by Edward L. Haletky

VMs You Can’t See Can Definitely Hurt You

Jun 27, 20083 mins

Data breach report shows big danger from systems that share a lot of the same attributes as virtual server installations.

Recently Verizon Business released its 2008 Data Breach Security Report, summarizing the results of four years of forensic research into more than 500 security incidents. While the report doesn’t focus on server virtualization specifically, it does illustrate a lot about virtualization security.

Of the attacks in the report, 73 percent came from outside the organization, 18 percent were internal, and 39 percent involved business partners. Another 30 percent of attacks involved collusion between multiple parties (hence, the fact that the numbers do not add up to 100 percent).

This is ground-breaking information; the common wisdom has been that an average of 70 percent of all attacks come from the inside.

This report indicates that the common wisdom may no longer be true. Instead, it shows that the highest risks to the data center may come from files compromised by business partners, followed closely by the insider attacks with the external sources a distant third.

Measures of impact follow the same pattern. Compromised data records can be assigned a value according to how critical their data is to the company; since insiders and partners have most direct and frequent access to the most valuable files, the report finds those two groups also hold the greatest power to wreak havoc.

Even more important, however, the report finds that in a significant number of cases—listed as the ‘Unknown Unknowns’ category—the victimized organization either didn’t know it owned the system that was compromised (7 percent), or did not know the data was stored on the system that was hit (66 percent).

Other attack paths came from unsuspected connections to a system (27 percent), or unknown, inappropriate privileges on the system (10 percent).

So why is this important to virtualization security?

The answer lies in the nature of the virtual infrastructure: It is very easy to create a system (unknown system), on a virtual network that you just created (unknown network), and place upon that system sensitive data (unknown data), granting rights to that data to anyone (unknown privileges), without much, if any indication that you’d done it.

As a matter of fact, all that could happen within 10 to 30 minutes and the security team would be completely in the dark.

It is very important for security teams to fully understand virtualization, its security, and how to audit the system in order to catch such actions. At the moment, not many tools exist, but simple read-only access to the virtualization management tools can give the security team the ability to run audits. While the tools are cool, the report states that there is nothing like good old-fashioned eyeballs.

VMware has developed the VMware Life Cycle Manager to try to combat the invisible nature of VM sprawl.

While this helps, if the security policy, security teams, and Chief Security Officer are not involved with virtualization, the number of unknown unknowns will increase as virtualization use increases.

Virtualization expert Edward L. Haletky is the author of “VMWare ESX Server in the Enterprise: Planning and Securing Virtualization Servers,” Pearson Education (2008.) He recently left Hewlett-Packard, where he worked in the Virtualization, Linux, and High-Performance Technical Computing teams. Haletky owns AstroArch Consulting, providing virtualization, security, and network consulting and development. Haletky is also a champion and moderator for the VMware discussion forums, providing answers to security and configuration questions.