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Virtualization Has A Security Blind Spot

The race is on. As organizations successfully slash the costs associated with buying, powering, and maintaining physical servers by embracing virtualization, are they leaving their systems vulnerable? Maybe so. Companies' efforts to virtualize are moving beyond the simple consolidation of servers and applications to fewer physical boxes, but there's an additional risk that can parallel the reward. And the risks lie not only where many might suspect--with the hypervisor or virtualization software itself--but also with the impact virtualization can have on traditional network and security controls.

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Virtualization software, primarily the hypervisor, is no different than any other software application: It's bound to have defects and security bugs. What sets hypervisors apart is the risk of so-called "hyperjacking," a successful attack that leads to a compromised hypervisor, giving an attacker unfettered access to all virtual machines on the physical server. This could be quite the compromise, given that anywhere from a handful to dozens of VMs could be running on a single host.

While the consequences of a compromised host can be dire, it's generally thought that the vulnerabilities of the hypervisor are the least of a security professional's worries. "Virtualization security has nothing to do with the security of the hypervisor," says Andreas Antonopoulos, an analyst at Nemertes Research. "It has to do with the fact that we're fundamentally changing the IT architecture, operational patterns, deployment life cycles, and management methods of our servers. These issues will create more security issues for organizations than the hypervisor itself."

Along with the flexibility and agility gained through virtualization comes a security blind spot--the loss of visibility into network traffic. "You lose granularity on the network traffic between your virtual servers because that traffic never leaves the physical box, and your traditional security tools won't be able to analyze the traffic," says Lloyd Hession, an independent IT security consultant and former chief information security officer at financial network services firm BTRadianz.

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