Virtualization: Security Dream or Nightmare?

As the industry moves towards the next big leap, virtualization, I can't help wondering will this be a security professionals dream or nightmare?

Disruptive technology:

I generalize virtualization as the necessary separation and compartmentalization of resources so things can be moved, consolidated, and managed better, across a wide swath of hardware platforms, users, and networks. It is a "disruptive technology" (not a bad term) which represents a fundamental change in how computer systems will operate, communicate, and be designed. It is a leap forward and represents greater agility, more functionality, and lower costs. The interesting security question is, what are we leaping into?

In the virtualization world you can name your, pleasure: Server, Client, Hardware, Operating System, Software, even data portability virtualization exists or is in development. I am not going to differentiate or explain the differences. Instead I am taking the strategic point of view. All these areas will be developed and instituted in some fashion. The details are far from being worked out. From a security perspective, it is the big picture that is important at the moment.

History has shown that the attackers have the advantage of ‘initiative' in technology, over the defenders. Basically, the attackers innovate and security then responds. But will this hold true for virtualization?

The Security Dream:

Virtualization holds the promise of security paradise by making systems more robust, hardened, simpler, and enabling new capabilities to make security more effective and cost efficient.

  • Virtualization allows a much greater consolidation of hardware resources. Multiple OS, applications, and databases on a platform equate to less platforms to protect. Consolidation and portability for efficiency sake, may result in less network traffic to monitor, scan, and secure

  • Virtualization allows for effective security sandboxes to be employed for un-trusted or questionable applications and processes

  • Segregation of resources for applications, processes, OS's, and users means a compromise in one will be easier to contain due to compartmentalization. This makes it tougher for an attacker to break a weak link and begin to elevate their control over a system

  • Application restoration is a snap and full systems restoration becomes easier when a client does bite-the-dust

  • Systems and applications can be designed to operate with multiple environments of trust: very secure, secure, marginally secure, and not-so-trusting secure, all on one box (or the informal version: I trust you with my sister secure, I trust you with my wallet secure, I trust you as far as I can throw you secure, and I trust you will steal from me the first chance you get secure)

  • Virtualization will drive standardization of application design and data types making them easier to secure

  • Failover systems become less painful to design and implement at many different levels

  • System upgrades become seamless as jobs can be moved temporarily to other systems and then returned without disruption

  • Virtualization and other supporting technologies will drive advances in real-time security state monitoring, potentially across the enterprise and deeply into applications, OS's, data, and users

  • My personal favorite is that eventually we will have the ability to monitor for suspicious activities from a trusted person, versus just looking at applications or data. Think insider threats. This will be the first significant advance in a long time for this problem

The Security Nightmare:

Virtualization may be the very bane of security for decades to come by circumventing every type of security technology and enabling new capabilities for attackers to do real damage, thus forcing an entire redesign and reinvestment of security.

  • At the highest level, virtualization offers pure stealth to an attacker. Currently, malware must hide, lay dormant, or be very quiet in order not to be detected. This limits what the bad guys can do. They must trade capabilities and impact for stealth. Not so with virtualization. Malware could have the best of both worlds

  • Total Control - it's mine, you can't find me, and if you do, you can't make me leave! I can see everything, I can control everything, and I can do anything! Mine, mine, mine! Control can extend well beyond a single system and permeate across the virtual domains, with the persistence requiring an entire group of machines be burned down and rebuilt with great care

  • Now for the sledgehammer effect. Virtualization technology will undermine every current type of security control (the short list):

    • Anti-Virus, HIPS/HIDS, and Host Firewalls - Cannot detect or monitor an attackers activities in a higher plane of control, making them ineffective while still giving the illusion of security

    • Patching - Controlling virtual instances, more importantly creating false ones, will have patches installed on fake instances, leaving the real one vulnerable and under the intruders control

    • Security scanning, used to check the system's state-of-security, can be fooled. Reporting back that all is fine when it is not

    • Encryption - At the right level, an attacker will be able to see before encryption, after decryption, and have your keys to decrypt at their whim

    • Security monitoring devices and agents can also be deceived, by showing them what they expect to see and nothing else

    • User Privacy will be compromised at many different levels and open the risks of aggregation across multiple data sources

    • Adware/Spam filters can be subverted

    • Secure channels can be monitored by attackers and setup between compromised systems

    • Security forensics may become a nightmare for many years due to the complexities inherent to virtualization and the fact that a high level compromise invalidates the integrity of logs

    • Even NIDS/NIPS & Network Firewalls become less effective. Hardware consolidation translates to less traffic on the backbone network and more in-between systems on a platform and within a local subnet. This gives less information to these network monitoring devices and lowers the chances they will detect malicious activity

  • The very same ‘sandbox' which can be used to isolate risky activities can be employed against security applications and processes, limiting their ability to control and protect the system

  • Virtualization adds more complexity and therefore risking more confusion when it comes to system management. Especially for patching and system scanning. Keeping track of who owns what is bad enough today. But at least if you track down a server owner, you can normally have a quick decision on when to patch and reboot. In the future, the server owner, may not know who owns the virtual instances running on their machine. So how does one coordinate downtime, patching, or other change control issues? These delays may extend the window of vulnerability giving attackers more options and targets

  • Less systems but more diversity and ambiguity gives places to hide and more opportunity to find a vulnerability

  • Virtualization portability will drive the standardization of application design and data types, making them predictable and easier to locate and compromise

  • Very complex designs which continually change are extremely difficult to restore and recover. Additionally, cascading failures can occur bringing down multiple systems whereas in a stovepipe environment they would be more insulated

Take the High Ground - Sun Tsu "Art of War"

The ultimate sweet spot for any computer attacker is to gain the deepest level of control, which in turn can control all other virtual instances. This is the proverbial high ground which can see and control everything, yet not be seen if it does not want to. Attackers are already making great advances and shown the initial ability to take the high ground. Defenders are quick on their heals, finding ways of detecting and defending this vital area.

Who can make the final determination in this battle? Intel and other hardware designers, of course! You can't get any deeper than the hardware. Imbedded security controls will be the key to victory. But here is the twist. You may have assumed I meant the victory to the glorious and honorable path of security. You are wrong. It is just the key to victory, period. Security and administrative controls are just functions with great power. Whoever controls those functions will be the victor.

Sometimes, the computer industry itself is its own worst enemy. Infighting on standards, rushing products to market, designing security as bolt-on afterthoughts, ill designed security solutions, etc may cause temporary self destruction. Even when a security function is developed, there is no guarantee it will be embraced by the industry or the consumer. It will take a small army of very smart people across the hardware, OS, application, and security services to design robust controls which present a value proposition necessary for widespread adoption.

In the end, the age old battle will continue to rage on between the attackers and defenders. Virtualization is simply the next battlefield. A new landscape to which these players will innovate, respond, jockey for position, and struggle for dominance. The rules and possibilities have yet to be defined. All we know about computer security will be thrown on its side and everything we do now will need to be rebuilt from the ground up. Virtualization is a brave new world, sure to bring both dreams and nightmares.

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Matthew Rosenquist

About Matthew Rosenquist

Matthew Rosenquist is a Cybersecurity Strategist for Intel Corp and benefits from 20+ years in the field of security. He specializes in strategy, measuring value, and developing cost effective capabilities and organizations which deliver optimal levels of security. Matthew helped with the formation of the Intel Security Group, an industry leading organization bringing together security across hardware, firmware, software and services. An outspoken advocate of cybersecurity, he strives to advance the industry and his guidance can be heard at conferences, and found in whitepapers, articles, and blogs.