In today’s digital age, cybersecurity has become critical for all businesses, big and small. A strong and reliable cybersecurity posture is more important than ever as organisations face a rapidly evolving threat landscape that continuously brings unprecedented risks. But given that cybersecurity is a broad topic that most business owners find difficult to understand, they may not recognise the value of investing more into their defences until it is too late.
As such, it is essential to still put in the time and effort to learn about one’s IT infrastructure to allow for more effective discussions and decision-making when interacting with IT teams. Thankfully, IT security is a layered practice, with system hardening being a good start to becoming familiar with the cybersecurity approach. Understanding system hardening provides the groundwork necessary to achieve a secure IT system, as we will cover below.
Understanding System Hardening
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines system hardening as the process of eliminating all potential means of attack by shutting down non-essential services and patching vulnerabilities. It can essentially be thought of as the methods, tools, and best practices that reduce an organisation’s attack surface (defined as the combination of flaws and backdoors on a network) through their software, hardware, and data systems.
Its main goal is to minimise the threat profile and vulnerable areas of systems, which involves securing its software, firmware, and other relevant elements to prevent a potential compromise of the whole IT infrastructure. This also entails identifying, remediating, and auditing security vulnerabilities within the organisation, including needless system applications, ports, permissions, user accounts, and other features. As a result, businesses restrict as many entry points into their critical infrastructure as possible, leaving attackers with fewer opportunities to exploit. Some of the most common vulnerabilities include:
- Poor or improper configuration of IT assets and security tools
- Unpatched software and firmware
- Default passwords or credentials
The Various Types of System Hardening
System hardening mainly secures software applications but also covers firmware, databases, and other critical elements that can be exploited. It is vital to note that the types of system hardening below are universally broad and translate well across various computer and server configurations, but the tools and methods used to achieve a hardened state vary widely.
1. Software application hardening
Application hardening solely focuses on implementing updates or supplementary security measures to secure standard and third-party applications running on company servers, such as web browsers, spreadsheet programs, and any other custom software application. At its basic level, application hardening means updating existing application code or implementing a new one, as well as adding extra software-based security measures to improve security in the server.
Some examples include, but are not limited to:
- Automatic patching of all applications on the server
- Implementing software-based data encryption
- Switching to CPUs with Intel Software Guard Extensions (SGX) support
- Using an intrusion detection system (IDS) and intrusion prevention system (IPS)
2. Server hardening
Unlike software application hardening, which solely focuses on securing the individual applications on the server, the scope of server hardening covers the entire server system by design. It is a general hardening process that includes protecting data, components, ports, permissions, and functions of a server via advanced security measures at the software, firmware, and hardware level, which includes:
- Implementing MFA
- Using AES encryption or self-encrypting drives to protect and conceal critical data
- Updating and patching the server’s operating system
- Using memory encryption, firmware resilience technology, next-generation antivirus, and other advanced solutions specific to the server operating system
3. Database hardening
Database hardening covers the databases themselves, the database management system (DBMS) used, and the data stored within. Database hardening generally involves three main processes: controlling and limiting user access and privileges, disabling unnecessary database functions and services, and encrypting database resources and information.
4. Network hardening
Network hardening focuses on improving the security of the communication infrastructure of the servers and computer systems within a network. Implementing IPS and IDS software-based solutions are the two main ways to achieve network hardening, as these can automatically monitor and detect abnormal activity on a network and block unauthorised access.
Using network hardening techniques—such as disabling unnecessary ports, properly configuring firewalls, and auditing rules and access privileges, to name a few—alongside IPS and IDS significantly reduces the overall attack surface of a given network and makes it more resilient against network-based attacks.
5. Operating system hardening
Operating system hardening is similar to application hardening, given that operating systems are still a form of hardware. However, the difference is that the former focuses on securing the base software that provides permissions to said applications on the servers. OS hardening is typically best achieved by automatically installing patches, updates, and service packs released by the operating system developer the moment they go live to ensure protection against recently discovered security gaps and prevent attackers from exploiting them first.
System hardening is an integral aspect of improving an organisation’s IT posture. Still, given that it is a broad and often complex process, it typically requires a good IT security team and, more often than not, the expertise of managed service providers as well.
When it comes to something as crucial as your company’s IT systems, it is always recommended to rely on the experts like our team at TYPENT. As a leading provider of IT outsourcing in Singapore, we are the name you can trust for many types of IT support services critical to smooth daily operations, such as network support services, network integration, server virtualisation, firewall solutions in Singapore and more.
To learn more about our solutions, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at any time.