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Cracking Drupal: A Drop in the Bucket
was everything I'd hoped it would be, and more.

Cracking Drupal by Greg Knaddison

I know that's a cliche, but when I first learned about Greg Knaddison's book (greggles in Drupal-land), I'd assumed it would be aimed primarily at Drupal contributed module developers. By the time I finished the excellent book about Drupal security, I realized it was an essential read for anyone connected with developing, theming, or maintaining a Drupal site.

I had been anticipating the release of Knaddison's book for months, as I've been a fan of his for some time, due in part to his active and helpful role in Drupal's forums, and to his work with the Security Team. After reading the book, I feel more secure than ever using Drupal, as its well-documented API and best practices ensure that any module maintainer adhering to them will produce rock-solid code. At the same time, it quite visibly demonstrates the importance of an active community to ensure the modules and themes we use do just that.

Let's look in more detail at the book.

Part One, "Anatomy of Vulnerabilities", offers an extensive overview of the predominate routes of attack that may be taken against a site. It's split logically into two chapters by vulnerabilities possible with Drupal or its contributed modules and themes, and by potential weaknesses introduced by a poorly configured or poorly maintained server environment.

The first two chapters, "That Horrible Sinking Feeling" and "Security Principles and Vulnerabilities outside Drupal", jump right into outlining the more commong things that could expose your site to attack. By beginning with this acopolyptic message. Greg grabs the reader's attention and embues a sense of dread and hopelessness. Fortuntely, he doesn't leave us hanging, and immediately shows us in the next part, "Protecting against Vulnerabilities", relatively easy configurations and optional modules that can buttress our sites with defenses against some of the more common lines of attack, such as tools to subscribe a site for security updates, enforcing strong passwords and reducing the risks of persistant sessions.

Chapter 4, "Drupal's User and Permissions System", begins the section most exciting to me as a developer, by describing the API and hooks offered by Drupal to help create more secure code. It offers, for example, and in-depth examination of the famous t() function, showing its dual nature as an aid to translation and internationalization, and (when used properly) as an easy method to automatically filter user input from XSS attacks. Then, as the title implies, the bulk of that chapter offers an in-depth overview of the user and permission system, and how the menu system hooks into it.

Chapter 5, "Dangerous Input, Cleaning Output", begins with an exciting foray into the database API for Drupal. It covers safely using the database functionality for Drupal 6 and earlier, and the new, improved, and evermore secure system we can look forward to for Drupal 7. It then meanders into sanitizing output, and applying lessons learned to form building.

We learn in Chapter 6 about best practices for developers who work at the theme level (or themers), beginning with an overview of Drupal's theming system and PHPTemplate. The overview is particularly valuable, as Greg poinjts out that many people who work at the theme level do not necessarily come from a PHP background, so have another hurdle to overcome in ensuring a secure site. Fortunately, as he reiterates, it's hard to go wrong as long as we stick to the established standards. For module developers, he cautions the need to maintain a clear seperation of code from form, keeping template files as clean as possible.

Next on the plate is the Node Access system, thoroughly described in Chapter 7. My first exploration of this initially baffling framework was the concise, though somewhat cryptic, summary in Pro Drupal Developer (an excellent book, by the way, and another essential in any Drupal developer's library). Greg offers more of a leisurely walkthrough, which would have saved me hours of frustration when I first was learning that system.

The final chapter of that section, "Automated Security Testing", explores some currently available modules that should be in the bag of tricks for not only module developers, but anyone deploying a site. He describes how they can be used to test both the modules in use, and a site's custom theme, where many of the vulnerabilities in the wild can be found.

Which brings us, finally, to Part Three, "Weaknesses in the Wild". Chapter 9 offers real world examples of vulnerabilities, showing how to find not only weaknesses in contributed modules using nothing more than a search on your local cvs repository checkout, but also weaknesses in the wild, using nothing more than a Google search. Scared yet? You should be. But before you think, "Maybe Drupal's too insecure for me to use, if you can find weaknesses so easily," just remember that every contributing developer to Drupal is interested in creating and maintaining secure code, and at the very least, we can ensure our own sites will be ahead of the game if we do nothing more than keep them updated to the most secure releases as they become available.

Now for your Homework...

Your homework, if you're interested in putting your knowledge to a test, is to complete a full security audit on a 'Vulnerable' module (a dubious companion to the book), and Knaddison offers his own answers in Chapter 10, "Un-Cracking Drupal". I found this fun exercise to be informative, and it is helping me work through my own code to check for vulnerabilities.

The appendices are useful in their own right. The first appendix examines several useful core functions, explaining specifically how they help maintain security through proper usage. Greg offers useful examples of how to properly use each. The next appendix demonstrates how to create a clean (and secure!) Drupal installation. The final appendix introduces readers to the active Drupal Security Team, and to several useful resources outside the Drupal community, in the larger world of Internet security.

If you've read this far without purchasing the book yet, here's a link to buy Cracking Drupal: A Drop in the Bucket
by Greg Knaddison. Your sites will be happy for it.

cracking-drupal.jpeg19.3 KB


target's picture

Relevant comment

well the article is very informative as the author has given a great emphasis on How can Drupal be used to prevent Xss attacks? I want to know more about Xss attacks and un-cracking Drupal.

resabi's picture

How can Drupal be used to prevent Xss attacks?

How can Drupal be used to prevent Xss attacks? I want to know more about Xss attacks and un-cracking Drupal. Is Drupal security a stand alone feature?

aaron's picture

Security, including against

Security, including against XSS attacks, is a built in "feature" of Drupal. Drupal core and contributed modules are reviewed by many vested developers on an ongoing basis to ensure the its code adheres to the standards in place. Additionally, a volunteer Security team diligently meets on a weekly basis to discuss and fix severe problems as they arise.

San Francisco Dog Walkers's picture


i would have thought drupal was better at this than most, i guess not i will have to do some cleaning of my own, thanks for the heads up.

Anonymous's picture

<?php print 'delete website';

print 'delete website';

Anonymous's picture

<? print 'sdf' ?>

<? print 'sdf' ?>

Anonymous's picture

wow - you're letting comments post php code??

Is this a trick?


Tony's picture

No trick just magic

The PHP code is rendered as formatted text via the input format.
Not run or executed as PHP code.

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