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Faster and Safer Database Queries Using the <CFQUERYPARAM> Tag

Databases and database access are fundamental elements of just about every ColdFusion application ever created. Database access makes applications real and live and dynamic and valuable, but it's also a major source of performance problems and a primary potential security target. In this article I discuss an oft overlooked tag, <CFQUERYPARAM>, designed to help address both potential problems.

Understanding <CFQUERYPARAM>
Database access (queries, insertions, updates, etc.) occurs by issuing SQL statements - plain text strings containing combinations of special statements, keywords, clauses, operators, and more. These strings are passed to the DBMS for processing (usually via a database driver) and are sometimes referred to as being ad hoc.

So far so good. But this is where it gets a little complicated. There are an infinite number of possible SQL statements (when you take into account the values passed to them), so once a DBMS receives a SQL statement, the DBMS must first analyze it to determine if it's valid, and then work out the best way to process it. Often, the process of parsing, validating, and analyzing the query (the term query refers to all SQL queries, even if they're not SELECT query operations) takes longer than processing the query itself.

Once the query is validated and analyzed, the DBMS tries to cache it so that the process won't need to be repeated unnecessarily. Simple queries without dynamic elements, like the following one, can be cached safely and easily:

SELECT *
FROM Customers

However, queries containing other clauses, like the one that follows, are a little harder to cache. After all, with an infinite number of variations it wouldn't be practical for the DBMS to cache them all:

SELECT *
FROM Customers
WHERE CustID=100

To cache this type of query the DBMS needs to know which part of the statement is dynamic and which is not, and that's where <CFQUERYPARAM> comes into play.

<CFQUERYPARAM> is a tag used within SQL statements (inside your <CFQUERY>). It replaces parameters (or any passed values) with placeholders that indicate the dynamic portions of a statement. For example:

<CFQUERY ...>
SELECT *
FROM Customers
WHERE CustID=<CFQUERYPARAM
CFSQLTYPE="CF_SQL_INTEGER"
VALUE="100">
</CFQUERY>

The <CFQUERYPARAM> tag replaces the passed value (100), and does two things: it defines the type of data that will be passed here and then passes the value to be used.

The actual SQL generated by this query will differ from DBMS to DBMS, but that's somewhat irrelevant. The important thing is that the DBMS knows that the query containing this block of text won't change (and can therefore be cached):

SELECT *
FROM Customers
WHERE CustID=

In DBMSese these variable portions of SQL statements, the ones bookmarked with <CFQUERYPARAM>, are known as bind parameters.

Specifying SQL Types
The data type passed to CFSQLTYPE tells the DBMS to expect data of a particular type. The supported types are:

 

  • CF_SQL_BIGINT
  • CF_SQL_BIT
  • CF_SQL_CHAR
  • CF_SQL_DATE
  • CF_SQL_DECIMAL
  • CF_SQL_DOUBLE
  • CF_SQL_FLOAT
  • CF_SQL_IDSTAMP
  • CF_SQL_INTEGER
  • CF_SQL_LONGVARCHAR
  • CF_SQL_MONEY
  • CF_SQL_MONEY4
  • CF_SQL_NUMERIC
  • CF_SQL_REAL
  • CF_SQL_REFCURSOR
  • CF_SQL_SMALLINT
  • CF_SQL_TIME
  • CF_SQL_TIMESTAMP
  • CF_SQL_TINYINT
  • CF_SQL_VARCHAR

    CFSQLTYPE is an optional at-tribute, but as a rule you should always specify an explicit type. The default value is CF_SQL_CHAR (a string) and is frequently not what you need.

    Increased Performance
    As already implied, the first benefit of using <CFQUERYPARAM> is increased performance. If the DBMS doesn't have to parse, analyze, and validate as much text, it'll be able to respond to requests quicker and more efficiently.

    It's common knowledge that stored procedures execute faster than ad hoc SQL statements. Part of the reason for this is that DBMSs cache the compiled stored procedures so they won't need to be processed repeatedly and unnecessarily. By using <CFQUERYPARAM> you get some of the benefits of stored procedures without having to write one.

    If you're interested in determining what the actual performance benefit is, turn on ColdFusion debugging output and try the queries both ways. As the DBMS load increases, so should the benefit of using bind parameters.

    Protecting from Malicious URL Tampering
    Note: As a rule I'm staunchly opposed to documenting security issues and how they're used, but as this particular vulnerability has been documented extensively (there are even Knowledge Base articles about it at www.macromedia.com) I'm making an exception this time.

    Another benefit to using <CF-QUERYPARAM> is security against malicious URL tampering. Consider the following example, an adaptation of the one used previously:

    SELECT *
    FROM Customers
    WHERE CustID=#URL.custid#

    Here a WHERE clause is populated dynamically using a URL parameter. This type of code is common and popular, and is used any time data drilldown of any kind is used. If the URL was:

    http://domain/path/file.cfm?custid=100

    the resulting SQL statement would be:

    SELECT *
    FROM Customers
    WHERE CustID=100

    But what if someone tampered with that URL so that it read:

    http://domain/path/file.cfm?custid=100;DELETE+Customers

    The resulting SQL would be:

    SELECT *
    FROM Customers
    WHERE CustID=100;
    DELETE Customers

    Depending on the DBMS being used, the <CFQUERY> could end up executing two statements - the SELECT and then DELETE Customers (which would promptly delete all data from the Customers table).

    Scared? You should be. As I mentioned earlier SQL statements are not just used for queries. They're also used to create and drop tables, create user logins, change DBMS passwords, set security levels, manage scheduled events, even create and drop entire databases. All features supported by your DBMS may be accessible this way.

    Before I go further I must point out that this is not a ColdFusion vulnerability; it's not even a bug or a hole. This is truly a feature - many DBMSs do indeed allow queries to contain more than a single operation; this is legal and by design.

    Of course, you should always be checking parameters before passing them to your DBMS. Passing URL parameters through unchecked is programmatic suicide. As such, you should already be using code like this:

    <CFIF IsDefined("URL.CustID")
    AND NOT IsNumeric(URL.CustID)>
    ... throw an error or something ...
    </CFIF>

    But <CFQUERYPARAM> provides one extra line of defense. If the previous tampered URL was passed to the following query, the value would be rejected and an error thrown. The CFSQLTYPE value also doubles as a datatype validation check, and values that don't match the type are rejected. Using <CFQUERYPARAM> you can secure yourself against one of the oldest and best-known hacks in the book.

    Note: This type of hack is one of the reasons you should never configure ColdFusion to use administrative accounts for database access (the SA account, for example). As a rule, the login specified in the data source definition should have just the access it needs and nothing more. If administrative access is not available to a login, then some of the more dangerous commands wouldn't be executable.

    Summary
    <CFQUERYPARAM> is not a new tag; it's been in ColdFusion since version 4.5. However, many developers have yet to use <CFQUERYPARAM>, primarily because they don't understand it. Most good DBMSs (including SQL Server and Oracle) support the use of bind parameters, but some don't. Be sure to read the docs on this tag, and then start plugging it into any new code and even existing apps. With increased performance and improved security you'd be remiss not to.

  • © 2008 SYS-CON Media Inc.