Virtualization Pro

Nov 20 2008   8:41PM GMT

Antivirus software on the VMware ESX Service Console?

Eric Siebert Eric Siebert Profile: Eric Siebert

This question is often asked, should I install antivirus (AV) software on the VMware ESX Service Console? If you ask VMware and many seasoned ESX Administrators the answer is usually no. According to VMware’s Security Hardening Guide ESX is less susceptible (not immune) to viruses and if you follow proper security best practices installing AV software on the service console is not recommended:

Because it is based on a light-weight, kernel optimized for virtualization, VMware ESX Server is less susceptible to viruses and other problems that affect general-purpose operating systems. However, ESX Server is not impervious to attack, and you should take proper measures to harden it, as well as the VMware VirtualCenter management server, against malicious activity or unintended damage.

Because ESX Server runs a customized, locked-down version of Linux, there is much less likelihood of security exploits than in a standard Linux distribution. If you follow the best practice of isolating the network for the service console, there is no reason to run any antivirus or other such security agents, and their use is not recommended. However, if your environment requires that such agents be used, then use a version designed to run on Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3, Update 6.

The key here is following proper security best practices. This means taking steps like keeping your host patched in a timely manner, isolating Service Console network traffic from the other traffic on the network including VM traffic and following the additional hardening best practices listed in VMware’s Security Hardening Guide and CISecurity’s ESX Security Benchmark.

There are some good reasons for not installing AV software on the Service Console. The first reason is that it can impact on the performance of the ESX host and subsequently all of the virtual machines that reside on it because of the extra CPU, memory and disk resources that antivirus software typically uses. Antivirus software can be particularly resource intensive and can draw resources away from the virtual machines and potentially have a very negative impact on them. Another reason is that there is the possibility that the software may cause other issues on the Service Console as is true with any additional third party software that is installed on the Service Console.

Despite the reasons for not installing it some enterprises mandate that AV software be installed on all systems regardless of how secure they are. You might try and exempt your ESX hosts from this by explaining the following points:

1. The design of ESX does not allow for a VM that is infected by a virus to spread it to the ESX host through the VMKernel. It can only spread through traditional means which is typically over the network by leveraging open ports and OS vulnerabilities. If you isolate your Service Console network then it is protected from any VMs that may be infected.

2. Most viruses are written to exploit Windows systems, there are very few viruses that are written specifically for Linux systems.

3. ESX has a built-in firewall that protects the Service Console and blocks all ports except those few required by ESX and VirtualCenter.

4. ESX has a very good historical track record, I’ve never heard of a virus infecting the ESX Service Console. This doesn’t mean it can’t happen just that the chances are extremely low.

5. Explain the negative performance impact the AV software will have on an ESX host which can affect all of the VMs on the host.

If you are forced to install antivirus software on the Service Console because of security requirements in your environment then you should make sure that you run a version that is designed for the version of Linux that the Service Console uses. Additionally try and configure it as minimal as possible to minimize the impact on the server’s resources. It’s best to exclude all your VMFS volumes from scanning or at a minimum exclude specific virtual machine files like vmdk and vswp files that are frequently written to. Make sure and keep a close eye on the performance of the host to see how much impact the antivirus software is having on it. Also if you have to run on-demand scans make sure they are performed in off-peak hours when activity on the ESX host is low.

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