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The scary side of virtualization

Robert L. Mitchell | Nov. 9, 2010
How concerned is your organization with the issue of security in a virtualized environment?

"There are some huge, well-known corporate names around the globe that you'd think would have this stuff pretty much beat. That couldn't be further from the truth," says Andrew Mulé, a senior security consultant in EMC Corp.'s RSA unit.

The problem isn't that a virtual infrastructure is difficult to secure per se, but that many companies still haven't adapted their best practices (if they have them) to the new environment.

Virtual Headaches

Virtualization introduces technologies -- including a new software layer, the hypervisor -- that must be managed. Also new: virtual switching, which routes network traffic between virtual servers in ways that aren't always visible to tools designed to monitor traffic on the physical network.

Moreover, virtualization breaks down the traditional separation of duties within IT by allowing a single administrator to generate new virtual servers en masse at the push of a button, without approval from purchasing or input from the network, storage, business continuity or IT security groups (see "Beware the All-Powerful Admin," below).

Meanwhile, virtualization-aware security technologies and best practices are still evolving. The market has emerged so quickly that customers haven't been able to keep up from a best-practices standpoint, says Lovejoy. There's a lack of knowledge on the subject and a lack of skills in the field.

"The questions about security in a virtual environment are centered around lack of visibility, lack of control, and fear of the unknown," says Bill Trussell, managing director of security research at TheInfoPro, an IT market research firm in New York. Could someone hijack a hypervisor within a business's virtual infrastructure and use it to compromise all of the virtual servers residing on top of it -- as one CIO feared? Could an attacker breach one virtual server and use it as a platform to attack another virtual server, such as a payment-card processing application residing on the same hardware, without the administrator ever knowing about it?

Concerns about scary scenarios like those persist despite the fact that there have been no known attacks against virtual infrastructures, says Eric Baize, RSA's senior director for secure infrastructure.

When TheInfoPro surveyed 214 IT security professionals earlier this year, it found that one-third were "very or extremely" concerned about security in a virtualized environment.

Worries about an attack that could compromise a hypervisor rose after Joanna Rutkowska's "Blue Pill" hypervisor malware rootkit at a Black Hat conference in 2006.

Since then, however, the industry has moved forward with hardware technologies to ensure the integrity of hypervisors, such as Intel's Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O (known as VT-d). "Today, most of [Intel's] Core i5 and i7 processors have those technologies," and virtualization software providers have moved to support those features, says Rutkowska, founder and CEO of Invisible Things Lab, an IT security research firm.


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