Security Advice for the Melbourne Research Cloud

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Virtual machines (VMs) are accessed remotely, and therefore require different security considerations to your physical computer. On one hand, physical barriers won't stop someone accessing your VM because they can connect to it over the Internet, just like you. On the other hand, you can't accidentally drop your VM in the river.

Just like protecting your physical computer requires some sensible precautions, a VM can also be protected. In fact in many ways, a VM is much easier to protect, if you know what you are doing.

This guide will provide some basic advice for securing your Melbourne Research Cloud (MRC) VM. It is not an in-depth cloud security course, but it will help you keep your VM safe from the majority of threats you might encounter.

Follow the guides

First and foremost, when you are creating a VM, follow the "Getting Started" guide on the MRC documentation page: https://docs.cloud.unimelb.edu.au/training/

This guide will take you through the creation process, including security considerations, one step at a time.

SSH and SSH Keys

SSH is short for "Secure SHell" and is a protocol for communicating with your VM over the internet. As the name implies, it is secure, in that all the data transferred over this protocol to and from your VM is encrypted. This means if someone were to be watching your data transfers, the data would be completely useless to them.

Your data is encrypted using a special key, called an SSH key. The key is made up of two components, a private key and a public key. These keys need to work together to decrypt your data; neither one alone is enough. The public key is connected to the remote end of the transfer, in this case, your VM.
Your public key can be shared because any data encrypted with it cannot be decrypted without the private key. The private key is something you should keep private. It is not to be shared. Anyone with your private key can decrypt any data encrypted with your public key. And without it, not even you can decrypt your encrypted data.

So keep it safe, don't lose it.

As SSH is the front door to your Linux VMs, consider implementing some of the SSH hardening tips given by the Linux Handbook. In particular, we recommend disabling empty passwords (!) and also disabling password based SSH logins.

Patching and updates

Even if you are using SSH and keeping your ssh keys safe, there are other ways your VM can be compromised. Sometimes applications and operating systems have vulnerabilities that nefarious individuals might exploit. There are many security experts checking and rechecking to find these vulnerabilities before the hackers can exploit them, and you will almost certainly have been prompted at some point to install a software patch or update for your computer or a particular application. These patches and updates often contain security fixes for discovered vulnerabilities. It is usually a very good idea to install them as soon as possible.

The only time it may be a good idea to wait before you install a patch is if there is a risk it could cause problems with your software. If you think this could happen, you should make sure you have a snapshot of your VM before you proceed.

It is also critical that you confirm the source of the patch. You should only install patches or updates downloaded from the company that created the operating system or application, e.g. Windows patches should only be downloaded from Microsoft. At the University of Melbourne, you can also trust department and central service fileshares, as they files there have been downloaded from the authoritative source.

It is important to keep up-to-date with patches and updates. Note that you need to update both your operating system and the applications that you have installed on your VMs. Either set your operating system or application to automatically download and install updates, or make sure you check for updates regularly.

Ports

You can connect to your VM through open ports, such as port 80 for web traffic (http), port 443 for secure web traffic (https) or port 22 for ssh.
Ports are used for different types of traffic and represent a way in to your VM. Some ports are more secure than others, for example, https is more secure than http. Where possible, you should always try to use a secure protocol to access your VM, and only use insecure protocols when absolutely necessary.

Even using a secure port may not be enough. Sometimes hackers find ways to break in through a secure port because of an undiscovered vulnerability.
While this is uncommon, it does happen. So to protect yourself, you should only open ports that you really need. For example, if you aren't planning to run a web service on your VM, you don't need to have ports 80 or 443 open.

On the MRC, you will usually want port 22 for ssh to be available. Combined with your private key, this provides a simple way to access and manage your VM securely, and presents a very difficult to break target for hackers. Even so, you should consider if you really need to keep port 22 open all the time, especially if you have sensitive data on the VM. You will usually need port 22 open to set up and configure your VM, but if you are using your VM for long-running processing, you can use the MRC dashboard to disable port 22, rendering your VM completely inaccessible. This won't stop the VM from continuing to process your data, but neither you nor any hackers will be able to get in, until you re-enable port 22.

Private IPs

Using Private IPs are a great option if you don't need to access your virtual machine from the wider internet without using the VPN service. Private IPs are safer than public IPs as any attack must originate from the internal network. While they are not a guarantee of security, they are an important piece of the puzzle. We always recommend only using a public IP if it is absolutely necessary.

Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)

Windows RDP is a very popular target for hackers, so you should always avoid using it on a public network if at all possible. If it is essential, you will need to actively maintain the security and health of your virtual machine, and be prepared for possible compromises. We also regularly monitor our network traffic for RDP communications, and you will need to inform us if you intend to or are running a server this way. A much better option is to use the private network and access your Windows VM via the VPN.

Security KBA and other resources

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