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Posted Jun 14, 2003

SQL Server Security Checklist

By Neil Boyle

This month we are going to look at the subject of security. The article is not an in depth tutorial, and is in no way comprehensive. Instead, what I have tried to do is to simply highlight some of the areas where many people (myself included) commonly leave gaps in their security.

SQL Server Passwords

  • When using SQL Server security, make sure there are no blank passwords - a simple query will reveal which users have not set a password:

             select name from master..syslogins where password is null 

    Watch out for NT logins, which of course have no password!

  • After the SQL Slammer virus experience, nobody should be left with a blank password for their sa login

  • Remove the guest login - it allows unauthorised access by default.

  • Choose a strong password for the sa login, and encourage your users to do the same.

  • User IDs and Passwords in user tables are bad news, the data is in too public a place. Cryptography is Maths-PHD and million-pound-supercomputer territory and "home made" encryption is usually weak. If one of your developers reckons they can write their own uncrackable encryption scheme, they should be working for the spooks.

    Integrated security

  • Choose strong passwords for all local and network logins. If an intruder can guess a machine's local administrator login, they will own your server.

  • Do your NT administrators really need admin rights inside your SQL Server? Check that no administrator groups are accidentally granted rights via Integrated Security.

  • Lock down the extended stored procedures - you do not want users running command shells with administrator rights on your servers.

    Database rights

  • Nobody needs access to the master database to log in, and most people do not need access to MSDB and the scheduling engine. Lock them both down.

  • Grant only the minimum rights to a user in order to get things done. Understanding ownership hierarchies helps here: If a stored procedure accesses a table, users do not need rights on the table in order to run the SP successfully, provided that the ownership of both SP and table is the same. The same rule applies to views and their underlying tables, and to nested stored procedures.

  • Always grant user rights at role level, and make sure all your users are grouped according to functionality.

  • Never allow your developers to produce clients that log in as 'sa', and never let them develop as 'sa', even in an environment where security is not such an issue. All too often apps are developed using sa privileges, and you find out just before they go-live that these privileges have magically become necessary for the system to work. Take my word on this: "we will fix it in the next release" is right up there with "the cheque is in the post."

  • How many times have you heard the story "No, you cannot change the password, it's hard coded"? Passwords are meant to be typed in by authorised users, not hard coded into programmes, stored in .ini files or held in the registry. Use Integrated Security if users feel the need to connect without typing a password.

  • Encourage your client developers to build security into a database and client at design time, not bolt it on as an afterthought. Developers always want to concentrate on functionality, which is understandable, because that is their job, so it is up to you to get them thinking about security at an early stage.

  • Consider using application roles to enhance security.


  • A touchy subject if ever there was one. It's easy to say that you should always apply the latest SQL Service Packs, SQL Hotfixes, Windows Updates and what-have-you, but there is a problem here: You cannot just install any old software into your mission critical environment as soon as it is released. What if it breaks something? How do you roll it back? If you apply a patch without testing it, and it breaks your environment, you can bet Microsoft will not be sending you compensation money any time soon.

  • Sometimes, good practice helps you eliminate the need for applying patches in a hurry: If you did not have a blank SA password in the first place, you would not need the Slammer hotfix.

    Network Security

  • Taken a backup of your database and left the file lying round on the network for a while? Who can see that network drive? Anyone who can, can simply pick up your file and restore it onto another instance of SQL Server and voila - there goes your data!

  • Are your development environments as safely guarded as your live ones? Or, is sensitive data ported back to your test and development environments where half the IT department can see them.

  • If you are opening a test database to other people, is there sensitive data in there that you might want to encrypt first? Personnel databases that list people's salaries are a concern in every company.

  • Off to a leaving drink? They might have been the nicest, most reliable people in the company, but you really should disable or remove their account before you get that first beer down your neck.

  • Where are your backup tapes? Is your off-site backup provider as security-conscious as you would like them to be?

  • It is not just SQL Server and Windows security you need to worry about. Got IIS? Linked servers? Check that those machines are properly secured so they cannot act as a back door into your system. Unattended PCs left logged in are a major security hole. Educate your users, enable passwords on screen savers or implement inactivity timeouts in your applications.

    The dark room

  • Security isn't all about software - make sure that your server is in a locked cabinet, in a locked room, with proper access controls. Organised gangs make a living breaking into server rooms and stealing the kit. If somebody just wants your data, all they need to carry away is your nightly backup tape, or your hot-pluggable disks.

    » See All Articles by Columnist Neil Boyle

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