Monday, July 21, 2008

Field lessons - Securing a Linux server

There is this old saying which goes like :

"Linux is safe enough to keep it vanilla. Anything you add weakens it's security."

Okay, this is not an actual popular saying, but since most Linux server I saw in my career were configured in conformity to this piece of wisdom (sic), I decided to share some experience with basic and mandatory security measures to add on a Linux server... I'm just sooo tired of fixing broken servers that have been hacked.

There is a simple suite of programs to install and you'll be at the very least secured against kiddies and the like. Here it goes.

Securing the OS

Most of the time, the piece of software that was hacked was the OS itself. Not because there are awful flaws in Linux (or just any OS as a matter of fact), but because simple rules were not respected. How many of you who have configured servers can certify that they are protected against brute force attacks ? How many are protected against DoS attacks ? Linux, nor any other OS I've seen so far (correct me as you wish...) don't come with DoS or BF detection. Having a secured SSH access is mandatory these days, but what's the point of setting passwords when a simple brute force attack will break it.

Here are some solutions. The Advanced Policy Firewall (APF) is a simple Linux firewall that uses the iptables utility to create firewall rules on your system. Why APF and not iptables alone ? Because it integrated with a DoS detection tool and Brute Force Detection (BFD). The DoS tool will detect any Denial of Service attacks while BFD will monitor incoming connections and ban any IP who breaks easy to setup access throttling rules All these tools are free and compatible with most Linux flavors. Try em out! There are many more available from R-fx Networks, the company that maintains them.

As for the setup instructions, google for them; as always. There are many nifty tutorials out there and I won't copy them here :P

Web Applications Security

What if I told you that there is a generic way of applying a minimum security level to all your web applications at the OS level, thus simplifying the life of anyone who administers web servers. You might get frustrated by the fact that you didn't know this at the time you got hacked. You might even wonder how wonderful this would be for your web hosting server.

Well, I'm doing it.

I'll say it.

Ready ? There it is.


Okay, this was the hard part. Now it will be much easier. It's a simple Apache HTTPD module that you add to your web server configuration and it will validate all requests against a set of nifty threat detectors. It uses regular expression to protect your applications against overflows, injections and whatever might be dangerous for them.

There is even a console available to monitor many installations and keep an eye out for alerts.

Easy to understand, easy to install. As always, google has all your answers.

The bottom line

The lesson to remember is that these tools take half a day of work to setup and they will save you sooo much trouble in the future that it is worthless to discuss the pertinence of using them. The tools are out there, for free. You'd be a fool not to use them.


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