What is CIS Benchmark?

The U.S.-based Center for Internet Security (CIS) stands out as a non-profit organization renowned for its CIS Benchmark standards. This framework represents the pinnacle of security standards for configuring target systems, be it an Operating System or cloud-based networking appliances.

Globally, businesses and organizations, including numerous U.S. government departments and the military, universally endorse the CIS Benchmarks as the gold standard for security control.

CIS: A Historical Perspective

Established in 2000, CIS set out to partner with experts. Their mission? To standardize security best practices and offer security posture recommendations. Their focus has always been on safeguarding both public and private entities.

Over its 22-year journey, CIS has accomplished three pivotal cybersecurity milestones:

  1. Crafting the CIS Benchmark standards.
  2. Launching the 24x7x365 operational mission of the Multi-State Information Sharing & Analysis Center (MS-ISAC).
  3. Elevating CIS Controls to a global cybersecurity standard.

For those seeking cloud security, CIS Benchmarks come as CIS Hardened Images on your favorite cloud provider. This ensures a standardized, secure, scalable, and on-demand computing environment.

Categories of CIS Benchmarks

A CIS Benchmark boasts automated fixes, usually integrated into a CIS Hardened Image. While some benchmarks might need manual intervention, businesses have the flexibility to manually implement the entire benchmark.

Two profiles define each benchmark. Level one offers tangible security benefits, while level two prioritizes security above all.

Currently, eight benchmark categories exist:

Operating Systems:

Available for a large choice of Operating Systems, the benchmarks support all versions of Windows Server and Windows Desktop, all major releases of Linux such as Debian, RHEL, Ubuntu, SUSE, and Oracle, and Unix support for AIX, macOS, and Solaris. Limited mainframe benchmarks are available for IBM System-I (i-series) and System-Z.

Server Software:

Major server applications have associated CIS Benchmarks, hypervisors like VMware and Docker, middleware tools like WebSphere and Tomcat, and Databases like MongoDB, DB2, SQL, PostgreSQL, and Oracle. Web server application support has been extended to Nginx, Apache, and Internet Information Services (IIS).

Cloud Providers:

All of the major cloud providers are in-scope. Benchmarks advise protecting access and cloud resources for AWS, GCP, Azure, Oracle, and Alibaba. Cloud SaaS applications such as Microsoft 365 (Office 365) and Google Workspace are also catered for.

Mobile Devices:

All major mobile phone operating systems, including Apple iOS and Android, are supported.

Network Devices:

CIS hardened Networking appliances are very popular, and support is provided for major Cisco products such as ASA, Cisco IOS, NX, Palo Alto, Check Point, Juniper, and F5.

Desktop Software:

Microsoft productivity software SharePoint, Microsoft Office, and Exchange are supported, and major web browsers like Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Edge are represented.

Multi-Function Devices:

An MFD benchmark protects printers, flash storage, network access points, multi-function printers (scanners/photocopiers), etc.

Security Metrics:

CIS Security Metrics focus on business functions, systems, operational, and technical metrics.

Benefits of CIS Benchmark

CIS benchmarks offer organizations unparalleled advantages. Known for housing top-tier security experts, CIS ensures that every hardened image undergoes meticulous crafting by a community of specialists. These images, available on your preferred cloud provider’s marketplace, undergo regular updates to stay in line with evolving security needs.

Moreover, these benchmarks offer a consistent path to compliance across industries. They serve as a trusted base for businesses prioritizing security, especially during cloud migration. While these images are user-friendly, it’s essential to review the documentation. Some common practices might be restricted in CIS-hardened images.

CIS Benchmark and Regulatory Compliance

Achieving or maintaining regulatory compliance is made easier by using CIS benchmarks. Although CIS benchmarks do not immediately confirm compliance, they put your business in the best possible position for an audit because most of the work will have been done already.  CIS Hardened images work well with PCI-DSS, HIPAA, SOC2, CMMC, and NIST compliance requirements.

Kubernetes CIS Benchmark

The enthusiasm around Kubernetes (K8s) remains undiminished. Despite its merits for containers and microservices, security concerns have lingered. Since 2017, CIS has been fortifying Kubernetes, with the benchmark now at version 1.23.

How to Achieve CIS Compliance

Achieving CIS Compliance can be daunting, more so maintaining it. Multiple user management, unforeseen incidents, and configuration drift complicate the process. To attain compliance, one must implement the benchmark’s automated and manual recommendations. Moreover, adhering to provider CIS controls, especially on cloud platforms, is crucial. Eighteen CIS Critical Security Controls are essential for compliance.

18 CIS Critical Security Controls

The 18 CIS Critical Security Controls are a set of best practices for information security developed by the Center for Internet Security (CIS) to help organizations improve their cybersecurity posture. These controls are designed to provide a roadmap for organizations to prioritize and implement security measures that are most effective at reducing the risk of cyber attacks.

Here are the 18 CIS Critical Security Controls:

  1. Inventory and Control of Hardware Assets
  2. Inventory and Control of Software Assets
  3. Continuous Vulnerability Management
  4. Controlled Use of Administrative Privileges
  5. Secure Configuration for Hardware and Software on Mobile Devices, Laptops, Workstations and Servers
  6. Maintenance, Monitoring, and Analysis of Audit Logs
  7. Email and Web Browser Protections
  8. Malware Defenses
  9. Limitations and Control of Network Ports, Protocols and Services
  10. Data Recovery Capability
  11. Secure Configuration for Network Devices, such as Firewalls, Routers and Switches
  12. Boundary Defense
  13. Data Protection
  14. Controlled Access Based on Need to Know
  15. Wireless Access Control
  16. Account Monitoring and Control
  17. Implementing a Security Awareness and Training Program
  18. Application Software Security

These controls are further broken down into sub-controls that provide specific guidance on implementing them effectively. By following these best practices, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of cyber-attacks and protect their sensitive data and assets.

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Advantages of CIS Benchmarks

The Center for Internet Security (CIS) benchmarks are a set of best practices for securing various systems and applications, including operating systems, web servers, databases, and more. The CIS benchmarks are widely recognized as a valuable resource for organizations looking to improve their cybersecurity posture. Here are some advantages of using the CIS benchmarks:

  1. Comprehensive security guidance: The CIS benchmarks provide detailed security guidance for various systems and applications, including step-by-step instructions for implementing recommended security controls. This makes it easy for organizations to follow best practices and improve their security posture.
  2. Industry-recognized standards: The CIS benchmarks are developed by a community of experts from industry, government, and academia and are widely recognized as industry standards for cybersecurity. This means that by implementing the CIS benchmarks, organizations can demonstrate that they are following recognized best practices for security.
  3. Customizable to specific environments: The CIS benchmarks are designed to be customizable to specific environments, allowing organizations to adapt the recommended security controls to their unique needs and requirements. This ensures organizations can implement effective security measures tailored to their specific circumstances.
  4. Regularly updated: The CIS benchmarks are updated to reflect changes in the threat landscape and incorporate new best practices as they emerge. This means that organizations can rely on the CIS benchmarks to provide up-to-date guidance on the latest security threats and how to protect against them.
  5. Free and open source: The CIS benchmarks are freely available and open source, making them accessible to a wide range of organizations, regardless of their size or budget. This means that even small organizations with limited resources can benefit from the expertise and guidance provided by the CIS benchmarks.

Disadvantages of CIS Benchmarks

While the Center for Internet Security (CIS) benchmarks provide valuable guidance for improving the security of various systems and applications, organisations should also be aware of some potential disadvantages. Here are some of the disadvantages of using the CIS benchmarks:

  1. One-size-fits-all approach: The CIS benchmarks provide a standardized set of security controls designed to apply to various systems and applications. However, this one-size-fits-all approach may not suit all organizations or environments, as different organizations may have unique security needs and requirements.
  2. Limited coverage: While the CIS benchmarks cover many systems and applications, they may not cover all possible security threats or vulnerabilities. This means that organizations may need to supplement the CIS benchmarks with additional security measures to protect their systems and data fully.
  3. Implementing the CIS benchmarks can be challenging, particularly for organizations with limited IT resources or expertise. The recommended security controls may require significant time, effort, and resources to implement, which could be a barrier for smaller organizations.
  4. Compliance vs security: Some organizations may view the CIS benchmarks as a compliance checklist rather than a comprehensive security framework. This could lead to focusing on checking off boxes rather than implementing effective security measures that address the organization’s unique security risks and threats.
  5. False sense of security: Implementing the CIS benchmarks alone does not guarantee complete security, as new threats and vulnerabilities are always emerging. Organizations may develop a false sense of security if they rely solely on the CIS benchmarks without implementing additional security measures or continuously monitoring and adapting their security posture.

Overall, while the CIS benchmarks provide a valuable resource for improving cybersecurity, organizations should be aware of their limitations and supplement them with additional security measures as needed to fully protect their systems and data.

Alternatives to CIS Benchmarking

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework:

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework is a voluntary framework that provides guidelines and best practices for managing and reducing cybersecurity risk. It is designed to help organizations of all sizes and sectors develop effective cybersecurity programs.

Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS):

The PCI DSS is a set of requirements to ensure that all companies that accept, process, store or transmit credit card information maintain a secure environment. It provides a detailed set of security controls organizations must implement to protect cardholder data.

International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 27001:

The ISO 27001 standard provides a framework for implementing an information security management system (ISMS). It covers various security controls, including risk assessment, security policies, access control, and incident management.

Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) Cloud Controls Matrix:

The CSA Cloud Controls Matrix provides a set of security controls specifically designed for cloud computing environments. It covers various security domains, including data governance, compliance, and information security.

Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) Top Ten:

The OWASP Top Ten lists web applications’ most critical security risks. It includes guidance on how to mitigate these risks and improve the security of web applications.

The Center for Internet Security (CIS) benchmarks are a valuable resource for organizations looking to improve their cybersecurity posture. They provide comprehensive security guidance for a wide range of systems and applications. They are recognized as industry standards, are customizable to specific environments, are regularly updated, and are freely available and open source.

However, it’s important to recognize the potential disadvantages of using the CIS benchmarks, such as the one-size-fits-all approach, limited coverage, implementation challenges, compliance vs security mindset, and false sense of security.

Ultimately, organizations should carefully evaluate their security needs and requirements and choose the best framework or standard that meets their specific needs. The CIS benchmarks may be a good starting point for organizations looking to improve their cybersecurity. Still, they should consider other alternatives, such as the NIST Cybersecurity Framework, PCI DSS, ISO 27001, CSA Cloud Controls Matrix, and OWASP Top Ten.


Richard Bailey, a seasoned tech enthusiast, combines a passion for innovation with a knack for simplifying complex concepts. With over a decade in the industry, he's pioneered transformative solutions, blending creativity with technical prowess. An avid writer, Richard's articles resonate with readers, offering insightful perspectives that bridge the gap between technology and everyday life. His commitment to excellence and tireless pursuit of knowledge continues to inspire and shape the tech landscape.

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  1. 08/04/2023

    […] testing, digital forensics, and network security assessments. This open-source platform is based on Debian Linux and is designed to provide advanced security tools and features for testing and improving the […]

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