Virtualization security needed -- now!

Experts say it’s only a matter of time before malware writers weasel their way into the core of a virtual server platform. Here’s how to stop them

For years, Inttra, an e-commerce logistics provider to the world's largest cargo-shipping organizations, has been using virtualization on its back-end IBM mainframe and Citrix Systems servers in a secure environment. Now the Parsippany, N.J., company primarily uses IBM blade servers running virtual Linux machines. VMware's virtualization technology on an Intel platform powers this New Data Center infrastructure.

John Debenedette, Inttra's vice president of IT, says he believed he could keep a virtualized data-center environment secure while emulating established best practices. He's not ready, however, to risk running virtual Web servers outside his DMZ. Nor is he ready to allow virtual machines on the endpoints, which are harder to control.

"You can follow best practices on all of your virtual machines. But at the end of the day, you're putting a lot of trust in the virtual-machine platform layer itself," Debenedette says. "This layer - also called the hypervisor, the virtual kernel or virtual-machine monitor - sits between the hardware and all its device drivers, including the operating system, which puts it in a very authoritative position."

Security watchers have not confirmed any exploits at this layer; but virtual-machine-aware malware, such as RedPill, and virtual-machine rootkits, such as BluePill, are common. Debenedette rightfully frets about this new platform layer: It's a vector into which virtual-machine malware writers are trying to break, experts say.

In this virtual environment, effective security best practices are sorely needed. In addition to physical machines, virtual machines must be managed and secured. Network defenses must be tuned to watch for rogue traffic on them. And the virtual-machine layer must be built safely and defended from up-and-coming forms of attackware.

Virtual-machine best practices

In a survey of 707 Network World readers conducted in June, 36% of respondents - 250 respondents - said they realize virtualization has increased security risk. Of those, slightly more than half had deployed firewalls and segmented critical networks into virtual LANs, and another half had included virtual-machine traffic-awareness in their intrusion-detection sensors.

One-third of respondents seemed to grasp that the virtualization platform layer itself is vulnerable. The others did not believe virtual-machine platform vendors need to make security integral to their products.

Clearly, many enterprises are failing to apply even the most basic security policies for protecting their virtual servers.

Topping off that dangerous misstep, organizations are experiencing rogue and unmanaged virtual-machine creep -- the very thing virtualization tries to relieve in the hardware realm, consultants to Fortune 500 companies say.

"The problem is collectively known as virtual-machine sprawl," says Anil Desai, consultant and author of The Definitive Guide to Virtual Platform Management. "If virtual machines are built without IT's knowledge, it's tough even to know they exist on the network," he says.

Consultants report a widespread problem at client sites: "Software developers, intranet users, even users on data-center servers with too much privilege, are setting up virtual machines without IT's knowledge because they're easy to deploy and help get certain jobs done," Desai says.

Inttra's Debenedette says he doesn't understand this phenomenon. Any organization worth its salt should have locked down its data centers according to best practices, which would make actions such as launching a new virtual server something that would trigger alarms, he says. Enforcement of those best practices is what ultimately cuts down on scope creep.

Join the newsletter!


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.

Deb Radcliff

Network World
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Bitdefender 2019

This Holiday Season, protect yourself and your loved ones with the best. Buy now for Holiday Savings!

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill


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.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?