Feeds

Virtualization security – oxymoron or perfect partnership?

New environments, new security risks

Build a business case: developing custom apps

Workshop So far in this series we've looked at where virtualization is at, and where it's going in terms of both benefits and operational challenges.

Like many newly adopted technologies, the law of unintended consequences comes into play – virtualization will undoubtedly be used for a raft of previously unimagined things.

Similarly, however, it creates a whole bunch of risks never considered by either its original designers, nor those putting virtualization in place.

Some of these topics came to light during a panel session at Infosec Europe this year. The highly participatory audience described risks such as the popular assumption that the virtual world is in some way secure by default. While the hypervisor may provide an additional, securable layer, the downside is that if the hypervisor (or indeed, the management tool overseeing a number of hypervisors) is compromised, then the virtual environment can be left wide open to attack.

Risks do not have to be purely technological either. One benefit of virtualization is that logical workloads no longer have to be tied to specific physical machines.

However, this constraint has traditionally been used to security's advantage – for example by locking specific servers in a machine room and only providing access to specific staff. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which a virtual machine was relocated to a server that was less well protected; indeed, if one is to believe the rhetoric, it is not infeasible to imagine a high-risk workload being allocated to the public access terminal in the foyer!

Surely it is just a case of preventing such things from happening, I hear you say. But as we discussed in a previous article, the level of knowledge and experience around managing virtualization is currently quite low. This couples with the comment by one participant at the Infosec panel, from a security manager – that when virtual environments were being implemented in his organization, he was having to conduct a rearguard action to ensure that any holes were shored up. In the drive to reduce costs as quickly as possible, a number of risks may be left untreated.

What virtualization brings is an additional layer, which itself needs to be secured, managed, operated. However, this is not all bad – indeed, while virtualization does increase the threat surface of the IT environment, it can bring with it a number of security advantages over using physical systems.

One particular benefit comes almost as a spin-off. In order to reach a given workload, not only does the physical environment have to be breached, but then so does the virtual layer. As already mentioned, such additional layers are not an automatic protection against a sustained attack. However they do provide a layer of abstraction which can reduce the chances of data leaks or ‘accidental’ prying.

Virtualization also brings with it an additional degree of resilience. Virtual environments can be configured to incorporate fail-safe mechanisms, so if a virtual machine goes down, it can be started up elsewhere (or indeed, two machines can be running in parallel with replicated state). VMs can also deliver what is known in security parlance as ‘separation of concerns’ – specific applications can be run in their own virtual machines, meaning that if one is compromised or goes down, it is less likely to bring others down with it.

Virtualization is a work in progress, particularly with respect to security, as both technology vendors and implementers agree. It brings a number of benefits that are too compelling to avoid. But we need to face facts: organizations are not yet in a position where they can claim to understand all the risks or operating a virtual environment, either within their own data centers, across the organization or using external, cloud-based resources.

Perhaps the only guidance that can really be given at this stage is around due diligence – at the heart of security best practice is the eyes-wide-open mindset, in which risks are clearly understood and appropriately dealt with. Perhaps you have already dealt with some of the security issues around virtualization, or you are having a hard time convincing management that such threats need to be treated. In the spirit of sharing best practice, we would welcome your feedback. ®

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
NO MORE ALL CAPS and other pleasures of Visual Studio 14
Unpicking a packed preview that breaks down ASP.NET
KDE releases ice-cream coloured Plasma 5 just in time for summer
Melty but refreshing - popular rival to Mint's Cinnamon's still a work in progress
Leaked Windows Phone 8.1 Update specs tease details of Nokia's next mobes
New screen sizes, dual SIMs, voice over LTE, and more
Another day, another Firefox: Version 31 is upon us ALREADY
Web devs, Mozilla really wants you to like this one
Put down that Oracle database patch: It could cost $23,000 per CPU
On-by-default INMEMORY tech a boon for developers ... as long as they can afford it
Mozilla keeps its Beard, hopes anti-gay marriage troubles are now over
Plenty on new CEO's todo list – starting with Firefox's slipping grasp
Apple: We'll unleash OS X Yosemite beta on the MASSES on 24 July
Starting today, regular fanbois will be guinea pigs, it tells Reg
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.