Introduction to Configuration Management

Every company owns a variety of hardware components, devices, and software solutions that run on them. While it is advantageous to acquire and develop complex systems or technology that can aid in the accomplishment of critical business functions, it is equally important to properly configure and maintain them. If these systems or software are not properly managed and changes to them are not accurately tracked, then it becomes difficult to respond to security incidents effectively. Configuration management lays the groundwork for an organization’s effective security management program. This article discusses the fundamentals of configuration management, its significance, various elements, its benefits, and various tools to aid in its implementation.

What is Configuration Management?

Configuration management is the process of establishing and maintaining baselines for all hardware and software assets in an organization. A baseline or baseline configuration in information security is a pre-approved and formally reviewed set of specifications or a group of system settings that can only be changed through a formal change control process.

In order to ensure compliance with security frameworks and standards like SOC2, ISO27001, NIST 800-53, and many others, configuration management is essential. By keeping track of modifications made to critical information assets and ensuring that they don’t break anything or compromise their security, configuration management aids businesses in securing their critical organizational assets. As the frequency of cyber attacks continues to rise, enterprises around the world are focusing more on the secure configuration of their systems and applications.

Why is Configuration Management important?

Configuration management is critical because it helps to maintain consistency across several systems and applications, making it easier to track and control changes. Organizations may keep track of how their hardware and software assets are configured and maintain an inventory of all of their hardware and software assets with the aid of configuration management.

Configuration management ensures that the changes to the systems are well documented and occur in a controlled manner. By ensuring this, it prevents performance and security issues in the systems that can result in financial losses such as operational downtime losses or regulatory fines. If an organization doesn’t have proper policies and procedures relating to how changes are approved and implemented in an environment, then it can have severe repercussions for the organization. Thus configuration management ensures that changes to network configuration, system parameters, or applications happen in a manner that doesn’t adversely affect the important business functions of the organization or the supporting infrastructure.

With the increase in the complexity of technology employed by organizations to achieve their business functions, configuration management is becoming increasingly important as well. These systems can include an organization’s network devices, operating systems, servers, data centers, configuration files, IT assets and infrastructure, and more which is why keeping them up and running well is absolutely critical. The use of automated tools that manage and audit the infrastructure, documentation, software, and requirements is key to success in configuration management. Configuration management helps maintain the desired state of various systems across the organization by giving visibility to any configuration changes, enabling audit trails, and tracking every change made to the systems and applications.

Steps involved in Configuration Management:

The configuration management process consists of these major steps:

Gather configuration data:

The first stage in the configuration management process is to identify and collect the items that require configuration management. This step entails gathering configuration information from the systems, such as the information or environment it requires to operate effectively. Passwords, encryption keys, access control specifications, and other data can all be included in the information gathered at this point.

Establish baselines:

Setting up a baseline for each system is very important after gathering the required configuration data. To do this, the data is stored in files, and the ideal state of all the systems is stored in a central repository.

This step entails defining a baseline configuration of the systems, i.e. their known good configuration, to assist them in completing their functions in a manner that minimizes errors or security problems. It consists of a four-step procedure that addresses the system or application’s functional, design, development, and production criteria. This baseline is often created by taking note of how the production environment is configured when it is in use and saving those configuration settings as the baseline.

Controlling Configuration Records:

It is crucial to maintain tight version control over the pertinent documentation once baselines for the systems have been established. For managing the central repository of configuration records, it is advantageous to utilize various version control tools like Git.

Auditing and Accountability:

The establishment of procedures for accountability and auditing is addressed in the final step of the configuration management process. With the help of these controls, all system changes are carefully examined, approved, tested, and put into place, ensuring the transparency of the change control process.

Important Elements of Configuration Management:

This section discusses important aspects of configuration management in an organization:

Tracking Hardware Assets:

An essential component of the configuration management program is tracking hardware assets inside a company. It entails keeping track of both the hardware devices that are known to be present in your environment and any unidentified ones that might connect to your network and introduce unmitigated risks. The goal of hardware tracking is to create a monitoring process that guarantees adherence to your company’s security requirements. Additionally, it entails monitoring several elements of your network environment, such as:

  • Computers that have been installed and different configurations implemented on them
  • Different devices that have been integrated into the network
  • New technologies that have been integrated
  • Access restrictions related to different computers or network devices
  • Hardware configuration items for systems such as available memory, power management issues, backup issues, and different devices that connect to its input/output ports

and so much more.

Tracking Software Assets:

Software asset tracking appears to be more challenging and daunting than hardware asset tracking since hardware assets are more easily recognizable and tangibly present. This procedure takes into account the software that has been set up on the computers in your environment, as well as the number of installed licenses. The number of licenses purchased and the installed applications must match up exactly; any discrepancy must be thoroughly investigated. This procedure also entails monitoring any pirated or unauthorized programs installed on the organization’s devices. Following are some of the key steps in software tracking:

  • Creation of application whitelist that can be installed on the devices in the organization.
  • Creation of images for workstations and servers for provisioning new devices or to be used for restoring the systems after a problem occurs
  • Restrictions related to the software installation on the devices
  • Tracking the patches or updates that have been installed
  • Usage of scanning tools for tracking installed applications and investigating the installation of any software that is not allowed by the organizational security policies

and so much more.

Change Management:

Despite being different terms, Configuration management and Change management are frequently used interchangeably. The overall process of Configuration management includes change management, which serves as its crucial component. Change management is a well-structured way of dealing with changes that are occurring in the environment of the company, as opposed to Configuration management, which deals with tracking the hardware and software components in the organization and the settings that are associated with them.

Every organization needs to establish clear change control policies and procedures to make sure that changes to the IT infrastructure happen in a managed and transparent way. Some of the important steps that occur in a change management process in an organization are as follows:

1. Request for a change:

The first step in a change management process is requesting a change. This request is submitted to designated personnel in an organization who are responsible for approving the change and overseeing the activities related to it.

2. Approve or deny the change:

In this step, the parties making the request must justify the change or facts supporting it, as well as any potential downfalls related to its implementation. Based on the facts that have been presented, the change is either approved or rejected at this point.

3. Document the change:

After the change has been approved it must be documented and logged properly. This step is very important in keeping track of the configuration related to different hardware or software components in the organization. Even if the change is denied, it must be logged along with the grounds for rejection.

4. Test the change:

Before the changes are rolled out in the environment, it is very important to test the changes. This step deals with testing the change thoroughly to uncover any possible issues with its implementation. In some situations, e.g. when dealing with a drastic change, the results of the testing are presented to the change control personnel to see if the change is giving expected results and different risks related to implementation.

5. Implement the change:

After the change has been approved and tested thoroughly, it needs to be implemented. This step of the change management process is concerned with the creation of a plan and different phases of rolling out the required changes in the environment. Each phase related to the implementation of the change must be properly documented, logged, and monitored.

6. Report the change:

This final step of the change management process involves presenting the higher management with periodic reports and insights regarding the change implementation to ensure management’s support.

Benefits of Configuration Management:

This section discusses some of the major benefits of implementing configuration management in your organization. Let us review them one by one:

Disaster Recovery:

One of the main advantages of the implementation of configuration management is disaster recovery. Configuration management plays a great role in the disaster recovery procedures after a security incident takes place. As discussed previously, configuration management processes establish a baseline of the last known good configuration of all the systems. Thus the configuration management documentation can be of great help for the incident response personnel for rolling back the hardware devices or the application to the previous good configuration and therefore helps to respond quickly to security incidents.

Consistency and Increased Productivity:

Through thorough testing and validation procedures, configuration management ensures consistency throughout the various systems and applications used by the company. When automation is used in conjunction with configuration management, productivity can increase since automated processes can replace manual configuration tasks. This ensures the management of various systems and applications with fewer resources efficiently.

Ease of Software Updates:

Configuration management helps in the application of software updates/patches across several systems in a manner that is consistent and easier. It ensures that the updates are applied in a way that doesn’t disrupt the existing functionality of the systems and applications.

Reduction of operational downtime costs:

Having unreliable systems or applications can have an adverse impact on the company such as a degraded reputation as well as monetary losses. Systems and applications used by a business can become more reliable and have higher uptime owing to configuration management. Configuration management lowers the expenses associated with operational downtime caused by the failure of hardware or software that underpins crucial business processes. Before deployment, the systems or applications must pass stringent testing, which ensures reliability and increased uptime.

Enhanced Scalability:

Configuration management can improve the scalability of a network environment by making the process of resource provisioning easier. With configuration management, the IT personnel are more aware of the desired state of the systems within the environment which ensures streamlined and secure provisioning.

Commonly used tools for Configuration Management:

Some of the most commonly used tools for Configuration management are as follows:

Git:

Git is a superior version control tool that is used to track and monitor code changes. Utilizing the git workflow allows you to keep track of prior settings and maintain a central repository of configuration objects, which facilitates rollbacks to earlier states.

Ansible:

Ansible is a free and open-source automation tool used to carry out crucial IT operations like provisioning, configuration management, application deployment, and intra-service orchestration. In order to save developers time and effort and to enable them to concentrate on more productive tasks, Ansible strives to simplify complicated IT operations.

Chef:

Chef is an open-source automation tool based on Ruby DSL(Domain Specific language). It is a tool used to automate IT tasks such as configuration management and infrastructure provisioning. It enables administrators to manage IT infrastructure by writing code rather than using manual processes.

Puppet:

Puppet is a configuration management tool that automates operations related to IT infrastructure deployment, configuration, and administration. System administrators can specify separate settings for each system using Puppet, track changes to these configurations, and dynamically scale resources. By utilizing Puppet agents, it applies configuration changes to all nodes (slaves or clients) using a master slave or client server architecture.

SaltStack:

SaltStack, also known as Salt, is an open-source configuration management tool based on Python. SaltStack enables system administrators to automate tedious IT tasks such as provisioning IT infrastructure, making configuration changes, and installation of software on physical or virtual devices on premises as well as on the cloud. It is a flexible and robust automation tool that uses IAC(Infrastructure as a Code) for the configuration management and deployment of IT infrastructure.

Terraform:

Terraform developed by HashiCorp., is an open-source IAC (Infrastructure as a Code) software tool used for cloud infrastructure management and provisioning. Terraform makes it possible to automate the provisioning of infrastructure across numerous cloud platforms, such as Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services (AWS), and others. Teams can compose, collaborate, publish, and reuse infrastructure as code with the help of Terraform, which makes provisioning any infrastructure a consistent process.

Conclusion:

Companies can benefit immensely from the implementation of configuration management in many ways, including the ability to scale up and down the number of devices in your network environment more easily, the maintenance of accurate configuration records, the reduction of risks from cyber threats, the assurance of regulatory compliance, the reduction of costs associated with breaches and downtime, and much more. Therefore, configuration management must be implemented in order to form an effective security management program in an organization.

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