What’s an attack surface?

“Reduce your attack surface,” they say. But what is it?

“Reduce your attack surface,” they[1] say.  But what is it?  The instruction to reduce your attack surface is one of the principles of IT security, so it must be a Good Thing[tm].  The problem is that it’s not always clear what an attack surface actually is.

I’m going to go for the broadest possible description I can think of, or nearly, because I’m pretty paranoid, and because I’m not convinced that the Wikipedia definition[2] is sufficient[3].  Although I’ll throw in a few examples of how to reduce attack surfaces, the purpose of this post is really to explain what one is, rather than to help protect you – but a good understanding really is required before you start with anything else, so hopefully this will be useful.

So, here’s my start at a definition:

  • The attack surface of a system is the sum of areas where attacks could be launched against it.

That feels a little bit circular – let’s define some terms.  First of all, what’s an an “area” in this definition?  Well, I’d say that any particular component of a system may have many points of possible vulnerability – and therefore attack.  The sum of those points is an area – and the sum of the areas of the different components of a system gives us our system’s attack surface.

To understand better, we’re going to have to talk about systems – one of my favourite topics[4] – because I think it’s important to clarify a key difference between the attack surface of a component considered alone, and the area that a component adds when part of a system.  They will not generally be the same.

Here’s an example: you’re deploying an Operating System.  Let’s look at two options for deployment, and compare the attack surfaces.  In both cases, I’m going to take a fairly restricted look at points of vulnerability, excluding, for instance, human factors, as I don’t want to get bogged down in the details.

Deployment one – bare metal

You install your Operating System onto a physical machine, and plug it into the network.  What are some of the attack points?

  • your network connection
  • the physical hardware
  • services which are listening on the network connection
  • connections via USB – keyboard and mouse, for example.

There are more, but this should give us enough to do some comparisons.  I’d generally think of the attack surface as being associated with the physical bounds of the hardware, with the addition of the network port and USB connections.

How can we reduce the attack surface?  Well, we could unplug the network connection – though that might significantly reduce the efficacy of the system! – or we might take steps to reduce the number of services listening on the connection, to reduce the privilege level at which they run, or increase the authentication requirements for connecting to them.  We could reduce our surface area by using a utility such as “usbguard” to restrict USB connections, and, if we’re worried about physical access to the machine, we could put it in a locked cabinet somewhere.  These are all useful and appropriate ways to reduce our system’s attack surface.

Deployment two – a Virtual Machine

In this deployment scenario, we’re going to install the Operating System onto a Virtual Machine (VM), running on a physical host.  What does my attack surface look like now?  Well, that rather depends on how you define your system.  You could, of course, look at the wider system – the VM and the physical host – but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to consider that the operation of the Operating System is what we’re interested in, rather than the broader system[6].  So, what does our attack surface look like this time?  Here’s a quick list.

  • your network connection
  • the hypervisor
  • services which are listening on the network connection
  • connections via USB – keyboard and mouse, for example.

You’ll notice that “the physical hardware” is missing from this list, and that’s because it’s been replace with “the hypervisor”.  This is a little simplistic, for a few reasons, including that the hypervisor is arguably implemented via a combination of software and hardware controls, but it’s certainly different from the entire physical hardware we were talking about before, and in fact, there’s not much you can do from the point of the Virtual Machine to secure it, other than recognise its restrictions, so we might want to remove it from our list at this level.

The other entries are also somewhat different from our first scenario, although you might not realise at first glance.  First, it’s quite likely (though not certain) that your network connection may in fact be a virtual network connection provided by the hosting system, which means that some of the burden of defending it goes to the hosting system.  The same goes for the connections via USB – the hypervisor generally provides “virtual hardware” (via something like qemu, for example), which can be attached – or removed – from virtual machines.

So, you still have the services which are listening on the network connection, but it’s definitely a different attack surface from the first deployment scenario.

Now, if you take the wider view, then there’s definitely an attack surface at the physical machine level as well, and that needs to be considered – but it’s quite likely that this will be under the control of somebody completely different (such as a Cloud Service Provider – CSP).

Another quick example

When I deploy a webserver (using, for instance, Apache), I’ll need to consider a variety of attack vectors, from authentication to denial of service to storage attacks: these are part of our attack surface.  If I deploy it with a database (e.g. PostgreSQL or MySQL), the attack surface looks different, assuming that I care about the data in the database.  Whereas I might previously have been concerned to ensure that an HTTP “PUT” command didn’t overwrite or scramble a file on my filesystem, a malformed command to my database server could delete or corrupt multiple tables.  On the other hand, I might now be able to lock down some of the functions of my webserver that I no longer need to worry about filesystem attacks.  The attack surface of my webserver is different when it’s combined in a system with other components[7].

Why do I want to reduce my attack surface?

Well, this is quite an easy one.  By looking back at my earlier definition, you’ll see that the smaller a system’s attack surface, the fewer points of attack there are available to malicious actors.  That’s got to be a piece of good news.

You will, of course, never be able to reduce your attack  surface to zero (see There are no absolutes in security), but the more you reduce (and document, always document!), the better position you’ll be in.  It’s always about raising the bar to make it more difficult for malicious actors to affect you.

1 – the mythical IT Security Community, that’s who.

2 – to give one example.

3 – it only talks about data, and only about software: that’s not broad enough for me.

4 – as long-standing[4] readers of this blog will know.

5 – and long-suffering.

6 – yes, I know we can’t ignore that, but we’ll come back to it, honest.

7 – there are considerations around the attack surface of the database as well, of course.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat.

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