Failing badly

Failing badly

"Failing badly" and "failing well" are concepts in systems security and network security describing how a system reacts to failure. The terms have been popularized by Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer and security consultant. [ [ Homeland Insecurity] , "Atlantic Monthly", September 2002]

A system that fails badly is one that fails "catastrophically" once failure occurs. A single point of failure can thus bring down the whole system. Examples include:
*Databases (such as credit card databases) protected only by a password. Once this security is breached, all data can be stolen.
*Buildings depending on a single column or truss, whose removal would cause a chain reaction collapse under normal loads.
*Security checks which concentrate on establishing identity, not intent (thus allowing, for example, suicide attackers to pass).
*Internet access provided by a single service provider. If the provider's network fails, all Internet connectivity is lost.

A system that fails well is one that "compartmentalizes" or "contains" failure. Examples include:
*Databases that do not allow downloads of all data in one attempt, limiting the amount of compromised data.
*Structurally redundant buildings conceived to resist loads beyond those expected under normal circumstances, or resist loads when the structure is damaged.
*Concrete structures, which show fractures long prior to breaking under load, thus giving early warning.
*Armoured cockpit doors on airplanes, which confine a potential hijacker within the cabin even if they are able to bypass airport security checks.
*Internet connectivity provided by more than one vendor or discrete path, known as multihoming.

Designing a system to 'fail well' has also been alleged to be a better use of limited security funds than the typical quest to eliminate all potential sources of errors and failure. [" [ Failing Well with Information Security] " - Young, William; Apogee Ltd Consulting, 2003]

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