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Physical Is Not So Physical in a Virtualized Environment

Things to consider when virtualizing core infrastructure

I recently asked a CIO of a large Fortune 100 company how hard would it be for a person to pull the plug on a backbone switch in his datacenter. His answer was "Very difficult. We have lots of controls in place to ensure that level of access is protected." I then probed further and asked what type of controls he was referring to - card key access, locks on the racks, video cameras? He nodded at each one. I pulled up the virtual infrastructure management client on my computer and demonstrated how easy it is to power off the distributed virtual switch that he was planning to run across his datacenter - essentially, I right-mouse-clicked on the virtual machine (VM) and selected "Power Off." I then asked, simply, "How many people within your organization have access to virtual infrastructure?" He didn't know. This scenario is more common that you might think.

Virtualization is rapidly transforming the datacenter. Organizations are virtualizing servers, networking, and storage systems to create a new, much more dynamic cloud infrastructure. Virtual appliances, introduced by the major hypervisor vendors over the course of the last few years, have become the new form-factor for delivering business services. In the beginning, application vendors offered their solutions as pre-built virtual appliances, primarily to make installation easier; today, we see core infrastructure components - switches, firewalls, and management solutions - delivered as virtual appliances. The trend is accelerating.

The story of the Fortune 100 CIO highlights the issue that physical is not so physical in a virtualized environment. Virtual appliances are simply virtual machines, and for a person with virtual infrastructure access, physical controls do little to prevent harmful actions - like powering off a critical virtual appliance, whether by accident or on purpose. Essentially, the physical controls that prevent tampering with core infrastructure components are easily bypassed when it comes to virtualization since everything can be managed over the network. This has implications with regard to security as well as compliance.

Industry and regulatory initiatives such as PCI DSS and HIPAA require adequate controls be in place to protect private data, such as payment card or patient health information (PHI). Many times, these controls include network security components such as firewalls and intrusion detection systems. When critical controls are virtualized, how do you ensure compliance if they can be manipulated or powered off through the virtualization management layer?

Follow these four guidelines when considering virtual appliances for core infrastructure to avoid being vulnerable:

  1. Determine the policies necessary for virtualized infrastructure components in your environment.
  2. Ensure strict access control and policy enforcement for management of virtual appliances.
  3. Confirm with your assessors what safeguards must be in place around virtualized controls as relates to compliance.
  4. Make sure you have all management operations logged in granular detail for security forensics and compliance.

More Stories By Eric Chiu

Eric Chiu is CEO and founder of HyTrust, an early stage startup focused on secure virtualization management and compliance. He has in-depth knowledge about what’s needed to achieve the same level of operational readiness in virtual, as in physical I.T. infrastructures. Previously Eric served in executive roles at Cemaphore, MailFrontier, mySimon, and was a venture capitalist at Brentwood/Redpoint, Pinnacle, and M&A at Robertson, Stephens and Company.

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