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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

By Deb Radcliff, Network World
August 20, 2007 12:10 AM ET

Network World - 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.

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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.”

John Debenedette, Inttra

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 (see graphic "Danger at the hypervisor").

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.

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