LinuxWorld, virtually speaking
The future's in virtualisation
Woody Allen once famously said, "80 per cent of success is showing up". And often, showing up means you're in the right place at the right time to take advantage of new opportunities.
Nowadays, for instance, we take the talking heads that deliver the news to us on TV and radio for granted. But it wasn't always so. In fact, it's possible to precisely date the birth of broadcast journalism to 13 March 1938.
The day before, Hitler's troops had entered Austria. At the time, a journalist named William Shirer was working for CBS in London when he found out that the Home Office wanted him and his boss - the then-unknown Edward R Murrow - to offer a series of live radio reports from Vienna about the Nazi invasion. The two men performed the jobs with panache and skill, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Talk about being in the right place at the right time: I'm at LinuxWorld in San Francisco this week, and it's as interesting, stimulating, and fun as you might imagine. There's a lot going on here, and much of it relates to security.
In fact, it sometimes seems like I'm hearing reactions to, and support for, many of the columns I've written in this very space over the years. In particular, one topic strongly stood out for me, but from a new angle that deserves examination.
VMWare & virtualisation
I recently wrote about virtualisation, claiming that soon virtualisation will be expected by end users as a regular part of the operating system. Even if they don't understand how it works, users will sure understand that it does work to make their lives easier, safer, and more productive.
I've seen further evidence at LinuxWorld that backs up my assertion. VMWare, Virtuozzo, Xen, and other virtualisation technologies have been in evidence here in San Francisco, and their offerings are looking more robust than ever.
However, when I wrote my earlier column, I left out one aspect of virtualisation that is just as important, if not more so, than the benefits on the client end that I discussed. I'm referring, of course, to the server.
Here's my advice: VMWare is the company to watch. It's easily the most mature company in this space, and its products just work. Now that VMWare Player and VMWare Server are free, there's absolutely no reason for security pros not to download the software and try these products out (Editor's note: they still don't yet support Mac OS X - try Parallels). But simply downloading VMWare Server, for instance, isn't enough. You need a host OS to run inside your fresh installation of VMWare Server, or you've essentially got a car without an engine.
You could install Windows, of course, but really...what fun is that? And who wants to mess with all the hassles of Windows that we know so well? And finally, this is LinuxWorld, dammit, so we're just going to pretend that Windows never came up.
Side note: When I approached the FreeBSD booth, my first question was, "So, what's FreeBSD doing here at LinuxWorld?" Without losing a beat, the FreeBSD guy responded, "Actually, in an alternate universe, I'm attending BSDWorld and there's one Linux booth. However, my transporter malfunctioned 'cause it was running Linux, and so here I am." Best nerd one-liner I've heard at the show.
VMWare made an announcement at the show that solves the problem of what security pros should try out with their copies of VMWare Server. To understand the import of the announcement, let's briefly review how VMWare works.
After installing VMWare, you could install Debian GNU/Linux, for instance, and then customise, tweak, and configure everything to your liking. If you were feeling particularly ambitious, you could then take the resulting VMWare image file and post it so that anyone else on the Net could access, download, and use your VMWare image (see why this wouldn't really work with Windows?).
VMWare calls those images "virtual appliances," and you can see the mega-list on its website. You'll find everything from pre-packaged installs of Fedora Core, Kubuntu, and Freespire - all desktop focused - to virtual appliances designed with more of a classic "focus on one task and do it well" approach.
In other words, more like a hardware appliance that you'd buy and drop onto your network, except that in this case the appliance is one of your existing boxes running VMWare and a pre-packaged (free) image.
Winners Without losers
VMWare sponsored a contest - the Ultimate Virtual Appliance Challenge - over the past many months to create the most useful and interesting virtual appliances, and the winners were announced at LinuxWorld.
I'm now grabbing you by the lapels and urging you strongly to go check those winners out, because there are so amazingly cool, powerful, and, yes, innovative tools there for you to see. And not just see, but play with as well.
For instance, the winning team (who took away $100,000!) created an appliance called "HowNetWorks" that is described as "a network analyser that works at a higher level than more traditional network analyzers like tcpdump or ethereal. Packaged inside a VMware virtual machine on top of Ubuntu, this virtual appliance contains a completely new application written by the author and comes with full documentation to get you started (with videos)!"
Everything is under the GPL, of course, so you're free to use this as you wish, as well as study, modify, and redistribute the code. Ah, ain't open source grand?
Security pros might also be interested in the third prize winners ($25,000), who created the "Sieve Firewall" appliance. This one is a "[t]ransparent bridging iptables firewall configured through [a] Windows-based .net GUI," with several other interesting and innovative features. By making it easy for Windows admins to use a Linux-based firewall, this appliance could go a long way towards improving security in many businesses that need it.
In the server category, the winner ($5,000) was the Enterprise Encryption Server, a really smart way to provide a badly-needed service.
"The Enterprise Encryption Server provides an easy to deploy and manage centralized OpenPGP compatible encryption resource...Files that are copied to the appliance via FTP or Windows file sharing (SMB) are automatically encrypted/decrypted and then copied to remote destinations. For compliance reasons every step of the process is logged."
I know that several of you reading this are already thinking of ways that you could use this exciting, innovative tool. With VMWare, this will take a few minutes to set up, thus allowing you to leverage a small investment in time in some potentially huge ways.
There are plenty of other interesting winners and honorable mentions, including the Kid Safe Desktop ("stops illicit material from invading your child's computer by filtering and blocking web content while they surf"), Strongbox Virtual Appliance ("a complete office environment using strong steganographic encryption, with RAM isolated from disk"), and Internet Connection Sharing Appliance (a "Netfilter based NAT box - easily share your internet connection, without changing your network configuration").
Beyond those, there were 170 entries in the contest, so I encourage you to nose around in the complete list of available appliances. Who knows what you'll find, but it may be just the thing you need.
Or, it may inspire you to create your own virtual appliance for your organisation or your clients. This stuff isn't rocket science, and the tools are free, so you're basically limited only by your imagination and ingenuity. The point is, don't waste time. Try this stuff out and put it to use.
Virtualisation is going to continue its spread throughout the IT world, and security pros need to start taking advantage of its possibilities now. If you're interested in being in the right place at the right time, then start learning as much about virtualisation now as you possibly can. Your future self will thank you.
This article originally appeared in Security Focus.
Copyright © 2006, SecurityFocus
Scott Granneman teaches at Washington University in St Louis, consults for WebSanity, and writes for SecurityFocus and Linux Magazine. His latest book, Hacking Knoppix, is in stores now.