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Three Snort Books Reviewed 123

Eric Stats writes "Working as a Network Engineer for web-hosting company that prides itself on uptime and network availability, and moonlighting as a part-time Linux administrator, my managers and clients are starting to expect a level of information security knowledge from me. I decided that if I wanted to take my career to the next level, I needed to develop some security-specific skills. I heard a lot about the open source Intrusion Detection System (IDS), Snort from friends and co-workers (mostly that it was a pain to get running, and an even bigger pain to understand what it was doing)." To get past those frustrations, Eric looked at two more books on Snort (and compares them to the already-reviewed Intrusion Detection with Snort ); read on below for his take on what each offers.
Intrusion Detection with SNORT: Advanced IDS Techniques Using SNORT, Apache, MySQL, PHP, and ACID; Intrusion Detection with Snort; Snort 2.0 Intrusion Detection
author (See each)
pages (See each)
publisher (See each)
rating (See each)
reviewer Eric Stats
ISBN (See each)
summary (See each)

I ran Snort at home for a while, using the online docs, but I could never get a handle on which output plugin to use (When to log? When to alert?), how to email alerts to myself (I later found out Snort doesn't natively do this), and how to create signatures from packet captures (no online docs at all for this). When I did get The Pig running, it filled up my log directory with thousands of small alert files, which ended up being in tcpdump format. This frustrated the hell out of me, so I decided I needed to find a good book on Snort, as the online docs simply did not describe how to use Snort from start to finish.

In the past few months, an assortment of books have come out on Snort. Because it has begun to eclipse closed-source, multimillion dollar IDSes in terms of raw performance and features, much attention is currently focused on Snort. Naturally, when an open source project achieves this level of notoriety, publishers, venture capitalists, and corporations want to get in on the game. The flood of Snort books is a testament to this, but it doesn't mean they were all created equally. This book review covers the three books on Snort currently available (we will see another two Snort books later this winter). It covers what is good about them, what is bad, and who the target audience is for each. If you are looking to learn intrusion detection the open source way, or simply do not have a million-dollar IT security budget, these books are a good starting point.

Each of these three books serves a different purpose and consequently is appropriate for a different reader. In summary, Rafeeq Rehman's Intrusion Detection with Snort: Advanced IDS Techniques Using SNORT, Apache, MySQL, PHP, and ACID presents a concise, quick-start guidebook to getting Snort up and running fast. He doesn't delve into the details of Snort, and this book makes a perfect choice for a reader who wants to get The Pig up and running quickly and move on to something else.

The whole gaggle of authors that put together Snort 2.0 Intrusion Detection created a much-needed user manual for Snort. This book makes for good desktop reference, but assumes you understand the core concepts of intrusion detection, or have significant field experience with Snort. It is also somewhat convoluted to read; I suppose it's inevitable when you have 12 authors working on a single book, it is going to come out somewhat disjointed and jumbled. If I hadn't read the other two books first, I doubt I would have been able to piece together what this book is talking about in places. (Such as referring to Barnyard logs in one chapter and "unified binary format" in another; how is the reader going to know they are the same?)

Lastly, Jack Koziol's Intrusion Detection with Snort is a guidebook for using Snort in the real world, either on small networks or in large corporate settings. Like any security tool, Snort is only as effective as its operator. Snort can do an enormous number of things, but if you don't understand the "how and why" you aren't going to be able to apply your knowledge in unexpected, different, or new situations. Koziol's book bridges the gap and teaches you the nitty-gritty Snort details not found in online docs, as well as how to apply your newfound IDS knowledge in practice. This book does lack in terms of screenshots and diagrams, which can be frustrating at points. Instead of a paragraph of text, a simple diagram would have sufficed.

Intrusion Detection with SNORT: Advanced IDS Techniques Using SNORT, Apache, MySQL, PHP, and ACID
author Rafeeq Rehman
pages 288
publisher Prentice Hall
rating 7/10
ISBN 0131407333

I first picked up Rehman's Intrusion Detection with Snort: Advanced IDS Techniques Using SNORT, Apache, MySQL, PHP, and ACID. Rehman's book is also a member of the Bruce Perens Open Source Series. All of the books in his series are published under the OPL. Overall, Rehman's book served as a good intro to Snort. I followed the examples, used some of the custom startup and log-rotation scripts, and got Snort working for the first time. I also learned of ACID, which is a PHP-based GUI for Snort, put out by Carnegie Mellon's CERT/CC. It makes managing alerts from Snort much less time-intensive. It was an exciting experience, but the book left me in the dark on a number of concepts that I knew I needed to learn. I still didn't understand what I was getting out of Snort; I had so many alerts I couldn't "tune out the noise." I didn't know when to use log or alert plugins, so I just turned on both for safety's sake. I also found that Snort was dropping packets (meaning it wasn't able to keep up with the traffic load going to my webservers hosted at home), but didn't find any way to fix this problem. This setup was fine for experimenting at home, but I didn't feel I would be able to use Snort in a mission-critical corporate setting yet.

Intrusion Detection with Snort
author Jack Koziol
pages 400
publisher SAMS Publishing
rating 9/10
ISBN 157870281X

I thumbed through Jack Koziol's Intrusion Detection with Snort at the bookstore, and it seemed to have some more detailed descriptions of using Snort. It also had a lot of the planning, deployment, and maintenance activities you never think of until you are faced with one at 2 a.m. (such as how to upgrade Snort in an organized manner after a vicious integer overflow exploit is released for a core Snort component). It is also the most popular Snort book, so I figured I would buy it. When I took it home, I learned where to place Snort on a network, and what advantages and disadvantages there are to different IDS sensor placement strategies, something I had never considered.

Koziol's book also had the technical detail I was in desperate need of. I learned how to use Barnyard to spool alerts, which keeps Snort from dropping packets. I got to write my own attack signatures from scratch by using Ethereal packet captures in an controlled lab environment. I created a targeted ruleset; it enables specific attack signatures based on what I actually have running on my network, simply using nmap and some complicated perl scripts. The targeted ruleset went a long way to reducing false alerts, and is now a selling product from the Snort commercial vendor, Sourcefire. I finally got email alerts working using syslog-ng with Snort. The book ends with some more advanced content, namely using Snort as an Intrusion Prevention device. You can setup Snort to block packets that match a signature, using Inline Snort, or you can have Snort reconfigure routers and firewalls to block offending IP addresses, using SnortSam. I've experimented with Inline Snort as part of a honeypot, but, as the author points out, this is not yet production-safe, as it can easily be used by attackers to disrupt network availability.

Snort 2.0 Intrusion Detection
authors Jay Beale, Anne Carasik, Aidan Carty, Scott Dentler, Adam M. Doxtater, Wally Eaton, Jeremy Faircloth, James C. Foster, Vitaly Osipov, Jeffrey Posluns, Ryan Russell, Brian Caswell
pages 485
publisher Syngress
rating 4/10
ISBN 1931836744

The final Snort book in this review is Snort 2.0 Intrusion Detection. This book has a lot of the screenshots and figures that the Koziol and Rehman books leaves out. It also contains a lot of useful diagrams, about one for every other page, and a CD-ROM with all of the Snort source and a pdf version of the book. This book, and the Koziol book, cover Snort version 2.0, which isn't all that much different from version 1.9 covered in the Rehman book. Still, it is nice to have the most up-to-date documentation, but it doesn't make the Rehman book any less effective. This book has the most reference material in it, over 500 pages' worth, and it has very organized user manual-like descriptions of important Snort components (preprocessors, output plugins, and rules). Keep in mind that this book was created more as a user manual rather than an implementer's guide. You aren't going to see planning, deployment, and maintenance activities as well as technical deployment examples, as in the Koziol book. And, you aren't going to find a concise quick-start guide such as the Rehman book.

In summary, you aren't going to find anything in this book that isn't in the other two. What you will find is lengthy descriptions, and a lot more screenshots. As stated before, Snort 2.0 Intrusion Detection was written by 12 different people (one of them a Sourcefire employee and Snort.org website maintainer, Brian Caswell). This is obviously done by the publisher to get the book out as fast as possible, which is important for technology book publishers as books are outdated quickly, but has the end result of a disjointed book that contradicts itself in many areas. An example: one author stresses how deadly important it is for us to only use the latest Snort version, while another tells us to use the CDROM that comes with the book, which contains an outdated version of Snort.

You can clearly tell a different authors worked on different chapters, as the style and format change frequently. You can also tell that the authors didn't talk to each other much, as you will find one author referring to something in one chapter (unified binary format) that he expected to have been explained in a previous chapter. In print, the concept was not explained until later, which can be really frustrating if you are not a Snort pro. Additionally, there are enough grammatical errors in the book to be distracting, and, much like a vendor-provided user manual, the chapters don't logically flow from one to the next. If you do purchase this book, this slashdotter would recommend it as a supplement to either the Rehman or Koziol book.

You can purchase Intrusion Detection with SNORT: Advanced IDS Techniques Using SNORT, Apache, MySQL, PHP, and ACID , Intrusion Detection with Snort , and Snort 2.0 Intrusion Detection from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Three Snort Books Reviewed

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