The Machines May Be Virtual, But The Security Problem Is Real

by drjim on October 26, 2009

Photo CreditVirtual Machines Pose Real Security Threats

Virtual Machines Pose Real Security Threats

When you become CIO, you already know that IT security is going to be one of your biggest and least rewarding challenges. If you do a great job at it, then nobody will ever know and you’ll get no credit for it. If you do a poor job, then everyone will know and you’ll get all the blame. That just goes with the CIO job.

In the future, CIOs are going to have a whole new set of security issues that come along with the popularity of virtual machines. The rules for how best to secure these boxes that really aren’t boxes have not been established yet. What can you do to make yourself ready to take on this new challenge?

Just What Is A Virtual Machine?

Before we dive in and start talking about security, let’s make sure that we’re all onboard when it comes to just exactly what a virtual machine is. Awhile back, some very smart folks (a lot of who happened to work at a company called Vmware) realized that most companies were deploying one application per server in their data centers. One for email, one for web hosting, etc.

It turns out that as servers got more powerful, this was incredibly ineffective – most of the server’s processing power was not being used. The smart people created what they called a virtual machine (or VM) – software that sat on the server between the actual server hardware and the operating system that was running on the server. You can sorta think of it as a lower level operating system

Once this VM was in place, they discovered that they could run multiple operating systems (and then of course multiple applications on top of those operating systems) on each individual server. When they did this everything was isolated – if one operating system crashed, it didn’t interfere with the other operating systems / applications running on the same box.

As you can well imagine, this has turned out to be an incredibly popular way to reduce the number of servers that have to be deployed and maintained within a data center. However, it has also opened the door to some nasty security problems…

The Problem With Virtualization Security

Oh sure, you THINK that you know how to secure a data center – lock down all of the network ports going in and out, and then take steps to make sure that you know which staff are allowed to enter and leave. Oh oh, when your servers stop being real physical boxes and start to become virtual images, now you’ve going to have a whole new set of problems to deal with.

Cameron Sturdevant has been looking into just how we can go about securing the brave new future of virtual machines and he’s uncovered ten new issues that you are going to have to be able to deal with:

  1. Moving Too Fast: since virtual machines can be set up and put into operation much quicker than a real server can, you’re going to have to set up some sort of review process in order to keep things under control.
  2. Redefine Your Boundaries: it used to be simple to be able to keep the important things inside the data center and the threats outside when everything needed a physical box. Now that things are going virtual, these boundaries are getting more murky and you will have to spend the time to redraw them.
  3. Killed By Quantity: since it’s so easy to set up a new virtual machine, you’re going to be facing an explosion of them. This means that you’re going to have to establish a policy to determine when a new virtual machine needs to be deployed and when it needs to be turned off.
  4. Moving Day Is Everyday: since virtual machines can easily move from box to box, you’re going to have to lay down the law in order to make sure that the new server has the appropriate security policies in place in order to support the applications that will be running on it.
  5. Not The Same As The Old Boss: both the tools and the policies that used to work in the world of “real” servers won’t necessarily work in the new world of virtual servers. You’re going to have to find / make new ones.
  6. Virtual Tools: in order to police your virtual machines, you are going to want your security tools to run on virtual machines also – makes sense, doesn’t it?
  7. Cutting Costs: how many CPU cycles your virtual security tools take up will be a huge deal very quickly. The rule of thumb is for them to take less than 2-3% of the CPU’s cycles.
  8. Policy Update Time: not only will you need fancy new tools, but you are also going to need to update your staff on just how one goes about securing virtual boxes. Can you say special training?
  9. Where To Focus?: the experts suggest that you spend your time securing both the virtual machine and its applications and don’t worry so much about the underlying virtual machines. The thinking is that virtual machines are by design isolated from everything else so they are more secure.
  10. Get Some Relief: look for virtual machine management tools that will allow your staff to automate the processes of configuring and deploying virtual machines as much as possible in order to minimize security slipups.

Final Thoughts

Like it or not, when you become CIO you’re going to be living in a virtual world. All of the clever security tools and policies that we’ve created in an attempt to secure the world of physical servers that we now live in are not going to work in the future.

Your challenge will be to find ways to secure the virtual data center while at the same time keeping your IT staff’s workload at a manageable level. The good news is that this can be done, the bad news is that you’re going to be in uncharted territory. Good luck future CIO…!

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Everybody wants their IT services for free. When you become the CIO, you’ve got to find an answer to the ugly question of just who’s going to pay you for all of those fancy IT services that your department can provide.

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