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Kieran Jacobsen is the Head of Information Technology at Readify, a Microsoft MVP and regular speaker at conferences throughout Australia.

Why isn't Remoting Disabled by Default on Windows Server?

I was recently involved in a brief and quite lively Twitter discussion with Don Jones and Jeffery Snover about PowerShell Remoting and why it is enabled by default. I have been involved in a number of discussions about this topic, but never with such a distinguished crowd such as this one. My opinion, and my original comments, where along of the line of  “I believe Remoting should be off by default”, “Well, RDP is disabled by default, why not Remoting”, and “SSH has been off by default for years”, whilst the counter arguments were of the form “Because Nano Server” or “You could always customise your environment to be off by default”. 

Don Jones posted a follow up to this discussion on PowerShell.org titled “Why is Remoting Enabled by Default on Windows Server?” and asked me to put together a post on why I felt it should be off by default. This was difficult for me to put together, so here goes!

It has long been an industry practice, to disable/stop services which are not in use on your clients and servers. The argument is quite simple, enabled services are vulnerable servers, they expose your devices to potential risks. Simply having Remoting off, unless explicitly required, will reduce the attack surface area and increase the security of our systems.

Even Microsoft has followed an off by default methodology for the past 10 to 15 years. Services like POP3 and IMAP are off by default in Exchange, SQL servers do not listen for IP addresses by default, we need to install roles and features individually. Microsoft learnt from a number of major security blunders in the early days (Code Red, Slammer and even Blaster), and focused on a more secure development and deployment model. Why should there be an exception to this posture that has worked extremely well since Windows 2003?

Linux administrators, and developers of Linux distributions have been in a similar situation in the past. For a significantly long period of time, SSHD has been off by default, and administrators have still be able to manage their server fleets. One of the early reasons for an off by default approach in Linux, was that it ensured that administrators were aware of the risks prior to enabling SSHD. Now it can be argued, that this has been a failure, and I think most would agree. I do, however, believe that the failure is not in the off by default configuration, but is in the lack of documentation covering the secure configuration of SSHD. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, as Remoting can be just as poorly deployed.

Remote Desktop is a great example where Microsoft followed these methodologies. RDP is off for a number of reasons with security being only one of them. Ironically, one of the obvious reasons to have RDP off by default is to encourage the move from on server management to remote management. Whilst adoption has not been as high as was expected (due to issues with third party vendors, administrators and to a big extent Microsoft), it is clearly a sign of how ahead of the curve Microsoft has been.

It has become increasingly dangerous to expose management services, be they SSH or RDP on the Internet. If you have ever been responsible to auditing the log files of a server where SSH or RDP is exposed to the Internet, you will be well aware of the automated scan attempts that are performed. Brian Kreb’s has posted on Internet criminals selling access to Linux and Windows servers whose credentials they have brute forced. What happens when the criminals discover Remoting? Bruteforcing credentials via Remoting should be even easier and have written about just such a thing on previous occasions. Should we be enabling these criminals and providing them with even more machines that they can take over?

Well, we are doing this to an extent right now. Users, administrators and developers have all been busy provisioning virtual machines on platforms like Azure and AWS, and whilst in many cases RDP endpoints are on random high ports, the same cannot be said for Remoting. Those who deployed and manage these systems may be well unaware of the risks that they have introduced to their networks. Moving to an off by default model could protect these environments from this sort of configuration error.

As a side note, it is still interesting to me how Microsoft changed Remoting from off to on by default in Windows Server 2012, with very little fanfare. In 2014 when I presented on Lateral Movement with PowerShell, audiences typically responded with a significant amount of surprise, be they from an administration or security background.

In Don’s post, he talks about the fact we could easily create an off by default environment if we so wanted. I really have to disagree with him, and say that he has missed the point to a degree. Whilst it is true, that we could use a customised gold/master image, Group Policy or some other tool to create an environment where Remoting is off by default, it must be highlighted that the inverse, an on by default environment would be just as simple to create with these tools. If you want it on, then turn it on, it isn’t that hard. 

Don also talks about the fact that Remoting is an incredibly controllable, HTTP-based protocol. This introduces the other issue I have with Remoting. Unless you are deploying an Azure Virtual Machine, post install, you will be exposing Remoting over HTTP and not HTTPS. Is this 2015 or 2001? Do we really still need to talk about the virtues of HTTPS? It would be trivial for Microsoft to change the default from HTTP to HTTPS in a manner similar to RDP. 

Now let’s talk about the big elephant in the room, or should I say Nano elephant in the room? What about Nano Server?!?!? Nano Server, whilst it is a new concept for some of us, isn’t a completely new in our industry. Whilst I agree, it is probably easier to have Remoting (and WMI) enabled by default, it isn’t like the deployment of a Nano Server is currently a simple process. Currently Nano Server is coming as a standalone WIM image, we need to manually add packages providing roles, and we currently need to join a domain during installation. How hard would it be to have a step enabling Remoting? It is trivial. 

Having said all of that, perhaps the best middle ground would be to have Remoting enabled on Nano Server, and off for Core and Full installs? Administrators have more option on the latter two than the former. Perhaps a compromise is in order?

Another side note, why doesn’t Microsoft want to enable Remoting on Clients? If Remoting is safe for Internet exposed servers, shouldn’t it be ok for Windows Clients?

So in summary, why should Remoting be off by default?

  • Off by default is an industry standard practice.
  • Off by default has been Microsoft practice for over 10 years.
  • Linux administrators deal with SSHD off, so can we!
  • RDP has been off by default, we lived with that.
  • RDP and SSH are actively brute forced, why open up another attack vector?
  • Off by default reduces administrative misconfiguration/insecure configuration
  • It is just as easy to switch it on, as it is to switch it off.
  • Nano Server isn’t as much of a challenge as we thing, but it could be the exception.

As Don said, whether you agree or not, it is entirely up to you and you are welcome to add your polite, professional comments to this post, or over at the PowerShell.org forums where I have cross-posted. Like Don, I wanted to explain and attempt to justify why I think Microsoft’s approach is not correct. I often believe the discussion is more important than the outcome, and I believe this is definitely the case here.

Kieran Jacobsen

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