Setting Up Your New Server

August 14, 2013

As a technical support specialist at SoftLayer, I work with new customers regularly, and after fielding a lot of the same kinds of questions about setting up a new server, I thought I'd put together a quick guide that could be a resource for other new customers who are interested in implementing a few best practices when it comes to setting up and securing a new server. This documentation is based on my personal server setup experience and on the experience I've had helping customers with their new servers, so it shouldn't be considered an exhaustive, authoritative guide ... just a helpful and informative one.

Protect Your Data

First and foremost, configure backups for your server. The server is worthless without your data. Data is your business. An old adage says, "It's better to have and not need, than to need and not have." Imagine what would happen to your business if you lost just some of your data. There's no excuse for neglecting backup when configuring your new server. SoftLayer does not backup your server, but SoftLayer offers several options for data protection and backup to fit any of your needs.

Control panels like cPanel and Plesk include backup functionality and can be configured to automatically backup regularly an FTP/NAS account. Configure backups now, before doing anything else. Before migrating or copying your data to the server. This first (nearly empty) backup will be quick. Test the backup by restoring the data. If your server has RAID, it important to remember that RAID is not backup!

For more tips about setting up and checking your backups, check out Risk Management: The Importance of Redundant Backups

Use Strong Passwords

I've seen some very week and vulnerable password on customers' servers. SoftLayer sets a random, complex password on every new server that is provisioned. Don't change it to a weak password using names, birthdays and other trivia that can be found or guessed easily. Remember, a strong password doesn't have to be a complicated one: xkcd: Password Strength

Write down your passwords: "If I write them down and then protect the piece of paper — or whatever it is I wrote them down on — there is nothing wrong with that. That allows us to remember more passwords and better passwords." "We're all good at securing small pieces of paper. I recommend that people write their passwords down on a small piece of paper, and keep it with their other valuable small pieces of paper: in their wallet." Just don't use any of these passwords.
I've gone electronic and use 1Password and discovered just how many passwords I deal with. With such strong, random passwords, you don't have to change your password frequently, but if you have to, you don't have to worry about remembering the new one or updating all of your notes. If passwords are too much of a hassle ...

Or Don't Use Passwords

One of the wonderful things of SSH/SFTP on Linux/FreeBSD is that SSH-keys obviate the problem of passwords. Mac and Linux/FreeBSD have an SSH-client installed by default! There are a lot of great SSH clients available for every medium you'll use to access your server. For Windows, I recommend PuTTY, and for iOS, Panic Prompt.

Firewall

Firewalls block network connections. Configuring a firewall manually can get very complicated, especially when involving protocols like FTP which opens random ports on either the client or the server. A quick way to deal with this is to use the system-config-securitylevel-tui tool. Or better, use a firewall front end such as APF or CSF. These tools also simplify blocking or unblocking IPs.

Firewall Allow Block Unblock
APF apf -a <IP> apf -d <IP> apf -u <IP>
CSF* csf -a <IP> csf -d <IP> csf -dr <IP>

*CSF has a handy search command: csf -g <IP>.

SoftLayer customers should be sure to allow SoftLayer IP ranges through the firewall so we can better support you when you have questions or need help. Beyond blocking and allowing IP addresses, it's also important to lock down the ports on your server. The only open ports on your system should be the ones you want to use. Here's a quick list of some of the most common ports:

cPanel ports

  • 2078 - webDisk
  • 2083 - cPanel control panel
  • 2087 - WHM control panel
  • 2096 - webmail

Other

  • 22 - SSH (secure shell - Linux)
  • 53 - DNS name servers
  • 3389 - RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol - Windows)
  • 8443 - Plesk control panel

Mail Ports

  • 25 - SMTP
  • 110 - POP3
  • 143 - IMAP
  • 465 - SMTPS
  • 993 - IMAPS
  • 995 - POP3S

Web Server Ports

  • 80 - HTTP
  • 443 - HTTPS

DNS

DNS is a naming system for computers and services on the Internet. Domain names like "softlayer.com" and "manage.softlayer.com" are easier to remember than IP address like 66.228.118.53 or even 2607:f0d0:1000:11:1::4 in IPv6. DNS looks up a domain's A record (AAAA record for IPv6), to retrieve its IP address. The opposite of an A record is a PTR record: PTR records resolve an IP address to a domain name.

Hostname
A hostname is the human-readable label you assign of your server to help you differentiate it from your other devices. A hostname should resolve to its server's main IP address, and the IP should resolve back to the hostname via a PTR record. This configuration is extremely important for email ... assuming you don't want all of your emails rejected as spam.

Avoid using "www" at the beginning of a hostname because it may conflict with a website on your server. The hostnames you choose don't have to be dry or boring. I've seen some pretty awesome hostname naming conventions over the years (Simpsons characters, Greek gods, superheros), so if you aren't going to go with a traditional naming convention, you can get creative and have some fun with it. A server's hostname can be changed in the customer portal and in the server's control panel. In cPanel, the hostname can be easily set in "Networking Setup". In Plesk, the hostname is set in "Server Preferences". Without a control panel, you can update the hostname from your operating system (ex. RedHat, Debian)

A Records
If you buy your domain name from SoftLayer, it is automatically added to our nameservers, but if your domain was registered externally, you'll need to go through a few additional steps to ensure your domain resolves correctly on our servers. To include your externally-registered domain on our DNS, you should first point it at our nameservers (ns1.softlayer.com, ns2.softlayer.com). Next, Add a DNS Zone, then add an A record corresponding to the hostname you chose earlier.

PTR Records
Many ISPs configure their servers that receive email to lookup the IP address of the domain in a sender's email address (a reverse DNS check) to see that the domain name matches the email server's host name. You can look up the PTR record for your IP address. In Terminal.app (Mac) or Command Prompt (Windows), type "nslookup" command followed by the IP. If the PTR doesn't match up, you can change the PTR easily.

NSLookup

SSL Certificates

Getting an SSL certificate for your site is optional, but it has many benefits. The certificates will assure your customers that they are looking at your site securely. SSL encrypts passwords and data sent over the network. Any website using SSL Certificates should be assigned its own IP address. For more information, we have a great KnowledgeLayer article about planning ahead for an SSL, and there's plenty of documentation on how to manage SSL certificates in cPanel and Plesk.

Move In!

Now that you've prepared your server and protected your data, you are ready to migrate your content to its new home. Be proactive about monitoring and managing your server once it's in production. These tips aren't meant to be a one-size-fits-all, "set it and forget it" solution; they're simply important aspects to consider when you get started with a new server. You probably noticed that I alluded to control panels quite a few times in this post, and that's for good reason: If you don't feel comfortable with all of the ins and outs of server administration, control panels are extremely valuable resources that do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

If you have any questions about setting up your new server or you need any help with your SoftLayer account, remember that we're only a phone call away!

-Lyndell

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