What are the workload hardening best practices, and how can we use them to strengthen cyber defense?
Even the most casual observer can see that cyber threats are becoming more sophisticated – look at the daily headlines – and the importance of workload hardening shouldn’t be underestimated.
In simple terms, workload hardening is a crucial process that involves securing a system or application to reduce its susceptibility to cyber threats. Let’s consider the core concepts of workload hardening, its benefits, best practices, and how advanced security platforms support this critical cybersecurity process – because minimizing vulnerabilities, enhancing security, and protecting against potential cyber threats/unauthorized access has never been more important.
Workload Hardening Basics
Workload hardening is the process of fortifying the servers, applications, and computing environments against vulnerabilities. It encompasses a series of steps taken to minimize the attack surface by removing unnecessary calls and functions, applying security patches, and ensuring configurations adhere to industry standards and best practices.
Why is Hardening Workloads Important?
Every additional software feature or enabled service can be a potential entry point for attackers. By reducing these points of vulnerability with active system strengthening and application fortification, businesses can significantly lower the risk of a security breach, which, as the daily press will testify, can lead to data loss, financial damage, regulatory non-compliance, and irreparable PR fallout.
The Benefits of Hardening Workloads
- Enhanced Security Posture: Hardened workloads are less vulnerable to attacks due to reduced entry points for potential exploits.
- Regulatory Compliance: Many industries require hardened systems to meet compliance standards, protecting sensitive data from exposure.
- Operational Efficiency: Removing surplus features can reduce resource usage, leading to improved system performance. And we all love improved system performance.
There are several cybersecurity standards and regulations that commonly include requirements for workload hardening, of which the following are but a few:
- Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
- Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA).
- General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
- Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX)
- International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 27001.
- National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Framework.
- Center for Internet Security (CIS) Controls.
- Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC).
- Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA).
These regulations and standards call for various controls that typically include the hardening of workloads, systems, and all environments to reduce vulnerabilities and protect against unauthorized access or alterations.
The Path to Workload Hardening Success
Here are a few of the recognized best practices to follow for effective and relatively painless workload hardening:
- Least Privilege Principle: Ensure that systems, applications, and services run with the minimum level of privileges necessary under zero-trust management.
- Regular Patch Management: Always be patching. Proactively keep all systems and applications up to date with the latest security updates and fixes.
- Disable Unnecessary Services: Turn off any services and features that are not required for the workload to function.
- Use Security Templates: Leverage standardized security templates to ensure consistency across environments.
- Monitoring and Logging: Implement comprehensive monitoring to detect any unauthorized changes and maintain robust logging for forensic analysis.
- Configuration Management: Apply secure configuration settings as per industry benchmarks like those from the Center for Internet Security (CIS).
These can include:Password Policies: Enforce strong password creation policies such as minimum length, complexity requirements, and password expiration periods.
Access Controls: Implement least privilege access controls, ensuring users only have the access necessary for their roles.
Audit Logs: Enable detailed audit logging to record key events and changes, facilitating monitoring and forensic activities.
Secure Network Configurations: Harden network devices by disabling unnecessary ports and services and configuring appropriate firewall rules.
Data Protection: Encrypt sensitive data both at rest and in transit to protect it from unauthorized access or exposure.
Patch Management: Regularly update operating systems and applications with the latest patches to address known vulnerabilities.
Service and Application Configurations: Disable or remove unnecessary services and applications to reduce the potential attack surface.
Authentication Mechanisms: Use multi-factor authentication to add an additional layer of security for user logins and transactions.
Network Segmentation: Adopt microsegmentation best practices to enhance network security by isolating workloads and minimizing the lateral movement of threats within an IT environment.
User Account Management: Manage user accounts by ensuring that default accounts are disabled or changed and inactive accounts are removed or disabled.
Malware Defense: Implement and maintain anti-malware solutions with up-to-date signatures and definitions.
Secure System Files: Set proper permissions on system files and directories to prevent unauthorized changes.
Session Lockout Policies: Set automatic lockout for inactive sessions and enforce re-authentication.
Supporting The Workload Hardening Process
While the principles of workload hardening are well-established, the actual process can be complex and time-consuming. This is where modern security solutions come into play. They can offer automation, real-time monitoring, and sophisticated analytics to streamline the workload-hardening process.
Automated Patch Management
Security platforms can automate the process of patch management, ensuring that workloads are consistently up-to-date with the latest security patches, without manual intervention.
By continuously monitoring the system configurations, security solutions can immediately identify and alert on any deviations from the established security baseline, often known as configuration drift.
Advanced security solutions allow for the creation and enforcement of security policies. These policies can automate the application of hardening steps across the entire infrastructure, ensuring consistency and compliance.
Continuous Workload Monitoring
Continuous monitoring, in real-time, is a cornerstone of a hardened environment. By keeping a vigilant eye on workloads, security platforms can quickly detect and respond to potential security incidents.
Through the use of machine learning and behavior analytics, security solutions can recognize when a workload behaves differently from its baseline, which could indicate a security threat.
It Doesn’t Need to be Daunting
Workload hardening is an essential aspect of any cybersecurity strategy, and keeps organizations out of the news for all the wrong reasons. It requires a proactive approach to security and a commitment to continuous improvement. While it may seem daunting, but the right set of tools and practices can make workload hardening a manageable and integral part of any organization’s cybersecurity stack.