Security not a benefit of virtualization, study finds

Hiding the existence of a VM is "fundamentally infeasible," says the report

Security has been touted as one of the benign by-products of virtualization -- but according to a recent study that's no longer the case.

This is because technological developments mean that malware can detect that it's running inside a VM and so alter its approach. Hiding the existence of a VM is "fundamentally infeasible," says the report, in response to the mooting by some virtualization and security developers of the desirability of developing undetectable VMs.

The white paper, called Compatibility is Not Transparency: Virtual Machine Management Detection Myths and Realities, is published by virtualization vendors VMware and XenSource, as well as academics from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon Universities. It discusses the ability to use virtual machines (VMs) as a way of trapping rootkit attacks -- a technique known as honeypotting -- as well as worm detectors. This has relied on malware's general inability to recognize that it's not attacking a real, physical machine.

The paper reckons that "anti-virus vendors are eager to cloak their use of VMs in identifying newly released exploits for similar reasons. Others have proposed offensive uses of virtualization in the form of VM-based rootkits hoping to leverage the transparency of VMMs to cloak their presence and provide an ideal attack platform."

However, continues the report: "We believe the transparency these proposals desire is not achievable today and will remain so."

The problem, according to the report, is that those developing security solutions start with the premise that, if the performance profile matches that of a real machine, its containment within a virtual environment is undetectable.

But there are big differences that betray the presence of a VM. The paper reports that "virtual implementations of this architecture differ substantially from physical implementations... Logical discrepancies are semantic differences in the interfaces of real and virtual hardware. Most current VMM detection methods exploit differences in the virtual CPU interface of VMMs such as VMware Player or Microsoft VirtualPC that violate x86 architecture."

It continues: "These and other discrepancies are unimportant to the vast majority of software, soVMMs make no effort to hide them." But software can detect discrepancies in the CPU, in storage devices and in device drivers, according to the report, largely because VMM developers are more concerned about compatibility and performance than about detectability -- or about overall security.

As a result, the authors conclude: "the ease of imagining new detection methods suggests that VMM transparency is difficult to the point of impracticality."

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Manek Dubash

Computerworld UK
Show Comments

Father’s Day Gift Guide

Brand Post

Bitdefender 2019

Bitdefender solutions stop attacks before they even begin! Get cybersecurity that 500 MILLION users already have and trust.

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Andrew Teoh

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

Touch screen visibility and operation was great and easy to navigate. Each menu and sub-menu was in an understandable order and category

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?