What Is System Hardening? (Definition and How It Works)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated March 30, 2022

Published August 18, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

One way to help defend your organization against cyber threats is by using system hardening. System hardening can minimize the chances of a hacker or piece of malware infiltrating your company's network and gaining access to your organization's valuable data. If you want to implement system hardening into your company's technology setup, it's important to first understand the various components and steps of system hardening. In this article, we discuss what is system hardening, why it matters, what types there are and how to implement system hardening into your company.

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What is system hardening?

System hardening is a process to secure a computer system or server by eliminating the risks of cyberattacks. The process involves removing or disabling system applications, user accounts and other features that cyber attackers can infiltrate to gain access to your network. These features, sometimes known as the attack surface, often serve as the entry points for malicious cyber activities or hackers.

Why is system hardening important?

System hardening matters because the attack surface of a company's or individual's network is one of the places most vulnerable to cyberattacks. Through entry points on the attack surface, hackers, malware and other cyber threats might be able to access an organization's sensitive information. With system hardening, companies can reduce their vulnerability to cyber threats and the likelihood of a cyber threat gaining access to their network.

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What are the types of system hardening?

There are five types of system hardening that help secure the critical elements of a computer system that cyber attackers often exploit, such as software applications, the operating system, firmware, databases and networks. To perform system hardening successfully, ensure that you take all five categories into consideration. Here are the five primary types of system hardening:

Server hardening

Sever hardening refers to protecting the ports, functions, data and permissions on a server. A server is a powerful computer that offers resources, services or data storage to other devices on an authorized network. Techniques for server hardening include disabling USB ports when your system turns on, regularly updating or patching server software and creating stronger passwords for all users allowed to access the server.

Software application hardening

With software application hardening, users or organizations add or upgrade security measures on all of their network's programs and applications. These applications or software might include web browsers, word processors or spreadsheet programs. Users implementing software application hardening update the codes of their applications or add more software-based cybersecurity tactics.

Operating system hardening

Operating system (OS) hardening refers to the process of securing the operating systems of endpoint devices, such as computers or mobile phones, within your network. In computing, an operating system is a specific type of software that handles a device's basic functions, like enabling programs to launch and run. Tactics for performing OS hardening include installing or updating patches and reducing the number of people with the authorization to your company's OS.

Although related to one another, OS hardening and software application hardening are distinct processes. Software application hardening emphasizes securing third-party programs, meaning software created by a different company than the one that made your device. OS hardening, meanwhile, focuses on enhancing the security of the base software that allows those third-party applications to perform.

Related: 6 Types of Operating Systems (With Examples)

Database hardening

With database hardening, users secure both their digital database and their database management system (DBMS). A database is the storage space for your organization's valuable information that's accessed digitally through devices or systems on your network. DBMS, meanwhile, is the software that users engage with when they want to access, store, modify or evaluate information stored within a database. Strategies for database hardening include disabling database functions you don't need, encrypting database resources and reducing user privileges.

Network hardening

Network hardening refers to the process of securing the communication channels and systems between servers, endpoint devices and other technology that operates on a shared network. Since all of these systems and devices regularly interact with one another, a potential vulnerability in one could lead to vulnerability in the entire network. Companies or individuals can improve network hardening by installing intrusion detection systems that notice suspicious activity, establishing firewalls and encrypting network traffic.

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What are some system hardening standards?

Several organizations within the technology industry have created standards or guidelines about system hardening. These standards often include a section on best practices for organizations looking to successfully implement system hardening. As an example, The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommends some of the following as best practices for system hardening:

  • Creating a system security plan

  • Deleting or disabling services, network protocols and applications your organization doesn't need

  • Updating or installing patches for your network's operating systems

  • Establishing resource controls

  • Using encryption and authentication systems

How to achieve system hardening

Here is how to perform system hardening in five steps:

1. Evaluate your system's needs

Think about your network's primary needs in relation to system hardening. These needs may vary based on many factors, including the type of organization you work for, your existing network, your workforce and your security priorities.

For example, a company with many part- or full-time remote employees has different system hardening needs than a business where all employees work on company premises. The company that has remote employees likely has more endpoint devices, like laptops or mobile phones, spread across a wider geographic area. This means that the business with remote employees probably has a wider attack surface and must prepare their system hardening plan with this in mind.

2. Perform an audit of your existing system

Conduct tests on your existing servers, devices and other computing components to determine your network's vulnerabilities. Find these vulnerabilities with tools like configuration management software, penetration tests, vulnerability scans and other security tools that can locate network weaknesses. Security tools such as penetration tests can tell you specifically what vulnerabilities you need to replace, update, secure or remove from your network. Some network auditing tools can also update, install patches or strengthen the security of your company's computing vulnerabilities.

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3. Choose system hardening standards to follow

Pick a set of industry standards to consult throughout the process of implementing system hardening. Regularly referring to or adhering to a specific set of industry guidelines on system hardening can ensure that you greatly minimize the potential cyber threats to your business. Consider industry standards produced by reputable organizations such as NIST, Microsoft, the Computer Information Security Center (CIS) or the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).

4. Make a plan

Based on your company's unique needs and the results of your audits, create a plan for your organization's system hardening. Prepare to handle your system's vulnerabilities in order of most to least vulnerable. Many auditing programs can assist you with this prioritization. Although the order that you approach the different types of system hardening tactics may vary, be sure to include steps for strengthening each kind within your system.

5. Implement your plan

Put your plan into action. Begin to methodically reduce cyber vulnerabilities within your organization. The specifics of your plan might vary depending on your organization's needs and existing structures. Here are some of the steps you may want to include for each category within your system hardening plan:

  • Server hardening: Harden your servers, such as by disabling unnecessary functions or establishing authorization privileges, before connecting them to the rest of your network. Encourage your employees to regularly change their passwords that control their access to server applications.

  • Application hardening: Replace all default passwords on third-party software with unique and complex passwords. Give your employees access only to the specific functions they need within each application.

  • Network hardening: Be sure to correctly set up your firewalls. Encrypt your network traffic to make it more challenging for malicious software or hackers to get into your computing system.

  • Database hardening: Regularly delete accounts that are no longer active. Create encryption systems for data storage and transfers.

  • Operating system hardening: Install OS patches and updates immediately upon their release. Delete any software, drivers, libraries or services your employees don't need.

Best practices for system hardening

Here is some advice for successfully incorporating system hardening into your company's technology systems and devices:

Understand it's okay to go slowly

Depending on your organization's needs and your existing system, you may find that your plan to reduce your attack surface involves many steps. Know that it's better to implement each step thoroughly than to rush through your system hardening process. Be patient and methodical as you approach each component or type of hardening.

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Use automation wherever possible

Set up automation for as many of your organization's computing devices, systems, functions and applications as possible. Some programs and systems offer features that allow them to automatically update or install patches right when they're released. Enable as many of these automation processes as possible to help ensure that your entire network is always as secure as possible.

Evolve your system hardening techniques

Understand that your system hardening needs and tactics may need to change over time. Cyber threats and attackers might continuously change their methods to more effectively infiltrate networks. At the same time, your company's network structure, systems or priorities may shift as your organization develops, alters or grows. Treat your company's system hardening as an ongoing process rather than a one-time procedure to offer your employees and business the best cyber protection.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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