The enterprise and business ecosystem rests upon an intricate and dynamic web of processes that needs to be in a state of perpetual motion to guarantee business fluidity and continuity. To support this modus operandi, companies need to rely on professionals who coordinate their activity across various segments of the business operational flow. As digitalization has permeated into the fast-paced business environment, companies are looking for new solutions to streamline back-end operations, enhance audit processes, and increase incident response times.
The advent in the early 2000s of robotic process automation (RPA) has revolutionized the way in which businesses organize back-end processes by drastically simplifying the management of repetitive, but essential tasks with the help of software robots. However, this increasing reliance on automation raises an important question concerning how companies monitor the activity of their applications and software robots. This is where the often overlooked log files can be a game-changer for any company, if implemented right.
Many people have the erroneous belief that once an application makes the transition from the development environment to the production environment (what end-users get to use) it means that the application in question is maintainable, scalable, and able to function 24/7. In reality, as any person who got the chance to work in software development knows, the application will crash sooner or later, client data could go missing, or users will encounter a randomly occurring bug that was not detected during the testing stages. In these real-life scenarios, a well-rounded logging strategy is crucial in helping system administrators, support teams and developers to formulate and enact a swift solution.
In most cases, product owners tend to consider log files as a side note, focusing instead their pool of resources towards delivering new features to end-users in a bid to improve their ROI. As such, it is essential for project leaders to inform and educate product owners on the importance of formulating a logging strategy and why some of the resources need to be allocated in this area during the development life cycle. Depending on the business use case the application serves, system architects need to define when, how, and what to log, but also how to extract relevant data from the logs.
What is a log file?
A log file is a computer-generated time-stamped document which contains relevant information about user patterns, activities, and operations serviced by applications, decisions and actions taken by an application according to a pre-established logic, as well as runtime characteristics of applications. In essence, application logs are files which contain information events that have occurred within a software application.
Data logging is the process of analyzing the data collected in log files in order to help companies comply with security policies and regulations, enhance audit, discern system troubleshoots, anomalies or suspicious activities that may be the result of external tampering.
Logs are an excellent tool for discerning user behaviour patterns, preferences, while also acting as a mechanism for detecting common mistakes made by users. In this context, logs can provide an accurate context about what a user was doing when he or she encountered an error. Besides the obvious security and troubleshooting purposes, logs can stimulate business growth through the data they collect, as they offer an overview of the areas that a business can improve to deliver better performance and enhanced customer satisfaction.
Log file composition
The information and structure of a log file vary from application to application, depending on the use case involved and the internal logic of the company. The system architect and the developers that work on the application are the ones who decide which events and information makes sense to be stored in the log file and how it should be done. Most of the data will be specific to the application in question. Even so, there are a series of common components that are present across most log files:
- Timestamps – the date and time of the log entry
- Machine Name – the name of the machine on which the software robot was running
- Process Name – the name of the process that was performed
- Log levels – labels that showcase the level of importance of the entries from the log file. Common labels are INFO, WARN and ERROR
- Context information – background information that provides insight into the state of the application at the time of the message
The benefits of log management
According to the Center for Internet Security (CIS), a non-profit organization that promotes best practices for cybersecurity, “deficiencies in security logging and analysis allow attackers to hide their location, malicious software, and activities on victim machines. Even if the victims know that their systems have been compromised, without protected and complete logging records they are blind to the details of the attack and to subsequent actions taken by the attackers. Without solid audit logs, an attack may go unnoticed indefinitely and the particular damages done may be irreversible.”
Simply put, log collection, storage, and analysis play a key role in ensuring a company’s digital security strategy. Log management offers complete visibility into the events that occur on application or networks, enabling the formulation and implementation of proper security measures which can mitigate potential security risks before they escalate.
The implementation of log management strategies also demonstrates the willingness of a company to fall in line with the provisions and requirements of international standards. Requirement 10 from the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) stipulates that: “Logging mechanisms and the ability to track user activities are critical in preventing, detecting, or minimizing the impact of a data compromise. The presence of logs in all environments allows thorough tracking, alerting, and analysis when something does go wrong. Determining the cause of a compromise is very difficult, if not impossible, without system activity logs.” Failure to comply with the provisions of PCI DSS will ultimately lead to significant fines from the PCI Security Council.
Production monitoring and debugging
During their life cycle, applications and systems grow in size and complexity. Due to the information and metrics collected by log files, they have become an ideal instrument for extending the rate of growth of a business. By analyzing application logs and RPA activity logs, companies are able to implement a steady flow of improvements through debugging and troubleshooting, gradually enhancing the performance of operations at a fraction of the cost of a major patch or update.
Monitoring traffic flow
Log file analysis can support site/platform administrators to monitor the flow of visitors as well as determine what were the most visited pages/sections of a platform to determine the point of interest of users. By carefully analyzing user patterns, companies can detect new trends in the market and adapt their strategy to answer to new opportunities and requirements. By implementing a complex log management tool, companies can process the vast amount of log data generated by their system to detect anomalies and errors and address them before their users get a chance to encounter them.
Supervising resource usage
Performance spikes are not always the result of poor software design. Most of the time, an increase in the number of requests to the servers is what causes sluggish performance and even complete system overloads. Audit logs can be designed to monitor resource usage and notify administrators when the system is close to overloading. A quick response time is crucial in this scenario as it gives developers ample time to supplement the system with additional resources in order to cope with the increase in requests.
Audit trail logs records are an irreplaceable tool in a number of key industries, especially in the financial sector. By providing a precise overview of a transaction, the parties involved, their identity, the time of the transaction, account balance, KYC verification, and other key metrics, an audit log can help clarify any inconsistencies in the transaction process, and if the need arises, they can act as evidence in a court of law.
Enhancing log files with blockchain enabled immutability
Depending on the log management mechanism and the internal requirements a company may have, log files are usually stored in SQL or NoSQL database systems. The downside of relying on traditional database engines is that they are susceptible to external tampering from malicious actors, or even internal modifications from a disgruntled employee.
Blockchain provides a viable alternative to existing log file storage mechanisms. By combining cryptography with hashing algorithms, blockchain ensures log immutability, a feature that brings unprecedented levels of trust to the data owned by enterprises. In turn, immutability provides data integrity which drastically simplifies audit processes, while providing proof to system owners and stakeholders that the information has not been altered.
Data integrity and data immutability are directly related to the readability and trustworthiness of database records. In systems that rely on multiple software robots that constantly manipulate and exchange data with each other, ensuring data integrity entails constant maintenance and frequent backups to guarantee the accuracy and consistency of data during its life-cycle.
Modex has partnered with UiPath to provide an alternative to the traditional log file storage mechanisms. Modex Blockchain Database (BCDB) has been integrated into the UiPath Orchestrator through a series of connectors to streamline the security and enhance the auditability of the activity logs of software robots through the immutability provided by the Blockchain Database solution. As a middleware software that is agnostic from a database engine and blockchain perspective, Modex BCDB inserts itself as an additional layer over the database in which companies store logs. This way, clients that implement UiPath Orchestrator can quickly configure the Modex BCDB solution to tap into the benefits of blockchain-enabled immutability, creating a tamper-resistant ecosystem for their logs files.
A use case for immutability
To better illustrate the advantage of enhancing the security of log files with blockchain-enabled immutability, let’s imagine the following use case. Alice works as a customer support representative for a FinTech startup which has developed its own money transferring application. As part of her job description, Alice is required to validate any withdrawal requests by verifying the client’s credentials, KYC, history, etc. As the startup grows, the company implements an RPA system that helps verify and validate transactions at a much faster rate, thus increasing productivity. The problem is that the startup doesn’t implement a logging strategy, and the log files are mostly empty. One day, a disgruntled Alice decides to shut down the RPA robot and validates a series of fraudulent transactions, before she restarts the RPA robot.
In this scenario, the supervisors are at an impasse because the absence of activity logs means that they don’t have any evidence to point who is at fault – the robot, or Alice. In a second scenario, the startup implements a logging system that stores a detailed audit log in a NoSQL database. Alice once again shuts down the RPA robot and validates another series of fraudulent transactions, and with a bit of technical know-how, she accesses the database where the audit logs are stored and modifies them in order to blame the RPA robot.
In a third scenario, the startup decides to enhance their log files with the immutability provided by a blockchain system. As such, they devise a new RPA system which utilizes two software robots. Robot A verifies all the transactions and records its activity logs in the Modex BCDB component that stores the file in a NoSQL database engine, but also in an immutable format on a blockchain network. Robot B has the sole purpose of comparing the entries from the log files from the NoSQL database with the log files stored on the blockchain. If any discrepancies occur, robot B immediately notifies the system administrator that a fraudulent withdrawal occurred and that future investigation is required. Due to blockchain’s unique design choice, even if Alice attempts to modify any logs stored on the blockchain, the system will automatically invalidate any changes, as all the information stored in the blockchain is interconnected through a cryptographic hash that will no longer match.
Conclusions which can be drawn from this example:
- logs are of vital importance in the security of a company
- in order to be efficient, logs need to be implemented with a well-thought strategy in mind
- the ability to compare the validity of log files with an immutable source of truth removes any doubt concerning the authenticity of the information stored in the system
In an RPA context, log immutability significantly reduces overhead costs, streamlines operations and unlocks new value:
- Log integrity is assured by blockchain’s architecture and data storing mechanism. Once data has been introduced in a blockchain network, it cannot be altered without compromising the entire data chain. Any data discrepancies are automatically detected by the system, which allows companies to pinpoint in real-time any tampering attempts.
- Streamlined auditing – as an append-only structure, blockchain provides an indisputable record history of all the data that has been introduced in the system.
- Enhanced efficiency – log immutability enables information traceability and record history which can unlock new business momentum and new opportunities in analytics
- Ideal settlement ecosystem – data traceability, immutability, integrity, and a complete record history can reduce costly business-related disputes from months and even years to a couple of days.
In an environment of ever-expanding security threats, businesses and enterprises have witnessed an exponential increase in the volume and reliance on sensitive data. Giving this context, data-centered security tools and measures have become a primordial interest for companies seeking to safeguard their data as it transits over different networks, servers, and applications. In a race to provide a haven for company data, trade secrets, as well as customer and employee sensitive data, native database auditing tools, and database activity monitoring mechanisms have become a standard in the enterprise sector.
As the name implies, native database auditing tools are integrated by default in database systems but have proven to be substandard in ensuring the protection of large scale databases, as they degrade performance and fall short in meeting compliance and security requirements.
RPA activity log monitoring encompasses the mechanisms and policies that are used to observe, detect and alert in real-time, any fraudulent attempts on manipulating the data in a system, or other undesirable internal or external activities while determining the efficiency of security tools and data policies.
There are a plethora of database activity monitoring tools on the market, but in general, all of them perform the same functions and are usually graded based on their ability to:
- independently monitor and audit all database activity without hindering the overall performance of the system
- secure and store database activity logs in a separate environment, outside the monitored database
- collect and compare database activities from multiple database management systems
- monitor and audit the activity of software robots to prevent manipulation of data records or logs
By positioning itself as an additional layer between the UiPath Orchestrator and the client’s database system, Modex BCDB can enhance log activity monitoring procedures by providing in-depth tracking of software robots and database admin activities, record versioning and complex access control mechanisms. Since blockchain records and timestamps any modification made on the data, it provides a highly transparent environment not only for software robot logs but also for the user and database administrator activity logs. This feature significantly enhances audit procedures as it offers network beneficiaries a bird’s eye view over system activity.
Although often relegated to the sidelines, the use of log files and the implementation of a strong log management strategy is vital for ensuring the performance and stability of business applications. Companies need to expand their outlook and acknowledge that logs shouldn’t be viewed only as a mechanism for troubleshooting operational and availability problems, but as an important tool that can help propagate business growth. By analyzing the information collected in log files, businesses can implement a steady stream of improvements on their applications, achieve regulatory compliance with international standards, and detect and prevent security incidents in a timely fashion.
As it is with technology in general, there is always room for improvement. In the context of log files and log management, the stronger the storage medium, the better. Due to its inherent design choices and sum of beneficial characteristics, blockchain will usher in a new generation of immutable logs that will challenge our perception of audit processes and RPA monitoring through the unparalleled data traceability that it will unlock.
Modex is promoting the adoption of blockchain technology and strongly believes in a future built around blockchain. Modex offers fully integrated services designed to solve the last mile adoption problem of the blockchain and aims to make blockchain user-friendly for every single device or person. At Modex, we can innovate thanks to our incredible team of experts and we offer services for the entire blockchain technology ecosystem: Marketplace for Smart Contracts, community tools for developers, and blockchain as database services for enterprises.
In over two years, using cutting-edge technologies and with a clear strategy, Modex has evolved from the world’s first app store for blockchain into a complex ecosystem designed for developers’ needs and enterprises looking for blockchain solutions. Our mission is to spread and facilitate the adoption of blockchain into society and to solve real-world problems using this revolutionary technology.
Modex BCDB (Blockchain Database) is a middleware that fuses a blockchain with a database to create a structure that is easy to use and understand by developers with no prior knowledge in blockchain development. As a result, any developer who knows to work with a database system can operate with our solution, without needing to change their programming style or learn blockchain. For enterprises, Modex BCDB translates into enhanced data security, secure data sharing, streamlining of operations, and maximum protection against cyberattacks.