The Value of Vulnerability Assessments

With this out of sequence post we start a series of guest contributions. In these days of complexity in our everybay business of IT security, it is advisable to remember the foundations to protect your boxes from known threats. Here you are 7 down-to-Earth tips to secure your servers:

Do you know how your server measures up to potential threats? If you haven't performed a vulnerability
assessment on your servers yet, you may not be aware of issues that may leave you exposed to hackers and web-based attacks. A vulnerability assessment is the process of inventorying systems to check for possible security problems, and is an important part of system management and administration.

Vulnerabilities are weaknesses within a server or network that can be exploited in order to gain unauthorized access to a system, usually with the intention of performing malicious activities. The most common way to address many software-related vulnerabilities is through patches, which will usually be provided by the software manufacturer to correct security weaknesses or other bugs within a program.

However, there may be times when a patch is not available to address a possible security hole, and not all vulnerabilities are software-related to where a patch would be offered. This is where the concept of vulnerability assessments comes into play. Minimizing the attack surface and the effect that a potential hacking attempt could have on your system is a proactive way of effectively managing a server network.

Protecting your data vault
While there is no 100% way to protect your servers against vulnerabilities, in performing a vulnerability
assessment there are some steps you can take to minimize your risk:

Close unused ports
Ideally, your server network setup should include at least a network firewall and a server-level firewall to block undesired traffic. Undesired traffic would include traffic to ports that are unused or that correspond with services that shouldn't be publicly-available. These ports should be blocked in your firewall(s).

Don't over-share
If servers on your network are set up to share files with others, or to access network shares (such as file servers and other resources), make sure that those shares are configured to only allow access as appropriate. Hosts that don't participate in sharing resources should have that capability turned off completely.

Stop unnecessary services
The more services you have on your server, especially those that listen on network ports, the more avenues a hacker has to get into your system. This is especially true if you have services running that aren't being monitored or used, and therefore are unmaintained. Stop services that are not in use or necessary, and restrict access to others that are not intended for public access.

Remove unnecessary applications
Many operating systems come with a wide set of programs that may not be necessary for normal server
operations. Find out what software is installed on your system, and then determine which of those
applications are not necessary and remove them.

Change your passwords
Using default vendor passwords is more common than you may think – but since those passwords are usually publicly-known, they are often the first ones used during hacking attempts. Secure passwords should always be used in favor of the vendor defaults, and industry experts recommend changing them every 30-60 days.

Do some research
When software or new applications are installed, users often neglect the time needed to review their settings to ensure that everything is up to par with modern security standards. Take some time to research what you are installing and any security implications that it may have, including what features may be enabled that could introduce security problems, and what settings need to be adjusted.

Encrypt when possible
Many services and network hardware have the capability of encrypting traffic, which decreases the likelihood of information being “sniffed” out of your network. When transmitting sensitive data, such as passwords, always use an encrypted connection.

Regular vulnerability assessment is a vital part of maintaining system security. Not only will it help diminish the success or possible effects of malicious activity against your servers, but it's also a requirement for many modern compliance standards such as PCI DSS, HIPAA, SOX, GLB/GLBA, and other regulatory standards.

This guest post was provided by Vanessa Vasile on behalf of GFI Software Ltd. GFI is a leading software developer that provides a single source for network administrators to address their network security, content security and messaging needs. More information: GFI vulnerability assessment.

All product and company names herein may be trademarks of their respective owners.