Server security is as important as network security because servers often hold a great deal of an organization's vital information. If a server is compromised, all of its contents may become available for the cracker to steal or manipulate at will. The following sections detail some of the main issues.
A full installation of Red Hat Enterprise Linux contains up to 1200 application and library packages. However, most server administrators do not opt to install every single package in the distribution, preferring instead to install a base installation of packages, including several server applications.
A common occurrence among system administrators is to install the operating system without paying attention to what programs are actually being installed. This can be problematic because unneeded services may be installed, configured with the default settings, and possibly turned on. This can cause unwanted services, such as Telnet, DHCP, or DNS, to run on a server or workstation without the administrator realizing it, which in turn can cause unwanted traffic to the server, or even, a potential pathway into the system for crackers. Refer To Chapter 5 Server Security for information on closing ports and disabling unused services.
Most server applications that are included in a default installation are solid, thoroughly tested pieces of software. Having been in use in production environments for many years, their code has been thoroughly refined and many of the bugs have been found and fixed.
However, there is no such thing as perfect software and there is always room for further refinement. Moreover, newer software is often not as rigorously tested as one might expect, because of its recent arrival to production environments or because it may not be as popular as other server software.
Developers and system administrators often find exploitable bugs in server applications and publish the information on bug tracking and security-related websites such as the Bugtraq mailing list (http://www.securityfocus.com) or the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) website (http://www.cert.org). Although these mechanisms are an effective way of alerting the community to security vulnerabilities, it is up to system administrators to patch their systems promptly. This is particularly true because crackers have access to these same vulnerability tracking services and will use the information to crack unpatched systems whenever they can. Good system administration requires vigilance, constant bug tracking, and proper system maintenance to ensure a more secure computing environment.
Refer to Chapter 3 Security Updates for more information about keeping a system up-to-date.
Administrators who fail to patch their systems are one of the greatest threats to server security. According to the System Administration Network and Security Institute (SANS), the primary cause of computer security vulnerability is to "assign untrained people to maintain security and provide neither the training nor the time to make it possible to do the job." This applies as much to inexperienced administrators as it does to overconfident or amotivated administrators.
Some administrators fail to patch their servers and workstations, while others fail to watch log messages from the system kernel or network traffic. Another common error is to leave unchanged default passwords or keys to services. For example, some databases have default administration passwords because the database developers assume that the system administrator changes these passwords immediately after installation. If a database administrator fails to change this password, even an inexperienced cracker can use a widely-known default password to gain administrative privileges to the database. These are only a few examples of how inattentive administration can lead to compromised servers.
Even the most vigilant organization can fall victim to vulnerabilities if the network services they choose are inherently insecure. For instance, there are many services developed under the assumption that they are used over trusted networks; however, this assumption fails as soon as the service becomes available over the Internet — which is itself inherently untrusted.
One category of insecure network services are those that require unencrypted usernames and passwords for authentication. Telnet and FTP are two such services. If packet sniffing software is monitoring traffic between the remote user and such a service usernames and passwords can be easily intercepted.
Inherently, such services can also more easily fall prey to what the security industry terms the man-in-the-middle attack. In this type of attack, a cracker redirects network traffic by tricking a cracked name server on the network to point to his machine instead of the intended server. Once someone opens a remote session to the server, the attacker's machine acts as an invisible conduit, sitting quietly between the remote service and the unsuspecting user capturing information. In this way a cracker can gather administrative passwords and raw data without the server or the user realizing it.
Another category of insecure services include network file systems and information services such as NFS or NIS, which are developed explicitly for LAN usage but are, unfortunately, extended to include WANs (for remote users). NFS does not, by default, have any authentication or security mechanisms configured to prevent a cracker from mounting the NFS share and accessing anything contained therein. NIS, as well, has vital information that must be known by every computer on a network, including passwords and file permissions, within a plain text ACSII or DBM (ASCII-derived) database. A cracker who gains access to this database can then access every user account on a network, including the administrator's account.
By default, Red Hat turns off such services. However, since administrators often find themselves forced to use these services, careful configuration is critical. Refer to Chapter 5 Server Security for more information about setting up services in a safe manner.