulnerability data, usually in some XML format, from third party security vulnerability companies.

MITRE recognised both of these issues a number of years ago when they founded the Open Vulnerability and Assessment Language project, OVAL in 2002. The aim of OVAL is to provide a language for defining how to test for vulnerabilities and system configuration errors in an open and cross-platform manner. Red Hat was a founding board member of the OVAL project as part of our overall commitment to security quality.

So Red Hat now publishes OVAL 5 definitions for our Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 and 4 security advisories. Each security advisory gets a separate XML OVAL file which defines the steps needed to test if an update is required for the target system. In an ideal world every Red Hat Enterprise Linux system would be consuming every update from Red Hat Network automatically, but for those that don't or where systems have been disconnected for some time, these definitions can help determine the patch status. In addition, these definitions contain selected info rmation from our advisories which can be combined with vulnerability feeds from third parties.

Red Hat OVAL patch definitions contain:

The actual OVAL definitions themselves are available from and are public within a couple of hours of an advisory being pushed to the Red Hat Network. OVAL definitions for all previous Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 and 4 advisories are also available. At present we do not ship OVAL tools such as a definition interpreter, but there are severalopen-source and commercial OVAL-compatible tools available.

For the future we encourage other vendors to publish definitive OVAL definitions for their products too, and we hope to work on compatibility testing with other operating system and tool vendors.

More information about the make-up of the OVAL patch definitions can be found at the MITRE OVAL site. An FAQ about our implementation and where to contact us with comments or questions is also available.

Created: 21 Jun 2006
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Hi! I'm Mark Cox. This blog gives my thoughts on security work, open source, home automation, and other topics.