Half Baked Features

I gave a talk recently on some of the data protection features being added in SQL Server 2016, along with a few that have been available for some time. I think the talk went well, but I point out lots of potential issues with the features themselves. I had a question from someone that noted Always Encrypted, Dynamic Data Masking and more aren’t really full developed, are they?

The question threw me, not because I agree, but because I think that there is a complex answer. Encryption and data security features are easy to use. The features really are easy to implement, especially encryption. Most encryption is just another function call for the developer, which is something almost all of us can write. The mechanics of using these features are fairly easy.

However the architecture, the decisions on how to manage keys and where to deploy features, those are hard. We deal with those relatively infrequently, but when we must make those decisions, we should carefully consider the ways in which our systems might be attacked or mis-used.

Some of the restrictions that I see in various features are unavoidable. At least, I can’t see a way to avoid them. In some sense, things like a binary collation are almost required because of the nature of how encryption must operate on data. Perhaps there are ways to mitigate issues, but I’m not sure. No security mechanism is perfect and all encryption can be broken. However I think the way these features work is good enough in many situations.

There are some things, such as allowing Dynamic Data Masking on Always Encrypted columns, which can be implemented. However, the changes are more complex, and involve not just SQL Server changes, but probably also ADO.NET changes. Making the decision on how to actually implement these changes shouldn’t be taken lightly, and I’m happy to have a working feature that might be enhanced in later versions over not getting any options at all in this version.

Steve Jones

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Editor, SQLServerCentral
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