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6 Effective SQL Server User Management Strategies

|Chief Scientist

Microsoft SQL Server is a favorite among many database developers, especially those who like plug-and-play integration with other Microsoft and Windows products. Although we’ve covered some of the basics in past articles such as data masking, auditing, and server authentication, we wanted to address a common obstacle for many database developers: effective MSSQL user management strategies.

In this article, we’ll explore key concepts of MSSQL data security, user management, and how to make the most of your server’s features to keep your users organized, authorized, and privileged appropriately.

MSSQL Security Features

Microsoft SQL Server has various native security features such as communication encryption via SSL/TLS, the Windows Data Protection API (or DPAPI), as well as authentication and authorization. Additional features can be added through plugins and other supporting applications.

MSSQL security is based on several hierarchical entities:

  • Server: the entire SQL Server instance.
  • Database: a collection of securable objects housed in a server.
  • Securable object: data stored within a database with associated permissions.
  • Principal: a person, group, or process that requires data access.

Privileges are then granted to principals to allow them to interact with the data. These privileges are managed by the SQL Server security framework.

Check out our guide on Microsoft SQL Server security to learn more.

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What is User Management?

User management is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the practice of managing how users access and engage with the database. The SQL Server provides three roles you can assign to users to restrict access and authorization:

  • Server-level roles: manages permissions for the entire SQL Server instance.
  • Database-level roles: manages permissions for roles within a specific database.
  • Application-level roles: manages permissions for applications to run with dedicated user-like permissions.

Proper user management is not only understanding which roles should be applied at a given level, but also how user roles are allocated, and their associated permissions. While this seems like a straightforward process, organizations and their databases are never static. 

With that in mind, it’s important to consistently revisit user management policies and ensure everyone has the correct level of access and authorization needed to perform their functions while keeping the database secure.

Check out our guide on SQL Server user management to learn more.

Common User Management Problems

Authorization Implementation

Authentication is easy, but authorization is hard. In other words, it’s relatively simple to determine how to check users as they access the database, but it’s difficult to decide on their level of authorization.

This is further complicated as users change positions, requiring more or less authorization – or none at all in the case of them being removed from the database or organization.

Often Forgotten

With so many other projects needing to get done, user management is sometimes left to fall to the wayside. Despite its importance, user management is often overlooked with any problems or neglected updates festering until they become much larger issues, usually in the form of a data breach because someone had access to data they shouldn’t.

Can Be Resource Intensive

While user management is an important part of any robust security policy, manually managing user rights, access, and authorization can be tedious and resource intensive. The amount of time to set up new users as well as to consistently update them as their roles within the database change – not to mention the database itself – can quickly spiral out of control.

Effective User Management Strategies for MSSQL

Despite the problems outlined above, they shouldn’t deter you from implementing effective user management strategies on your Microsoft SQL Server database. The following are a few strategies that are relatively easy to implement and use that will make a big difference:

Principle of Least Privilege

Also known as the principle of least authority or principle of minimal privilege, the principle of least privilege is the practice of ensuring users have access and authorization only for data they need. For example, Tim in Sales does not need to see everyone’s salaries so he shouldn’t be granted access to the records of his fellow employees. However, Tina in HR should have access to those records but doesn’t need to know anything about the client contact information that Tim needs.

This contrasts with “need to know”; where the principle of least privilege applies to both viewing and editing data, while need to know applies to who needs to see it but doesn’t need to interact with the data further. 

Keep User Metadata From Going Stale

User metadata is an effective way to query and manage users within your database platform. However, when metadata is left to go stale due to infrequent updates or data structure changes, these queries become broken. If you rely on those queries for user management, your job becomes needlessly difficult.

The solution? Be sure to keep user metadata updated, either manually or by automating the process.

Consistent Auditing

Auditing is useful to determine who accessed the data, when, what queries were run, and on what data. It is not only necessary to keep your database safe but it’s also required by laws like GDPR in a growing number of countries. Just as you should audit your database for security reasons, you should also audit your user management processes as well. 

User Management Automation

Managing users manually is relatively easy when your database is small. But as your server grows to house hundreds of users with hundreds of thousands of data points, this task can rapidly grow out of control. Using plugins and automated processes can keep user management simple while allowing your security practices to grow with your database.

Password Policy Implementation

A simple solution that’s often overlooked is making sure that your database enforces strong passwords. This can minimize a lot of risks – especially with high-level users who aren’t as tech-savvy as they should be. Having a long string of alphanumeric characters without words easily found in a dictionary is one of the most effective ways to create a strong password. Beyond just establishing this as policy, you can further enforce it by having the database throw errors when users try to create weak passwords. You can also generate and assign strong passwords instead of relying on user creativity.

Authentication and Encryption

Even if you have tackled authorization well, making sure that users can connect and communicate securely with the server and its databases is important for its security. Be sure to use authentication and SSL/TLS encryption for your users to keep the database from being compromised.

Implement Better User Management with Satori

Adopting effective use management strategies in MSSQL is important and necessary to ensure that your data is secure and compliant. Satori’s frictionless access control allows your organization to quickly and easily implement and update user privileges leading to successful user management.

With Satori you can apply just-in-time access for data, and allow users to get access to data on MSSQL and other platforms without the need for any DBA or Data Engineering resources.

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About the author
|Chief Scientist

Ben is an experienced tech leader and book author with a background in endpoint security, analytics, and application & data security. Ben filled roles such as the CTO of Cynet, and Director of Threat Research at Imperva. Ben is the Chief Scientist for Satori, the DataSecOps platform.

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