Rollout: Sentillion vThere Virtualization Suite 2.0

By putting a virtualized PC in a secure, isolated sandbox environment on a remote user's desktop, Sentillion's vThere 2.0 minimizes security risk and hardware overhead.

February 16, 2007

6 Min Read
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A Sandbox System, running as a guest operating system on a host machine, only goes so far in preventing data losses and security breaches. If the host system is compromised, the guest system is too. Sentillion addresses this problem with vThere Virtualization Suite 2.0, a guest hosting system that allows for remote control, configuration and security management across a VPN or WAN.

The vThere suite has advantages over emulators such as Microsoft's VirtualPC, particularly if a host computer is stolen or lost. While the guest operating system can be denied network access with VirtualPC, its disk images can be mounted on a different system, exposing the data. VMware has the same Achilles' heel. vThere's Player--the emulated PC workstation that resides in a separate space on a host computer--is different: Immediately after a system that's been reported missing logs into the network, network administration disables the image remotely.

New Player

With vThere 2.0, Sentillion dropped VMware's virtualization engine as its end-user component and adopted Parallels' Player instead. The Player resides on the host, but shares only a few hardware resources--namely, a virtual disk drive and network connection. All other elements are emulated.Sentillion says the move to the Parallels Player resulted in a tighter codebase for the emulation task; that is, Parallels works closely with Sentillion when it's time to update that engine. Updates are tested with vThere and other applications, to eliminate the risk of a general update to Parallels' software breaking vThere functionality.

Virtual SecurityClick to enlarge in another window

To create a virtual environment which can then be used by any number of users, the admin creates a Windows configuration and adds applications, such as development tools, Adobe Reader, firewall and antivirus software, e-mail client and Microsoft Office. The system is then imaged for deployment on vThere. At this point, the image looks and behaves much like any Windows OS installation, except that all processing takes place on the VM, not the host.

The administrator uses vThere's flexible Virtual Image Creator tool to build a gold master, with specific characteristics based on user roles. Once deployed, the master image can't be changed--a new version must be deployed if the remote user's role changes. We configured our Windows-based test-bed systems with various memory ceilings, default display settings, domain and network registrations, individual workstation IDs, and even USB configurations.

When complete, the gold master image may be copied to the end user's system as an .ISO image or sent over a secure, encrypted Web transfer.Performance

Sentillion recommends at least 1 GB of RAM (512 MB each for the host OS and the Player) and a minimum of 13 GB of available drive space for deploying vThere. Although our Windows XP Professional test system had ample disk space--a SATA hard drive with 35 of 160 GB available--the virtual hard drive can grow as files are saved. During the image creation, the administrator can adjust the virtual hard drive's size, to account for the free disk space on the end user's system.

Our test system had only 512 MB of RAM, and as a result, we experienced some slowdowns. Nevertheless, multimedia applications such as video playback, audio playback and recording were responsive. That's because the Parallels Player directly accesses host video hardware, so video overlay isn't a problem. When we added Sun's OpenOffice, Mozilla Firefox, Adobe Acrobat and Grisoft's AVG antivirus suite to our virtual setup, we found their performance indistinguishable from the real thing.


Sentillion's vThere includes several features to protect data, even if the ISO image, or the physical media it is on, is compromised. Because the ISO image's first 5-KB block is fully encrypted, the file-allocation table of a compromised virtual hard drive image is effectively unreadable. Even if the rest of the data on the ISO image could somehow be read, it would be meaningless without a file structure.Furthermore, every byte of every block of data the user downloads in a distributed Web package is completely encrypted. In both cases, the encryption used is the highly secure AES-256.

While corrupted clear data could be recovered using a standard disk-recovery tool launched from within the Player software, the virtual hard drive image cannot be mounted as a separate device and read by another Windows session or hosted OS. This is unique to the Parallels Player and the vThere application.

Finally, if a host computer is stolen or compromised, vThere's virtual environment is effectively locked. The next time the device and Player connect to the Internet, the installation is invalidated and uninstalled remotely. Even if the asset's physical drive is write protected, the virtual hard drive is unusable, as it can't launch Windows. Nor can the data be extracted by hand. vThere cannot be used with a VPN connection (see diagram at left). Thus, unless the VPN is internally compromised and the administrators unaware, a lost asset with vThere connectivity is no security risk.

Although we were impressed with vThere's overall performance once it was configured, installed and deployed, we had a few minor quibbles with the product. The suite is usable only on a Windows system, for instance. No support for MacOS or Linux as the host or guest OS is planned. Currently, configuring a virtualized server is out of the question (only Windows XP with Service Pack 2 is supported). Furthermore, though various applications can be installed, the player can't create DVDs or burn CDs.

Sentillion's pricing structure is $795 per seat of the VIC (Virtual Image Creator), $125 per named user seat, with a 22 percent annual maintenance fee. Certainly, it's possible to convince independent contractors to deploy the Player on their own systems rather than handing them a separate laptop.As for employees who use the enterprise's equipment, the advantage comes from the security of knowing the virtual data is secure. The benefits outweigh the costs for having an instantly restorable or re-deployable virtual asset. With that said, the onus lies on IT management to ensure that physical assets can handle the load the guest operating system can put on the host system. n

Bill Silvey is an IT professional specializing in desktop-to-server workstation connectivity and enterprise solutions. Write to him at [email protected].

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