Applying Information Classification To Systems

I wanted to share a simple way I learned of practically applying information classification to IT systems.

I’ve spoken already about Information Security Thinking – this blog is more about ways to practically apply information security to networks and devices. This isn’t the scheme I use in my current job, but one I periodically find myself talking about.

Classifying information

Normally there are variations on a theme for information classification that may go something along the lines of this:

  • Public – Anyone can see, no real restrictions
  • Internal – Limited to people within the company
  • Confidential – Information has a controlled audience of stated members
  • Secret – is the information that could cause significant harm.

This can of course be customized, but as a rule of thumb most people agree we want to keep the information classification structure as simple as we can.

Establishing Controls & Control Goals

Each Information classification is expressed as a control goal – I made up a random example below; its not complete, I modeled this just as an example and to show how we can model this..

Figure 1 – Control Goals

The reason I show the influence relations between the classifications is because we effectively ranked information classification, and layer controls on top of each other. What I mean is if we had confidential information (Layer 3) it was expected that you would apply the confidential controls, but also the internal controls (Layer 2), and the public ones (Layer 1). Secret classified information would effectively necessitate the application of all the controls from the lower levels.

In this way its fairly easy to see how much control we need to apply depending on information classifications.

Applying Information Classification

Effectively once doing this you can designate an information classification to a network, or to a device on the network. Like this:

Figure 2 – Assigning Control Goals

In the example above I simply showed control goals associated with networks. In Figure 2, Effectively I have created Public, Internal and Secret security domains. In the real world I may map the different networks against the different security domains, as in larger organizations there are normally many networks. I simplified for demo purposes.

All devices and networks have an information classification. The rule is, that you are only allowed to have information up to the level of its information classification in any given system. For example a web page from public would be allowed to reside on either internal or secret systems, and its normal to put mechanisms in place to ensure that information coming into systems does carry an information classification, and also that the information classification is allowed on that system or network.

If a lower security classified server is on a higher security network it must adhere to the rules of the higher classification. For example, a web server might have been classified Public – meaning anyone can have access to the information. If we put a web server on a secret network, that’s OK – but it needs to adhere to the rules of the secret network – which in our example might mean that this public web server may not be allowed to have access to the internet.

What happens when the rules are violated?

If for example someone was to put secret information on an internal classified network, a couple of actions may be taken, for example.

  1. That information can be removed, and in depending of the seriousness of the infraction disciplinary action may be taken.
  2. Because a network has to provide a level of protection for the highest level of classified information on it, you could reclassify the network & the servers on it and apply the necessary security controls.

The actual rules should be considered carefully and included as part of a security policy.

Some Security principles

Following the discussion above these are some basic security principles:

  • All networks and devices are designated an information classification.
  • The information classification of a device may not be greater than that of the networks it is connected to.
  • All networks and devices must implement the security controls related to their corresponding information security classification.
  • All devices on a network must also implement the controls of the network they are on.

So whats good about this?

There are a few reasons I like this way of doing things.

  1. It makes the connect between the information we store and the controls we need to secure it.
  2. It can be easily represented in a few architecture views, and is a simple scheme that’s easy to understand, teach and communicate. Less is more.
  3. Because you are applying controls at a network and device level its very easy to see at a quick glance where security is, and gives simple clear rules that help us protect information
  4. It enables IT people to be focused on the protection of information rather than the protection of technology.

Summing it up

When trying to apply security to large organizations the security landscape can get really complicated fast. Its not uncommon to have comprehensive security rules that have grown in complexity and are not followed. This isn’t always because people do not want to follow security rules, its more often because there are already many demands on people & they do not always understand the value of applying security and don’t prioritize it

In designing any kind of security its important to get a balance between ease of use, and effectiveness, because if security policies and rules are too restrictive people will look for and find workarounds.

ISO Compliance – An Architect’s Perspective

ISO Compliance gets a bad wrap. People roll their eyes, are bored by it, and often don’t see the relevance of it. I wanted to share my perspective on this and address some misconceptions.

International Standards Organisation (ISO) create documents that provide requirements, specifications and guidelines that can be used to ensure materials, products, and processes are fit for purpose.

Although I focus a little on ISO standards here you can apply my thoughts to most standards.

ISO Compliance & internal company process

Its a no-brainer that to be compliant to international standards such as ISO 20000, 9001, and 27001 we need to consider them in our processes. We should have processes for checking compliance and often compliance needs results in changes to our operational processes. Checking compliance basically involves taking a standard, turning it into a set of requirements and then going different exercises of requirements realization, or maybe even scoring your processes against criteria in a similar way to what I described in scoring documentation. My previous blogs on those subjects are just describing one of many approaches you can take.

Its important to ensure company processes validate compliance when they first create their processes but also whenever they change them. You cannot just implement standards and forget about them, because as processes change, so can the level of compliance to standards.

In many cases an ISO compliance certification in one country does not equate to having that certification in all countries. Just because your company may hold an ISO 20000 certification, this does not necessarily mean that it holds that certification in the country you are working in.

Adhering to standards isn’t just the job of a security or quality team. In order to really gain the benefits from ISO standards many different roles and stakeholders need to be considered or involved.

Compliance & Architecture

Its important for architects to be aware of which ISO standards a company states it is compliant to. It has a direct impact on both design and implementation in some cases. Its normal to want to short cut the compliance process. There are a few ways to do this;. One way is to create one set of master requirements that aggregates the requirements from all the relevant standards into a set of non functional requirements (NFRs) Those architecture and security NFRs need to be considered when both designing and implementing solutions, and mechanisms should be put into place to make sure that happens.

As an example – ISO 20000 asks that as part of release management a testing environment exists. An architect should plan for this when building implementation and migration architecture.

It is could be very easy to miss this requirement if architects are not aware of the international standards or company NFRs. These requirements are actually architecture concerns from a security and compliance perspective. Architecture concerns have to be managed in an architecture design.

Just as ISO standards can effect implementation and migration architecture they can also effect core architecture design. GDPR is a hot topic – around security of personal information, but for example ISO 27001 provides standards around all information security management.

Its not just a tickbox excercise

Compliance to standards may seem boring and just a pointless paper exercise and when you view it that way it starts to lose its value. The ISO standards have been put together by groups of smart people, that have developed a set of practices to mitigate risk and avoid pains they may have personally been exposed to.

I have heard from some managers in the past that “You cant expect architects to read a whole ISO standard”. Even if you have good non functional requirements from your quality and security teams I would recommend architects pick up at least one ISO standard and read it all. My personal favorite is ISO 42010 (The International Standard for Architecture Description). Read through an ISO and think about the value it’s recommendations give and the pains you would get from not following each recommendation.

For example, ISO 42010 talks about ensuring architecture concerns are framed by at least one viewpoint. If they were not, then the needs of our stakeholders might be missed. Things might not be managed and potentially a customer may notice it. Maybe even a major incident may happen – there could be a huge cost or risk.

If you start to read through a standard and maybe entertain yourself trying to imagine what kind of disaster may have happened that lead someone to write those sentences you may find yourself with a new appreciation of them.

In thinking about what is written in the different standards rather than blindly checking requirements off a list we can get more value from them, and we can learn from the mistakes of others.

Its an opportunity for group fun!

Those running a security, quality or architecture team wanting to get people engaged in ISO compliance could run a workshop with key stakeholders, and get them a little hands on with the risk management side of things.

If you lay out a set of requirements that have been distilled from an ISO standard, it stands to reason that not meeting those requirements poses a risk. If you are using a simple mechanism to validate compliance you could easily establish standard risks against each and every requirement being missed, and start to estimate impact and cost. Getting stakeholders involved in defining risk gives them a deeper more intimate engagement with risk management, and can also help later when those compliance processes are in use.

Its hard to argue that a risk is not valid, if you are the person that defined the standard risk is the person that violated it.

A message to all architects

If you are designing architecture, you need to be aware of standards you promise to adhere to for your customers. and within your own organization. If you cannot name all the standards your company promises to be compliant to, you need to at least be fully conversant with architecture and security non functional requirements. As architects we have a responsibility to ensure we are managing architecture concerns

Don’t think of ISO compliance as being a boring paper exercise. Think of it as an opportunity to take steps to ensure you have an easier, more relaxing, higher quality life at work.

Scoring Documentation Completion

This blog demonstrates a quick and easy way to score documentation completeness and improving quality which is more accurate than guesstimating,

The Goal

To be able to with a reasonable degree of accuracy estimate how complete documentation is, and to not need to take more that 30 minutes per document to do that. I need a balance between speed and detail.

Its not always the job of an EA to actually do these assessments but as an EA its good to get an understanding of documentation that’s based on an assessment rather than a guess at how complete something is, so I often teach this approach.

Some of the benefits of this approach

In following a structured approach we get

  • Better understanding of expectations. When the document authors understand the things we want to see the chances of getting them increases
  • Easy to visualize status – because we are quantifiable we can easily report status in a number of ways visually.
  • Better trace ability of progress – because again, being quantifiable means we can show improvement over time.
  • More realistic assessment of completion. Normally when i ask someone how complete something is they say 70 or 80% but when you start to look its often not so – people want to naturally please other people and tend to often give higher estimates, or sometimes do not think of the detail involved. This mechanism forces people to look at the work in more detail than if you were to “guesstimate”
  • Raises other quality issues. In doing an assessment like below you are reading and aligning to a set of criteria, which are the things that are important to you. Normally when If run a quick assessment i will come up with half dozen or so comments along side the review.

The End Result

I am looking to get an overall percentage of completion – performing an assessment of something i normally end up with a table which will look a little like this:

Figure 1 – A resultant score of several architectures.

Bear in mind the table is only an example. If I was creating scoring for high level design I may have more detail. You can see across the top I have listed some different architecture documentation. In this example its possible that a project may be composed of several teams working to deliver different things to a customer.

Going down on the left is the breakdown of the things we want to see in the document (Lets call them documentation areas). Each area is given a score of 0 to 5 based on some simple criteria which I will show in a while.

Another important thing to note is this is an estimation of completeness as a percentage and not necessarily work. Some of the things I give points for take longer than others. Reading through an assessment can help estimate the remaining work though.

An Overview Of The Process

The process i use is normally fairly simple. I normally pick a few people that will be assessors and give them an hour of training time with me. We run through a live document together and I explain what each document area means – and this description is normally supported with a template. So for each document we are assessing we normally have one template filled out – and we may go back several times over the course of a project to run the assessments again.

The assessment will happen between the assessor and the document owner. They run through each criteria and agree scores together and make notes to agree improvement areas. It can be done without the document author but i find that the communication between an author and and assessor in a meeting is more personal than just sending a filled in assessment. It also gets better commitment for improvement and enables the assessor to explain each criteria and answer questions.This can also be done as a peer to peer exercise.

I make sure that all people referred to in an assessment (approvers, technical validators) have actually reviewed the work and are aware of its state throughout the process.

Creating An Assessment Template

Its really easy to create a template that can be used for assessing the documentation. It can be done in any format – as a confluence page, as a word document, or as a google form, or Microsoft form for even easier collation.

Minimum Header Information

We always need to know as a minimum:

  • What is assessed – the document name normally – with a version number. I normally keep a copy of the actual document assessed with an assessment, rather than a URL to the current version of a document.
  • Who the assessor was – Just the name of the person who is running the assessment.
  • The document / design author – The person that is actually doing documentation work.
  • When the review was performed – just a date
  • A link back to any previous versions of the same assessment – If you are automating this process for a project in google forms for example the link back to a previous version might not be explicitly stated – you could calculate it if you know what was assessed and when. so if we did three separate reviews of the same thing it would have three different rows of data in your google forms.

The Criteria information

Normally I will expect to see this information each one of the different criteria

  • The criteria – The criteria we are assessing.
  • A short description of the criteria – normally a paragraph just to clarify things
  • The agreed score – using the scoring mechanism below
  • The scored mnemonics – I explain what each letter means in the scoring section.
  • The name of the person that approves the work – has to be a person with approval authority – not normally a project manager. Projects are transitory and end. The architecture normally gets delivered to someone in operations, and they should approve it.
  • The name of the person that technically validated things – normally a technical person who is not the author – its good to get a technically competent person from another team if possible.
  • Notes – any helpful information captured during a review.

In a very large project with multiple architects involved in an assessment I might also add the need for the Architect name, and the individual date You can see part of an example in figure 2:

Figure 2 – A partial example of a template

Scoring Documentation Areas

The Score

I apply a very simple scoring system; the order I show here is the order I assess on. I don’t normally assess something is fully complete until its partially complete. I don’t assess language before something is fully complete, and so on.

You don’t allow people to be their own technical validator or approver.

Figure 3 – The scoring

Short here is a mnemonic letter I use to show easily in assessments what I gave points for. So if something is at least partially addressed a point is given – an extra point is given once its fully addressed.

The Math

The math for calculating percentages in figure 1 is simple, but i will just mention it

  • There are 9 different things to assess and a maximum score of 5 points for each area – giving 45 points total as a possible score.
  • Row 14 is just a sum of the proceeding rows.
  • Row 15 is the percentage calculation – so we are calculating what percentage of 45 is in row 14. For column B that would be =(100*B14)/45

Summing It Up

This has been a quick introduction to how I approach doing quick assessments of documentation status when in large complex projects. Its not perfect but it is fairly flexible and quick and easy to implement. Its saved me many hours of having to do more in depth reviews before teams are ready to do so.

I hope this helps someone out there!

Modelling Information Flow In ArchiMate

With regulation such as GDPR being in force to protect our users, properly understanding information flow becomes essential. This blog shows some of the ways we can model information flow.

An Overview

There are a couple of different ways we can represent information flow that I touch upon in this blog – I would suggest you use the technique that you prefer but be consistent with it. I don’t normally use more than one method in a model package, unless I have a specific reason to do so.

Using Flow Relationships

I will start with a layered view like have used on several other blogs – our web hosting service serves as a practical example.

Figure 1 – Layered View

The layered view contains both internal and external elements – we will look at them separately. Although Figure 1 shows a layered view I might use to communicate the big picture, as it stands it would need some more detailing before I can fully map information flow.

Mapping Service Flow

In order to properly understand the flow of information between services we need to establish the service interfaces. If my layered view doesn’t have interfaces on – I need to consider and add them. In the example above we have at already done that between the business and application levels – you can see that in figure 2:

Figure 2 – Services and Interfaces

The first thing I will do is look at anywhere the interfaces are serving another element:

Figure 3 – Focusing On Serving relationships.

These areas are effectively where external information flow is happening. I will be looking to replace these serving relationships with flow relationships. In this view i would possibly make an exception though. The service relationship between the HTTP interface and the website hosting interface tells me that there is a relationship between the two. I might normally look further into detailing out the web hosting service to determine how the HTTP interface is used, but in the case of the view above I have answered the question already – its serving the incident management process.

Some architects do not model interfaces against services all the time – myself included. Its dependent on a number of factors; I want to do “just enough architecture”. If we took the interfaces out of the equation we can still map information flows from services to other services.

Considering other relationships

I will also consider the realization relationships in the same way as I look at serving relationships – in this example though I have only an application interface realizing a business interface. the business web portal is only exposing the application layer functionality and there’s no actual data transfer between the layers to consider. Sometimes association relationships should also be looked at.

Putting the flows onto the diagram

Once I have identified the relationships i am interested in I then start to put the information flows onto the diagram. and thinking about information flows. I reorganized the view a little because I decided its not enough to understand which process has access – I want to also understand which role. I then removed the serving relationships from the view, but I didn’t delete them – they are still valid for other views.

The result was this view

Figure 4 – Flows in a layered view

I have labeled the flow arrows, but do not forget that each relationship can also have documentation – where you can further specify what that information means. When looking at application level interfaces, I might want to also think about specific ports we use – and I may either show it on the actual view or in the documentation for the relationship. I chose to not show ports on the view above because I don’t want to turn my ArchiMate views too technical; in some cases depending on who your stakeholder is you may want to do things differently and include the port numbers on the labels.

Breaking things down

I broke my initial diagram into two parts to make the blog a little bit less cluttered as I focus into part of it, and that’s ok. In the same way as I have now shown flow between business and application layers, I could do the same between the application and technology layers. To keep diagram complexity down sometimes we break things into smaller chunks. The initial layered view showed how they all fit together at the highest level.

Identifying issues

Doing this information flow exercise highlighted some design issues. The second I came to create a flow from website support to the HTTP interface I realized I should be using HTTPS. I could either change that element (which effects the whole model) or I could establish a second interface.

Because in this modelling exercise I am focusing on information flow between elements other issues come up too. For example – when I am looking at the website support role – I ask myself the question what if the HTTP interface into the website application service isnt enough to diagnose a problem? In the old days I might add an Remote desktop Interface – but if I am using third party cloud providers to provide the underlying service this might not be an option – instead I might define a separate special admin interface.

These questions came up just through looking at the information modelling on a layered view. Information flow could also be shown on a whole range of other views. When you actively focus on different component parts of the view and their relationships, thinking in terms of what kinds of relationships fit and why, we quite often see new things.

Associating Passive Objects

Figure 4 could have been written another way:

Figure 5 – Layered view with passive elements.

Here I created some passive objects – (Business objects & data objects). Doing this has an advantage over flow relationships – if I am reusing elements in different views then I can easily get an understanding for example where Admin Login Credentials are used throughout my model.

You may have noticed I have web pages as a business object and an data object. That’s because conceptually in the view they are at two different levels. at the business level web pages are a concept, but they are made more tangible at the application layer.

Another important thing to note is that some of these relationships do not denote the direction of information flow. For example – the HTTP interface is Serving Website Support – this does not mean that admin credentials are flowing from the HTTP interface to the website support role.

Information Location

I can easily add Locations to my view to make it a bit more complete from a GDPR perspective:

Figure 6 – Layered View With Locations

Normally those elements are orange, but for me that’s a complete aesthetic color clash so i changed it. There’s nothing in the ArchiMate rule book that says you cannot do that!

Modelling Internal Information Flows (and Application Cooperation)

In the same way as we can show information flows on a layered view we can do the same thing on many other views – such as service realization views, technology views and so on. Remember sometimes we might want to have two viewpoints showing the same things in different ways for different stakeholders. We might have a normal service realization view, and one for GDPR compliance work. We can use exactly the same approach as i showed on the layered views with most other views. I would take copy of the view and start removing relationships from the view (not the model) replacing them with flows.

With regards to application cooperation views, they can be done at different layers of detail dependent on need. the best application cooperation views include processes, events, interactions and services. They do not include interfaces and are internal views. As a bare minimum I would expect to see interaction between application components and the services – as an example:

Figure 7 – Basic Application cooperation view with information flows.

Figure 7 doesn’t really show the cooperation! I am focusing on data flow rather than any causal relationships and elements. This works as a starting point. I have seen some architects do variations on figure 7. Some people like to emphasize the more important information flows.

Other architects do not include what they consider to be less important flows, and produce more abstract views. For example the web page request – is a good example of low level communication that is essential to a low level view but may not be important if we are trying to provide stakeholders an overview.

Personally I like the level of detail in figure 7.

Using Access Relationship.

Where accesses relationships are possible within different views they should be used if those views are for presenting information flow. The access relationship is a data dependency relationship in ArchiMate. its indicating that a process, function, interaction, service or event does something with a passive object.

Using The Path

The Technology layer has an element for representing flow of information – the path. Take a look at figure 8:

Figure 8 – Web Data Transmission

You can see here I have represented the path information takes to get from the web server to the end user by creating a Web Data Transmission path. Note that the two end points are not considered to be part of the path. This is because the path denotes to path from end to end – when we reuse the Web Data Transmission element we are likely to want to use it to convey transmission from many different end points.

Summing it up…

Most views can be remodeled to include information flow, and going through the process of doing so will enhance your understanding of information flow and risk.

I focused mostly on business and application layer within this blog but the same practices apply when working with the technology layer

When doing High Level Design Work as a minimum I like to see either the basic information flows in the application cooperation views, or information flows in the layered view.

Having these information flows enables us to ensure compliance to different regulations and gives us the ability to do some very cool things with risk management.