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What is IIS Security

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By Joe Lima (Port 80 Software, Inc.)


The subject of this new column, IIS Security, is bound to occasion some chuckling in the server room. More than one sys admin will read it and think: "IIS Security -- isn't that a contradiction in terms?"

It is possible to achieve and maintain an adequate level of security for Internet Information Services (IIS), Microsoft's Web server platform. If I didn't think this, I wouldn't have agreed to write a regular column on the topic.

This is not to say that IIS security is a trivial task. There are plenty of challenges involved in making and keeping any Web server secure. Hence this column, which I hope will be a useful place for anyone interested in the topic to catch up on Microsoft IIS security fundamentals, keep abreast of the latest issues, and anticipate future challenges.

Having said that, there is no denying that IIS has not always been as secure (or securable) as it needed to be, has become, and is becoming. That is where the reputation comes from, making the phrase "IIS Security" a source of potential amusement for harried sys admins. On balance, IIS' reputation has long since outrun reality here, but that reputation is fed by a real legacy of sub-par security. To inaugurate this column, we will take a hard look at the sources of IIS' legacy of insecurity, the reasons for its persistence, and the way progress against this perception has been made.

A Legacy of Trust

The first thing to consider is the platform on which IIS emerged and to which it has remained bound. The first widespread use of IIS to host Web sites began with IIS 4.0 on Windows NT Server 4.0. But although NT 4.0 was a substantial improvement over previous versions of the Windows OS, it never completely overcame their influence. In particular, the OS had to contend with the fact that Windows had taken off as a server for fundamentally trusted environments -- LAN environments rather than WAN environments. In effect, NT was a desktop OS that matured to the point where it became capable of working the server end of the client/server equation.

Raised in a Sheltered LAN

When it came to Web or HTTP servers, NT's LAN heritage gave IIS obvious advantages as an intranet host in shops with Windows (or a mixture of Windows and MAC) on the desktop. These same advantages remain IIS selling points to this day: ease of configuration, multiple administration options, and abundant out-of-box functionality. But this also meant that IIS got into the HTTP business primarily in an environment where the trade-off between functionality and security could almost always be safely decided in favor of the former. Because of this, IIS security features had taken a backseat early on, and the urgency for improving them was relatively low. A good example of this is the long IIS dependence on the FAT file system and its lack of real access control capabilities.

Another aspect of this same LAN bias was IIS's ability to serve as a general purpose server rather than a Web server per se. This too was in line with the kind of role flexibility expected of NT boxes. In a small shop, a single NT box might be file server, database server, mail server, and intranet server -- all in one. You can see this bias toward multiple roles in IIS itself with its integrated HTTP, SMTP, FTP, and NNTP components, all under the IIS administration services umbrella. It was a sign of the low general degree of security consciousness that one was invited to install and run so many disparate services, when all one really needed was a Web server.

It’s Not My Default

A more general effect of the LAN legacy are the remarkably loose default settings which have bedeviled, or at least made extra work for, IIS administrators right on through IIS 5.0 / Windows 2000. Even once NTFS and user/group file system ACLs became possible, the default posture remained that of a system expected to work first and be secured later. Only a server that has its roots in a trusted environment would have given us something like the Everyone group and its default permissions. Or think of the sheer number of superfluous services that often have to be turned off to make an IIS box secure in a WAN context.

Getting Schooled

The lack of network administration knowledge required to reliably secure IIS boxes can also be traced to the legacy of trusted environment operation. As IIS became more and more common on the Web, and the Web server began to be given more serious Extranet and Internet duties, Microsoft did begin to respond both by steadily patching revealed vulnerabilities and by providing tools and techniques for running a more secure IIS (see IIS LockDown and URLScan). But not all the admins in charge of IIS boxes were familiar or comfortable with the practice of regularly going online to avail themselves of such supplementary updates, information, and tools. Having been schooled in an environment of trust, they often lacked the seasoned UNIX administrator's passion for scouring the Net for the latest code, tips, and utilities to improve their servers' security profile.

Knowledge in the Open

Finally, the extraordinary online infrastructure of the open source community had (and has) no analogue for IIS administrators -- even when the latter become aware of the critical need to avail themselves of such resources. Microsoft has done much to catch up and is doing more now, but it is hard to match the sheer volume and rigor of the collective conversation on the open source side. Because that conversation is rooted in the relative transparency of a peer review-driven culture, this is probably the single hardest security advantage for IIS to reproduce. To take a small but telling example: the URLScan tool has long been available as a quite reliable way to beef up application layer security by filtering HTTP input through the use of a simple set of allow/deny directives in a text configuration file. And yet, in my own experience at least, it is still relatively common to come across IIS 5.0 boxes either not running URLScan or not running the latest version. The very fact that one must still go download this tool and install it, rather than having it as part of the server's standard distribution the way many Apache Web server modules are, suggests some of the distance that still needs to be made up here.

Growing Pains

We all know that IIS didn't stay in the LAN forever. On the contrary, its Extranet and Internet presence soon exploded. While this was partly a tribute to the maturing of the OS and the Web server, it also produced new strains on security.

Unwanted Attention

First and foremost, the rapid increase in IIS popularity drew unwanted attention from both serious black hat hackers and their script kiddie emulators. Since NT was coming onto the Internet in a big way but from a background known to be less demanding in terms of security, IIS 4.0 on Windows NT made for an inviting target -- and the rich functionality and versatility that had been such an advantage in trusted environments became a gold mine of vulnerabilities to exploit. Default script mappings became favorite hacker targets, especially when they could be used to exploit unchecked buffers in various ISAPI extensions. The propensity of some admins to stick with FAT over NTFS made all sorts of mischief through HTTP more likely to succeed, as did the tendency to leave default ACLs and directories in place. In short, there was a natural lag as IIS admins slowly learned to not simply accept the vulnerabilities of their IIS systems as inevitable and instead began to adapt their administrative procedures to the reality of those vulnerabilities.

RAD = Bad Security?

Sys admins weren't the only ones slow to adapt. The extraordinary success of IIS-based rapid application frameworks such as ASP and ColdFusion presented a whole raft of additional security challenges. It is probably the case (though hard to say for sure) that such "parsed HTML" development environments made for a good deal more spaghetti code and especially careless handling of user input when compared to their Perl script and C program counterparts, the workhorses of CGI in the non-Windows world. This supposition rests on the fact that technologies like ASP and ColdFusion lowered the barriers to entry for developers attempting to add interactivity to their applications. Greater numbers of less seasoned and less network-aware coders went on to produce an increasing proportion of sloppy code, and this in turn increased the vulnerability of the hosts running their code. This vulnerability is underscored by the growing proliferation of application firewalls that attempt to shore up the holes created by poor code and a lack of understanding by developers of the URI and form field attack surface.

Stability as Security

Application vulnerabilities like these have been particularly worrisome in the IIS context for another reason -- the application architecture of IIS did not provide the kind of process isolation taken for granted in Apache. A misbehaving ASP application could crash an entire Web server when ASP was running in-process, but running out-of-process imposed significant performance penalties. The "pooled process" compromise introduced in IIS 5.0 was some help, but the fundamental issue remained that IIS could not recycle processes that had run into trouble without a restart of the entire Web server (and sometimes of the whole IIS admin service, including nested services like FTP and SMTP). All these problems were inherent in the ISAPI extension model used by ASP. Misbehaving ISAPI filters, often written to order for a specific purpose like authentication or logging enhancements, were even less forgiving.

Patches Away!

Finally, as a special case of the lag in sys admin procedures, we have the infamous problem of patch management. Of course, this is something of special importance to security -- as the recent spate of RPC vulnerabilities reminds us. While Microsoft has done a tremendous amount of work to encourage the right practices, the sheer volume of patches and the frequent need to reboot after installing them has made staying up-to-date a considerably heavier burden for IIS administrators than for their Apache counterparts.

The Right Direction with IIS 6

Fortunately on almost all of these fronts, Microsoft IIS has been and continues to be headed in the right direction. IIS 6.0 on Windows Server 2003 has a vastly improved security posture, in part a function of a stricter array of default settings. Much of what would have been simply turned on at install in previous IIS versions must now be explicitly enabled. The installation asks (after the model of URLScan) for a role-based profile to be chosen and uses this to restrict the services available. Default ACLs are tighter, and ISAPIs have to be given explicit permission to run. But there are more fundamental changes as well. Notably, process isolation is vastly improved, allowing the recycling of individual hung applications without interrupting the server's ability to handle new requests, and much of the functionality of URLScan has been incorporated into settings exposed in the registry. There is even a "Web server only" version of Windows Server 2003.

In short, many lessons have been learned and applied in this latest 6.0 version of IIS. In the meantime though, the IIS community's primary platform -- for now and for a long time to come -- will be IIS 5.0 on Windows 2000. Fortunately, that community has also come a long way. Properly administered, IIS 5.0 can be as secure as anything on the Net. The amount of good information and tools out there (not only from Microsoft) makes the job of getting to that level -- and maintaining it -- far less trying than it was only a few years ago. So don't think of IIS security as a contradiction in terms. Think of it as mark to be aimed at, and with diligence and care, it's a mark we can hit.

In future columns, I'll be exploring some of the richest sources of help the IIS community has to offer. I'll also be going into greater detail about the new security posture in IIS 6.0 and how to maximize that going forward. If there is a topic that you would like to see covered in the column, please IIS Security Column Suggestion e-mail me with your IIS Security question or area of interest.