How to harden Apache web server with mod_security and mod_evasive on CentOS

Last updated on September 24, 2020 by Gabriel Cánepa

Web server security is a vast subject, and different people have different preferences and opinions as to what the best tools and techniques are to harden a particular web server. With Apache web server, a great majority of experts -if not all- agree that mod_security and mod_evasive are two very important modules that can protect an Apache web server against common threats.

In this article, we will discuss how to install and configure mod_security and mod_evasive, assuming that Apache HTTP web server is already up and running. We will perform a demo stress test to see how the web server reacts when it is under a denial-of-service (DOS) attack, and show how it fights back with these modules. We will be using CentOS platform in this tutorial.

Installing mod_security & mod_evasive

If you haven't enabled the EPEL repository in your CentOS/RHEL server, you need to do so before installing these packages.

# yum install mod_security
# yum install mod_evasive

After the installation is complete, you will find the main configuration files inside /etc/httpd/conf.d:

Now you need to make sure that Apache loads both modules when it starts. Look for the following lines (or add them if they are not present) in mod_security.conf and mod_evasive.conf, respectively:

LoadModule security2_module modules/mod_security2.so
LoadModule evasive20_module modules/mod_evasive20.so

In the two lines above:

Now restart Apache web server:

# service httpd restart

Configuring mod_security

In order to use mod_security, a Core Rule Set (CRS) must be installed first. Basically, a CRS provides a web server with a set of rules on how to behave under certain conditions. Trustwave's SpiderLabs (the firm behind mod_security) provides the OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project) ModSecurity CRS.

To download and install the latest OWASP CRS, use the following commands.

# mkdir /etc/httpd/crs
# cd /etc/httpd/crs
# wget https://github.com/SpiderLabs/owasp-modsecurity-crs/tarball/master
# tar xzf master
# mv SpiderLabs-owasp-modsecurity-crs-ebe8790 owasp-modsecurity-crs

Now navigate to the installed OWASP CRS directory.

# cd /etc/httpd/crs/owasp-modsecurity-crs

In the OWASP CRS directory, you will find a sample file with rules (modsecurity_crs_10_setup.conf.example).

We will copy its contents into a new file named (for convenience) modsecurity_crs_10_setup.conf.

# cp modsecurity_crs_10_setup.conf.example modsecurity_crs_10_setup.conf

To tell Apache to use this file for mod_security module, insert the following lines in the /etc/httpd/conf/httpd.conf file. The exact paths may be different depending on where you unpack the CRS tarball.

<IfModule security2_module>
    Include crs/owasp-modsecurity-crs/modsecurity_crs_10_setup.conf
    Include crs/owasp-modsecurity-crs/base_rules/*.conf
</IfModule>

Last, but not least, we will create our own configuration file within the modsecurity.d directory where we will include our chosen directives. We will name this configuration file xmodulo.conf in this example. It is highly encouraged that you do not edit the CRS files directly but rather place all necessary directives in this configuration file. This will allow for easier upgrading as newer CRSs are released.

# vi /etc/httpd/modsecurity.d/xmodulo.conf
<IfModule mod_security2.c>
 SecRuleEngine On
    SecRequestBodyAccess On
 SecResponseBodyAccess On 
   SecResponseBodyMimeType text/plain text/html text/xml application/octet-stream 
 SecDataDir /tmp
</IfModule>

You can refer to the SpiderLabs' ModSecurity GitHub repository for a complete guide of configuration directives.

Don't forget to restart Apache to apply changes.

Configuring mod_evasive

The mod_evasive module reads its configuration from /etc/httpd/conf.d/mod_evasive.conf. As opposed to mod_security, we don't need a separate configuration file because there are no rules to update during a system or package upgrade.

The default mod_evasive.conf file has the following directives enabled:

<IfModule mod_evasive20.c>
    DOSHashTableSize    3097
    DOSPageCount        2
    DOSSiteCount        50
    DOSPageInterval     1
    DOSSiteInterval     1
    DOSBlockingPeriod   10
</IfModule>

You may want to change these values according to the amount and type of traffic that your web server needs to handle. Please note that if these values are not set properly, you may end up blocking legitimate visitors.

Here are other useful directives for mod_evasive:

1) DOSEmailNotify: Sends an email to the address specified whenever an IP address becomes blacklisted. It needs a valid email address as argument. If SELinux status is set to enforcing, you will need to grant the user apache SELinux permission to send emails. That is, run this command as root:

# setsebool -P httpd_can_sendmail 1

Then add this directive in the mod_evasive.conf file:

DOSEmailNotify [email protected]

2. DOSSystemCommand: Executes a custom system command whenever an IP address becomes blacklisted. It may come in handy to add firewall rules to block offending IPs altogether.

DOSSystemCommand <command>

We will use this directive to add a firewall rule through the following script (/etc/httpd/scripts/ban_ip.sh):

#!/bin/sh
# Offending IP as detected by mod_evasive
IP=$1
# Path to iptables binary executed by user apache through sudo
IPTABLES="/sbin/iptables"
# mod_evasive lock directory
MOD_EVASIVE_LOGDIR=/tmp
# Add the following firewall rule (block IP)
$IPTABLES -I INPUT -s $IP -j DROP
# Unblock offending IP after 2 hours through the 'at' command; see 'man at' for further details
echo "$IPTABLES -D INPUT -s $IP -j DROP" | at now + 2 hours
# Remove lock file for future checks
rm -f "$MOD_EVASIVE_LOGDIR"/dos-"$IP"

Our DOSSystemCommand directive will then read as follows:

DOSSystemCommand "sudo /etc/httpd/scripts/ban_ip.sh %s" 

Don't forget to update sudo permissions to run our script as apache user:

# vi /etc/sudoers
apache ALL=NOPASSWD: /usr/local/bin/scripts/ban_ip.sh
Defaults:apache !requiretty

Simulating DoS Attacks

We will use three tools to stress test our Apache web server (running on CentOS 6.5 with 512 MB of RAM and a AMD Athlon II X2 250 Processor), with and without mod_security and mod_evasive enabled, and check how the web server behaves in each case.

Make sure you only perform the following steps in your own test server and not against an external, production web site.

In the following examples, replace http://centos.gabrielcanepa.com.ar/index.php with your own domain and a file of your choosing.

Linux-based tools

1. Apache bench: Apache server benchmarking tool.

# ab -n1000 -c1000 http://centos.gabrielcanepa.com.ar/index.php

2. test.pl: a Perl script which comes with mod_evasive module.

#!/usr/bin/perl

# test.pl: small script to test mod_dosevasive's effectiveness

use IO::Socket;
use strict;

for(0..100) {
  my($response);
  my($SOCKET) = new IO::Socket::INET( Proto   => "tcp",
                                      PeerAddr=> "192.168.0.16:80");
  if (! defined $SOCKET) { die $!; }
  print $SOCKET "GET /?$_ HTTP/1.0nn";
  $response = <$SOCKET>;
  print $response;
  close($SOCKET);
}

Windows-based Tools

1. Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC): a network stress testing tool. To generate a workload, follow the order shown in the screenshot below and do not touch anything else.

Stress Test Results

With mod_security and mod_evasive enabled (and the three tools running at the same time), the CPU and RAM usage peak at a maximum of 60% and 50%, respectively for only 2 seconds before the source IPs are blacklisted, blocked by the firewall, and the attack is stopped.

On the other hand, if mod_security and mod_evasive are disabled, the three tools mentioned above knock down the server very fast (and keep it in that state throughout the duration of the attack), and of course, the offending IPs are not blacklisted.

Conclusion

We can see that mod_security and mod_evasive, when properly configured, are two important tools to harden an Apache web server against several threats (not limited to DoS attacks) and should be considered in deployments exposed on the Internet.

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