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Virtualization Security: Where's The Innovation?

Virtualization is standard operating procedure. It also breaks conventional defense mechanisms by hindering visibility and control, creating new attack avenues, increasing complexity, and blurring administrative roles between network and server teams. Our 2012 InformationWeek State of the Data Center Survey shows there's no going back, even if we wanted to: Half of 256 respondents will have at least 50% of their production servers virtualized by the end of next year; 26% will have 75% or more. So it's unfortunate that innovation in the virtualization security market is stalled. The holdup is twofold: First, the lack of a publicized breach targeting the hypervisor has made IT complacent. And second, there's an unwillingness among vendors to take on VMware; it owns most of the market and controls the APIs, a big deal given the scant enterprise adoption of rival server hypervisors.

That leaves us with a limited number of major products for hypervisor network security. Two of them, VMware's own vShield and Juniper's vGW (Virtual Gateway, acquired from Altor), use the APIs provided under VMware's VMsafe security program. Cisco, the other big player in this market, bases its technology around the proprietary Nexus 1000V virtual switch, which was developed in cooperation with VMware but isn't dependent on VMsafe. Cisco hasn't completely hitched itself to VMware's wagon; it has hinted that the technology will be usable with other hypervisors.

If you run a non-VMware hypervisor, you should be looking at Vyatta's Network OS product, which works with Citrix XenServer and Red Hat KVM, and, like VMware's vShield Edge, includes NAT and DHCP servers. Vyatta also adds a sophisticated routing engine with support for IPv4 and IPv6 dynamic routing protocols like BGP, OSPF, and RIP.

Granted, the non-VMware cadre is small for now, as some version of VMware is the primary hypervisor platform for 90% of respondents to our latest InformationWeek Virtualization Management Survey. But the market could get more dynamic should open source cloud systems like OpenStack (which uses KVM) and CloudStack (which uses Xen) gain traction. Microsoft has made some storage and migration enhancements to Hyper-V in a bid to appeal to enterprises but doesn't yet have anything comparable to VMsafe for network security, although third parties are starting to fill the gap. And don't count out startups, like Bromium, led by former Xen architect Simon Crosby, that are focused on virtualization and cloud security. A radically new platform could raise the competitive bar by making secure virtualization a table-stakes feature. Crosby hints at the opportunities for Bromium when he says he believes that in five years, most IT workloads will be in the cloud, whether public or private, and that the hypervisor's "sole value will be security."

Still, for now, VMware's vShield line sets the standard for the VM security market. More important, it effectively defines three segments that align with logical network and virtual machine boundaries--intra-VM (Layer 2 within a virtual switch); inter-VM (Layer 3, between physical hosts in a private cloud); and guest OS (application control within the VM). We delve into each layer in our full report, but this structure is a great baseline for IT teams to plan their security strategies.

Unintended Consequences

Our full report on next-generation VM security is available free with registration.

This report includes 16 pages of action-oriented analysis. What you'll find:

  • Breakdown of virtual server security products from Cisco, Juniper, and VMware
  • Why VMware's three-layer model makes sense

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