Tips And Tricks Posts

September 9, 2014

Building a Secure Cloud-based Solution: Part I

When you begin a household project, you must first understand what you will need to complete the task. Before you begin, you check your basement or garage to make sure you have the tools to do the work. Building a secure cloud-based solution requires similar planning. You’re in luck—SoftLayer has all the tools needed, including a rapidly maturing set of security products and services to help you build, deploy, and manage your cloud solution. Over the next couple of months, we will take a look at how businesses leverage cloud technologies to deliver new value to their employees and customers, and we’ll discuss how SoftLayer provides the tools necessary to deliver your solutions securely.

Hurricane plan of action: Water: Check. Food: Check. Cloud: Check?

Let’s set the scene here: A hurricane is set to make landfall on the United States’ Gulf Coast, and the IT team at an insurance company must elastically scale its new claim application to accommodate the customers and field agents who will need it in the storm’s aftermath. The team needs to fulfill short-term computing needs and long-term hosting of additional images from the claims application, thereby creating a hybrid cloud environment. The insurance company’s IT staff meet to discuss their security requirements, and together, they identify several high-level needs:

  1. Provide secure connectivity, authentication, access control, and audit capabilities for IT administrators and users.

    SoftLayer provides VPNs, multifactor authentication, audit control logs, API keys, and fine-grained access control. This allows insurance agents to securely access claim forms and supporting documentation and connect to the application via https, using the wide range of SSL certificates (Symantec, Geotrust, and more). Plus, agents can authenticate using identity and access management solutions such as IWS Go Cloud ID and IBM Security Access Manager.
  2. Ensure that stringent data security measures are enforced.

    Data cannot be shifted across borders, and data at rest or in use must be encrypted. SoftLayer leaves data where customers place it, and will never transfer customers’ data. IBM Cloud Marketplace partners like Vormetric offer encryption solutions to ensure sensitive data-at-rest is not stored in clear text, and that customers maintain complete control of the encryption keys. Additionally, the IT team in our example would have the ability to encrypt all sensitive PHI data in database using data-in-use solutions from Eperi.
  3. Ensure multi-layered security for network zone segmentation.

    Users and administrators in the confidential area of insurance need confidence that their network is securely partitioned. SoftLayer native and vendor solutions such as SoftLayer VLANs, Vyatta Gateway, Fortigate firewall, and Citrix Netscaler allow administrators to securely partition a network, creating segmentation according to organizational needs, and providing the routing and filtering needed to isolate users, workloads, and domains.
  4. Enforce host security using anti-virus software, host intrusion prevention systems, and other solutions.

    The IT team can apply best-of-breed third-party solutions, such as Nessus Vulnerability Scanner, McAfee Antivirus, and McAfee Host Intrusion Protection. These capabilities give administrators the means to ensure that infrastructure is protected from malware and other host attacks, enhancing both system availability and performance.
  5. Define and enforce security policies for the hybrid cloud environment, and audit any policy changes.

    Administrators can manage overall policies for the combined public-private environment using IBM solutions like QRadar, Hosted Security Event and Log Management Service, and xForce Threat Analysis Service. Admins can use solutions from vendors like CloudPassage, Sumo Logic, and ObserveIT to automatically define policies around firewall rules, file integrity, security configuration, and access control, and to audit adherence to such policies.

The insurance company’s IT department already knew from SoftLayer’s reputation that it is one of the highest performing cloud infrastructures available, with a wide range of integrated and automated cloud computing options, all through a private network and advanced management system, but now it knows from experience that SoftLayer offers the security solutions needed to get the job done.

When business needs spike and companies need additional capacity, SoftLayer delivers quickly and securely. Stay tuned for Part 2 where we will talk secure development and test activities.

- Rick Hamilton, IBM Cloud Offering Evangelist

September 4, 2014

Keeping your private parts private.

Even with the knowledge that images can live on forever to haunt you, people continue to snap self-portraits in compromising positions (it’s your prerogative). Heck, before smart phones came along, people were using Polaroids to capture the moment. And, if history teaches us anything, people will continue the trend—instead of a smart phone, it’ll be a holodeck (a la Star Trek). Ugh, can you imagine that?

The recent high-profile hack of nude celebrity photos came from private phones. They weren’t posted to Facebook or Instagram. These celebrities didn’t hashtag.

#birthdaysuit #emperorsnewclothes #whoneedsdesignerthreads #shegotitfromhermama

Their sensitive data was compromised.

After speculation the hack stemmed from an iCloud® security vulnerability, Apple released a statement saying, “We have discovered that certain celebrity accounts were compromised by a very targeted attack on user names, passwords and security questions, a practice that has become all too common on the Internet.” The cloud platform was secure. The users’ security credentials weren’t.

These were private photos intended for private use, so how did they get out there? How can you protect your data; your images; your privacy?

You’ve heard it once; twice; probably every time you create a new account online (and in this day in age, we all have dozens of user accounts online):

  1. Use a strong password. This SoftLayer Blog is an oldie but a goodie where the author gives the top three ways to make a password: 1) use a random generator like; 2) use numbers in place of letters—for example, “minivan” becomes “m1n1v4n”; 3) write your passwords down in plain sight using “Hippocampy Encryption” (named in honor of the part of the brain that does memory type activities). Or take the XKCD approach to password security.
  2. And for heaven’s sake, don’t use the same password for every account. If you duplicate usernames and passwords across sites, a hacker just needs to access one account, and he or she will be able to get into all of your accounts!
  3. Craft little-known answers to security questions. Don’t post a childhood photo of you and your dog on Facebook with the description, “Max, the best pup ever” and then use Max as a security validation answer for “What’s the name of your favorite pet?” It’s like you’re giving the hackers the biggest hint ever.
  4. If available, use a two-factor authentication security enhancement. The government (FISMA), banks (PCI) and the healthcare industry are huge proponents of two-factor authentication—a security measure that requires two different kinds of evidence to prove that you are who you say you are and that you should have access to what you're trying to access. Read our blog or KnowledgeLayer Article for more details.
  5. Remember passwords are like underwear—don’t share them with friends and change them often. When it comes to passwords, at least once a year should suffice. For underwear, we recommend changing more regularly.

We won’t tell you what to do with your sensitive selfies. But do yourself a favor, and be smart about protecting them.


June 5, 2014

Sysadmin Tips and Tricks - Understanding the 'Default Deny' Server Security Principle

In the desktop world, people tend to feel good about their system’s security when they have the latest anti-virus and anti-spyware installed and keep their applications up-to-date. Those of us who compute for a living know that this is nothing close to resembling a “secure” state. But it’s the best option for non-technical people at this time.

Servers, on the other hand, exist in a more hostile environment than desktop machines, which is why keeping them secure requires skilled professionals. This means not only doing things like keeping applications patched and up-to-date, but also grasping the underlying principles of system security. Doing that allows us to make informed and skillful decisions for our unique systems—because no one knows our servers as well as we do.

One very powerful concept is “Default Deny” (as in Deny by Default), by which means that "Everything, not explicitly permitted, is forbidden." What does this mean, and why is it important?

Let’s look at a simple example using file permissions. Let’s say you installed a CGI (Common Gateway Interface) application, such as some blog software, and you’re having trouble getting it to work. You’ve decided the problem is the permissions on the configuration file. In this case, user “rasto” is the owner of the file. You try chmodding it 755 and it works like this:

-rwxr-xr-x 1 rasto rasto 216 May 27 16:11 configuration.ini

Now that it works, you’re ready to move to your next project. But there’s a possible security problem here. As you can see, you have left the configuration file Readable and Executable by Other. There is almost certainly no reason for that because CGI scripts are typically run as the owner of the file. There is potentially no reason for users of the same group (or other random users of the system) to be able to Read this configuration file. After all, some configuration files contain database passwords. If I have access to another user on this system, I could simply “cat” the configuration file and get trivial access to your data!

So the trick is to find the least permissions required to run this script. With a little work, you may discover that it runs just fine with 700:

-rwx------ 1 rasto rasto 216 May 27 16:11 configuration.ini

By taking a little extra time, you have made your system much more secure. “Default Deny” means deny everything that is not explicitly required. The beautiful thing about this policy is that you can remove vulnerabilities that you neither comprehend nor even know about. Instead of making a list of “bad” things you essentially make a list of “good” things, and allow only those things to happen. You don’t even have to realize that someone could read the file because you’ve made it a policy to always allow the least amount of access possible to all things.

Another example might be to prune your php.ini to get rid of any expanded capabilities not required by PHP scripts running on your system. If a zero-day vulnerability arises in PHP that affects one of the things you’ve disallowed, it simply won’t affect you because you’ve disabled it by default.

Another scenario might be to remove packages from your system that are not being used. If someone tries to inject some Ruby code into your system, it won’t run without Ruby present. If you’re not using it, get rid of it, and it can’t be used against you.

Note: It’s very easy to be wrong about what is not being used on your system—you can definitely break things this way—I suggest a go-slow approach, particularly in regards to built-in packages.

The important thing is the concept. I hope you can see now why a Default Deny policy is a powerful tool to help keep your system more secure.


June 3, 2014

My 5 Favorite Sublime Text 2 Plugins

I can’t believe that is was only a mere year ago since I learned of Sublime Text 2. I know, I know … where have I been? What kind of developer was I that I didn’t even know of Sublime Text? I’ll take the criticism, as I can honestly say it has been the best text editor I have ever used.

It’s extremely fast. I rarely wait for saves, uploads, or syntax highlighting, it keeps up with everything I do and allows me to develop directly from the keyboard. I hardly ever reach for my mouse!

It looks awesome. It has kind of retro-look for those developers who remember coding purely from the terminal or DOS. It really brings back memories.

It can be extended. Need some extra functionality that doesn’t come out-of-the-box? Sublime Text 2 has a range of available plugins that you can install to enhance your capabilities with this awesome text editor. In this blog, I’ll cover my top five favorite plugins of all time, what they do, and why they’re great!

1. BracketHighlighter

Many people believe that bracket highlighting should be a ready-made helper for developers of all languages. I agree on this point, however, at least Sublime Text 2 provides a plugin for this. It’s a very simple addition; it allows you to see if your opening brackets have an accompanying closing bracket. Many developers will tell you stories of these large and complex programs that consumed much of their time as they searched for one simple error … only to find that it was just a missing closing bracket.

In addition, it highlights opening and closing tags and quotes, for those of you who do a lot of HTML/XHTML, both bracket and tag settings are customizable.

For more details on the plugin check out the BracketHighlighter GitHub page.

2. DocBlockr

This is a neat plugin that speeds up and simplifies documentation. It supports PHP, Javascript, Java, Action Script, Objective C, C, C++, and Coffee Script.

By typing this:

/** (Press Enter)

The plugin automatically returns this:


Boom, the quickest way to document that I’ve ever seen.

In order to document your functions, just put it in your comment:

/** (Press Enter)
function myFunction(var1, var2) { }

And, it'll become:

*[myFunction description]
* @param {[type]} var1 [description]
* @param {[type]} var2 [description]
* @param {[type]}

function myFunction (var1, var2) { }

When you want to do variable documentation, the structure is similar:

/** (Press Enter)
myVar = 10

The plugin will fill out the documentation block like this:

*[myVar description]
* @type {Number}

Tell me that this isn’t nifty! If you want to try it out or just get a closer look at this plugin, head here.

3. Emmet (previously known as Zen Coding)

Unfortunately, I encountered some oddities when I tried to install Emmet with SublimeLinter, so I decided to disable the Linter in favor of Emmet to give it a spin. I absolutely love Emmet.

It provides a much more efficient way to code by providing what they call “abbreviations.” For example, if I want to create a div with an unordered list and one bullet point in it, Emmet lets me save myself a lot of time ... I can type this into Sublime:


And press Control+E, and my code automatically turns into this:


If I need to add multiple <li> tags, I can easily replicate them with a small addition:


When I hit Control+E, voila! The unordered list structure is quickly generated:


That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Emmet's functionality, and if you’re as impressed as I am, you should check out their site:


I think the title of the plugin says it all. It allows you to directly connect to your server and sync projects and files just by saving. You will never have to edit a file in a text editor, open your FTP client and upload the file again. Now, you can do it directly from Sublime Text 2.

When used in conjunction with Projects, you’ll find that you can easily save hours of time spent on remote uploading. By far, SFTP for Sublime Projects is one of the most essential plugins you’ll need for any project!

5. SideBarEnhancements

This is a small plugin that makes minor adjustments to the Files and Folders sidebar, providing a more intuitive interface. Though this doesn’t add much functionality, it can definitely speed things up. Take a look at the plugin on the SideBarEnhancements GitHub page

I hope this list of Sublime Text 2 plugins will enhance your capabilities and ease up your processes, as it has done for me. Give them a try and let me know what you think. Also, if you have a different favorite plugin, I’d love to hear about it.


May 8, 2014

SoftLayer Security: Questions and Answers

When I talk to IBM Business Partners about SoftLayer, one of the most important topics of discussion is security. We ask businesses to trust SoftLayer with their business-critical data, so it’s important that SoftLayer’s physical and network security is as transparent and understandable as possible.

After going through the notes I’ve taken in many of these client meetings, I pulled out the ten most frequently asked questions about security, and I’ve compiled answers.

Q1: How is SoftLayer secured? What security measures does SoftLayer have in place to ensure my workloads are safe?

A: This “big picture” question is the most common security-related question I’ve heard. SoftLayer’s approach to security involves several distinct layers, so it’s tough to generalize every aspect in a single response. Here are some of the highlights:

  • SoftLayer’s security management is aligned with U.S. government standards based on NIST 800-53 framework, a catalog of security and privacy controls defined for U.S. federal government information systems. SoftLayer maintains SOC 2 Type II reporting compliance for every data center. SOC 2 reports are audits against controls covering security, availability, and process integrity. SoftLayer’s data centers are also monitored 24x7 for both network and on-site security.
  • Security is maintained through automation (less likely for human error) and audit controls. Server room access is limited to authorized employees only, and every location is protected against physical intrusion.
  • Customers can create a multi-layer security architecture to suit their needs. SoftLayer offers several on-demand server and network security devices, such as firewalls and gateway appliances.
  • SoftLayer integrates three distinct network topologies for each physical or virtual server and offers security solutions for systems, applications, and data as well. Each customer has one or many VLANs in each data center facility, and only users and servers the customer authorizes can access servers in those VLANs.
  • SoftLayer offers single-tenant resources, so customers have complete control and transparency into their servers.

Q2: Does SoftLayer destroy my data when I’ve de-provisioned a compute resource?

A: Yes. When a customer cancels any physical or virtual server, all data is erased using Department of Defense (DoD) 5220.22-m standards.

Q3: How does SoftLayer protect my servers against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks?

A: A SoftLayer Network Operations Center (NOC) team monitors network performance and security 24x7. Automated DDoS mitigation controls are in place should a DDoS attack occur.

It’s important to clarify here that the primary objective of this DDoS mitigation is to maintain performance integrity of the overall cloud infrastructure. With that in mind, SoftLayer can’t stop a customer from being attacked, but it can shield the customer (and any other customers in the same network) from the effects of the attack. If necessary, SoftLayer will remove the target from the public network for periods of time and null-routes incoming connections. Because of SoftLayer’s three-tiered network architecture, a customer would still have access to the targeted system via the private network.

Q4: How is communication segmented from other tenants using SoftLayer?

A: SoftLayer utilizes industry standard VLANs and switch access control lists (ACLs) to segment customer environments. Customers have the ability to add and manage their own VLANs, providing additional security even inside their own accounts. ACLs are configured to permit or deny any specified network packet (data) to be directed along a switch.

Q5: How is my data kept private? How can I confirm that SoftLayer can’t read my confidential data?

A: This question is common customers who deal with sensitive workloads such as HIPAA-protected documentation, employee records, case files, and so on.

SoftLayer customers are encouraged to deploy a gateway device (e.g. Vyatta appliance) on which they can configure encryption protocols. Because the gateway device is the first hop into SoftLayer’s network, it provides an encrypted tunnel to traverse the VLANs that reside on SoftLayer. When securing compute and storage resources, customers can deploy single tenant dedicated storage devices to establish isolated workloads, and they can even encrypt their hard drives from the OS level to protect data at rest. Encrypting the hard drive helps safeguard data even if SoftLayer were to replace a drive or something similar.

Q6: Does SoftLayer track and log customer environments?

A: Yes. SoftLayer audits and tracks all user activity in our customer portal. Some examples of what is tracked include:

  • User access, both failed and authenticated attempts (destination IP is shown on a report)
  • Compute resources users deploy or cancel
  • APIs for each call (who called the API, the API call and function, etc.)
  • Intrusion Protection and Detection services that observe traffic to customer hosts
  • Additionally, customers have root access to operating systems on their servers, so they can implement additional logging of their own.

Q7: Can I disable access to some of my users through the customer portal?

A: Yes. SoftLayer has very granular ACLs. User entitlements are segmented into different categories, including Support, Security, and Hardware. SoftLayer also gives customers the ability to limit access to public and private networks. Customers can even limit user access to specific bare metal or virtual server.

Q8: Does SoftLayer patch my operating system?

A: For unmanaged cloud servers, no. Once the updated operating system is deployed on a customer’s server, SoftLayer doesn’t touch it.

If you want help with that hands-on server administration, SoftLayer offers managed hosting. In a managed hosting environment, Technical Account Managers (TAMs) are assigned as focal points for customer requests and issues. TAMs help with reports and trending data that provide recommendations to mitigate potential issues (including OS patching).

Q9: Is SoftLayer suited to run HIPAA workloads?

A: Yes. SoftLayer has a number of customers running HIPAA workloads on both bare metal and single-tenant virtual servers. A Business Associate Agreement (BAA), signed by SoftLayer and the customers, clearly define the shared responsibilities for data security: SoftLayer is solely responsible for the security of the physical data center, along with the SoftLayer-provided infrastructure.

Q10: Can SoftLayer run government workloads? Does SoftLayer use the FISMA standards?

A: The Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) defines a framework for managing information security that must be followed for all federal information systems. Some state institutions don’t require FISMA, but look to cloud hosting companies to be aligned to the FIMSA guidelines.

Today, two SoftLayer data centers are audited to the FISMA standards – Dallas (DAL05) and Washington, D.C. (WDC01). Customers looking for the FISMA standard can deploy their workloads in those data centers. Future plans include having data centers that comply with more stringent FedRAMP requests.

For additional information, I highly recommend the on-demand SoftLayer Fundamentals session, “Keep safe – securing your SoftLayer virtual instance.” Also, check out Allan Tate’s Thoughts on Cloud blog, “HIPAA and cloud computing: What you need to know” for more on how SoftLayer handles HIPPA-related workloads.

-Darrel Haswell

Darrel Haswell is a Worldwide Channel Solutions Architect for SoftLayer, an IBM Company.

May 2, 2014

Keyboard Shortcuts in the SoftLayer Customer Portal

I’m excited to introduce a new feature in the SoftLayer customer portal: Keyboard shortcuts!

Keyboard shortcuts give you quick access to the most commonly used features by simply typing a few characters. For those who prefer never having to reach for the mouse to navigate an application, you should find these handy additions quite helpful.

After you log into the Customer Portal, type “?” (shift + forward slash) on any page, and you'll see a full list of available keyboard shortcuts:

Keyboard Shortcuts

On the Keyboard Shortcuts help page, you have the option to enable or disable the functionality based on your preference. Keyboard shortcuts are enabled by default. Disabling this feature will turn off all keyboard shortcuts except the “?” shortcut so that you can access the enable/disable feature preference in the future if you change your mind. This preference is stored in a cookie in your browser, so changing computers or deleting your cookie will re-enable the feature.

The shortcuts are grouped into three sets: Global, Tabs, and Grids.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Global Navigation

You have the ability to navigate to any page in our application by typing in the respective position number in the menu combined with dashes (-). For example, typing 1-5-2 will open Support (1) > Help (5) > Portal Tour (2).

Use the “go to” key combinations to jump to a new location from anywhere in the portal. For example, type (g) and (d) to visit the Device List. Typing (g) and (u) allows you to access the list of portal users, and (g) and (t) takes you to view tickets. If you want to add a new ticket from anywhere in the portal, type (+) and (t). It’s that simple.

Keyboard Shortcuts


Many of the pages within the portal have tabs that appear just above the main content of the page. These tabs often allow content to be filtered, or provide access to additional features related to the page topic. Each tab can be accessed by using a simple two-keystroke combination, such as (t) then (f) to reveal the Filter tab on the page.

Keyboard Shortcuts


Whenever a page contains a grid — a tabular listing — you can now perform common operations from the keyboard. Jump quickly from page to page (first/last or next/previous) or refresh the grid contents with a single keystroke.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Please give this new feature a try for yourself! We welcome your feedback. Please let us know if you would like to have us implement any other keyboard shortcuts in the future.


April 23, 2014

Security: 10 Tips for Hardening a Linux Server

In light of all the complex and specialized attacks on Internet-facing servers, it’s very important to protect your cloud assets from malicious assailants whose sole purpose is to leach, alter, expose, siphon sensitive data, or even to shut you down. From someone who does a lot of Linux deployments, I like to have handy a Linux template with some extra security policies configured.

Securing your environment starts during the ordering process when you are deploying server resources. Sometimes you want to deploy a quick server without putting it behind an extra hardware firewall layer or deploying it with an APF (Advance Policy Firewall). Here are a couple of security hardening tips I have set on my Linux template to have a solid base level of security when I deploy a Linux system.

Note: The following instructions assume that you are using CentOS or Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

1. Change the Root Password
Log in to your server and change the root password if you didn’t use a SSH key to gain access to your Linux system.

  • passwd - Make sure it’s strong.
  • Don't intend on using root.

2. Create a New User
The root user is the only user created on a new Linux install. You should add a new user for your own access and use of the server.

  • useradd <username>
  • passwd <username> (Make sure this is a strong password that’s different from your root password.)

3. Change the Password Age Requirements
Change the password age so you’ll be forced to change your password in a given period of time:

  • chage –M 60 –m 7 –w 7 <username>
    • M: Minimum of days required between password changes
    • m: Maximum days the password is valid
    • w: The number of days before password will warn of expiration

4. Disable Root Login
As Lee suggested in the last blog, you should Stop Using Root!

  • When you need super-user permissions, use sudo instead of su. Sudo is more secure than using su: When a user uses sudo to execute root-level commands, all commands are tracked by default in /var/log/secure. Furthermore, users will have to authenticate themselves to run sudo commands for a short period of time.

5. Use Secure Shell (SSH)
rlogin and telnet protocols don’t use an encrypted format, just plain text. I recommend using SSH protocol for remote log in and file transfers. SSH allows you to use encryption technology while communicating with your sever. SSH is still open to many different types of attacks, though. I suggest using the following to lock SSH down a little bit more:

  • Remove the ability to SSH as root:
    1. vi /etc/ssh/sshd_config.
    2. Find #PermitRootLogin yes and change to PermitRootLogin no.
    3. Run service sshd restart.
  • Change the default SSH 22 port. You can even utilize RSA keys instead of passwords for extra protection.

6. Update Kernel and Software
Ensure your kernel and software patches are up to date. I like to make sure my Linux kernel and software are always up to date because patches are constantly being released with corrected security flaws and exploits. Remember you have access to SoftLayer’s private network for updates and patches, so you don’t have to expose your server to the public network to get updates. Run this with sudo to get updates in RedHat or CentOS: yum update.

7. Strip Your System
Clean your system of unwanted packages. I strip my system to avoid installing unnecessary software to avoid vulnerabilities. This is called “reducing the attack surface.” Packages like NFS, Samba, even the X Windows desktops (i.e., Gnome or KDE) contain vulnerabilities. Here’s how reduce the attack surface:

  • List what is installed: yum list installed
  • List the package name: yum list <package-name>
  • Remove the package: yum remove <package-name>

8. Use Security Extensions
Use a security extension such as SELinux on RHEL or CentOS when you’re able. SELinux provides a flexible Mandatory Access Control (MAC); running a MAC kernel protects the system from malicious or flawed applications that can damage or destroy the system. You’ll have to explore the official Red Hat documentation, which explains SELinux configuration. To check if SELinux is running, run sestatus.

9. Add a Welcome/Warning
Add a welcome or warning display for when users remote into your system. The message can be created using MOTD (message of the day). MOTD’s sole purpose is to display messages on console or SSH session logins. I like for my MOTDs to read “Welcome to <hostname>. All connections are being monitored and recorded.”

  • I recommend vi /etc/motd

10. Monitor Your Logs
Monitor logs whenever you can. Some example logs that you can audit:

  • System boot log: /var/log/boot.log
  • Authentication log: /var/log/secure
  • Log in records file: /var/log/utmp or /var/log/wtmp:
  • Where whole system logs or current activity are available: /var/log/message
  • Authentication logs: /var/log/auth.log
  • Kernel logs: /var/log/kern.log
  • Crond logs (cron job): /var/log/cron.log
  • Mail server logs: /var/log/maillog

You can even move these logs to a bare metal server to prevent intruders from easily modifying them.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when securing your Linux server. While not the most secure system, it gives you breathing room if you have to deploy quick servers for short duration tests, and so on. You can build more security into your server later for longer, more permanent-type servers.

- Darrel Haswell

Darrel Haswell is an advisory SoftLayer Business Partner Solution Architect.

April 23, 2014

Sysadmin Tips and Tricks - Stop Using Root!

A common mistake newer Linux system administrators make is the overuse of root. It seems so easy! Everything is so much simpler! But in the end, it’s not—and it’s only a matter of time before you wish you had not been so free and easy with your super-user, use. Let me try to convince you.

Let’s start with a little history. The antecedents of Linux go all the way back to the early 1970s, when computers cost tens of thousands of dollars (at least). With that kind of expense, you as a user would hardly have a computer sitting on your desk (not to mention they were at least refrigerator-sized), and you would also not have the use of it dedicated to your needs. What was obviously needed was an operating system that would allow multiple users to use the machine at once, via terminals, in order to make the most use of the computing resources available.

If you think about it, it’s clear that the operating system had to be very good at keeping users from being able to stomp on each other’s files and processes. So the early UNIX™ variants were multi-user systems from the get-go. In the ensuing forty years, these systems have only gotten better at keeping the various users and processes from harming each other. And this is the technology that you’re paying for when you use Linux or other modern variants.

Now, you may think, “That doesn’t apply to me—I’m the only user on my server!” But are you, really?

You probably run Apache, which is generally run as the user httpd or apache. Why not root? Because if you run Apache as root, then anyone on the outside who manages to get Apache to execute arbitrary code, would then have that code running as root! Next thing you know, they can execute "rm –rf /," or worse, invade your system altogether and steal proprietary information. By running as a non-root user, even if the attacker gets total access to that user, they are limited to what that user can touch. Thus, user httpd is compromised, but not the entire server.

The same thing is true for mail servers, FTP servers, and so on. They all rely on the Linux permissions system in order to give the programs access to as little as possible—ideally, only exactly what they need to do their jobs.

So, think of yourself as another process on the system. When you log in as your regular user, you are limited in what you can do. But this is not intended to harm you or irritate you—indeed; the system is designed to keep you from accidentally doing damage to your server.

For example, consider if you wanted to completely remove a directory called ‘home’ within your home directory. Note the ever so slight difference between the first command:

rm –R home

And the second command:

rm –R /home

The first command removes a directory called ‘home’ from wherever you happen to be sitting on the file system. The second removes all users’ home directories from the system. One little slash makes all the difference in the world. This is probably why it has been said that Linux gives you enough rope to hang yourself with. Executing the second command as root looks like this:

server:# rm –R /home

And it’s just gone! Whereas if you accidentally put that slash in there while logged in as your user, you would get:

server:# rm –R /home 
server:# rm: cannot remove `home’: Permission denied

This will annoy you, until you realize that if you’d done it as root you would have wiped out all your customers home directories.

In short, just like the processes that run on your machine, you would be well served to use only the permissions you need. This is why many Linux distributions today encourage the use of sudo—you don’t even become root, but just execute things as root when needed. It’s a good policy, and makes the best use of four decades of expertise that have gone into the system you are using.

- Lee

P.S. This is also why you pretty much never want to chmod 777 anything!

March 12, 2014

Name Servers: Don't Get Lost in (Domain) Translation

The Domain Name System (DNS) is vital to keeping the Internet in order and easily accessible. Every byte on the World Wide Web lives in (at least) one specific place on the planet, and it's mapped to that location with an IP address like (IPv4) or 2607:f0d0:4545:3:200:f8ff:fe21:67cf (IPv6). DNS translates the domain names you know and love to the correct IP addresses, so without DNS, you would have to memorize a 32-bit or 128-bit IP address for your favorite websites. Remember the last time your cell phone died? How many phone numbers did you have memorized?

There are plenty of resources available online to explain How DNS Works, so in this post, we'll focus on the basics of how we use DNS. Here's the scenario: We want to register a domain — — and make it available to the masses.

1. Reserve and Register a Domain Name
The first thing we need to do is purchase and register our domain name. To do this, we need to choose a domain registrar and verify that our domain is available. Every domain registrar effectively provides the same service: It will reserve an available domain on your behalf, and it will let you dictate where that domain will live. There's not a lot of differentiation or value-add in that service, so many registrars offer cheap or free domains as loss-leaders for higher margin hosting or Web services. Be sure to check the fine print to make sure you're not committing to a year of hosting to get a $0.99 domain name. Some registrars make the process of updating and configuring where a domain resolves more difficult than others, but for the sake of this example we'll assume that your registrar allows the same easy accessibility SoftLayer provides our customers in the customer portal.

The domain name we want is, and in this example, that domain name is available for us to reserve. Once we go through the ordering process, we'll need to associate the domain with a set of authoritative name servers. Authoritative name servers are effectively the go-to address book for a specified domain. By default, your domain registrar will provide name servers for your domain, but they can be changed easily to meet your needs. You have four typical options when it comes to choosing your domain's name servers:

  • Use the domain registrar's default name servers.
  • Use you hosting provider’s name servers.
  • Use a third party DNS service to manage your domain names.
  • Run your own name servers on your server to manage your domain names.

Each of these options has its own pros and cons, but because we're just interested in getting our domain online, we'll use SoftLayer's DNS control panel to manage our new domain name.

2. Create DNS Records
When we access our hosting provider's DNS control panel, we see this:

DNS Management

This is an extremely high level view of DNS, so we’re just going to focus on what we must have in order to make reachable via browser. The first thing we'll do is add a DNS zone. This is usually our domain, but in some situations, it can be a bit different. In this example, we'll create a “” zone to be responsible for the whole domain:

DNS Management

With that zone created, we now need to add new "Address Records" (A Records) within that zone:

DNS Management
DNS Management

The terminology used in different DNS control panels may vary, so let’s breakdown what the four sections in those screenshots mean:

  • Resource Type: This is our DNS record type. In our example, we have A records which link a hostname to our IP address. There are a number of DNS record types, each serving a different purpose.
  • Host: This is the host node or owner name — the name of the node that this record applies to. Using the @ symbol in the A record allows visitors to reach our website without the leading www. If we wanted to live at a different IP address, we'd make that happen here.
  • Points To: This is the IP address of the host node. You might see this section referred to elsewhere as content, data or value. The standard term is RDATA — resource record data. This is specific to each data type.
  • TTL (Time-to-Live): TTL dictates how long your name server should keep a particular record before refreshing for possible updates. Generally speaking, longer TTLs work well if you’re just adding new entries and or don’t anticipate frequent record changes.

Once we save these changes in our DNS control panel, we play the waiting game. Because these DNS changes have to propagate across our DNS servers to be accessible to the Internet as a whole, the process typically takes 24-48 hours, if not sooner. SoftLayer’s customer portal has DNS check built-in as one a few different network tools. If you aren't a current customer, you can use What's my DNS? This is what the SoftLayer tool looks like:

DNS Management

3. Create rDNS Records
The last step we want to take in setting up our domain is to create Reverse DNS (rDNS) records. These records do the same thing as DNS records, but (as the name suggests) they function in the opposite direction. With rDNS, we can assign an IP address to a domain name. This step isn't required, but I recommend it to help ensure better performance of online activities like email and website visitor tracking.

DNS is a central piece of the Internet as we know it, so by understanding how to use it, you'll have a much better understanding of how the Internet works. It seems challenging at first glance, but as you see from this simple walkthrough, when you break down and understand each step, you won't get overwhelmed. A wealth of DNS tools and tutorials are available for free online, and our DNS documentation might be a great resource to bookmark so you'll never get lost in domain translation.

- Landon

February 3, 2014

Risk Management: 5 Tips for Managing Risk in the Cloud

Security breaches have made front-page news in recent months. With stories about Target, Neiman Marcus, Yahoo! and GoDaddy in the headlines recently, the importance of good information security practices is becoming harder and harder to ignore — even for smaller businesses. Moving your business into the cloud offers a plethora of benefits; however, those benefits do not come without their challenges. Moving your business into the cloud involves risks such as multi-tenancy, so it's important to be able to properly manage and identify these risks.

1. Know the Security Your Provider Offers
While some SaaS providers may have security baked-in, most IaaS providers (including SoftLayer) leave much of the logical security responsibility of a customer's systems to the customer. For the security measures that an infrastructure provider handles, the provider should be able to deliver documentation attesting these controls. We perform an annual SOC2 audit, so we can attest to the status of our security and availability controls as a service organization. With this information, our customers use controls from our report as part of their own compliance requirements. Knowing a provider's security controls (and seeing proof of that security) allows business owners and Chief Information Security Officers (CISO) to have peace-of-mind that they can properly plan their control activities to better prevent or respond to a breach.

2. Use the Cloud to Distribute and Replicate Your Presence
The incredible scalability and geographical distribution of operating in the cloud can yield some surprising payoff. Experts in the security industry are leveraging the cloud to reduce their patch cycles to days, not weeks or months. Most cloud providers have multiple sites so that you can spread your presence nationally, or even globally. With this kind of infrastructure footprint, businesses can replicate failover systems and accommodate regional demand across multiple facilities with the minimal incremental investment (and with nearly identical security controls).

3. Go Back to the Basics
Configuration management. Asset management. Separation of duties. Strong passwords. Many organizations get so distracted by the big picture of their security measures that they fail to manage these basic rights. Take advantage of any of your provider's tools to assist in the ‘mundane’ tasks that are vitally important to your business's overall security posture. For example, you can use image templates or post-provisioning scripts to deploy a standard baseline configuration to your systems, then track them down to the specific server room. You’ll know what hardware is in your server at all times, and if you're using SoftLayer, you can even drill down to the serial numbers of your hard drives.

4. Have Sound Incident Response Plans
The industry is becoming increasingly cognizant of the fact that it’s not a matter of if, but when a security threat will present itself. Even with exceedingly high levels of baked-in security, most of the recent breaches resulted from a compromised employee. Be prepared to respond to security incidents with confidence. While you may be physically distanced from your systems, you should be able to meet defined Recovery Time Objectives (RTOs) for your services.

5. Maintain Constant Contact with Your Cloud Provider
Things happen. No amount of planning can completely halt every incident, whether it be a natural disaster or a determined attacker. Know that your hosting provider has your back when things take an unexpected turn.

With proper planning and good practice, the cloud isn't as risky and frightening as most think. If you're interested in learning a little more about the best practices around security in the cloud, check out the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA). The CSA provides a wealth of knowledge to assist business owners and security professionals alike. Build on the strengths, compensate for the weaknesses, and you and your CISO will be able to sleep at night (and maybe even sneak in a beer after work).


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