Why Do-it-Yourself Java Security is a BAD THING

One of my greatest peeves in working with Java in the Enterprise is the fact that everyone+dog seems to think they can do a better job on application security than the Java architects.

OK, so there’s some really awful stuff that’s part of the Java standards, but nevertheless, rolling your own security is still a BAD THING.

Here’s why:

  1. I’m so clever. You’re not as clever as you think you are. Even I’m not as clever as I think I am, and I, of course, am much cleverer than anyone else. Most DIY security systems I’ve encountered (or, alas, developed) have proven to contain at least one easily-findable hole that you could channel the Mississippi River through.

  2. Infrastructure lock-in. Your DIY system is almost certainly tied to your current infrastructure. If the infrastructure changes, you’ll probably have to recode (see below). And, of course, if you ever had any dreams of selling your work to other shops, they probably aren’t set up the same way.

  3. Documentation and procedures. You can’t go down to the local bookstore and buy a book on how to properly use a custom security system the way you can with the standard security system. In fact, any documentation you have is likely to be insufficient and out of date.

  4. Professional Design. The standard security frameworks were designed by security professionals. Yes, I know they’re not as clever as you. But they were trained specifically to work on security first and foremost and argue with other people looking for bulletproof general-purpose solutions, then the systems were exposed to legions of evil people for stress testing. If your primary job was security, if you have extensive training in mathematical cryptanalysis, your cleverness would outweigh the fact that these people are but pale shadows of your genius. But your primary job was to develop an application and most likely, the orders weren’t to make it all perfect, just to “Git-‘R-Dun!”.

  5. Declarative security. The standard Java security systems are mostly declarative. Studies have shown that declarative is less likely to contain unexpected bugs. You can write anything in code, but when all you have is fill-in-the-blank declarative options, your opportunities to make mistakes are far fewer.

  6. Minimal coding. The standard Java security systems are generally minimally invasive. You don’t have to turn the application code upside down every time the security infrastructure changes. You can test most application code with security switched off or using a local security alternative like the tomcat-users.xml file without having to establish some sort of heavyweight alternative to the production security system (or petition the security administrator for test security accounts and privileges).

  7. Maintenance costs. When you tie security code intimately into application code, anyone coming along later to do maintenance will probably be ignorant of the nuances (remember the local bookstore? and will end up punching a hole in the security. Security is like multi-threading and interrupt handling. It only takes ONE bug to bring everything down.

  8. Development costs. When you tie security code intimately into application code, you have to do twice the work, since you have to code both the business logic and the security logic. And, again, forget to do it in just one place and the whole thing turns into tissue paper. Additionally, in-application security code is not just another spanner in the works of setting up testing and debugging frameworks, you have to debug both the security code and the application code.

  9. Framework support. Standard frameworks like Struts and JSF have built-in support for the J2EE standard security system. They don’t have built-in support for one-off security. You’re paying for it regardless of whether you use it or not. You might as well reap the benefits.

  10. Mutability. If you want to rework a webapp into a portlet or web service, the standard J2EE security system will mostly port transparently, since it’s minimally invasive. Portlets virtually demand a Single Signon solution – forcing someone to enter login credentials into each and every portlet pane will not win you friends.


Sounds a lot like “idiot”. And with good reason. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all Silver Bullet solution. Sometimes the standard security framework isn’t a good fit. About 9 times out of 10, it is, however. For the 10th case, I generally prefer to augment the standard security framework. For example, when I need fine-grained security, I use role-based access control to fence off the major sections of the app, then use the identity provided by the standard framework to retrieve the fine-grained options. Where that doesn’t work or is insufficient, I try to use minimally-invasive approaches, such as Filters and AOP crosscuts. I’ll do anything it takes, in fact, but the more I can work within the supported system, the happier I am.

Author: Tim

Evil Genius specializing in OS's, special hardware and other digital esoterica with a bent for Java.