VMware bugs shine spotlight on virtualisation security

VMware has patched critical flaws in its virtualisation products.

A set of newly discovered flaws in components of VMware's virtual machine software has called attention to some of the security risks associated with the practice of running virtual computers on a single system.

VMware has updated its products to fix the security bugs, but users who have not updated their software could face serious security risks thanks to a trio of flaws in the DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server that ships with VMware.

The DHCP software is used to assign IP addresses to the different virtual machines running within VMware, but IBM researchers discovered that it can be exploited to gain control of the computer.

That could be very bad news for someone running a lot of applications on the same VMware box, said Tom Cross, a researcher with IBM's Internet Security Systems group. "By exploiting this vulnerability you get complete control of any of the machines that are running on that virtual environment," he said.

IBM's researchers have developed exploit code for three separate flaws in the DHCP software, all of which are now patched, Cross said.

To attack a system, an attacker would first need to gain access to software running within the virtual machine. Typically VMware's DHCP server is not configured to be accessible to systems on other machines.

Virtualisation software is one of the hottest areas in enterprise IT.

Enterprises are increasingly looking at this type of product as a way to cut down on data center costs. VMware lets a single computer act as if it is a kind of mini datacentre, running a number of separate virtual machines on the same box. These virtual machines act as if they are truly separate. They can run different operating systems, and if one virtual machine crashes, it does not affect the other virtual machines on the server.

VMware is also extremely popular with security researchers, who set up virtual machines on their PCs to test potentially malicious code without putting their computers at risk.

This architecture also gives attackers a single point of failure: the VMware software itself.

"This is important because servers often run a vulnerable machine in one VM and have super-secret information in another VM, isolated by VMWare," said Dave Aitel, CTO with security vendor Immunity. "VMWare ESX has been getting massively popular among hosting environments, so this sort of bug becomes a force multiplier if you can find a remote vulnerability in a [virtual machine]."

The DCHP flaws affect VMware's ACE, Player, Server, and Workstation products running on Linux and the Windows operating system, IBM said.

VMware, a division of EMC, has also patched a fourth serious flaw in its software, discovered by McAfee. This one could also be used to run unauthorised code on a VMware machine, but it would be difficult for an attacker to exploit, said David Marcus, security research and communications manager with McAfee's Avert Labs.

"The attacker has to pass a whole bunch of parameters to the vulnerable service," he said "You have to be engaging in some behavior inside that VMware machine to get the [exploit code] to work. So it's certainly not easy to exploit."

Still, Marcus agreed with Cross that virtual machines will get more attention from security researchers in the near future. "If you have the ability to attack that virtual machine and get outside that virtual machine shell to the host OS, then you can gain control of every virtual machine that's on the box."

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Robert McMillan

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