subscribe: Daily Newsletter

 

Virtual environments are secure – but not for long

0 comments

Virtual computing environments have been, up to now, relatively immune to data breaches, spam, viruses and other internet threats but it's not likely to stay that way.

"Cyber criminals are continuously evolving their methods of attack and it seems as if every attempt computer users and businesses make to protect their networks and data just spurs hackers to new and greater heights," says Herman van Heerden, MD of Starship Systems.
"The safest computer is one that is switched off and locked away in a safe. The minute it's switched on and connected to anything, security becomes an issue. Unfortunately, this means virtual machines and networks as well.
"At the moment, virtualisation is fairly new. By virtue of this, the host operating systems used in virtual networks are probably newer and more inherently secure than the operating systems currently at work in most businesses.
"For instance, the Linux kernel and VMWare combination we use in our deployments are very secure. The Windows Server 2008 operating system from Microsoft is also brand new and has fewer known vulnerabilities than its predecessors.
"However, when new technology becomes popular and more widely used, there's a greater impetus for cyber criminals to find a way in. That's when virtual environments will become more vulnerable. Companies virtualising their infrastructures must therefore be prepared."
Van Heerden says there are numerous security pros of virtualisation.
"One of the main advantages of virtualisation from a security point of view is that the industry-standard virtual machine tools 'sandbox' the guests systems, ensuring that the compromise of one does not influence the rest.
"Your virtual business server's operating systems are also independent of your host server's operating system. This means that you can run a very secure, hardened operating system on your host machine with less worry over the vulnerabilities of your business servers.
"If the management channel through your network is secure and encrypted no snooping on the network can compromise your guest servers.
"In virtual set-ups it's easy to create a standby for all the business servers and if set-up correctly, virtual environments are much easier and quicker to get up and running again when disaster strikes. Managing security in virtual environments is also simplified thanks to the single fail-over point," says van Heerden.
He points out however that the single fail-over point in standard virtual set-ups can also be a downside from a security point of view.
"The host operating system becomes the target and if the management channel is not secured/encrypted it provides a single place to snoop and get all the information required to access all the guest servers.
"But, there are ways of getting around this. We battle the cons of the standard, single fail-over architecture with a VM Cluster setup. We take the single host machine out of the equation by introducing another with smart software. This prevents the host machine from becoming the target.
"On the cluster, the chances of all the nodes becoming infected or compromised are very slim. If a single node goes down, the NEBULA Cluster Controller will allocate the host's CPU cycles and RAM usage to the next best node. In essence, the failure of the host operating system will be rectified by the hot standby fail-over server before the rest of the nodes in the cluster are compromised," explains van Heerden.
"As with physical infrastructures, there are security risks and challenges associated with virtual environments. But, if set-up correctly and with the necessary security precautions in place, they are by no means less secure than physical infrastructures.
"The first priority is to ensure that the host virtual machine solution is running on a host operating system that is inherently secure, and not prone to self-patching and restarting on a whim.  Auto updates on a host operating system within a virtual machine environment is actually quite dangerous because that server needs to consider all the guests it hosts.
"Then it is essential to ensure that the communications between management and the servers runs securely. That way, even if the host operating system is infected, the rest of the servers will not be at risk."