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Configuration Drift Explained

Configuration drift is when operating environments deviate from a baseline or standard configuration over time.

11 min read

What is configuration drift?

Configuration drift is when operating environments deviate from a baseline or standard configuration over time. This deviation can occur for various reasons, including manual interventions, software updates, and environmental factors. Understanding configuration drift is a key means of maintaining a secure and efficient system. Let’s take a closer look.

The importance of configuration management

According to Atlassian, configuration management is pivotal in helping engineering teams construct “robust and stable systems.” Without effective configuration management, values can easily become disorganized, leading to potential system vulnerabilities. By centralizing configuration data and employing version control platforms like Git, teams can track changes, maintain a "source of truth," and quickly revert to a stable state in case of unexpected changes. Here are two major benefits of optimized configuration management:

  • Consistency and stability: Configuration management ensures systems and applications run as intended, without interruptions and unforeseen errors. It is the backbone of an organization's IT infrastructure, facilitating smooth operations and reducing downtime.

  • Predictability: Predictability goes hand in hand with stability. Organizations can foster a predictable IT environment by reducing unexpected behaviors in systems through diligent configuration management. For instance, consider a company that uses automated tools to regularly scan and verify the configurations of its servers against a predefined standard. Any deviations are automatically flagged and corrected, ensuring all servers remain consistent with the desired configuration. This level of diligence ensures that when new software is deployed, or updates are made, there are no unexpected behaviors due to misconfigurations. Predictability translates to fewer surprises and a more streamlined approach to system updates and changes.

Configuration drift and vulnerability management

Now that we’ve seen the importance of configuration management, let’s examine how deviations from these configurations, known as configuration drift, can impact vulnerability management.

Unintended exposures

Configuration drift can inadvertently introduce vulnerabilities into the system. Misconfigurations or outdated settings can cause unintended exposures, providing potential entry points for unauthorized access. Being mindful of drift and actively managing configurations can significantly mitigate the risk of these exposures.

Inconsistent patch management

Patch management is a critical aspect of vulnerability management. The risks of overriding or neglecting security patches are varied and include system breaches and data leaks. Configuration drift can sometimes lead to patches being applied inconsistently or not at all, escalating a system's vulnerability. Keeping a watchful eye on patch management helps you maintain the security and integrity of your system.

The impact and cost of configuration drift

Configuration drift can affect operations, security, and finances:

Operational inefficiencies

  • Troubleshooting delays: When configurations drift from the established baseline, identifying alterations becomes a time-consuming process. Teams have to filter through changes to pinpoint issues, delaying troubleshooting, prolonging system downtimes, and affecting business continuity.

  • Maintenance overhead: Drift not only causes delays but also increases maintenance overhead. Teams expend extra effort to realign configurations—a process that could have been avoided with stringent configuration management—inflating operational costs.

Security risks

  • Potential breaches: Drift can create security holes, paving the way for breaches. The severity of breaches ranges from unauthorized data access to complete system takeovers. Such breaches can lead to financial losses, damage the organization's reputation, cause legal repercussions, and result in the loss of customer trust, all of which pose a significant threat to the overall health and sustainability of the organization.

  • Compliance issues: Regulatory compliance is a cornerstone of enterprise security. Drift can cause systems to deviate from regulatory standards, inviting both security risks and legal repercussions, which include hefty fines and reputational damage.

Financial implications

  • Direct costs: As we’ve seen, addressing drift-related issues incurs direct costs. Organizations may face additional cloud bills due to misconfigured resources or the financial burden of responding to security breaches, whose costs can balloon if they’re not promptly addressed.

  • Indirect costs: The indirect costs of configuration drift can be even more substantial. These include potential loss of business due to downtime or reputational damage following a security breach, which can have long-lasting effects on an organization's financial health.

Pro tip

Attackers are aware of the value of sensitive data and the increasing difficulties in securing it. They continuously scan the internet for exposed databases and buckets. With the average cost of a data breach now over $5 million, according to IBM’s Cost of a data breach report 2022, eliminating this risk should be a top priority.

Learn more

Causes of configuration drift

By pinpointing the causes of configuration drift, organizations can better strategize to prevent drift and maintain a secure and efficient operational environment. Here are the primary causes of configuration drift:

Human factors

  • Manual interventions: Changes made without proper documentation can lead to configuration drift. It’s not uncommon for administrators to make quick fixes or adjustments, forgetting to document these changes, which can later result in a drift from the baseline configuration.

  • Oversights: Human error, including oversights in the configuration process, can also cause drift. These errors might stem from a lack of understanding, or they may be simple mistakes that accumulate over time, resulting in a significant deviation from the intended configuration.

Software and hardware influences

  • Software updates: Software updates, while necessary for system improvements and security, can sometimes bring about unanticipated configuration alterations. If not properly managed, these changes can lead to drift, affecting system stability and security.

  • Hardware changes: Hardware updates or replacements can also influence configuration settings. For instance, replacing a network card or adding new storage devices can alter system configurations, potentially leading to drift if not adequately monitored and managed.

Environmental factors

  • Lack of synchronization: In multi-instance environments, a lack of synchronization between instances might cause discrepancies, fostering configuration drift as each instance evolves independently of the others.

  • External interactions: Third-party integrations and interactions with external systems can sometimes cause drift. These integrations might introduce new configurations or alter existing ones, creating a divergence from the baseline configuration and introducing potential vulnerabilities.

Config drift examples

Below, you’ll find more information about practical scenarios where drift can occur, potential impacts, and guidance on identifying and addressing such issues.

Web server drift

Web servers are integral to online operations; even minor drifts in their configuration can have significant repercussions. Consider a scenario where SSL/TLS settings on a web server are altered. This could involve changing the cipher suite to use weaker algorithms or turning off necessary security features such as HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS):

Figure 1: TLS settings in Azure (Source: Microsoft Learn Portal)

Such drift can introduce vulnerabilities due to outdated or improperly configured encryption settings, potentially exposing sensitive data to unauthorized users and making the system susceptible to man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks.

Database configuration drift

Databases are the backbone of many applications, and maintaining their stability is crucial. Imagine a situation where the maximum connection limits in a database like MySQL or PostgreSQL are altered, potentially setting a very high limit that can overwhelm the database server resources or setting it too low, restricting legitimate traffic. The following configuration file shows the default maximum connection value is increased to 1,000 instead of the default 100, which would overload the database and potentially lead to performance issues or even system crashes:

$ cat /etc/postgresql/14/main/postgresql.conf
max_connections = 1000
shared_buffers = 80MB

Altering connection limits can lead to performance degradation, with the database causing a bottleneck, affecting the overall application performance. Incorrect connection limits might also open up avenues for denial of service (DoS) attacks.

Firewall rule drift

Firewalls are the first line of defense in network security, and that’s why optimal configuration is paramount. A typical drift scenario is when a developer temporarily opens ports on a firewall for testing or troubleshooting that aren’t closed properly afterward. SSH (port 22) or RDP (port 3389) ports, for instance, are common targets for attackers:

Figure 2: Firewall rules in Azure (Source: Microsoft Learn Portal)

This drift can cause network exposure, providing an entry point for unauthorized users to access the network and potentially leading to data breaches and other security incidents.

How to prevent configuration drift

Though configuration drift poses significant challenges, you can adopt a strategic approach to effectively manage and mitigate its effects. This section outlines proactive and reactive measures and highlights the importance of collaboration and tooling and automation in managing configuration drift.

Proactive measures

Automated monitoring

Utilize tools that offer real-time drift detection and notifications to stay on top of identifying and rectifying drifts:

# Example Prometheus rule to detect unexpected CPU usage
- name: config_drift_detection
  - alert: PotentialConfigurationDrift
    expr: abs(deriv(node_cpu_seconds_total[1h])) > 0.05
    for: 15m
      severity: critical
      summary: "Potential Configuration Drift Detected"
      description: "A significant change in CPU usage has been detected, which might indicate a configuration drift."

Immutable infrastructure

Adopt infrastructure as code (IaC) practices to redeploy rather than modify infrastructure, ensuring a consistent and reproducible environment:

# Example Terraform script to create an AWS EC2 instance
resource "aws_instance" "web" {
  ami           = "ami-123456"
  instance_type = "t2.micro"
  tags = {
    Name = "WebServer"

Version control

Leverage version control systems for configuration files to track changes and revert when necessary, maintaining a historical record of all configurations:

# Example Git commands to create a new branch and track changes
git checkout -b feature_branch
git add config.yaml
git commit -m "Added new configuration settings"
git push origin feature_branch

Environment segregation

Ensure development, staging, and production environments are separate to prevent unintended configuration changes in production, maintaining the integrity of each environment:

# Example Docker Compose file to set up isolated environments
version: '3'
    image: nginx:alpine
      - ENVIRONMENT=development
      - "8080:80"

Reactive measures

Reactive measures involve responding to issues as they arise. While proactive measures are preferred, reactive strategies are equally important.

Regular audits

Conduct periodic configuration reviews against a known baseline to identify and address drifts, maintaining a secure and efficient system:

# Example script to audit system configurations
if [[ $(grep "PermitRootLogin no" /etc/ssh/sshd_config) ]]; then
  echo "Root login is disabled"
  echo "Root login is enabled"


Maintain comprehensive documentation for all changes, clarifying the reasons for changes and their expected impacts, which fosters transparency and accountability:

Rollback strategies

Have a plan in place to quickly revert configurations to a previously stable version in case of issues, minimizing downtime and maintaining system integrity:

# Example script to rollback to a previous configuration state
git reset --hard HEAD~1
systemctl restart nginx.service

Collaboration and communication

Collaboration and communication form the bedrock of effective configuration management. For instance, when developers and operations teams regularly sync up on configuration standards and updates, it reduces the likelihood of conflicts and ensures smoother deployments. 

Change management

Implement a robust change management process that requires approval for configuration changes, ensuring a structured and accountable approach to configuration management:

# Example change request template in a ticketing system
Ticket ID: CR-12345
Requester: John Doe
Description: Update Nginx worker processes from 4 to 8
Justification: To improve server performance
Approver: [Pending Approval]

Feedback loops

Establish channels for operations and development teams to communicate about configuration changes and their impacts, creating a collaborative and informed work environment.


Set up alerts for unauthorized or unexpected configuration changes, ensuring immediate notification and prompt action in case of drifts:

# Example Alertmanager configuration to set up alerts
  group_by: ['alertname']
  group_wait: 30s
  group_interval: 5m
  repeat_interval: 3h
  receiver: 'team-X-mails'
- name: 'team-X-mails'
  - to: 'team-X@example.com'

Tooling and automation

In modern IT, tooling and automation ensure a resilient and efficient infrastructure. Taking advantage of the correct set of tools and automation strategies can significantly reduce the risks associated with configuration drift.

Configuration management tools

Use configuration management tools to automate the deployment and management of configurations across various environments, ensuring consistency and compliance with the desired state:

# Example Ansible playbook to configure a web server with advanced settings
- name: Advanced Web Server Configuration
  hosts: webservers
    http_port: 80
    max_clients: 200
    - name: Ensure Nginx is installed
        name: nginx
        state: present
    - name: Configure Nginx
        src: /path/to/nginx.conf.j2
        dest: /etc/nginx/nginx.conf
        - Restart Nginx
    - name: Restart Nginx
        name: nginx
        state: restarted

In the above Ansible playbook, we use a template to dynamically configure NGINX settings, allowing for a more flexible and maintainable configuration management strategy.

Automated testing

Implement automated testing pipelines that validate configurations against predefined standards, promoting reliability and efficiency:

// Example Jenkins pipeline to run configuration tests with stages
pipeline {
    agent any 
    stages {
        stage('Checkout') {
            steps {
                checkout scm
        stage('Test') {
            steps {
                script {
                    def tests = load 'tests.groovy'
        stage('Report') {
            steps {
                publishHTML(target: [
                    allowMissing: false,
                    alwaysLinkToLastBuild: true,
                    keepAll: true,
                    reportDir: 'report',
                    reportFiles: 'index.html',
                    reportName: 'Test Report'

In this Jenkins pipeline, we introduce a reporting stage to generate and publish a detailed test report, enhancing visibility into the test results and facilitating quicker feedback loops.

Backup and restore

Develop robust backup and restore strategies that safeguard configurations and facilitate a quick recovery in the event of failures, ensuring business continuity. Regularly test these backups to make sure that they are functional and can be relied upon during critical moments.

How Wiz can help

In the ever-evolving landscape of cloud security, having a reliable partner to help manage configuration drift is essential. That’s where Wiz comes in. 

Wiz is a one-stop shop for all your cloud security needs. With a centralized platform, Wiz empowers security and development teams by providing visibility, context, and risk prioritization throughout the development lifecycle. Some of Wiz’s standout features include:

  • Real-time detection of cloud misconfigurations: Wiz detects critical cloud misconfigurations in real time, a pivotal part of managing configuration drift effectively.

  • Vulnerability management: The platform facilitates rapid fixes for vulnerabilities, matching the scale and speed of the cloud.

  • Container and Kubernetes security: Wiz ensures the removal of risks across containerized environments, a crucial aspect in maintaining a secure and stable system.

  • Infrastructure as code (IaC) scanning: Secure your cloud from source to production with Wiz's IaC scanning capabilities, promoting a proactive approach to configuration management.

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