Linux Security Installation Issues
- About Various Linux Distributions, Security, and Installation
- Partitions and Security
- Choosing Network Services During Installation
- Boot Loaders
Installation chapters are rarely anyone's favorite. I find myself skipping over installation chapters simply because they mirror the installation instructions that came packaged with the software I'm using. This chapter aims to be something different.
Most Linux installation chapters discuss the steps necessary to install a particular distribution of Linux. These chapters also end when the final "install" button is clicked. In this chapter, however, you'll learn the important steps to take during the installation procedure to ensure that your operating system is secure:
Differences in installation procedures and security on various Linux distributions
Partitions and security
Choosing network services at installation
About Various Linux Distributions, Security, and Installation
More than 110 Linux distributions exist, and more will undoubtedly appear and disappear over time. These distributions all share some common characteristics: the same kernel releases, the same basic applications, and, with few exceptions, the same core source code.
This might persuade you that all Linux distributions are identical. Not true. Subtle differences do exist:
Different Linux distributions have different installation tools, and their functionality might vary. Some installation tools automatically specify which network servers activate on boot, and some don't. Others ask you.
Some installation tools drill down into individual packages so that you can choose precisely what software is installed. Other installation tools offer less incisive scope, such as asking you which sets of software you'd like to install rather than which individual applications.
If you're new to Linux, these variables can affect your system's security. Frankly, you might end up with innumerable software packages and servers installed that you know nothing about.
This is a major problem facing Linux newcomers, and the publishing field hasn't helped. Although there are countless Linux primer books, few of them contain comprehensive lists of installable software. This leaves newbies in an odd position. Faced with choosing individual applications or installing the entire distribution, most will choose the latter.
Older distributions, such as early SlackWare, worked differently. The installation tool, based on shell scripts with a dialog front end, paused at every application and utility, forcing you to choose whether or not to install it. Each dialog displayed the application's description per its Linux Software Map entry. This allowed you to ascertain each program's purpose and whether or not you needed it. For system administrators who have an understanding of Unix, this is fine. For others, it made installing Linux tedious and confusing.
Is it really so important that you understand precisely what you're installing? Yes, and here's why: Linux markedly differs from other operating systems in that no single entity controls development and testing. When you venture beyond Linux's kernel (the system's heart), Linux is composed of several thousand different tools, modules, libraries, and so forth.
Many of these components are derived from third-party, academic, freelance, and commercial developers all around the world. Each developer is responsible for their application's quality control, and hence your mileage might greatly vary. To understand why, please examine Figure 3.1.
Figure 3.1 Various types of Linux software.
Figure 3.1 shows various types of Linux software and an admittedly generalized critique of quality control at each level. Here's what it shows:
The Linux kernel and must-have tools have been rigorously tested for common programming errors that could potentially threaten system security. The folks doing this testing have a lot of experience and are familiar with Linux source and development history, particularly from a security standpoint.
Semi-commercial tools are tools that would be commercial on any other platform. Recently, there's been a huge influx of such tools as large corporate vendors move into Linux territory. These tools might have excellent security, but many probably don't. Porting complex commercial applications to Linux, a relatively new and unfamiliar operating system, is an error-prone enterprise. Furthermore, some vendors view Linux ports as policy decisions (testing the water) and allocate less time and effort to analyzing their port's security status, unless the application is specifically related to security.
Finally, beyond core Linux code and semi-commercial contributions lie freelance, beta, and other tools. This category already makes up a substantial portion of Linux and is growing rapidly. Testing here varies. Many new Linux tools are the result of the well-intentioned, enthusiastic efforts of budding programmers. Some have long Unix experience and are well aware of security issues. Others might be just starting out.
As you move farther from Linux's basic core, you reap increasingly disparate results—with the notable exception of security tools. Some Linux security tools have reached levels of excellence equaled only in high-performance, commercial security applications.
If you're using Linux for personal use, you can install the entire distribution without worry. Just employ good security practices, back up often, and be prepared to learn through trial and error.
However, if you're using Linux for enterprise or mission-critical tasks, and therefore cannot tolerate error, take a different approach:
Before employing Linux in your enterprise environment, learn a bit about software packages, what they do, how long they've been around, and whether you actually need them. For this, I recommend visiting the Linux Software Map at http://www.boutell.com/lsm/. The LSM is searchable, which is nice because there are currently about 3,000 entries.
If your Linux distribution includes proprietary tools, investigate their utility and security track record. See Appendix D, "Sources for More Information," for more information about each distribution (bug lists, revision tracking sites, bulletins, vendor advisories, and so on).
Beyond these steps, try adhering to this cardinal rule: Less is more. Try installing only what you need.
This can be difficult, especially if you've just discovered Linux. Linux offers a wide range of applications and multiple subsets within each application type. Thus, in addition to the dozen text editors available on your distribution's CD-ROM, there are probably 25 more Linux text editors available. That's a lot of choices.
In particular, be extremely careful when you're choosing networked applications (anything that relies on a daemon). If a networked application has flaws, it can expose your system to remote attack. No other operating system offers as many networked applications as Linux. Indeed, Linux developers have gone hog-wild, networking everything from CD players to scribble pads. If it can be networked at all, Linux surely has networked it.
In short, before you install Linux in an enterprise environment, take the time to read about it. It's worth the effort, and you'll find your research interesting and enlightening. Linux is an operating system that's rich with possibilities and that supports truly amazing applications. For example, do you need DNA-sequencing tools or a means to view molecular structures? No problem. Go to http://SAL.KachinaTech.COM/index.shtml.
Finally, I should point out that even given all this, when Linux is properly installed and maintained, it offers excellent security. You simply need a Linux security overview, which is what this book is for, after all. Let's get started.
All Distributions Are Not Created Equal...
If you haven't chosen a distribution yet, now is the time to do so—but be aware that not all Linux distributions are the same or stress the same features. This can be difficult for first-time users to understand. After all, Linux is Linux, isn't it? Yes and no. As I've already mentioned, the installation procedures vary greatly among the different Linux distributions. Additionally, the feature sets vary—some versions are focused on the user experience, whereas others are aimed at creating a brick wall in terms of security. Unfortunately, many Linux distributions try to be everything to everyone and come up short.
The following is a short look at some of the current distributions and what sets each one apart from the pack:
Stampede Linux—Available for Intel and Alpha processors, Stampede provides a hardware-optimized port of Linux. This is not a good beginner distribution, but would work nicely for a network administrator or seasoned Unix professional. http://www.stampede.org/
Phat Linux—The Phat distribution is an excellent starting place for users who have been working with Microsoft Windows and are unwilling to give up their Windows installation completely. Phat installs on an existing Windows partition and offers a full complete KDE-based Linux desktop environment. Installation is painless and extremely quick. http://www.phatlinux.org/
SuSE—Available for Alpha, PowerPC, Intel, and Sparc platforms, SuSE offers a simple installation process, large collection of included applications, and power features for the advanced user. One of the big SuSE advantages is out of the box support for a journaling file system. This can be used to create a very stable and fault-tolerant desktop or server. http://www.suse.org/
Yellow Dog—The Yellow Dog distribution is for PowerPC computers and is mainly intended to provide a secure and optimized Linux distribution for the Macintosh G3 and G4 series as well as IBM RS/6000 machines. If you're a Mac user looking for a simple transition from Mac OS, you're better suited running the standard LinuxPPC distribution. http://www.yellowdoglinux.com/
OpenLinux—OpenLinux originally described a single Linux distribution. Today it describes a family of distributions from Caldera. If you know what your Linux application will be, Caldera is the place to go. From ASP solutions to a secure desktop environment, Caldera offers distributions targeted to different applications, all with easy installation and excellent support. http://www.caldera.com/
Linux Mandrake—Based on the Red Hat distribution, Linux Mandrake is a Pentium-optimized distribution with graphical administration add-ons that make installation, updates, and file management a breeze. Although the Mandrake distribution is relatively new, it is quickly becoming a favorite of many users. In fact, PC Data ranked Mandrake as the number one selling Linux distribution in December 2000. http://www.linux-mandrake.com/
Red Hat—Red Hat is the powerhouse of Linux distributions. It has led the Linux charge into the workplace and, in many respects, is single-handedly responsible for making Linux a player in the enterprise workplace. Sporting a remarkably simple installer with auto-partitioning, RAID support, and desktop or server installations, it can create both secure desktop systems and powerful servers. Unfortunately, the introduction of Red Hat 7.0 alienated many longtime users with a restructured file system and other significant changes. If you're a first-time user, however, you'll be amazed at the polish given to the Red Hat distribution. Red Hat is available for Intel, Sparc, and Alpha systems. http://www.redhat.com/
Debian—Debian Linux is a popular distribution amongst advanced Linux/Unix users and system administrators. The installation process is not nearly as seamless as other distributions, but, at the same time, the quality of the included software and stability of the system as a whole are much greater. Debian does not bill itself as a Linux distribution, per se. Instead, it is a package of software and utilities that happens to run on the Linux kernel. Efforts are underway to port Debian to other kernels (BSD, and so on) as well. http://www.debian.org/
Slackware—The Slackware Linux distribution was the first popular distribution created. It enjoyed great success in the early and mid-1990s, but after a few years it started to lag behind the powerhouses such as Red Hat and SuSE. Recently, Slackware has been reborn and is now up-to-date with the latest applications and services. Although not as friendly as other distributions, Slackware has been described as "a Linux user's Linux" and offers hardcore users the tools and utilities they'll need to create an Internet server or desktop platform. http://www.slackware.com/
I've used most of the distributions in this list and have found them to be well constructed and useful. Your best bet, if you're undecided, is to try out a few distributions and see what suits you best. After you decide on a route, stick with it. Switching between distributions can lead to confusion, as well as decreased efficiency in maintain your systems.