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Tracking Change in Vista : Turning on the audit policy, Exploring the Vista Event Log

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7/22/2013 5:52:30 PM

Managing change in any network is a daunting task. You have to really know what is happening to be able to understand how your network evolves with use. In Windows, the best way to find out what is going on is to audit all system and user activity. The only way to do this is to use a two-part approach. First, you must create an audit policy. Second, you have to indicate which objects and which users you want to audit.

1. Turning on the audit policy

You need to turn on the audit policy. Do this by using either the Local Security Policy or through central Group Policy. Use the Local Security Policy if you want to audit a single computer or if it is part of a workgroup. If you have more than one system, then use Group Policy. That's because it provides centralized policy deployment to multiple systems — create the policy once and deploy it to any number of systems.

Despite the fact that Vista now brings 800 new settings to Group Policy management, the audit policies have not changed. Vista allows you to audit nine different types of events just as you could in Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, as shown in Figure 1. Whether you use Group Policy or the LSP, you need to turn on each of the events you want to monitor. Use the following process:

Figure 1. Modifying the Audit Policy

  1. Click Start Menu, Search, type GMPC.MSC, and press Enter. Accept the UAC prompt.

  2. After the GPMC is launched, expand the Forest to view all subitems in the Tree pane. Navigate to the Default Domain Policy, right-click on it, and select Edit. The Default Domain Policy is used because it applies to every system in the network.

  3. In GPEdit, choose Computer Configuration => Windows Settings => Security Settings => Local Policies => Audit Policy.

  4. Double-click each setting to modify it.

Modify the settings as appropriate. To learn more about each setting, click on the Explain tab in the setting's dialog box.

Preparing the policy, local or central, is only the first part of the auditing process. The second step is to change the security descriptor of the items you want to audit. For example, to audit file access on a given shared folder, you need to:

  1. Right-click the shared folder and select Properties.

  2. Select the Security tab, click the Advanced Security button, and move to the Audit tab.

  3. Select whom you want to audit.

Fortunately, you can use groups to monitor the activities of all the users in your organization, which makes it simpler to assign. You must repeat this activity on each server or workstation you want to monitor and for each object you need to watch.

Audited events are recorded in the Security Event Log and can be seen through the Event Viewer. Because events are recorded locally on each system that is affected, you need to visit each and every system to obtain a global picture of events on your network. Doing this is a bit tedious if you don't have an event collection mechanism — or a system that automatically collects key events and forwards them to a central location. Fortunately, Vista can also collect events.

Vista's Event Log can now automatically act on events and send them to a central location, which can be another Vista system or a server running Windows Server 2008. In addition, you'll soon discover that the Event Log now records a host of events that were unheard of in previous versions of Windows.

In these previous versions, Microsoft used a number of different mechanisms to record events. Many products and subfeatures of Windows recorded information in their own logs as if they didn't even know the Event Log existed. It's no wonder that most administrators didn't even bother to verify any logs unless an untoward event occurred and they were spurred on by others: security officers, for example. It was just too much work. With Vista, most of these tools now record events properly and store them into the Event Log. This is bound to make your life easier, but of course, only when all your systems have been upgraded to Vista.

2. Exploring the Vista Event Log

For Windows Vista, Microsoft scrapped all of its previous Windows code and started from scratch to rewrite the whole thing. With all the security issues Windows had been facing in the past few years, rewriting the code with security in mind was a must. But this approach also provides added benefits. For example, when Microsoft programmers were working on the Vista Event Log, not only did they rewrite the code, but they also took advantage of the opportunity to give it a complete overhaul. The new Vista Event Log sports a new interface and a significant number of new event categories making it much more useful than ever before. It now includes the following new features:

  • New Event Viewer Interface

  • New Event Categories

  • New Event Filters

  • New Event Language: XML

  • New Event command line tool

The Event Viewer interface

The first thing you'll notice when you launch the Event Viewer in Windows Vista is the new look and feel. When you first open it, the Event Viewer presents its summary view. The new Event Viewer lays out its contents into three panes, as shown in Figure 2, because it is based on the Microsoft Management Console version 3.0. The left pane is still the tree view which will be familiar to most Windows technicians. It includes several nodes: Custom Views, Windows Logs, Applications and Services Logs, and Subscriptions. The center pane is as it was before: the details pane. When the focus is on the Event Viewer node, you see a summary view which lists all events according to importance as well as audited events. Finally, the right pane lists actions you can perform. Like context menus, the contents of this action pane will change with the views you select.

When you change views, for example, when you focus on a specific log and view the events it contains, the details pane becomes your Event Viewer, showing the actual contents of events without having to open each event and having to juggle windows to try to see event listings at the same time as you see event details as shown in Figure 3. This makes it much easier to work with events.

Figure 2. Summary view of the Event Log

Figure 3. View the details of an event

New event categories

Another major improvement of the Event Log is that it is now designed to collect every single event on the system. Although previous versions of Windows stored event information in different locations — databases, flat files, event logs — Vista now stores all events in the Event Log. Therefore, it now includes a whole series of new event categories. These are located under the Applications and Services Logs node in the tree pane. Perhaps the most important change is in the Microsoft sub-node. This sub-node now includes 53 different categories under the Windows sub-node. Each category is focused on a specific service within Windows — BitLocker, Event Collector, Group Policy, User Access Control, and much more. Subcategories are listed for each — administrative, operational, analytic and so on — making it very easy to drill down deep into any issue.

In addition, each application that is Vista-ready will store its events inside this event category. Windows includes its own — Distributed File System (DFS) Replication, Hardware Events, Internet Explorer, Key Management Service, and Media Center. Third-party applications also store their events here. This proves that the Event Log is now the one and only store for events in Vista.

New event filters

In addition, in the Custom Views node under the tree pane, you see that Vista already includes a custom view: the Administrative Events view. This view is based on a filter as shown in Figure 9.17 and is used to automatically collect events that are of interest to system administrators, saving you from having to generate your own filters. Because this is a default view, this filter is read-only, but you have full flexibility to create other filters based on any event attribute.

Figure 4. Details of the Administrative Events filter

The filters can be based on a whole series of attributes. Logged time is one of the first attributes you can focus on with six predefined time periods and the ability to create your own custom time period. Event level is next, letting you select critical, errors, warning, verbose, or information events. Then, you can filter either by log or by source. By log gives you a tree pane that lets you check the logs you need. Source lets you select any potential event source. Finally, you can filter by event ID, tasks that may be associated with the event, keywords contained inside the event, user, and computer generating the event.

New event language: XML

Filtering is now so powerful because Vista events are now completely structured, using an Extended Markup Language (XML) structure. Previous versions of Windows provided some structure for event reporting, but it was mostly only evident to programmers using the Win32 application programming interface. With Vista, everything changes because they rely on XML with a published schema as shown in Figure 5. Each event now includes an XML description, which makes filtering out events (that might be considered garbage) much easier and lets you focus on the events that are of interest to you. This filtering strategy will go a long way toward making it easier to audit change and manage systems running Windows Vista.

Figure 5. The XML details of an event

New event command line

For those who love the command line, you won't be disappointed with the new Event Log. Vista includes a new command that is designed to let you manage and administer events in character mode:


Wevtutil, for Windows Event Utility, includes a whole series of functions and switches, all aimed at event management. For example, you can find out all of the publishers who are registered on a system. That's because with the new Event Log, publishers must register themselves on the system. Wevtutil lists not only publishers but also their configuration on the system and all of the events they might log on a system. Nobody can hide from administrators anymore!

Wevtutil will also let you install or uninstall event manifests, run queries against events, export and archive logs as well as clear them, all from the command line. If you're into the command line, then take the time to explore this powerful new tool.

As you can see, the Event Viewer is considerably different from previous versions of Windows, even at just the interface level. But that's not all. With Vista, you can integrate events with tasks, you can automate tasks based on events, and you can forward key events to central locations.

Other -----------------
- Managing Change through Group Policy (part 4) - Assigning PC-Related GPOs, Troubleshooting and monitoring Group Policy
- Managing Change through Group Policy (part 3) - Working with GPO tools
- Managing Change through Group Policy (part 2) - Working with central policies
- Managing Change through Group Policy (part 1) - Working with Local Policies
- Securing the Workstation : Applying the Castle Defense System (part 7) - Working with external access - Working with Public Key Infrastructures, Working with Virtual Private Network connections
- Securing the Workstation : Applying the Castle Defense System (part 6) - Working with external access - Working with the Windows Firewall with Advanced Security
- Securing the Workstation : Applying the Castle Defense System (part 5) - Managing information access
- Securing the Workstation : Applying the Castle Defense System (part 4) - Hardening the system - USB Device Control, Windows Defender
- Securing the Workstation : Applying the Castle Defense System (part 3) - Hardening the system - User Account Control
- Securing the Workstation : Applying the Castle Defense System (part 2) - Hardening the system - Local Security Policy and security configurations
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