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Virtualization Security Heats Up

An attack that breaches the hypervisor is IT's new worst nightmare. Are you prepared?

In March, Gartner ignited the blogosphere by stating the obvious: Virtualization creates new attack opportunities. There's still lots of smoke billowing around, but only time will tell how much fire is behind it, and who's fanning the flames. Vendors of new virtualized security "appliances" clearly have a stake. But many enterprises are realizing they rushed headlong into virtualization without considering the impact on their data protection policies, so IT pros do have legitimate concerns over the amount of real estate that could be consumed by a successful attack on a hypervisor.

If you're squirming right now, the big question you want answered is: Just how risk-exposed are we today? After all, in that same report Gartner predicted that a patch-worthy hypervisor vulnerability would be discovered in a mainstream product before the end of 2008. These potential vulnerabilities fall into two broad categories. First, if you can escape a client OS and move into a host OS, you have access to the data on all the other client operating systems on that machine. And there are whole new realms of rootkits being designed to take advantage of virtualization technology.

InformationWeek Reports

"People have been working on breaking out of the guest OS in VMware for some time now," says Greg Shipley, CTO of security consulting firm Neohapsis and an InformationWeek contributor. "And having a hypervisor rootkit installed would be a serious threat to any org. However, I don't see the development of the rootkit being the big challenge."

It's the process used to deploy such a rootkit that really intrigues Shipley.

"What's going to require more effort: Researching a vulnerability that allows us to break out of a guest OS and gain control of the hypervisor layer, or going after an administrator and hijacking the credentials required to install the rootkit, just like any other application? If the task was on my plate, I know which route I'd go."

As for breaking out of the client image, consulting company Intelguardians demonstrated just such an incursion into the host OS at last month's SANSFire show. Details of the vulnerability aren't public, so it's impossible to know what the attack was successful against, but you can bet these researchers aren't the only ones in this race.

The lesson is that organizations now need to assume that a sufficiently motivated attacker is capable of such an exploit, and plan accordingly. Defense in depth and proper virtual machine layout and design, including not mixing VMs with different security postures and requirements on the same host system, are crucial.

Chart: Safe And Sound
To find out how prepared our readers are, we fielded a survey--and got some eye-popping results. We can't help thinking that the 43% saying they believe virtualized machines are just as safe and secure as traditional environments are whistling past the graveyard. Of the 384 IT operations and security professionals responding, a mere 12% have put formal strategies in place to protect their VMs.

Now, many say they're relying on their current IT policies and toolsets to manage and protect virtual servers, and that makes sense ... to a point. Virtualized environments do face the same operational threats and risks as traditional servers, but there are added gotchas, from intrahost threats to vetting third-party hypervisor driver add-ons to new checklist items for corporate information security policies.

Let's face it: If a traditional 1U server is compromised, you'll feel some amount of personal shame, regroup, assess damages, fix the problem, and move on. Most shops have strategies in place to localize internal damage, with secondary and tertiary lines of defense to safeguard against a cascade of compromised systems. Problem is, few network monitoring and management tools are up to the task of securing guest VMs. When a traditional server gets slammed and begins displaying erratic or suspicious behavior, alarms will go off. But how effective are your tried-and-true netmon tools if all machine-to-machine communication is occurring between VMs inside your "data center in a box"? How much time will the bad guys have to probe, test, and exploit intrahost weaknesses before you see what's happening?

And is the current level of high security anxiety swirling around VM-specific environments justified? It's getting there, but that's the nice thing about smelling smoke--it warns that danger's afoot.


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