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Virtualization for security
Scott Granneman, 2006-04-12

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Intel and AMD. The two chip vendors are building support for virtualization into their CPUs to make the technology easier to implement and faster to run. Called, respectively, Vanderpool and Pacifica, this bodes well for virtualization technologies.

There are others; if you want to know more, Wikipedia provides a nice comparison chart of the various software options you have.

Why get excited?

The broad trends in virtualization are clear: greater commoditization, cheaper prices, more options, better integration with hardware, improved performance, and wider availability and usage. It's that last trend in particular that I want to focus on, as it appears obvious to me that users of all three of the major operating system families - Windows, Mac, and Linux - are one day going to find virtualization software and support installed as a matter of course. Like a text editor or web browser, virtualization will be an expected part of an operating system. How's that going to affect security pros?

If you haven't started working with virtualization, now's the time to begin. In particular, if you have a machine of reasonably recent vintage running Linux or Windows, you should immediately head over to VMWare and download the free VMWare Player. Once it's installed, you can install and run pre-made operating system images (open source only, of course - you think Microsoft is going to make an image of Windows available for this?).

VMWare offers a Browser Appliance virtual machine, for instance, that's designed for safe and secure web usage, but you can download a huge number of different VMs for SUSE, Red Hat, K/Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora Core, Gentoo, FreeBSD, and OpenBSD. Even more interesting, there are VMs available that are designed to showcase software such as Asterisk, Bugzilla, TWiki, MySQL, Zimbra, and DB2. And even more interesting than that, you can find VMs for security programs such as the Still Secure Strata Guard IDS, the IPCop firewall, the SmoothWall firewall, and the Squid proxy. Trust me: for security folks like those reading this article, you're going to feel like a kid in a candy store.

That's with the free VMWare Player, which allows you to run VMs created by others. If you instead want to create VMs, you'll need to buy VMWare Workstation (around $175) or - and here's my tip of the day - spend $300 on the VMWare Technology Network subscription and get access to almost every bit of cool software the company has to offer, for every platform they support. Once you have VMWare Workstation on your Linux or Windows machine (and soon Mac), you can create as many VMs as you'd like, and run as many at one time as your system can handle (the more RAM and faster CPU, the better).

Think about it: create a VM of Windows XP similar to what your users have installed, and then use that image to test new software, policies, and methods. Make a mistake or run into a problem? Either roll back to an earlier version of the VM, or just blow it away and copy over a backed-up copy of the original image. Want to experiment with Linux or any of the cool software tools coming out all of the time, like Zimbra or Asterisk or TWiki? Just create a VM, or download a VM that someone else has already created and start modifying it to suit your interests. How about a honeypot for your network? Rather than sacrifice a machine, use a VM instead. The list goes on and on, and I fully expect that many of you smart readers will list other good uses you already have for VMs in the Comments section below.

Virtualization for ordinary users

It's not just the computer guys who will benefit from the increased usage of virtualization technology, however - it's also the ordinary users. Mike Danseglio, a Microsoft program manager in the company's security group, recently had this to say at a security conference: "When you are dealing with rootkits and some advanced spyware programs, the only solution is to rebuild from scratch. In some cases, there really is no way to recover without nuking the systems from orbit." So it's come to that. Everyone reading this knew it all along, but there it is in black and white - if a Windows machine gets infected, wipe it and start again from a baseline install. Virtualization, however, makes that easy, affordable, and quick.

I've been advocating it for years: put Linux on everyone's computer in your organization. Start with a secure base. I'm talking about a stripped down distro, with little more on it than the kernel, the shell, and whatever X, GTK, or QT libraries your virtualization solution requires. On top of your Linux install, install your virtualization software and then the Windows du jour. Set things up so that on boot, Win4Lin or VMWAre (or whatever else you're using) loads by default and then immediately loads Windows in full-screen mode. Trust me: your users won't even realize that they're not "really" running Windows. To them, they see Windows, they're using Windows, all the software they expect is right there, and everything works just like normal.

Underneath, however, your virtualization software, coupled with the powerful networking ability of Linux, will make your life infinitely easier. If a you receive a phone call that a problem has developed on Bob's "Windows computer" in legal, just use SSH to run a script that closes the virtualization software, blows away or backs up the damaged Windows image so that you can review it, and then copies a master copy of the Windows VM from your server. In just a few minutes Bob will be back up and running, and he'll never know how easy you have it.

To me, this is a no-brainer. It's easier all around, it's more secure, and it's a simple way to get a handle on the horrendously complicated situation most organizations find themselves in as they try to manage a network of vulnerable Windows machines. Give the software and technologies I've mentioned in this article a try, and I think you'll find that they'll become integral tools in your security toolkit. As for me, I'm going to head outside for a little walk. It's a gorgeous day, and I feel like breathing in the air, hearing the world change around me, and looking up into the sky above St. Louis to look for some elephants.

Scott Granneman teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, consults for WebSanity, and writes for SecurityFocus and Linux Magazine. His latest book, Linux Phrasebook, is in stores now.
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Virtualization for security 2006-04-13
Anonymous (1 replies)
Re: Virtualization for security 2006-04-13
Anonymous (2 replies)
One addition on WindowsInVM 2006-04-13
Nicholas weaver
Virtualization for security 2006-04-13
Anonymous (1 replies)
Re: Virtualization for security 2006-04-15
VMs 2006-04-14
Virtualization for security 2006-04-14
Bill (1 replies)
Virtualization for security 2006-04-15
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Re: Autostart Tutorial 2007-02-21
Virtualization for security 2006-04-17
Anonymous (1 replies)
Re: Virtualization for security 2006-05-02
Host OS? 2006-04-20
Great in theory, but... 2007-10-18
Chris Buechler


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