The Virtualization Room

November 13, 2008  10:52 AM

Virtual machine security threat levels; don’t believe the hype

Bridget Botelho Profile: Bridget Botelho

I received an email the other day from Wayne, Pa.-based SunGard Availability Services outlining some “essential” steps for addressing virtualization security challenges. In their email, the company urges users take certain measures, including installing security software, to make sure their virtual machines (VM) are safe from security threats.

There are many virtualization security products on the market today, yet reports of major VM security breaches are nil. In fact, the largest virtualization vendor, VMware Inc., asserts that its software is completely secure – possibly more secure than physical machines.

And even though the majority of VM security breaches I’ve heard about were hypothetical, performed by scientists through demonstrations or at hacker conventions, not in real data centers, I still receive a steady flow of press releases and product announcements addressing VM security issues.

So now, when I see security vendors warning users about un-named threats they need to prepare for, I am reminded of the U.S. Homeland Security Threat Level warning system. TSA graphic of the Homeland Security Threat Level System.

Unfortunately, there are no published criteria for the threat levels of the Homeland Security system, so there is no way to tell whether the current threat level is accurate. And by the way, the threat levels have never been green or blue.

Because of this, the system can be manipulated by government officials. For example, during the Presidential election of 2004 when Republican President George W. Bush was running against Senator John Kerry, the Homeland Security Threat Level was bumped up, prompting some academics to speculate this was done by the Bush administration to scare voters into re-electing him. If so (and we will never know), it worked.

Unfortunately, decisions based on fear are usually not well thought out.

But I haven’t heard of any 9-11-style attacks on virtual infrastructures, and the virtualization users I speak with aren’t convinced they have anything to worry about. The thing that gets people to buy into virtualization security software is that haunting “what if” question that makes everyone default to the”better safe than sorry” mantra. After all, there is no harm in taking proactive steps to protect against the unknowns – just in case.

For instance, according to this article on the security benefits and risks of virtualization, “the [virtualization] drawback is based on fear of threats that aren’t around today but could become serious problems in the future.” Natalie Lambert, a security analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research, continues in the article:

“One big concern is about what could happen if a flaw were found in a hypervisor, which would give attackers access to thousands of desktops sitting on a virtual server…That’s not a reality today, but it’s certainly a fear for the future.”

And as Sunguard said in its email, “With many organizations focusing on virtualization benefits, they must also examine core risks before it is too late – meaning security needs to be built in from the start.”

It is why we buy life insurance and car insurance and fire insurance for our homes. (Those damn what ifs and their expensive safeguards).

So, for the paranoid among us, check out SunGard’s suggestions for securing your virtual infrastructure here. As they say, better safe than sorry, right?

November 12, 2008  10:16 AM

Key concepts of Hyper-V Integration Services

Rick Vanover Rick Vanover Profile: Rick Vanover

Integration Services is Microsoft Hyper-V’s installation interface on guest virtual machines that is designed to optimize the drivers of the virtual environments and provide the best experience. Here is a rundown of what you want to know about Integration Services when getting started with Hyper-V.

  • Integration Services are installed via virtual CD – For default installations, the C:\windows\system32\ path of the Hyper-V server contains the guest.iso file. This virtual CD provides the installation of Integration Services and is launched from the Action menu on the virtual machine as shown below:

Hyper-V Integration Services

  • Integration Services are native on some platforms – Selected releases of Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 are Integration Services aware and do not need to be installed specifically.
  • New Services and the Control Panel – Integrations Services shows up as Hyper-V Guest Components in the Control Panel and installs five Windows-based services. These are Hyper-V Data Exchange Service, Hyper-V Guest Shutdown Service, Hyper-V Heartbeat Service, Hyper-V Time Synchronization Service and Hyper-V Volume Shadow Copy Requestor. These Windows-based services exist in the task manager as vmicsvc.exe.
  • Ease of Use – The installation of Integration Services permits the full use of Hyper-V Manager through remote desktop connections. Without this installation, interaction with the guest VM within Hyper-V Manager through a remote desktop from a different system will not permit mouse use.

Installing the hypervisor driver packages, such as VMware Tools, VirtualBox Guest Additions or Hyper-V Integration Services is always a wise decision in order to optimize the experience for guest systems. The configuration and setup of Integrations Services is very light, and can be managed much like the other driver packages. More information on Hyper-V can be found on the Microsoft website.

November 10, 2008  6:19 PM

VMware MVP does not equal Windows XP on your phone

Alex Barrett Alex Barrett Profile: Alex Barrett

Today, as I read coverage of the VMware Mobile Virtualization Platform, or MVP, on the blog, I noticed a confusing tidbit. In his post, Alessandro Perilli states, “The fact that customers can run a Windows XP virtual machine [VM] on their phones doesn’t mean that it’s usable.”

While I totally agree with Perilli’s skepticism about the usability of Windows XP on a phone, I have to quibble with one point. In fact, VMware MVP won’t enable customers to run Windows XP on their phones at all.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but as a hypervisor for the ARM processor, MVP can’t run a Windows XP virtual machine, because XP is designed to run on an x86 processor, even if it is virtualized. (It can, however, run a Windows CE VM.)

If MVP presented an x86 emulation layer, it would be a different story. But that’s not the story VMware told me.

The more I think about it, the more I like Citrix’s proposed ICA client for the iPhone. While the Citrix approach doesn’t do much for embedded device manufacturers, it gets at end users’ goal of accessing their desktops and all the data that resides on them in an elegant, secure fashion. And if the effusive comments on the Citrix blog are any indication, I’m not alone in thinking that way.

November 7, 2008  1:18 PM

PCI Data Security Standard updated, but still does not address virtualization

Eric Siebert Eric Siebert Profile: Eric Siebert

Last week I noticed that the Payment Card Industry’s Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) was recently updated on October 1, 2008, from version 1.1 to 1.2. PCI-DSS is a security standard set forth by a conglomerate of all the major credit card companies and is designed to protect cardholder data. As a result, any company that accepts credit cards is forced to comply with it.

About six months ago I wrote that the PCI-DSS standard did not specifically address virtual environments, and instead only focused on servers and networks that are directly involved with cardholder data. In other words, the specification dictates what must be done to secure a server that may store or process cardholder data, but if that server happened to be a virtual guest the host server would not be considered in the scope of the specification. Subsequently you could secure a virtual guest all you want, but if you do not properly secure the host server you could easily compromise the virtual guest regardless of how it was secured.

I downloaded the summary of changes document that specified all of the changes that were made from version 1.1 and 1.2, anxious to see if they had finally added parameters for virtual host servers. Out of the 14 pages of changes, there was still no mention of virtualization technologies in the specification. Surprised by this, I searched through the whole version 1.2, 72-page specification document for the word virtual and found only one instance of it for virtual private network.

I am puzzled as to why they would continue to ignore virtualization. After all, isn’t just about every company virtualizing in some fashion these days? Are the people that write the specification parameters just ignorant of what virtualization is, and that it has a direct impact on their regulations? Or are they just trusting that we are all securing our virtual hosts properly and there is no need to address them? If that’s the case then they have misplaced a critical amount of trust as I am sure there are a great many virtual environments that are not properly secured. Likewise, ignoring virtualization completely greatly reduces the effectiveness of their efforts to secure environments that deal with cardholder data. It’s essentially fortifying everything within a castle, but leaving the front gate open.

It wouldn’t require a great deal of effort for them to address virtual hosts. A number of security specifications for virtual hosts already exist, such as’s for VMware’s ESX. Let’s hope that they wise up and address virtualization in their next update of the specification. Until then their efforts to protect cardholders are not complete. I just hope that my credit card data is not lying on a virtual machine somewhere that resides on an insecure host server that is ripe for the picking. After all, why try and hack a single virtual machine when you can instead hack into a whole host and gain access to all the VMs and their data?

November 7, 2008  1:17 PM

Getting Started with Hyper-V Manager

Rick Vanover Rick Vanover Profile: Rick Vanover

Every good virtualization administrator owes it to themselves to survey the field. In today’s virtualization climate, this includes looking at Microsoft’s Hyper-V. Various Hyper-V configurations, including those on Windows Core installations, will need to add Hyper-V Manager to manage, run and configure virtual machines (VMs). Administrators evaluating Hyper-V may have trouble getting started on this step, so let’s go through the required actions to get rolling with Hyper-V.

For Core installations, including the recent free version of the hypervisor, Hyper-V Manager is not able to be run locally. One easy way to manage the remote hypervisor is to add Hyper-V Manager from a separate Windows Server 2008 installation. The most difficult part of getting started with Hyper-V is this specific step. Knowing where to add Hyper-V Manager is not intuitive, especially on the Core installations.

Windows Server 2008 is still somewhat young for widespread adoption in the data center at this point, so the initial configuration may take a moment to figure out. Hyper-V Manager exists as a feature for Windows Server 2008, and adding it is done from running Server Manager, selecting Features, Add Features, expand Remote Server Administration Tools, expand Role Administration Tools, and selecting Hyper-V Tools. This option is shown in the figure below:

Figure 1

Hyper-V Manager is now installed and ready for use on the server. It is important to distinguish that the Hyper-V Manager feature is not included with the Hyper-V Manager role as they are separate items from the Server Manager perspective. Servers with the Hyper-V role can be added to the Hyper-V Manager on the local installation. This takes a little thought to add from a permissions standpoint, and is best done through an Active Directory domain installation for distributed permissions.

For more information on Hyper-V Manager, check out the Microsoft website.

November 6, 2008  12:57 PM

Making a P2V conversion: Tricks for systems with large storage

Rick Vanover Rick Vanover Profile: Rick Vanover

Converting a system with a large amount of locally attached storage can be a challenging task given the time required to perform the conversion. Here area a few tricks I’ve found that can help ease the pain on these types of conversion tasks.

  • Private network: Making a private network between the physical host and the virtual host can provide two benefits. The main benefit is that conversion traffic will be isolated from the rest of the network traffic; the other advantage is that there is no risk of a user or process connecting to any resources and making changes during the conversion. The downside is that there may be special host-side configuration for a temporary network presence to allow the special network.
  • Direct LUN mappings: For virtualization platforms that allow guest VMs to access a LUN directly, it can be much easier than performing a lengthy conversion of large data volumes that are already on a storage area network (SAN) and mapped to a physical system. Here is a blog post with a little more detail on that topic.
  • Housekeeping: If there is junk on the physical system, does it need to be converted to the virtual environment, which may have more expensive storage? Clean up the candidate’s file system, and perform obvious tasks like emptying the Windows Recycle Bin. This allows for a more accurate re-sizing of the drives during the conversion.
  • Agent backup and restore: For standard file volumes, such as a file server, it may make more sense to only convert the system drive and perform an agent-based restore to the virtual machine for the additional volumes. This does not necessarily save time from the entire conversion, but saves time within a tool like VMware Converter.
  • Get a good time estimate: If you have to go at the large storage system as-is, make sure you have a baseline of about how many GB can be converted per hour. A good way to test this is to convert a good candidate system of about 100 GB and use that as a multiplier for your environment. There are a lot of factors, such as network speed and traffic, virtualization platform, storage systems (on both ends), and the conversion mechanism used. This allows for a good estimate on any downtime that needs to be coordinated if this applies to the selected workload.

These tricks can make converting a large amount of storage a little less daunting. What tricks have you employed to tackle physical systems with large amounts of storage in the course of being converted to a virtual machine? Leave a comment below and let us know.

October 30, 2008  4:01 PM

Piloting a VDI requires partner involvement

Rick Vanover Rick Vanover Profile: Rick Vanover

A successful VDI pilot is a critical step toward embracing desktop virtualization technology when migrating from traditional desktops. In this video blog, Rick Vanover discusses how to go about creating a pilot to obtain optimal results without engaging vendors in the pre-sales capacity.

October 29, 2008  10:09 AM

Market share: So what?

Eric Siebert Eric Siebert Profile: Eric Siebert

A recent report from IDC claims that Microsoft’s market share in the virtualization arena grew drastically in the second fiscal quarter of 2008 because of the release of Hyper-V. While the accuracy of the report is questionable, as pointed out by one blogger, it does beg the question: Do customers really care about market share?

One common misconception is that market share makes one product better than another. Although typically the product with the greatest market share is the best product, this isn’t always the case. Just because a product is popular doesn’t mean it’s better than its competitors (take Internet Explorer versus Firefox or Opera as an example). In this specific case, however, VMware does have the better and more popular product. The recent market share increase by Microsoft is due in great part to the excitement generated by Hyper-V’s recent release rather than it being better than VMware ESX.

According to a recent Gartner report, VMware has an 89% market share and is the clear leader in the management/automation, maturity/stability, security and ISV support categories. The one area where it gets low marks is price, which in my opinion is not a big deal because if you look at value instead of price VMware would also get high marks.

Purchasing one product over another simply because of market share is not smart shopping. Someone looking to virtualize should carefully consider all of the available products before choosing one. This includes evaluating them, gathering RFPs, reading product reviews and talking to others who are using the product before finally making an informed decision on which product is best.

Would you buy a particular car brand simply because it was the most popular? Probably not. You would look at features, price, reviews, take a test drive and do whatever else you can to find more information before choosing the car that works best for you.

So is market share important to you and would it influence your decision to choose a virtualization product? Let us know in the comments below.

October 29, 2008  10:02 AM

Free virtualization tools for tough economic times

Eric Siebert Eric Siebert Profile: Eric Siebert

Many IT departments feel the squeeze from the current economic crisis and have seen their budgets slashed. When times are tough you must get creative, and the best way to do that is to utilize products that won’t cost you a dime. Can’t afford new ESX licenses right now? Why not recycle some of that older hardware with one of the free hypervisors? Or better yet, take one of your big servers that only runs one application and install ESXi so you can run other applications concurrently. Let’s go over some free products that you can download and use in your VMware environment.

Free hypervisors:
VMware Server – Version 2.0 has lots of new features and can be installed on several versions of Windows, Linux and almost any hardware.

VMware ESXi – The entry-level edition of VMware’s enterprise-class hypervisor; the installable version installs bare metal on a variety of supported and unsupported hardware.

VMware Player – A great tool for starting up virtual machines without installing a full hypervisor on your system.

Free appliances:
The VMware appliance marketplace has hundreds of free appliances that span a variety of categories. Appliances range from simple firewalls to enterprise monitoring systems to full-blown Web and database packages (LAMP). You can run these appliances with VMware Player or import them into ESX/Server/Workstation and run them there.

Free management and reporting tools:
Embotics v-Scout – A free, agentless tool for tracking and reporting on virtual machines in VMware VirtualCenter-enabled environments.

Hyper-9 – This soon-to-be-released free search-based reporting tool is a great addition to every administrator’s toolbox. Watch for its release around the end of the year. If you are interested in participating in a beta version of this tool, drop me an email. Not all beta requests will be approved and the company is looking for feedback if you do participate.

RVTools – A handy little tool that displays a multitude of information about your virtual machines.

Solarwinds VM Monitor – A free management tool that monitors ESX hosts and virtual machines.

Snaphunter and Snapalert – Utilities that can report all running snapshots on ESX hosts, including name, size and date. They can also automatically email reports and optionally commit snapshots.

Visio Stencils – Some free Visio stencils from Veeam, VMGuru and the Visio Café to help you document your environment.

VMotion Info – A free utility that gathers system and CPU information from your hosts and puts it in a single overview to check for VMotion compatibility.

VM ExplorerA management tool that eases management, backup and disaster recovery tasks in your VMware ESX Server environment.

MCS StorageView – A utility that displays all of the logical partitions, operating systems, capacity, free space and percent free of all virtual machines on ESX 3.x or Virtual Center 2.x .

ESX HealthCheck – A script that collects configuration information and other data for ESX hosts and generates a report in HTML format.

Free administration tools:
Putty – A must-have utility for every administrator to remotely SSH into their ESX hosts.

Veeam FastSCP – A great SSH file transfer utility application.

WinSCP – Another speedy SSH file transfer utility application.

KS QuickConfig – Designed to reduce the time needed to deploy and configure VMware ESX servers as well as eliminate inconsistencies that can arise with manual operations.

VP Snapper – A free utility that lets you revert to multiple VM snapshots at once rather than one-by-one.

VMware Converter – VMware’s free application that lets you perform physical-to-virtual and virtual-to-virtual operations.

vmCDconnected – A handy utility that scans all virtual machines in your infrastructure and shows if they have a CD connected to any of them. After scanning you can disconnect all of the CDs with a click of a button.

CPU Identification Utility – VMware’s free utility that displays CPU features for VMotion compatibility, EVC and 64-bit VMware support.

VMTS Patch Manager – A great ESX host-patching application for those who don’t have Update Manager.

Free backup utilities:
VISBU – A free backup utility that runs from the Service Console and provides VMDK-level backups of any VM in storage that is accessible by the host.

VM Backup Script – A backup script to perform hot backups of your virtual machines.

Free storage utilities:
Openfiler – A free, open source, browser-based storage appliance that supports NFS and iSCSI. It can be downloaded as an ISO file to install on a server or as a VMware appliance to import to an ESX host. A great way to get more shared disk in your environment by turning physical servers into network-attached storage servers or turning the local disk on your ESX hosts into shared disk when using the appliance.

Xtravirt Virtual SAN – A free solution that turns local disk space on your ESX hosts into shared VMFS volumes to avoid purchasing costly storage area network disk space.

Free security tools:
Tripwire ConfigCheck – A free utility that rapidly assesses the security of VMware ESX 3.0 and 3.5 hypervisor configurations compared to the VMware Infrastructure 3 Security Hardening guidelines.

Configuresoft Compliance Checker – A free tool that provides a real-time compliance check that can analyze multiple VMware ESX host servers at a time. Also provides detailed compliance checks against both the VMware Hardening Guidelines and the CIS benchmarks for ESX.

If you know of any other free tools that you use in your VMware environment, feel free to list them in the comments section of this post.

October 23, 2008  1:51 PM

An eggceptional virtualization analogy

Alex Barrett Alex Barrett Profile: Alex Barrett

I’m always looking for ways to explain virtualization to the nontechnical people in my life, and just came across a really good analogy, courtesy of Luke Kanies, the author of Puppet system administration tool:

A virtual machine is to the host as an egg is to the carton.

Actually, this is what Kanies really said:

The truth is that [VM] images make a lot of things a lot easier, but when it all comes down to it, VMWare is great for managing the outside of a box. I’ve been told this is a horrible analogy, but the way I think of it is, all of these virtual machine systems — they’re really good at producing and managing eggs, you know these self contained, sealed eggs of functionality. But they’re not very good about getting inside the system. They can’t get inside the egg and manage what’s going on there.

That’s so true. For now, VMware doesn’t do anything to help you get at the whites (the OS) or the yolk (the application), to say nothing of the yucky membrane between the two.

Much like egg cartons and their contents, virtualization doesn’t discriminate on the basis of color: You can have brown eggs (Linux), white eggs (Windows), green eggs (Solaris) — but you can’t have ham. Nor can you have ostrich eggs (z/OS) or goose eggs (Unix) — they just wouldn’t fit in the carton.

I also like this analogy because of the implicit 12:1 egg-to-carton consolidation ratio. Although, from what I’ve been hearing, most folks have graduated from regular cartons and moved on to those scary 5X6 trays.

large egg tray

Props to the Lone (not Lonely) Sysadmin, Bob Plankers, for pointing out this article and who, incidentally, really likes Puppet.

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