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  • Writer's pictureALIF Consulting

Security management in Azure

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Azure subscribers may manage their cloud environments from multiple devices, including management workstations, developer PCs, and even privileged end-user devices that have task-specific permissions. In some cases, administrative functions are performed through web-based consoles such as the Azure portal. In other cases, there may be direct connections to Azure from on-premises systems over Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), Terminal Services, client application protocols, or (programmatically) the Azure Service Management API (SMAPI). Additionally, client endpoints can be either domain joined or isolated and unmanaged, such as tablets or smartphones.

Although multiple access and management capabilities provide a rich set of options, this variability can add significant risk to a cloud deployment. It can be difficult to manage, track, and audit administrative actions. This variability may also introduce security threats through unregulated access to client endpoints that are used for managing cloud services. Using general or personal workstations for developing and managing infrastructure opens unpredictable threat vectors such as web browsing (for example, watering hole attacks) or email (for example, social engineering and phishing).

Remote management threats

Attackers often attempt to gain privileged access by compromising account credentials (for example, through password brute forcing, phishing, and credential harvesting), or by tricking users into running harmful code (for example, from harmful websites with drive-by downloads or from harmful email attachments). In a remotely managed cloud environment, account breaches can lead to an increased risk due to anywhere, anytime access.

Even with tight controls on primary administrator accounts, lower-level user accounts can be used to exploit weaknesses in one’s security strategy. Lack of appropriate security training can also lead to breaches through accidental disclosure or exposure of account information.

When a user workstation is also used for administrative tasks, it can be compromised at many different points. Whether a user is browsing the web, using 3rd-party and open-source tools, or opening a harmful document file that contains a trojan.

In general, most targeted attacks that result in data breaches can be traced to browser exploits, plug-ins (such as Flash, PDF, Java), and spear phishing (email) on desktop machines. These machines may have administrative-level or service-level permissions to access live servers or network devices for operations when used for development or management of other assets.

Operational security fundamentals

For more secure management and operations, you can minimize a client’s attack surface by reducing the number of possible entry points. This can be done through security principles: “separation of duties” and “segregation of environments.”

Isolate sensitive functions from one another to decrease the likelihood that a mistake at one level leads to a breach in another. Examples:

· Administrative tasks should not be combined with activities that might lead to a compromise (for example, malware in an administrator’s email that then infects an infrastructure server).

· A workstation used for high-sensitivity operations should not be the same system used for high-risk purposes such as browsing the Internet.

Reduce the system’s attack surface by removing unnecessary software. Example:

· Standard administrative, support, or development workstation should not require installation of an email client or other productivity applications if the device’s main purpose is to manage cloud services.

Client systems that have administrator access to infrastructure components should be subjected to the strictest possible policy to reduce security risks. Examples:

· Security policies can include Group Policy settings that deny open Internet access from the device and use of a restrictive firewall configuration.

· Use Internet Protocol security (IPsec) VPNs if direct access is needed.

· Configure separate management and development Active Directory domains.

· Isolate and filter management workstation network traffic.

· Use antimalware software.

· Implement multi-factor authentication to reduce the risk of stolen credentials.

Consolidating access resources and eliminating unmanaged endpoints also simplifies management tasks.

Providing security for Azure remote management

Azure provides security mechanisms to aid administrators who manage Azure cloud services and virtual machines. These mechanisms include:

· Authentication and Azure role-based access control (Azure RBAC).

· Monitoring, logging, and auditing.

· Certificates and encrypted communications.

· A web management portal.

· Network packet filtering.

With client-side security configuration and datacenter deployment of a management gateway, it is possible to restrict and monitor administrator access to cloud applications and data.

Hardened workstation for management

The goal of hardening a workstation is to eliminate all but the most critical functions required for it to operate, making the potential attack surface as small as possible. System hardening includes minimizing the number of installed services and applications, limiting application execution, restricting network access to only what is needed, and always keeping the system up to date. Furthermore, using a hardened workstation for management segregates administrative tools and activities from other end-user tasks.

On a hardened workstation, the administrator runs a standard user account (which blocks administrative-level execution) and associated applications are controlled by an allow list. The basic elements of a hardened workstation are as follows:

· Active scanning and patching. Deploy antimalware software, perform regular vulnerability scans, and update all workstations by using the latest security update in a timely fashion.

· Limited functionality. Uninstall any applications that are not needed and disable unnecessary (startup) services.

· Network hardening. Use Windows Firewall rules to allow only valid IP addresses, ports, and URLs related to Azure management. Ensure that inbound remote connections to the workstation are also blocked.

· Execution restriction. Allow only a set of predefined executable files that are needed for management to run (referred to as “default-deny”). By default, users should be denied permission to run any program unless it is explicitly defined in the allow list.

· Least privilege. Management workstation users should not have any administrative privileges on the local machine itself. This way, they cannot change the system configuration or the system files, either intentionally or unintentionally.

You can enforce all this by using Group Policy Objects (GPOs) in Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS) and applying them through your (local) management domain to all management accounts.

Managing services, applications, and data

Azure cloud services configuration is performed through either the Azure portal or SMAPI, via the Windows PowerShell command-line interface or a custom-built application that takes advantage of these RESTful interfaces. Services using these mechanisms include Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), Azure Storage, Azure Websites, and Azure Virtual Network, and others.

Virtual Machine–deployed applications provide their own client tools and interfaces as needed, such as the Microsoft Management Console (MMC), an enterprise management console (such as Microsoft System Center or Windows Intune), or another management application—Microsoft SQL Server Management Studio, for example. These tools typically reside in an enterprise environment or client network. They may depend on specific network protocols, such as Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), that require direct, stateful connections. Some may have web-enabled interfaces that should not be openly published or accessible via the Internet.

You can restrict access to infrastructure and platform services management in Azure by using multi-factor authentication, X.509 management certificates, and firewall rules. The Azure portal and SMAPI require Transport Layer Security (TLS). However, services and applications that you deploy into Azure require you to take protection measures that are appropriate based on your application. These mechanisms can frequently be enabled more easily through a standardized hardened workstation configuration.

Management gateway

To centralize all administrative access and simplify monitoring and logging, you can deploy a dedicated Remote Desktop Gateway (RD Gateway) server in your on-premises network, connected to your Azure environment.

A Remote Desktop Gateway is a policy-based RDP proxy service that enforces security requirements. Implementing RD Gateway together with Windows Server Network Access Protection (NAP) helps ensure that only clients that meet specific security health criteria established by Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS) Group Policy objects (GPOs) can connect. In addition:

  • Provision an Azure management certificate on the RD Gateway so that it is the only host allowed to access the Azure portal.

  • Join the RD Gateway to the same management domain as the administrator workstations. This is necessary when you are using a site-to-site IPsec VPN or ExpressRoute within a domain that has a one-way trust to Azure AD, or if you are federating credentials between your on-premises AD DS instance and Azure AD.

  • Configure a client connection authorization policy to let the RD Gateway verify that the client machine name is valid (domain joined) and allowed to access the Azure portal.

  • Use IPsec for Azure VPN to further protect management traffic from eavesdropping and token theft or consider an isolated Internet link via Azure ExpressRoute.

  • Enable multi-factor authentication (via Azure AD Multi-Factor Authentication) or smart-card authentication for administrators who log on through RD Gateway.

  • Configure source IP address restrictions or Network Security Groups in Azure to minimize the number of permitted management endpoints.

Best practices

Consider the following additional guidelines when you are managing applications and data in Azure.

Dos and don'ts

Don't assume that because a workstation has been locked down that other common security requirements do not need to be met. The potential risk is higher because of elevated access levels that administrator accounts generally possess. Examples of risks and their alternate safe practices are shown in the table below.



Don't email credentials for administrator access or other secrets (for example, TLS/SSL or management certificates)

Maintain confidentiality by delivering account names and passwords by voice (but not storing them in voice mail), perform a remote installation of client/server certificates (via an encrypted session), download from a protected network share, or distribute by hand via removable media.


Proactively manage your management certificate life cycles.

Don't store account passwords unencrypted or un-hashed in application storage (such as in spreadsheets, SharePoint sites, or file shares).

Establish security management principles and system hardening policies, and apply them to your development environment.


Use Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit 5.5 certificate pinning rules to ensure proper access to Azure SSL/TLS sites.

Don't share accounts and passwords between administrators, or reuse passwords across multiple user accounts or services, particularly those for social media or other nonadministrative activities.

Create a dedicated Microsoft account to manage your Azure subscription—an account that is not used for personal email.

Don't email configuration files.

Configuration files and profiles should be installed from a trusted source (for example, an encrypted USB flash drive), not from a mechanism that can be easily compromised, such as email.

Don't use weak or simple logon passwords.

Enforce strong password policies, expiration cycles (changeon-first-use), console timeouts, and automatic account lockouts. Use a client password management system with multi-factor authentication for password vault access.

Don't expose management ports to the Internet.

​Lock down Azure ports and IP addresses to restrict management access. For more information, see the Azure Network Security white paper.


Use firewalls, VPNs, and NAP for all management connections.

Azure security checklist

Minimizing the number of tasks that administrators can perform on a hardened workstation helps minimize the attack surface in your development and management environment. Use the following technologies to help protect your hardened workstation:

  • IE hardening. The Internet Explorer browser (or any web browser, for that matter) is a key entry point for harmful code due to its extensive interactions with external servers. Review your client policies and enforce running in protected mode, disabling add-ons, disabling file downloads, and using Microsoft SmartScreen filtering. Ensure that security warnings are displayed. Take advantage of Internet zones and create a list of trusted sites for which you have configured reasonable hardening. Block all other sites and in-browser code, such as ActiveX and Java.

  • Standard user. Running as a standard user brings a number of benefits, the biggest of which is that stealing administrator credentials via malware becomes more difficult. In addition, a standard user account does not have elevated privileges on the root operating system, and many configuration options and APIs are locked out by default.

  • AppLocker. You can use AppLocker to restrict the programs and scripts that users can run. You can run AppLocker in audit or enforcement mode. By default, AppLocker has an allow rule that enables users who have an admin token to run all code on the client. This rule exists to prevent administrators from locking themselves out, and it applies only to elevated tokens. See also Code Integrity as part of Windows Server core security.

  • Code signing. Code signing all tools and scripts used by administrators provides a manageable mechanism for deploying application lockdown policies. Hashes do not scale with rapid changes to the code, and file paths do not provide a high level of security. You should combine AppLocker rules with a PowerShell execution policy that only allows specific signed code and scripts to be executed.

  • Group Policy. Create a global administrative policy that is applied to any domain workstation that is used for management (and block access from all others), and to user accounts authenticated on those workstations.

  • Security-enhanced provisioning. Safeguard your baseline hardened workstation image to help protect against tampering. Use security measures like encryption and isolation to store images, virtual machines, and scripts, and restrict access (perhaps use an auditable check-in/check-out process).

  • Patching. Maintain a consistent build (or have separate images for development, operations, and other administrative tasks), scan for changes and malware routinely, keep the build up to date, and only activate machines when they are needed.

  • Encryption. Make sure that management workstations have a TPM to more securely enable Encrypting File System (EFS) and BitLocker.

  • Governance. Use AD DS GPOs to control all the administrators’ Windows interfaces, such as file sharing. Include management workstations in auditing, monitoring, and logging processes. Track all administrator and developer access and usage.


Using a hardened workstation configuration for administering your Azure cloud services, Virtual Machines, and applications can help you avoid numerous risks and threats that can come from remotely managing critical IT infrastructure. Both Azure and Windows provide mechanisms that you can employ to help protect and control communications, authentication, and client behavior.

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