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IDFAQ: What is a bastion host?

A bastion host is a computer that is fully exposed to attack. The system is on the public side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), unprotected by a firewall or filtering router. Frequently the roles of these systems are critical to the network security system. Indeed the firewalls and routers can be considered bastion hosts. Due to their exposure a great deal of effort must be put into designing and configuring bastion hosts to minimize the chances of penetration. Other types of bastion hosts include web, mail, DNS, and FTP servers. Some network administrators will also use sacrificial lambs as bastion hosts, these systems are deliberately exposed to potential hackers to both delay and facilitate tracking of attempted break-ins.

Effective bastion hosts are configured very differently from typical hosts. Each bastion host fulfills a specific role, all unnecessary services, protocols, programs, and network ports are disabled or removed. Bastion hosts do not share authentication services with trusted hosts within the network so that if a bastion is compromised the intruder will still not have 'the keys to the castle.' A bastion host is hardened to limit potential methods of attack. The specific steps to harden a particular bastion host depend upon the intended role of that host as well as the operating system and software that it will be running. Access Control Lists (ACLs) will be modified on the file system and other system objects; all unnecessary TCP and UDP ports will be disabled; all non-critical services and daemons will be removed; as many utilities and system configuration tools as is practical will also be removed. All appropriate service packs, hot fixes, and patches should be installed. Logging of all security related events need to be enabled and steps need to be taken to ensure the integrity of the logs so that a successful intruder is unable to erase evidence of their visit. Any local user account and password databases should be encrypted if possible.

The last step to securing a bastion host may be the most difficult: securing whatever network application the host is running. Very often the vendor of a web or streaming media server doesn't consider security risks while developing their product. It is usually up to the system administrator to determine through testing what ACLs they need to modify to lock down the network application as thoroughly as possible without disabling the very features that make it a useful tool. It is also necessary to closely track the latest announcements from the vendor regarding security problems, workarounds, and patches. The more popular network applications also tend to inspire the creation of independent mailing lists, newsgroups, and websites that can be tracked for additional insights.

Kurt Dillard
Collective Technologies, Inc