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Windows Server hardening still weighs heavily on admins

Windows Server hardening procedures drew renewed interest following the rash of ransomware outbreaks this year. See what tips on server safeguards got the most views in 2017.

In these heady times of software-defined technologies and container virtualization, many IT professionals continue to grapple with an issue that has persisted since the advent of the server: security.

Ever since businesses discovered the advantages of sharing resources in a client-server arrangement, there have also been intruders attempting to bypass the protections at the perimeter of the network. These attackers angle for any weak point -- outdated protocols, known vulnerabilities in unpatched systems -- or go the direct route and deliver a phishing email in the hopes that a user will click on a link to unleash a malicious payload onto the network.

Windows Server hardening remains top of mind for most admins. Just as there are many ways to infiltrate a system, there are multiple ways to blunt those attacks. The following compilation highlights the most-viewed tutorials on SearchWindowsServer in 2017, several of which addressed the ways IT can reduce exposure to a server-based attack.

5. Manage Linux servers with a Windows admin's toolkit

While not every Windows administrator is comfortable away from the familiarity of point-and-click GUI management tools, more in IT are taking cues from the world of DevOps to implement automation routines.

It took a while, but Microsoft eventually realized that spurning Linux also steered away potential customers. About 40% of the workloads on the Azure platform run some variation of Linux, Microsoft is a Platinum member of the Linux Foundation, and the company released SQL Server for Linux in September.

Many Windows shops now have a sprinkling of servers that use the open source operating system, and those administrators must figure out the best way to manage and monitor those Linux workloads. The cross-platform PowerShell Core management and automation tool promises to address this need, but until the offering reaches full maturity, this tip provides several options to help address the heterogeneous nature of many environments.

4. Disable SMB v1 for further Windows Server hardening

Unpatched Windows systems are tempting targets for ransomware and the latest malware du jour, Bitcoin miners.

A layered security approach helps, but it's even better to pull out threat enablers by the roots to blunt future attacks. Long before the spate of cyberattacks in early 2017 that hinged on an exploit in Server Message Block (SMB) v1 that locked up thousands of Windows machines around the world, administrators had been warned to disable the outdated protocol. This tip details the techniques to search for signs of SMB v1 and how to extinguish it from the data center.

3. Microsoft LAPS puts a lock on local admin passwords

For the sake of convenience, many Windows shops will use the same administrator password on each machine. While this practice helps administrators with the troubleshooting or configuration process, it's also tremendously insecure. If that credential falls into the wrong hands, an intruder can roam through the network until they obtain ultimate system access -- domain administrator privileges. Microsoft introduced its Local Administrator Password Solution (LAPS) in 2015 to help Windows Server hardening efforts. This explainer details the underpinnings of LAPS and how to tune it for your organization's needs.

2. Chocolatey sweetens software installations on servers

While not every Windows administrator is comfortable away from the familiarity of point-and-click GUI management tools, more in IT are taking cues from the world of DevOps to implement automation routines. Microsoft offers a number of tools to install applications, but a package manager helps streamline this process through automated routines that pull in the right version of the software and make upgrades less of a chore. This tip walks administrators through the features of the Chocolatey package manager, ways to automate software installations and how an enterprise with special requirements can develop a more secure deployment method.

1. Reduce risks through managed service accounts

Most organizations employ service accounts for enterprise-grade applications such as Exchange Server or SQL Server. These accounts provide the necessary elevated authorizations needed to run the program's services. To avoid downtime, quite often administrators either do not set an expiration date on a service account password or will use the same password for each service account. Needless to say, this procedure makes less work for an industrious intruder to compromise a business. A managed service account automatically generates new passwords to remove the need for administrative intervention. This tip explains how to use this feature to lock down these accounts as part of IT's overall Windows Server hardening efforts.

This was last published in December 2017

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