Exceptions, Exceptions, Exceptions

In: PHP

22 Jan 2006

Lately, i’ve been reading Advanced PHP Programming, by George Schlossnagle, which I must say is an excellent book. Below is an excerpt, which I find particularly interesting on the topic of error handling.

“Production Display of Errors

How to notify users of errors is often a political issue. All the large clients I have worked for have had strict rules regarding what to do when a user incurs an error. Business rules have ranged from display of a customized or themed error page to complex logic regarding display of some sort of cached version of the content they were looking for. From a business perspective, this makes complete sense: Your Web presence is your link to your customers, and any bugs in it can color their perceptions of your whole business.

Regardless of the exact content that needs to be returned to a user in case of an unexpected error, the last thing I usually want to show them is a mess of debugging information. Depending on the amount of information in your error messages, that could be a considerable disclosure of information. “, PHP Error Handling

Along with some brief discussions with Håvard Eide on some SQL Injection Attacks, I found in a large public site, the end result was simply terminating the execution, and displaying the error. E.g.

Note: The database is using MySQL 3. MySQL supports multiple result sets, from multiple statements, although this is a flag in MySQL 4.1+. So, when upgrading we have numerous secruity exploits, that has the potential to delete or drop the entire database. Also, with more rigorous permissions on the credentials used would also help alleviate such problems.

“If $userid is passed in, unvalidated, from the end user, a malicious user could pass in this:

$userid = “10; DELETE FROM users;”;

MySQL (like many other RDBMS systems) supports multiple queries inline, if this value is passed in unchecked, you will have lost your user’s table. This is just one of a number of variations on this sort of attack. The moral of the story is that you should always validate any data in queries.”, George Schlossnagle

mysql_query(”) or die(‘MySQL Error: ‘.mysql_error());

Firstly, if there was a fatal error such as that, someone with a malicious intent can use the debugging information printed to acquire further knowledge and deduce other methods of attack. Also, from a usability point of view, why is the execution terminated? At least give something more meaningful or redirect to an errors page. Ultimately, a message such as that should never, ever, be shown on a live site.

More to the point of this post, displaying a cached version of the page is a great method, it gives the end user the content that they were looking for, and illudes the fundamental issue of deteriorating your users perception. Now, this entails a number of further questions to think about:

* What if it is a dynamic service, such as a search?
* Caching Policy and retention.

Whilst, dynamic services would be very difficult to cater for, and each case would be unique, in terms of search. Some possibilities, are to cache paged results, and apply some business logic on the retention of that cache (We don’t want to serve out-dated content), also state that the user is searching cached content and for any new terms, that haven’t been cached display an error page. This could become very convoluted, and in essence results in how critical the information is or the service!

You also don’t want to display partial pages where execution has ultimately terminated, this should be rather trivial with output buffering. However, it can be a rather gray area to associate, every possibility and as George Schlossnagle mentioned each company has different requirements.

It would be interesting to expand out and detail case examples.

I would be interested to understand better about one of the statements in the book…. “Exceptions expose the possibility of leaking memory.”, if anyone has more information on this, I would be very interested to hear further…

Further Information:

The addslashes() Versus mysql_real_escape_string() Debate
mysql_real_escape_string() versus Prepared Statements
Security Corner: SQL Injection

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Andrew Johnstone is a software engineer / lead developer working at Everlution Software.

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