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Microsoft IIS 7 security best practices

Are you up to date with Microsoft IIS security best practices? Don't allow your enterprise to become vulnerable.

Microsoft's Internet Information Services (IIS) Web server has presented enterprises with more than its share of...

security problems over the years, including the infamous Code Red worm nearly a decade ago. A key security concern with IIS has always been the number of features that are automatically installed and enabled by default, such as scripting and virtual directories, many of which proved vulnerable to exploit and led to major security incidents.

With the release of IIS 6 a few years ago, a "lockdown by default" approach was introduced with several features either not being installed or installed but disabled by default. IIS 7, the newest iteration, goes even further. It's not even installed on Windows Server 2008 by default, and when it is installed, the Web server is configured to serve only static content with anonymous authentication and local administration, resulting in the simplest of Web servers and the smallest attack surface possible to would-be hackers.

IIS 7 is quite a different beast as compared with previous incarnations, and that's a good thing.

This is possible because IIS 7 is completely modularized. Let's briefly dig into why that is and how it enables a more secure product. Essentially administrators can select from more than 40 separate feature modules to completely customize their installation. By only installing the feature modules required for a particular website, administrators can greatly reduce the potential attack surface and minimize resource utilization.

Be aware, however, this is true only with a clean install. If you are upgrading your Windows OS and running an earlier version of IIS, all the metabase and IIS state information is gathered and persevered. Consequently, many unnecessary Web server features can be installed during an upgrade. Therefore, it is good practice for an organization to revisit its application dependencies on IIS functionality after an upgrade and uninstall of any unneeded IIS modules.

Fewer components also means there are fewer settings to manage and problems to patch as it's only necessary to maintain the subset of modules that are actually being used. This reduces downtime and improves reliability. Also, the IIS Management Console, with all its confusing tabs, has been replaced with a far more intuitive GUI tool, which makes it easier to visualize and understand how security settings are implemented. For example, if the component supporting basic authentication is not installed on your system, the configuration setting for it doesn't appear and confuse matters.

So what components are likely to be needed to run a secure IIS? The first six listed below will be required by any website running more than just static pages, while seven and eight will be necessary for anyone needing to encrypt data between the server and client, while shared configuration is useful when you have a Web farm and want each Web server in the farm to use the same configuration files and encryption keys:

  1. Authentication includes integrated Windows authentication, client certificate authentication and ASP.NET forms-based authentication, which lets you manage client registration and authentication at the application level, instead of relying on Windows accounts.

  2. URL Authorization, which integrates nicely with ASP.NET Membership and Role Management, grants or denies access to URLs within your application based on user names and roles so you can prevent users who are not members of a specific group from accessing restricted content.

  3. IPv4 Address and Domain Name Rules provide content access based on IP Address and Domain Name. The new property "allowUnlisted" makes it a lot easier to prevent access to all IP addresses unless they are listed.

  4. CGI and ISAPI restrictions allow you to enable and disable dynamic content in the form of CGI files (.exe) and ISAPI extensions (.dll).

  5. Request filters incorporate the functionality of the UrlScan tool restricting the types of HTTP requests that IIS 7 will process by rejecting requests containing suspicious data. Like Apache's mod_rewrite, it can use regular expressions to block attacks or modify requests based on verb, file extension, size, namespace and sequences.

  6. Logging now provides real-time state information about application pools, processes, sites, application domains and running requests as well as the ability to track a request throughout the complete request-and-response process.

  7. Server Certificates

  8. Secure Sockets Layer

  9. Shared Configuration

Other features that enhance the overall security of IIS 7 are new built-in user and group accounts dedicated to the Web server. This enables a common security identifier (SID) to be used across machines, which simplifies access control list management, and application pool sandboxing. Server administrators meanwhile have complete control over what settings are configurable by application administrators, while allowing them to make any configuration changes directly in their application without having administrative access to the server.

IIS 7 is quite a different beast as compared with previous incarnations, and that's a good thing. It has been designed and built along classic security principles and it gives Windows-based organizations a Web server that can be more securely configured and managed than ever before. There may still not be enough from a security perspective to sway Linux and Apache shops to change to IIS anytime soon, but Microsoft has definitely narrowed the security gap between them. It will take administrators a while to get use to the new modular format and administrative tools and tasks. The training and testing time will be worth it though as it is an OS and framework that administrators are familiar with.

About the author:
Michael Cobb CISSP-ISSAP, CLAS, is a renowned security author with more than 15 years of experience in the IT industry. He is the founder and managing director of Cobweb Applications, a consultancy that provides data security services delivering ISO 27001 solutions. He co-authored the book IIS Security and has written numerous technical articles for leading IT publications.

This was last published in October 2010

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