Linux Server Security – Best Practices for 2020

Linux Server Security

Linux server security is on sufficient level from the moment you install the OS. And that’s great to know because… hackers never sleep! They’re kind of like digital vandals. Taking pleasure – and sometimes money too – as they inflict misery on random strangers all over the planet.

Anyone who looks after their own server appreciates the fact that Linux is highly secure right out the box. Naturally, it isn’t completely watertight. But it does do a better job of keeping you safe than most other operating systems.

Still, there are plenty of ways you can improve it further. So here are some practical ways how you can keep the evil hordes from the gates. It will probably help if you’ve tinkered under the hood of a web server before. But don’t think that you have to be a tech guru or anything like that.

Deactivate network ports when not in use

Deactivate network ports when not in use

Leave a network port open and you might as well put out the welcome mat for hackers. To maintain web host security you can use the “netstat” command to inform you which network ports are currently open. And also which services are making use of them. This should close off another avenue of attack for hackers.

You also might want to set up “iptables” to deactivate open ports. Or simply use the “chkconfig” command to shut down services you won’t need. Firewalls like CSF let you automate the iptables rules, so you could just do that. If you use Plesk platform as your hosting management software – please pay attention to this article about Plesk ports.

The SSH port is usually 22, and that’s where hackers will expect to find it. To enhance Linux server security, change it to some other port number you’re not already using for another service. This way, you’ll be making it harder for the bad guys to inject malware into your server. To make the change, just go to /etc/ssh/sshd_config and enter the appropriate number.

Update Linux Software and Kernel

Update software for better Linux server security

Half of the Linux security battle is keeping everything up to date because updates frequently add extra security features. Linux offers all the tools you need to do this, and upgrading between versions is simple too. Every time a new security update becomes available, you need to review it and install it as soon as you can. Again, you can use an RPM package manager like yum and/or apt-get and/or dpkg to handle this.

# yum update


# apt-get update && apt-get upgrade

It’s possible to set up RedHat / CentOS / Fedora Linux so that you get yum package update notifications sent to your email. This is great for Linux security and you can also apply all security updates using a cron job. Apticron can be used to send security mitigations under Debian / Ubuntu Linux. You can also use the apt-get command/apt command to configure unattended-upgrades for your Debian/Ubuntu Linux server:

$ sudo apt-get install unattended-upgrades apt-listchanges bsd-mailx

Reduce Redundant Software to Increase Linux Security

For greater Linux server security hardening It’s worth doing a spring clean (at any time of the year) on your installed web services. It’s easy for surplus apps to accumulate and you will probably find that you don’t need half of them. In the future, for better Linux server security try not to install software that you don’t need. It’s a simple and effective way to reduce potential security holes. Use an RPM package manager like yum or apt-get and/or dpkg to go through your installed software and remove any that you don’t need any more.

# yum list installed
# yum list packageName
# yum remove packageName


# dpkg --list
# dpkg --info packageName
# apt-get remove packageName

Turn off IPv6 to boost Linux server security

Turn off IPv6

IPv6 is better than IPv4, but you probably aren’t getting much out of it – because neither is anyone else. Hackers get something from it though – because they use it to send malicious traffic. So shutting down IPv6 will close the door in their faces. Go to edit /etc/sysconfig/ network and change the settings to read NETWORKING_ IPV6=no and IPV6INIT=no. Simple as that.

Turn off root logins to improve Linux server security

Linux servers the world over allow the use of “root” as a username. Knowing this, hackers will often try subverting web host security to discover your password before slithering inside. It’s because of this that you should not sign in as the root user. In fact, you really ought to remove it as an option, creating one more level of difficulty for hackers. And thus, stopping them from being able to get past your security with just a lucky guess.

So, all it takes is for you to create a separate username. Then use the “sudo” special access command to execute root level commands. Sudo is great because you can give it to any users  you want to have admin commands, but not root access. Because you don’t want to compromise security by giving them both.

So you deactivate the root account, but before, check you’ve created and authorized your new user. Next, go to /etc/ssh/sshd_config in nano or vi, then locate the “PermitRootLogin” parameter. Change the default setting of “yes” to “no” and then save your changes.

GnuPG encryption for web host security

GnuPG encryption

When data is on the move across your network, hackers will frequently attempt to compromise Linux server security by intercepting it. Always make sure anything going to and from your server has password encryption, certificates and keys. One way to do this is with an encryption tool like GnuPG. It uses a system of keys to ensure nobody can snoop on your info when in transit.

Change/boot to read-only

All files related to the kernel on a Linux server are in the “/boot” directory. The standard access level for the directory is “read-write”, but it’s a good idea to change it to “read-only”. This stops anyone from modifying your extremely important boot files.

Just edit the /etc/fstab file and add LABEL=/boot /boot ext2 defaults, rows 1 2 to the bottom. It is completely reversible, so you can make future changes to the kernel by changing it back to “read-write” mode. Then, once you’re done, you can revert back to “read only”.

A better password policy enhances Web Host Security

better password policy - linux server security

Passwords are always a security problem because humans are. People can’t be bothered to come up with a lot of different passwords – or maybe they can’t. So what happens? They use the same ones in different places. Or worse yet – combinations that are easy to remember, like “password” or “abcde”. Basically, a gift to hackers.

Make it a requirement for passwords to contain a mix of upper AND lower case letters, numbers, and symbols. You can enable password ageing to make users discard previous passwords at fixed intervals. Also think about banning old passwords, so once people use one, it’s gone forever. The “faillog” command lets you put a limit on the amount of failed login attempts allowed and lock user accounts. This is ideal to prevent brute force attacks.

So just use a strong password all the time

Passwords are your first line of defense, so make sure they’re strong. Many people don’t really know what a good password looks like. That it needs to be complex, but also long enough to make it the strongest it can be.

At admin level, you can help users by securing Plesk Obsidian and enforcing the use of strong passwords which expire after a fixed period. Users may not like it, but you need to make them understand that it saves them a lot of possible heartache.

So what are the ‘best practices’ when setting up passwords?

  1. Use passwords that are as long as you can manage
  2. Avoid words that appear in the dictionary (like “blue grapes”)
  3. Steer clear of number replacements that are easy to guess (like “h3ll0”)
  4. Don’t reference pop culture (such as “TARDIS”)
  5. Never use a password in more than once place
  6. Change your password regularly and use a different one for every website
  7.  Don’t write passwords down, and don’t share them. Not with anybody. Ever!

The passwords you choose should increase Web Host Security by being obscure and not easy to work out. You’ll also help your security efforts if you give your root (Linux) or RDP (Windows) login its own unique password.

Linux security security needs a firewall

Firewall helps Linux server security - Plesk

A firewall is a must have for web host security, because it’s your first line of defense against attackers, and you are spoiled for choice. NetFilter is built into the Linux kernel. Combined with iptables, you can use it to resist DDos attacks.

TCPWrapper is a host-based access control list (ACL) system that filters network access for different programs. It has host name verification, standardized logging and protection from spoofing. Firewalls like CSF and APF are also widely used, and they also come with plugins for popular panels like cPanel and Plesk.

Locking User Accounts After Unsuccessful Logins

For Linux security, the faillog command shows unsuccessful login attempts and can assign limits to how many times a user can get their login credentials wrong before the account is locked. faillog formats the contents of the failure log from the /var/log/faillog database/log file. To view unsuccessful login attempts, enter:


To open up an account locked in this way, run:

faillog -r -u userName

With Linux security in mind be aware that you can use the passwd command to lock and unlock accounts:

lock Linux account

passwd -l userName

unlock Linux account

passwd -u userName

Try disk partitions for better Web host security

disk partitions - linux server security

If you partition your disks then you’ll be separating OS files from user files, tmp files and programs. Try disabling SUID/SGID access (nosuid) along with binaries (noexec) on the operating system partition

Avoid Using Telnet, FTP, and Rlogin / Rsh Services

With the majority of network configurations, anyone on the same network with a packet sniffer can intercept FTP, telnet, or rsh commands, usernames, passwords, and transferred files. To avoid compromising Linux server security try using either OpenSSH, SFTP, or FTPS (FTP over SSL), which gives FTP the benefit of SSL or TLS encryption. To move outdated services like NIS or rsh enter this yum command:

# yum erase xinetd ypserv tftp-server telnet-server rsh-server

For Debian/Ubuntu Linux server security, give the apt-get command/apt command a try to get rid of non-secure services:

$ sudo apt-get --purge remove xinetd nis yp-tools tftpd atftpd tftpd-hpa telnetd rsh-server rsh-redone-server

Use an Intrusion Detection System

NIDS or Network intrusion detection systems keep watch for malevolent activity against Linux server security like DOS attacks, port scans, and intrusion attempts.

For greater Linux server security hardening it’s recommended that you use integrity checking software before you take a system into a production environment online. You should install AIDE software before connecting the system to a network if possible. AIDE is a host-based intrusion detection system (HIDS) which monitors and analyses a computing system’s internals. You would be wise to use rkhunter rootkit detection software as well.

Logs and Audits

You can’t manage what you don’t measure, so if you want to stop hackers then your system needs to log every single time that intruders try to find a way in. Syslog is set up to store data in the /var/log/ directory by default and it can also help you to identify the potential surreptitious routes inside that misconfigured software can present.

Secure Apache/PHP/NGINX server

Edit httpd.conf file and add:

ServerTokens Prod
ServerSignature Off
TraceEnable Off
Options all -Indexes
Header always unset X-Powered-By

Restart the httpd/apache2 server on Linux, run:

$ sudo systemctl restart apache2.service


$ sudo systemctl restart httpd.service

Activate CMS auto-updates

Activate CMS auto-updates

CMSs are quite complex, so hackers are always trying to exploit security loopholes with them. Joomla!, Drupal and WordPress, are all hugely popular platforms, so developers are constantly working on new security fixes. This means updates are important and should be applied straight away. The best way to ensure this happens is to activate auto-updates, so you won’t even have to think about it. Your host isn’t responsible for the content of your website. So it’s up to you to ensure you update it regularly. And it won’t hurt to back it up once in a while either.

Backup regularly

Backup regularly - linux server security - cloud

Regular and thorough backups are probably your most important security measure. Backups can help you recover from a security disaster. Typical UNIX backup programs use dump and restore, and these are we recommend them. For maximum Linux security, you need to backup to external storage with encryption, which means something like a NAS server or cloud-based service.

Protect Email Directories and Files

These Linux security tips wouldn’t be complete without telling you that Linux has some great ways to protect data against unauthorized access. File permissions and MAC are great at stopping intruders from getting at your data, but all the Linux permissions in the world don’t count for anything if they can be circumvented—for instance, by transplanting a hard drive to another machine. In such a case you need to protect Linux files and partitions with these tools:

  • For password-protected file encryption and decryption, use the gpg
  • Both Linux and UNIX can add password protection to files using openssl and other tools.
  • The majority of Linux distributions support full disk encryption. You should ensure that swap is encrypted too, and only allow bootloader editing via a password.
  • Make sure root mail is forwarded to an account that you check.

System Accounting with auditd

Auditd is used for system audits. Its job is to write audit records to the disk. This daemon reads the rules in /etc/audit.rules at start-up. You have various options for amending the /etc/audit.rules file such as setting up the location for the audit file log. Auditd will help you gain insight into these common events:

  • Occurrences at system startup and shutdown (reboot/halt).
  • Date and time an event happened.
  • The user who instigated the event (for example, perhaps they were attempting to access /path/to/topsecret.dat file).
  • Type of event (edit, access, delete, write, update file, and commands).
  • Whether the event succeeded or failed.
  • Records events that Modify time and date.
  • Discover who modified network settings.
  • Record actions that change user or group information.
  • Show who changed a file etc.

Use Kerberos

Kerberos is a third-party service offering authentication that aids Linux security hardening. It uses shared secret cryptography and assumes that packets moving on a non-secure network are readable and writable. Kerberos is based on symmetric-key cryptography and so needs a key distribution center. Kerberos lets you make remote login, remote copy, secure inter-system file copying, and other risky actions safer and it also gives you more control over them. Kerberos authentication prevents unauthorized users from spying on network traffic and grabbing passwords.

Linux Server Security Summary

That’s a lot of tips, but you need to keep your linux server security updated in a world of thieves and vandals. These despicable beings are hard at work all the time, always looking to exploit any chink in a website’s armor. If you give them the slimmest opportunity to disrupt your business, they will happily take advantage of it. Since there’s such a huge army of them, you need to make sure that your castle has extremely strong defenses.

Let us know how many of these tips you have implemented, or if you have any questions in the comments below.

Warning: Fileless attacks are on the rise

Fileless attacks are on the rise!

Ever heard of fileless attacks? This is malicious code gets a foothold on your server. Not through a certain file or a document, but by infiltrating the server RAM. Thus, exploiting various processes and vulnerabilities of the server software. They can do this via vulnerable web applications, specially formed requests, and so on.

The idea behind fileless attack

The harm that a fileless attack inflicts leaves no trace since its malware does not write any files to the hard drive. Instead, it performs all malicious activities directly in RAM. After the system reboots, the malicious code disappears – but the damage has already been done to your server. This type of threat is commonly referred to as an Advanced Volatile Threat (AVT).

Some types of malicious code harm system files, some set up malicious code for other types of attacks, and others open entry points for hackers to use other server’s vulnerabilities. Both users and security solutions, like McAfee Endpoint Security, Virsec Security Platform, and others, are not tuned for Fileless attacks. Thus, making them hard to detect.

Fileless Malware Found On Various Operating Systems

On Windows servers, hackers actively use the pre-installed system Powershell to download and run malicious code. Or they can also use BAT and VBS scripts. These techniques are now widespread since you can execute them in frameworks like Powershell Empire, Powersploit, and Metasploit Framework.

As for Linux, most installed distributions like CentOS, Ubuntu, and Debian, have pre-installed software. This usually has programming languages interpreters: Python, Perl, and С compiler – a bad practice of installing an operating system on servers. Lots of hosting servers also have PHP installed because of its huge popularity. So Fileless attacks use these interpreters.

How Fileless Malware Survives on Linux

On Linux, the easiest way to run malicious code in RAM by way of fileless malware is to use shared memory. Hence, a block of RAM shared and pre-mounted in the file system. By placing an executable file in /dev/shm or/run/shm, it’s possible to run the file directly in RAM. Remember that these directories are nothing but shared memory.

However, the content of these directories can be viewed with the ls command, which works for any other directory. Moreover, these directories are usually mounted with the noexec flag and only root can run programs in them. Therefore, more intricate types of fileless malware use, for example, the memfd_create system call (in case of the C programming language).

Interpreted languages, such as Perl and Python, which are widely used in web hosting, also offer the ability to use syscall(). PHP, which is even more popular, does not have built-in techniques to use syscall. However, there are old tricks that allow using required system calls even in PHP.

Fileless Attacks Are Increasing

Fileless attacks increase

According to research carried out by Ponemon Institute in 2018, we should expect fileless attacks to grow and make up 35% of all cyberattacks worldwide. Consequently, there will also be a decrease of regular file-based attacks.

Fileless vs file-based attacks

Fileless attacks are particularly dangerous in the corporate world since. Because Fileless malware becomes especially effective after installing in the RAM of servers active 24/7, 365 days a year. So Fileless attacks can hit any organization – like the Democratic National Committee in the US in mid-2016 for example. A hacker known as Guccifer 2.0 inserted a piece of Fileless malware into the Committee’s system and then gained access to 19,252 emails and 8,034 attachments. The document of the District Court for the District of Columbia states that Powershell scripts were used to hack the Microsoft Exchange Server of the Committee.

This intrusion resulted in the publication of a series of revelations that ended up hindering Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump’s then rival.

How to protect against Fileless attacks

Cybersecurity experts recommend the following measures to withstand the threat of fileless malware intrusion:

  1. A company that wants to protect its corporate cyber security has to be cyber-resilient and therefore stay informed about new kind of attacks.
  2. Avoid scripting languages like Powershell, because fileless malware actively exploits them. You can either delete Powershell or configure the system so that an attacker can’t exploit it.
  3. Use adapted solutions to detect malicious code – not just on the file system, but also in the RAM.
  4. Beware of Macros – they’re the most common tools on any computer and a possible entry point for fileless malware. As with scripting languages, companies don’t necessarily need to give up on all kinds of Macros. But they do need to be responsible when using them.

Fileless Attack Prevention Advice – From the Experts

Reputable sources of protection against fileless attacks stress that you need to “Keep your software up to date. As inconvenient as they can be, software updates are usually done to patch critical security vulnerabilities.” It’s one of the best practices for fileless malware protection.

As far as Microsoft products are concerned, Comparitech tell us “How to stop fileless malware”: “The main defense against any type of malware is to keep your software up to date. As Microsoft has been very active in taking steps to block the exploitation of PowerShell and WMI, installing any updates from Microsoft should be a priority.”

Ilia Kolochenko, CEO, Founder, High-Tech Bridge, speaks about the vulnerability of not keeping web applications up to date:

“It’s a very colorful, albeit very sad, example how a vulnerability in a web application can lead to disastrous consequences for an entire company, its customer base and beyond. Today, almost any critical data is handled and processed by web applications, but cybersecurity teams still seriously underestimate the risks related to application security.

Most companies don’t even have an up2date application inventory. Without knowing your assets, you won’t be able to protect them. Many global companies still rely on obsolete automated solutions and tools for their application security, while cybercriminals are already using machine-learning in their attacks when targeting and profiling the victims.”

Our cybersecurity experts at Plesk also advocate the importance of timely and regular installation of updates. Whether on your operating system, hosting server software, web applications, or CMS plugins. Right now, it’s the best way to protect against fileless attacks. Have a look at our Change Log for the latest information and released Plesk updates, and their installation procedure.