A Guide to System Hardening

Posted on by Marho Atumu | Updated:
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Information technology (IT) systems are the backbone of many modern business enterprises. These include software applications, network solutions, and server hardware used to maintain operations and deliver value to customers. Therefore, protecting them from the ever-present threat of cyberattacks should be a priority for these organizations. System hardening is just one of the ways to ensure the operational efficiency of these systems.

What is System Hardening?

System hardening is the process of configuring an IT asset to reduce its exposure to security vulnerabilities. That exposure is commonly referred to as an attack surface, and it is the sum of all the potential flaws and entry points that attackers can use to compromise a system. System hardening aims to make this attack surface as small as possible, making it difficult for malicious actors to compromise the asset.

If we were to use a simple example of a file on a computer as an asset, then the system hardening process would include steps like

  • File encryption.
  • Password protection.
  • Automating system log-off.
  • Improved physical security.
  • Restricted network and physical access.

All these steps will increase the difficulty of gaining unauthorized access to the file.

There are different types of IT assets, and the process of hardening them varies. But, regardless of the asset, the goal of eliminating vulnerabilities and mitigating security risks remains the same.

Types of System Hardening

Since most network infrastructures contain various IT assets (both hardware and software), it would stand to reason that there are different types of system hardening. Security hardening can occur across multiple network areas, and these individual “hardened” components come together to create your system’s overall “shield” against security vulnerabilities.

The main types of system hardening include the following:

  • Operating System (OS) hardening.
  • Server hardening.
  • Endpoint hardening.
  • Network hardening.
  • Database hardening.
  • Application hardening.

While the basic principles and end goals of hardening remain the same, each particular type of hardening requires its own specific tools and techniques. But, whether it’s server hardening or hardening an operating system, all types are equally important at every stage of your IT assets’ lifecycles. In fact, system hardening is considered so vital that it may be required by healthcare organizations like HIPAA or for retail industries that must follow the payment card industry (PCI) data security standards. 

Why is System Hardening Important?

The increased dependence on IT infrastructure has also increased the number of hackers looking to infiltrate these systems for nefarious purposes. Over a decade ago, studies showed that a hacking attack occurred every 39 seconds, and in the years since, that rate of attacks can only have gone up.

More recent studies point to a 31% increase in security breaches, with the average global cost of security breaches jumping to $4.35 million in 2022.

In the face of this overwhelming wave of cyberattacks, it’s not a question of if you will face an intrusion attempt but when. 

As a result, businesses need to take the necessary steps to protect themselves and their customers from attacks. Hardening systems should be an essential part of these steps necessary for an effective defense against cyberattacks.

Beyond protecting your data and infrastructure, industry best practices and government regulations regarding information security can only be satisfied by applying the system hardening process to your infrastructure.

What are the Benefits of System Hardening?

Greater System Security

Improved security posture is the goal of system hardening, and if done correctly, it significantly reduces the risk of you becoming a victim of common security threats. This is because cybersecurity experts constantly update best practices for system hardening to match emerging threats and vulnerabilities.

Improved System Efficiency

Your infrastructure can experience a boost in performance due to installing security patches, system updates, and disabling unnecessary processes while following system hardening guidelines.

Long-Term Cost Savings

Enhancing your system’s security levels through system hardening means you’re less likely to experience incidents that compromise your security. As a result, you save money that would have been spent on disaster recovery efforts in the event of a security breach.

Regulatory Compliance

Most governments and industries recognize the growing threat of cyberattacks and their impact on citizens/stakeholders. As a result, they have made it mandatory for organizations operating within their jurisdiction to comply with regulations based on information security and data protection best practices.

These best practices also serve as the foundation for most system hardening guidelines, which means you can effortlessly kill two birds with one stone.

7 steps to harden a server

10 System Hardening Best Practices Checklist

While information technology infrastructure varies based on organizational requirements and use cases, the technologies used to build these systems are common across industries. Whether it’s because of great marketing or the quality of these products/services, this standardization has made it possible to create security configuration guidelines for each technology. These guidelines, developed by cybersecurity experts, provide a system hardening checklist that organizations can apply to each technology item that makes up their infrastructure.

These system hardening standards are free from bodies like the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Center for Internet Security. Each repository consists of a list of vendors, their technology offerings, and the benchmarks for safeguarding each listed technology. 

In addition, the benchmark documents contain recommendations and detailed instructions for implementing security measures based on use cases. In this format, a security professional can download the appropriate documentation for their infrastructure and build a checklist of hardening steps specific to their technology stack.

Usually, a hardening checklist for securing this type of server would include the following steps:

  1. Prioritize critical IT assets, then work through your network inventory list.
  2. Restrict access to admin accounts, disable guest accounts, institute account lockout policies, and implement a strict password policy for all users that includes a two-factor authentication system.
  3. Regularly install updates and patches for the operating system and third-party applications, including antivirus software. Automate this process when possible to avoid human error.
  4. Configure system alerts.
  5. Leverage cybersecurity tools like penetration tests, system configuration management, vulnerability scans, etc., to assess your current protection level on a regular basis.
  6. Make use of practical cybersecurity standards like the NIST CSF to ensure your system complies with cybersecurity parameters.
  7. Implement a firewall and routinely audit and update its rules. Secure remote users and access points and encrypt network traffic.
  8. Restrict access to critical components of your infrastructure based on user roles and monitor closely to prevent unauthorized access to core systems.
  9. Document all activity, including logging and monitoring notifications for system-level events, access logs, errors, and detected suspicious activities. 
  10. Remove unnecessary features or services and close unused network ports to eliminate potential entry points for hackers and reduce the burden on system resources.

With a better understanding of what system hardening is and best practices, you can start thinking about how to measure performance. Many IT professionals are curious about the proper benchmarks they should use to assess the viability of their system hardening procedures. But, it may seem somewhat overwhelming to start from scratch and choose your own system hardening KPIs from within your own internal system.

Fortunately, a framework has already been established to help IT technicians and system admins measure the success of their system hardening efforts. The Center for Internet Security (CIS) has developed benchmarks and best practices to help ensure the positive impacts of your hardening efforts – whether you’re hardening security, a server, or anything in between.

Get a Hardened and Secure Cloud With Liquid Web

Despite the importance of system hardening, not all organizations have the technical capacity to effectively implement a system hardening checklist for their infrastructure. This is why switching to a cloud-based option can be the perfect solution since a fully managed provider can help with system hardening. 

Liquid Web offers a suite of fully managed, cloud-based solutions for businesses of all sizes, including server hardening with Server Secure Plus, and has The Most Helpful Humans In Hosting® available around the clock to offer you the support you need for a hassle-free experience. Contact us today.

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About the Author

Marho Atumu

Marho is a Community Support agent at The Events Calendar and enjoys helping people discover how information technology can provide great solutions to their everyday problems. His career in IT can clearly be traced to his love for all things science fiction.

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