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Posted Apr 23, 2004

SQL Server 2000 Security - Part 2 (Authentication)

By Marcin Policht

Access to SQL Server resources is controlled by two separate mechanisms. The first one is authentication, which determines the identity of a user attempting to connect, based on a verifiable identifier. The second one is authorization, which establishes the level of privileges granted to a login associated with the logged on user. In this article, we will focus on the authentication (authorization will be covered later in the series).

In the case of SQL Server, authentication is handled by comparing credentials provided by a connecting user with set of entries stored in the sysxlogin table of the SQL server master database (to get familiar with its content, you might want to use sysloging view, presenting data in a more friendly format). The way these credentials are provided depends on the authentication mode, which can be set to one of the following:

  • SQL Server authentication - in this case, SQL Server requires that a user specifies a name and password at the time when connection is attempted. The login name and one-way hash of the password need to match one of entries in the sysxlogins table for the login attempt to be successful.
  • Windows authentication - in this case, SQL Server does not prompt a user for credentials, but instead it uses an access token assigned at the time the user logged on using a Windows account. This can be a token generated by the Windows operating system on which SQL Server was installed (in case of a local user account) or by a Windows NT 4.0 or Active Directory domain, (if a user domain account is used). The token contains a security identifier (SID) which uniquely identifies the user, as well as SIDs of local (or domain) groups that the user is a member of. SQL compares all of the SIDs stored in the token against entries in the sysxlogin table and, depending on the outcome, it grants or denies login privileges. Presence of a matching entry is not sufficient though for logon to be allowed, since with Windows authentication, it is possible to not only grant login privileges to a specific SID but also deny them (denying rights will always take precedence over granting them). This means that you can, for example, grant login privileges to a Windows group, but still deny access to SQL server to some of its members.

SQL Server creates two default logins (entries in the sysxlogin table) at the installation time, granted the highest possible level of administrative privileges. The first one is the sa login, allowing access using SQL Server authentication, the second is the BUILTIN\Administrators, representing SID of the local Administrators Windows group on the SQL Server computer and allowing every member of this group to access the server via Windows authentication. As part of the installation procedure, you are prompted to assign a password to the sa account. Make sure to choose a complex one (Spida worm took advantage of SQL Servers where sa was assigned a blank password). SQL Server logins passwords can be up to 128 characters long and contain any type of ASCII characters, however, you should note that password strength is affected by case sensitivity settings. Case insensitive installations store hashes of passwords in sysxlogins table after converting all characters to upper case first, which makes them more vulnerable to brute force attacks and defeats the purpose of creating mixed case passwords. As an additional security measure, you might consider modifying default Windows authentication configuration by removing BUILTIN\Administrators login, replacing it with another group or user account, and assigning to it Sysadmin fixed server role. This is recommended in environments where Windows server and SQL server administration is handled by separate teams. For more information on this procedure, including possible side effects and cluster specific caveats, refer to the Microsoft Knowledge Base article 263712.

At the installation time, you also need to decide on the authentication mode, although you can change it afterwards from the Security tab of the SQL Server Properties dialog box of the SQL Enterprise Manager console (the change requires that SQL Server service be restarted). Two available options are "SQL Server and Windows" and "Windows only," which means that you cannot disable Windows authentication, regardless of your choice. In either case, you can create new logins from the Logins node in Security folder of SQL Server Enterprise Manager or with system stored procedures (sp_addlogin for standard SQL logins and sp_grantlogin for Windows-based logins). When creating a new login, in the New Login dialog box, you can either select an existing user or group account from any available Windows domain or local Windows account store on the SQL Server computer (subject to Windows authentication), or type in a new name and password (subject to SQL Server Authentication). As mentioned before, when selecting accounts for Windows authentication, you can not only grant, but also explicitly deny access. In the same dialog box, you can assign logins to fixed server roles and set individual database access (using "Server Roles" and "Database Access" tabs, respectively). We will describe these configuration options when discussing authorization later in this series.

Windows authentication is inherently more secure than SQL Server authentication (and therefore recommended by Microsoft). Windows credentials are delivered to SQL Server without passing the actual password, while SQL authentication sends the login name and password in unencrypted format, using a fairly simple obfuscation algorithm, involving conversion to Unicode, bit swapping, and a couple of XOR operations with a constant value (an algorithm reversing the obfuscation algorithm, which produces original password can be downloaded from This means that anyone who can capture network traffic carrying client authentication information can easily retrieve it. If you are forced to resort to using SQL Authentication (when your clients are running legacy operating systems such as Windows 98 or Me, or are not part of the same or trusted domain), to protect passwords from being easily captured and exposed, you should always encrypt communication between SQL server and its clients with the built-in feature of Multiprotocol Net Library or by implementing SSL (for details, refer to the first article of this series).

Windows domain environment provides a number of additional advantages over SQL Server 2000 authentication mechanism. For both local and domain Windows accounts, you can implement account policies, enforcing password complexity, maximum and minimum age, history, as well as lockout settings. This mitigates the effectiveness of brute force attacks. Note, however, that the highest level of security is provided by Kerberos authentication, which requires that login accounts reside in a Windows 2000 or 2003 native mode Active Directory domain and that client computers run Windows 2000 or later. NTLM authentication protocol used in legacy operating systems is inherently less secure and can be exploited using a number of popular hacking utilities (such as L0phtcrack - currently available as LC4). If you cannot switch to Kerberos, you should implement NTLM v2 (much more resilient than its predecessor), following instructions in the Microsoft Knowledge Base article 239869.

Another benefit of operating in the native Active Directory environment is the ability to use delegation. In order to understand its functionality, you need to first get familiar with another, closely related feature called impersonation, much more prevalent in Windows operating systems. Its primary purpose is to allow system processes and applications to run tasks on behalf of a user. Impersonation is employed whenever a user starts a new process or application, so their tasks execute in the user's security context and their security boundaries reflect the user's privileges. This way, when a user launches a Command Prompt or Windows Explorer, capabilities of each program are limited by what the user account is allowed to do. However, impersonation has its limitations. While it works fine for processes operating on the same system on which a user is logged on, remote processes (processes created on systems remote to the user) can take advantage of impersonation only when accessing their local resources (resources residing on the same remote computer). In other words, if a user X logged on to a computer A launches a process impersonating this user on a computer B, than this process is not capable to access resources on a computer C in the security context of the same user (i.e. user X).

In the context of SQL Server operations, this creates a problem with linked servers (for more information on linked servers, refer to the Books Online) where local and linked servers are set up with Windows Authentication mode. Ideally, in the scenario where all SQL Servers authenticate against the same Active Directory domain (or two Active Directory domains linked by trust relationships) and a user logged on to the first server wants to run a distributed query against a linked server, the same user's credentials should be used to connect to it. Unfortunately, creating such configuration is not possible with impersonation. In order to accomplish this goal, you need to resort to delegation.

Several important conditions need to be satisfied in order for delegation to work properly. First of all, since delegation is the function of Kerberos authentication protocol, your server and user accounts need to reside in a native mode Active Directory domain or trusted domains (Windows 2000 or 2003). User accounts that will be connecting to linked servers need to be trusted for delegation (this is enabled from the Account tab of the user's account Properties dialog box in the Active Directory Users and Computers console). Accounts of SQL servers involved in distributed queries must be trusted for delegation (this is done by checking the "Trust computer for delegation" checkbox on the General tab of each computer's account Properties dialog box in the Active Directory Users and Computers console). You also need to ensure that there exists a Service Principal Name (SPN) associated with each SQL Server instance (with a unique port for each instance, if multiple instances are installed on the same computer). If the SQL Server service runs in the security context of the Local System account, then a temporary SPN is created every time the service starts, so no additional configuration is needed. However, if the service uses a local or domain user account, you need to create one with the Windows 2000 Resource Kit utility SETSPN.EXE (downloadable from the Microsoft Web site) and execute if from the Command Prompt using the following syntax:

SETSPN -A MSSQLSvc/SQLServerName:SQLPort SQLServiceAccount

The command listed above generates a new SPN for the SQL server SQLServerName (this has to be in the form of the fully qualified domain name) listening on the TCP port SQLPort and operating in the security context of the SQLServiceAccount. In addition, you need to ensure that servers communicate using TCP/IP Net Library, since this is the only one which supports Kerberos based authentication.

This concludes our coverage of authentication related topics. In our next article, we will look closer into configuration of SQL Server service accounts and their impact on server security.

» See All Articles by Columnist Marcin Policht

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