Six burning questions about network security

Security issues often seem to smolder more than burn, but these six are certainly capable of lighting a fire under IT professionals at a moment's notice.

Security issues often seem to smolder more than burn, but these six are certainly capable of lighting a fire under IT professionals at a moment's notice. Handle with care.

Is server virtualization worth the risk?

The benefits of moving away from traditional servers to virtual-machine (VM) arrangements are the cost savings in hardware consolidation and remarkable flexibility. But less-welcome consequences can be security gaps and virtual-server sprawl, risks that draw fire from auditors.

VM security too often is being addressed after the fact, says Douglas Drew, senior consultant with BT's emerging technologies office and an auditor for the Payment Card Industry (PCI) standard. "How do you handle access control or auditing? Suppose I migrate an instance of a virtual machine from rack A to rack B: Is one a locking rack that needs a physical badge to get to the console and the other not? Does the VM hypervisor allow for separation of administrators A and B so A can only logically touch systems A and administrator B only touches B? How are you re-upping the risk assessment based on the architecture change?"

Like more traditional networks, the VM environment, whether based on VMware, XenSource or Microsoft, calls for applying best practices defined under the ISO 27002 standard for secure systems, Drew says. "We've seen some cases where people are slow to adopt VM because they haven't gotten their arms around this."

And VM software out of the box won't suffice for security, many say.

"The virtual machines are mobile, they're designed to be mobile," says David Lynch, vice president of marketing at Embotics, a start-up that makes VM life-cycle management software. "You take a physical server and make a clone of it. You lose the identity of the physical server, but your existing management tools are based on the idea you have a physical server."

As designed today, VMware's VirtualCenter management won't prevent VM prawl because VM ID numbers can be changedand re-set, Lynch contends. He adds it's not possible to ensure a unique VM ID system for an enterprise using more than one VirtualCenter.

The Embotics software, which works with VirtualCenter, tries to compensate by using a cryptographic hash, combined with VM meta-data, to brand a VM ID as legitimate and authentic. Other start-ups, including Fortisphere and ManageIQ, also are tackling the VM sprawl issue.

Some security vendors are convinced that the main VM software developers are in such a rush to get their products out to grab market share that as Andrew Hay, product program manager at Q1 Labs, puts it, "security is an afterthought."

Hay notes there's no Netflow-enabled virtual switch to help with activity monitoring. "You're creating a separate network that happens to reside on a box," Hay says. "But no one pushes for flow analysis in the virtualized world."

Should all this stop IT managers from going virtual? The bottom line, according to Hay: "It would be best to research your options before going fill tilt."

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Ellen Messmer

Network World
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