What is System Hardening? Tips and Best Practices

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Cybercrimes are increasing in scope, and with the numbers rising year by year, organizations continue to suffer losses to the tune of millions of dollars. Unfortunately, things seem to have gotten even worse during the pandemic. While the FBI reported a 400% rise in cybercrimes, the Accenture State of Cybersecurity Survey also noted that ransomware attacks rose 31% within one year from 2020 to 2021.

In such a scenario, protecting systems and data has become imperative for organizations. While there is no single way to protect you from all types of attacks, there is a way out with system hardening.

System hardening is the process that secures computing systems by reducing the attack surface to make them hack-proof. It consists of a set of tools and methodologies that removes the non-essential services, thus minimizing the security risks to your system as much as possible. 

This article will discuss system hardening, its benefits, the types, and the best practices for successfully implementing system hardening. 

What is System Hardening? 

Threat actors can bring an organization to its knees by exploiting vulnerabilities in the system, such as unpatched firmware, common password terms, improperly configured devices, improper user permissions, un-encrypted data, and others.  

System hardening identifies the potential security vulnerabilities existing in your system, scales down the attack surface, and redresses the security flaws to make the system more protected. By doing so, you leave bad actors with fewer options to hack into systems and initiate cyberattacks. Overall, with system hardening, you improve the operational efficiencies of your system and ensure they are in a compliant state at all times. 

 12 Tips for Mitigating Security Risks in IoT, BYOD-driven Enterprises

Benefits of System Hardening 

Greater Security: When done correctly, system hardening significantly reduces the risk of your enterprise falling prey to cyberattacks. Since system hardening minimizes the attack surface, it automatically lowers the risk of your system being subjected to cyberattacks and other malicious activities. 

Improved Performance: Working with limited but vital hardened systems and programs means you can monitor them better and ensure they function optimally. 

Long-term Savings: You’ll have fewer security incidents when your system is secured. Thus, over the long run, you’ll spend less money on disaster recovery efforts. Also, since hardening does away with superfluous software and hardware, you will spend less on maintenance.

Easy Audit: A smaller number of applications and programs translates to managing a less complex infrastructure, making auditing more straightforward and relatively more manageable. 

Types of System Hardening

System hardening not only protects a computer’s software applications but also the rest of the attack surface that an attacker uses to compromise your system.

There are several ways you can harden your system, including:

1. Server Hardening

Cybercriminals can often get unauthorized access to your systems through unsecured ports or unused services. Server hardening aims to reduce the server’s attack surface by removing unnecessary software and configuring the remaining software to maximize security.

Hardening measures include: 

  • Hardening servers before linking them to external networks
  • Deleting unnecessary ports and services
  • Patching and updating servers
  • Using strong password policies
  • Using AES encryption to protect sensitive information
  • Setting up superuser and administrative privileges

2. Operating System Hardening

Operating system (OS) hardening involves adding security features to your OS to make it more secure. While operating systems are secure by nature, hardening them makes them even more secure. OS hardening involves patching and applying advanced security measures to protect a server’s OS. 

Hardening an OS includes:

  • Deploying endpoint security systems and firewalls
  • Following CIS benchmarks for security best practices
  • Removing superfluous drivers
  • Enabling Secure Boot
  • Automatic updating of OS with patches and updates

3. Database Hardening

Database hardening involves securing the database management system to be free of vulnerabilities.

Examples of database hardening techniques include:

  • Routinely auditing systems for outdated accounts
  • Implementing role-based access control (RBAC) policies
  • Using the principle of least privilege
  • Regularly patch and update database software
  • Turning off unnecessary database services
  • Using strong database passwords

4. Network Hardening

Network devices that include SANs, routers, load balancers, and gateways, to name a few, are highly prone to cyberattacks, as they are most exposed to attack vectors. Network hardening refers to the usage of network protection techniques to protect the network from unauthorized users.  

Additional steps include:

  • Securing firewalls
  • Implementing strong password policies
  • Disabling unnecessary services or services not in use
  • Auditing access privileges
  • Encrypting network traffic

Using the techniques mentioned above and an intrusion detection/prevention system will decrease your network’s attack surface and help increase your organization’s security status.

5. Software Application Hardening

Cashing in on app vulnerabilities to secure unauthorized entry into systems is a common tactic used by cybercriminals. Application hardening involves implementing additional security measures to protect applications installed on your server from fraud techniques like reverse engineering, unauthorized tampering, or debugging.

Other examples of application hardening include: 

  • Obfuscating code, so attackers have a hard time deciphering the information
  • Allowing only whitelisted apps to run on the system
  • Using white boxing to uncover hidden flaws
  • Implementing polymorphism to make reverse engineering difficult for hackers 

Also read: Data Loss Prevention (DLP) Best Practices & Strategies

Best Practices 

Do Audits

Regularly conducting frequent and exhaustive audits of your existing security posture allows you to stay a step ahead of threat actors. Documenting all activities will prove helpful when investigating security incidents. Once you have identified the flaws with the help of an audit, you can use several security testing types like penetration testing, configuration scanning, vulnerability scanning to uncover threats and vulnerabilities and fix them.

Use Strong Passwords

Poor password security practices can expose your organization to brute force and phishing attacks. Having a strong password policy is crucial to your cybersecurity measures. Some steps you can follow for a robust password policy are:

  • Choose passwords of 8–10 characters with a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols
  • Use different passwords for different accounts
  • Update your system with the latest patches to reduce vulnerabilities
  • Use a two-factor authentication system for additional security

Use Industry-approved Guides

There are plenty of industry-approved guidelines available to guide you through your system hardening journey. For example, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), the Center for Internet Security (CIS), and National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) are recognized internationally for their guidelines on security standards. Evaluating your system hardening assessments against resources provided by these organizations can help you develop robust system hardening best practices for your organization.

Set up Role-based Access System

Another best practice is to restrict access to critical components of your infrastructure by providing access based on user roles. In a role-based access system, users are classified based on their roles, which ensures they access only that information that is absolutely essential for the effective fulfillment of their duties.

Regularly Update Third-party Software

The State of Software Security (SOSS) findings show that around one-third of apps have more security flaws in third-party libraries than the native codebase. However, despite this, few enterprises take it seriously. Third-party software often comes with many security risks; therefore, one of the best practices for system hardening involves updating them regularly to ensure you’re not caught off-guard by a glaring security hole.  

Creating Effective Cybersecurity with System Hardening

System hardening can be a complicated and long-drawn-out process, but it is vital for an effective cybersecurity policy. Putting in the effort to implement it is worth it, especially when considering the consequences of not having a solid cybersecurity strategy in place.

Read next: Top Privileged Access Management (PAM) Solutions 2021

Susnigdha Tripathy
Susnigdha Tripathy
Susnigdha Tripathy is a full-time writer and editor based in Singapore, and a regular contributor to Enterprise Networking Planet. She has over 10 years of experience writing, editing, and delivering exceptional content for a variety of international technology brands such as Virtasant, a cloud technology company, and Krista Software, a provider of intelligent automation solutions. She has also appeared in ServerWatch and other industry publications.

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