Book review: Magnus Mischel – ModSecurity 2.5

It’s been quite a while since I received my review copy of Magnus Mischel’s ModSecurity book titled “ModSecurity 2.5″ but I finally found the time to read it and write up my review. As the title suggest it’s a book about the ModSecurity Web Application Firewall (WAF) module for Apache and about version 2.5 of it specifically. There are some books about the 1.x series of ModSecurity. It’s great that there is a book about the 2.x ModSecurity series now as ModSecurity 2.x is very different from the 1.x series.

The ModSecurity module is very powerful but also very complex. It’s pretty trivial to add a few rules blocking some attacks, but when trying to protect large web applications such as OWA things get complicated very quickly. But even with a smaller system like WordPress I found that finding the right approach is not trivial. While there is an online manual and there are an array of blogposts (some written by me even), a good overview of ModSecurity’s features and how to really deploy it properly and effectively in complex environments is lacking. This is what I hoped to find in this book.

Giving this expectation the book slightly disappointed me. But let me start out with what I liked about the book.

The book gives a broad overview of how ModSecurity can be used. It deals with the obvious parts like compilation, installation and setting up, but also handles more interesting parts like virtual patching, performance profiling, the difference between “positive” and “negative” security approaches, REMO (a web based open source ModSecurity rule editor) and more. I learned quite a bit here, for example about directives to deal with credit card numbers.

Where it falls short is mostly in the lack of depth. It touches a lot of subjects, but most of them only pretty briefly. Next to this a view chapters could be organized a little better, especially in the first couple of chapters. I think what would really improve this book is adding the approach done by my favorite ModSecurity book so far, Ryan C. Barnetts “Preventing Web Attacks With Apache”. In that book a flawed application is introduced (Buggy Bank) and much time is spend on explaining how things are broken and where ModSecurity can and cannot help.

My verdict is that “ModSecurity 2.5″ is a good introductionary book into ModSecurity, but that it’s missing some depth to be much more than that. Being someone that has quite a bit of ModSecurity experience, including writing pretty complex rulesets, I had hoped for more help on dealing with those. But all being said, I still recommend this book to anyone that is in need of a good introduction into ModSecurity. I recommend picking up Ryan C. Barnetts “Preventing Web Attacks With Apache” book alongside with it, even though it deals with ModSecurity 1.x. I think together they will provide enough depth to deal with a real world environment.

On a final note I’d like to mention that Ivan Ristic, the original ModSecurity creator, has also written a new book on ModSecurity. I haven’t read that yet, but Ivan’s first book was excellent.