What Is Systems Hardening?

Author: Eminoe Eghosa

What is Systems Hardening?

The goal of systems hardening is to reduce security risk by eliminating potential attack vectors and condensing the system’s attack surface. Systems hardening is a collection of tools, techniques, and best practices to reduce vulnerability in technology applications, systems, infrastructure, firmware, and other areas

Systems hardening demands a methodical approach to audit, identify, close, and control potential security vulnerabilities.These are the types of system hardening activities:

Application hardening
Operating system hardening
Server hardening
Endpoint hardening
Database hardening
Network hardening

System hardening is needed throughout the lifecycle of technology, from initial installation, through configuration, maintenance, and support, to end-of-life decommissioning. Systems hardening is also a requirement of mandates such as PCI DSS and HIPAA, and is increasingly demanded by cyber insurers.

How to Harden a System?

You harden a system by reducing the “attack surface,” the combination of all the potential flaws and backdoors in technology can be exploited by threat actors. These vulnerabilities can occur in many ways. Common attack surface vulnerabilities include:
Weak passwords
Software, operating system (OS), and firmware vulnerabilities
Internet-facing assets
Shared databases and directories
Outdated or obsolete devices, data, or applications
Shadow IT

System hardening ensures that the risk of cyberattacks on organizations is greatly minimized.

System Hardening Standards & Best Practices
System hardening is an essential process throughout the lifecycle of technology and is a requirement mentioned in mandates such as PCI DSS and HIPAA. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Center for Internet Security (CIS) maintain standards for system hardening best practices. The Special Publication (SP) 800-123 by NIST mentions some best system hardening practices, including establishing a thorough system security plan, regularly patching and updating OS, implementing encryption, etc. Similarly, CIS’ Free Benchmarks offers useful tips to harden systems across the fleet.

A comprehensive system hardening strategy must include:
A system hardening standard (CIS, NIST, ENISA, etc.) to follow.
System hardening plan based on your organization’s needs.
System audits: Use a CIS benchmark-based security auditing tool to perform continuous audits and identify vulnerabilities in the systems.
Quick vulnerability patching: Use an automation-based vulnerability scanning and patching tool to identify missing patches, security updates, and misconfigurations.
Robust user permissions/access rules: Remove unnecessary accounts and privileges across the infrastructure.
A CIS certified compliance automation solution with compliance reporting and automatic drift remediation.

Benefits of Systems Hardening

Systems hardening requires continuous effort, but the diligence will pay off in substantive ways across your organization via:

Enhanced system functionality: Since fewer programs and less functionality means there is less risk of operational issues, misconfigurations, incompatibilities, and compromise.

Significantly improved security: A reduced attack surface translates into a lower risk of data breaches, unauthorized access, systems hacking, or malware.

Simplified compliance and auditability: Fewer programs and accounts coupled with a less complex environment means auditing the environment will usually be more transparent and straightforward


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