Cisco Security Device Manager “Just Works” Without the Guilt

Charlie SchlutingEver wanted to make something “just work” in a secure and reliable way? We, too, have often thought that common configurations should just be selectable. The Cisco Security Device Manager (SDM) is a Java-based Web application for managing Cisco devices. It implements many management features aside from just security-related tasks, and it’s quite interesting. In this article we’ll explain what it can do, and why you might want to take it for a test drive.

Network admins can use SDM to generate Cisco TAC approved configurations with the click of a few buttons. It’s not just limited to simple configurations either. Some tricky configuration tasks such as QoS and VPNs also become easier with the SDM because it ensure that configuration errors don’t exist. In short, you can deploy new devices and services much quicker by using the SDM.

As the name implies, SDM also intently focuses on security. A feature called “one-click lockdown” will set your router up as Cisco recommends—a good starting point for new routers. Also, the security audit function of the SDM will check your configuration and offer up a surprisingly large set of recommendations for hardening security. Many are things that most administrators don’t worry about, but with the SDM you can easily click “fix it” for each item after reading a description. There’s no reason to leave any possible vulnerability open when you have a quick, easy GUI manager pointing out what should change.

The SDM is also a management console that gives you a real-time look at your device. It provides a nice interface for viewing system logs, firewall logs, and even real-time performance statistics. You probably already gather performance data via SNMP for historical charting, but being able to see the real-time information while you’re logged into the device manager, where you can also make changes to the configuration, is quite convenient.

SDM is available for most IOS-based routers running 12.2 and above. It is installed by downloading a zip file from Cisco and copying it to the router’s flash memory. It’s then accessed from your Web browser (Firefox or IE required, as well as certain Java versions).

Making It Work

First, we must point out that using the SDM requires that you enable the HTTP server on your device. Yes, most Cisco security holes involve the Web server, and yes, a Web spider can easily DoS your router if it starts crawling Web pages and runs it out of RAM. Fortunately, both of these are negligible risks if you don’t allow access to the Web server from external networks. So first things first, enable: ip http secure-server, then configure ACLs to limit access properly.

After unzipping the file downloaded from Cisco, you can browse to https://$server/flash/sdm.shtml. Then login with a highly privileged account (level 15 is required). Up comes the Java applet, and you’re in! It couldn’t be easier than that.


At the top, you’ll see things like “Wizard,” “Advanced,” and “Monitor.” The left side lists things you can do in Wizard mode, and includes things such as VPN, firewall, and LAN configuration options.

At the top you’ll also see a “deliver” button, which is another way of saying “commit.” All changes made within the SDM are committed to flash and merged into the running configuration when deliver is clicked.

Various configuration menus exist, most of which make the task at hand slightly easier. For the advanced administrator, it means you can just select options quickly without remembering the specific syntax. More junior admins can make previously confusing concepts work with little effort as well, and then look at the configuration that was generated.

The neatest feature is the security audit. When run, it will gather information about your device and then provide a list of problems. A nice “fix it” check box next to each item can be clicked, or you can elect to choose “fix all.” Beware that Cisco’s idea of security is basically very locked down. Selecting “fix all,” for example, will disable SNMP. It’s true that exposing SNMP to the external world is unwise, but you really do need it enabled for internal access.

You can also configure ACLs and interface parameters from within the GUI. Interfaces can be configured completely via the SDM, and the really nice part is that it lists all available setting for the particular interface. You’ll see check boxes for every option, along with a nice description of each option. ACLs can also be configured, and the GUI presents a nice view of which services will be allowed, and in which direction, on each interface.

In advanced mode, you can easily change many things, including OSPF and BGP settings. It’s just a matter of a few clicks to add another OSPF process ID or add another network to an existing one. Being able to see networks each OSPF process advertises and configure passive interfaces in a single well laid out window is very exciting.

In Monitor mode, you can see which interfaces are down, how much CPU is being utilized, and how much RAM is being taken up by which processes. Very useful information, sure to put a smile on your face the first time you see it.

The SDM does not support everything you’d want to do on a router, but the majority of common tasks are covered. It’s definitely a time-saver, learning tool, and convenience crutch all in one. Don’t feel bad using the SDM; convenience always outweighs prestige, assuming you could work from the command line, too. Enable the “show changes before delivering config” option to see what commands the SDM is about to run, and you’ll avoid surprises and possibly learn something at the same time.

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