The nature of systems administrators’ jobs puts them in a position of power, which can be deliberately or inadvertently subverted, says Bob Tarzey.

IT systems don’t run themselves – at least not all the time. At some point the intervention of system administrators – sysadmins – is required.

The very nature of a sysadmin’s job requires that that he or she is granted a higher, privileged level of access to IT infrastructure than that granted to normal users.

When the actions taken by sysadmins are other than those expected of them, there can be far-reaching consequences. In the worst case, a sysadmin may abuse their privilege for malicious reasons, for example to steal data or set backdoor access to IT systems for themselves or others.

All privileged user access should be via identities that are clearly associated with individuals, not group admin accounts

All privileged user access should be via identities that are clearly associated with individuals, not group admin accountsPhoto: Shutterstock

Sysadmins are also good targets for identity theft through techniques such as spear phishing, a privilege ID being more useful to hackers than a normal one. However, the most common problem is simply that sysadmins are human. They make mistakes.

Privileged user management tools help address a number of issues that a recent Quocirca report showed were rife among UK businesses. So here are Quocirca’s top 10 tips for better and safer systems administration.

Tip 1. Know your privileged users

Certain regulations and standards make strong statements about the use of privilege. One of the controls in the IT service management (ITSM) standard ISO 27001 states that “the allocation and use of privileges shall be restricted and controlled”. The Payment Card Industries Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) recommends “auditing all privileged user activity”.

In other words, the use of group admin accounts is a strict no-no. Such accounts should be blocked and all privileged user access should be via identities that are clearly associated with individuals.

Tip 2. Make sure legacy privileged accounts are closed

This measure includes the default accounts provided with systems and application software, which with the right tools can be searched for and closed, and the accounts of sysadmins who have now left your organisation. The best way to deal with the second point is to provide only short-term access for specific tasks in the first place.

Tip 3. Minimise sysadmins errors

Quocirca’s research suggests that the average error rate of sysadmins runs at about six percent. Errors can waste time – for example, applying patches to the wrong device – be a security risk in cases such as changing the rules of the wrong firewall, or cause disaster – say, wiping the wrong disk volume.

Sysadmin tools that guide users to the right device in the first place and double-check their actions can help avoid errors, as can the automation of certain mundane tasks.

Tip 4. Limit sysadmins’ access to devices

Another way to avoid errors is to grant sysadmins privilege access to devices that need maintenance for limited periods of time. Rather than providing wide-ranging and ongoing access, grant it only to a single device or small subset of devices and only for the period of time deemed reasonable to get the job done.

Tip 5. Encrypt sysadmin login details

Many sysadmin tasks involved maintaining remote devices, which requires the sysadmin login details and the instructions for the given task to be transmitted, sometimes embedded in scripts. It has been common for this to be done in…

…clear text, especially when using services like Telnet. This approach provides easy pickings for hackers, so all such transmissions should be encrypted.

Tip 6. Back up all IT devices

The failure of IT devices is inevitable. What is important is that they can be recovered and up and running again as soon as possible. Most organisations are diligent about the backup of servers. They are less rigorous about the backup of network and security devices, the failure of which can be just as damaging to IT access.

Such devices should be backed up regularly and at least every time their configuration is changed. The backups should be stored securely, to prevent them being stolen and used to clone the original device. Automating such backups is the best approach.

Tip 7. Limit sysadmin access to data

To carry out their jobs, sysadmins need access to systems data, not business data. All too often, their wide-ranging privileges have given them access to both. This approach is unnecessary. To protect the data and sysadmins from the accusation of abusing their position of trust, the scope of their access should be limited.

It can be done with the right tools. Cloud service providers have to observe this distinction, managing their own infrastructure while respecting the confidentiality of their client’s data.

Tip 8. Safe disposal of old devices

All IT devices carry potentially useful data to hackers. Firewalls, load-balancers, content filters all contain various network-access settings and user details along with system log files.

All devices have an end of life, so before disposal it should be ensured that all such data is safely deleted or the hard disks involved destroyed.

Tip 9. Be ready for the auditors

Auditors take a particular interest in the actions of privileged users for many of the reasons already outlined. As well as being able to associate a given sysadmin with his or her actions, a full audit trail for the admin history of a given device should be kept.

Maintaining this trail is only possible if access to the device is controlled and the tools that provide access keep a record with the necessary level of detail.

Tip 10. Free sysadmins from drudgery

Part of the reason why sysadmins make mistakes is that many of the tasks they have to carry out are mundane and repetitive. Automating as many of their tasks as possible and having the tools and procedures in place to allow safe delegation to junior and temporary staff can relieve some of the drudgery.

It leaves sysadmins free to focus on more productive tasks that increase the value IT provides to their organisation rather than just fighting to keep the lights on.

Want to see the full research? Quocirca’s report Conquering the sysadmin challenge is freely available to readers.

Bob Tarzey is a director at Quocirca, a user-facing analyst house known for its focus on the big picture. Made up of experts in technology and its business implications, the Quocirca team includes Clive Longbottom, Bob Tarzey, Rob Bamforth and Louella Fernandes. Their series of columns for seeks to demystify the latest jargon and business thinking.