Virtualization's secret security threats

Virtualization can be both a blessing and a curse, serving up improved security while at the same time hiding dangers

Almost any IT department worth its salt is deploying virtualization technology today to reduce power usage, make server and OS deployments more flexible, and better use storage and systems resources. But as virtualization technology gains in popularity, it may bring with it new risks, said Don Simard, the commercial solutions director at the US National Security Agency (NSA), the electronic intelligence and cryptographic agency once so secret its very existence was a secret. At the same time, virtualization technology may bring new protections, he noted.

One of the NSA's roles is to work with technology providers to help them make their wares more secure, both to help US government agencies using them and to reduce threats that could affect the commercial sector and thus the national economy. Sometimes, the NSA also wants to ensure it has back-door access to commercial systems.

In the case of virtualization, the NSA has worked with EMC's VMware unit, IBM, AMD, Trusted Computing Group, and others for several years to identify potential threats and suggest workarounds. Later this year, chips from AMD and Intel will include technology that the NSA has helped develop.

The hidden hardware threat

Simard is a big fan of virtualization. The technology has helped NSA employees, as well as other US military and intelligence agents, access multiple secure networks from a single computer. It used to be that each network had to be accessed from a separate computer -- the PC or laptop essentially acted as a hardware authentication token -- so analysts and coordinators had to move from one computer to another depending on which intelligence network they were using at the time. This led to equipment shortages and lots of boxes to carry around when traveling. In Simard's case, that meant using four computers, one each for the three intelligence networks he works on and one for unsecured, personal Internet access. Now he has one computer, with each network accessed from a separate virtual machine.

But the NSA realized that this benefit of virtualization also introduced a new potential threat. After all, Simard said, "graphics cards and network cards today are really miniature computers that see everything in all the VMs." In other words, they could be used as spies across all the VMs, letting a single PC spy on multiple networks. Although he's not aware of any such spyware today, it's not a problem the NSA wants to experience or see happen in other intelligence agencies.

That's where IBM and AMD come in. AMD's scientists had similar concerns to the NSA's, so they worked with the NSA to design an authentication mechanism at the chip level that would be able to control what hardware could do with the virtualization engines that rely on their AMD-V on-chip virtualization assistance technology. While no ship date has been announced, a new generation of AMD-V chips expected later this year will introduce the concept of chip-managed trusted hardware, said Steve McDowell, division manager for emerging technologies at AMD. Intel is expected to ship a similar technology as well, said Kurt Roemer, chief security strategist at Citrix Systems, which recently bought hypervisor maker Xen.

These new chips will have what AMD's McDowell calls a "device exclusion vector" that can authorize or block hardware access to VMs, as well as create a chain of permissions that flow from one device to another, so OS and hypervisor developers can control not only what hardware can do what, but also what flows among hardware devices are permitted. McDowell expects this approach to prevent the subsystem-as-spy problem that both it and the NSA identified.

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