My favourite tools – Remote Desktop Services

7 August 2014

Remote desktop or terminal services are my favourite tools. When I started with this technology in 1997, it was bare necessity. We had to offer a 2 tier CAE application to about 500 engineers at 3 major sites in 30 buildings. The fat client graphics application was installed on Windows NT workstations. Data was stored in about 120 Oracle V7 databases hosted on 3 SUN database servers. It was a really hard job to keep the client workstations up-to-date, in particular because everyone was working with permanent admin rights. The nightmare of all system administrators!

Terminal Services put an end to this nightmare. Since users had no longer privileges on the servers the number of help desk calls declined dramatically. Release changes were implemented within an afternoon and new users were authorized to the application within minutes.

We gained back control, and my kids had their father back.

Today, terminal services are my preferred method to control access to the core business data. They are really low hanging fruits! This is the major use cases:

(1) Block access to the data  from all systems except of few terminal services. This will reduce the attack surface dramatically. The terminal services are the only trusted end-user devices in your network. Located in the data center they are in the best case completely under your control. It’s easier to keep the trust state of few servers as the trust state of hundreds of workstations located elsewhere inside or outside the company network.

(2) Grant access to the terminal services to authorized users only, based on the Need-to-Know principle. Review authorizations on a regular basis and make sure, that no user owns the permissions to change his own privileges or the trust state of the terminal services or any other infrastructure service.

Even if an application does not support user and role management the combination of (1) and (2) will increase the security of your information assets dramatically

(3) Terminal servers allow you to restrict users to well-defined applications and data sources with low effort. This could be implemented by configuring the firewalls on the terminal services. Just block any outgoing network connections except of infrastructure services and the applications. Users are prevented from creating unauthorized copies of the data.  In addition, the Need-to-Know principle is enforced because only the information essential to the users work is provided.

(4) It’s far easier to implement Two Factor Authorization for a limited number of terminal services than for thousands of endpoints. Targeted phishing attacks will no longer work because the password is no longer the single source for identification.

The transformation to terminal services controlled computing is very easy because you can set up the systems and applications in parallel to the existing application infrastructure. The final switch will have nearly no impact on the user’s daily work if the entire process is governed by change process.

Have you ever decided about a BYOD strategy based on Remote Desktop Services? Terminal services are a perfect measure to raise the trust level of the entire network, in particular when combined with your employees own devices.

But this is another story…

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment. And enjoy the free time with your family.

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