60% of virtual servers less secure than physical machines, Gartner says

New analyst group research looks at security issues around virtualization

Sixty percent of virtual servers are less secure than the physical servers they replace, the analyst firm Gartner said in new research Monday.

This state of affairs will remain true until 2012, but security should improve substantially after that point, Gartner said.

Gartner predicted that by 2015, only 30% of virtualized servers will be less secure than the physical machines they replaced.

Virtualization itself is not inherently insecure, but "many virtualization deployment projects are being undertaken without involving the information security team in the initial architecture and planning stages," Gartner said.

Virtualization adoption is growing quickly. Just 18% of enterprise data center workloads that could be virtualized have been converted to virtual servers, but by the end of 2012 more than half of eligible workloads will have been virtualized, Gartner said.

"As more workloads are virtualized, as workloads of different trust levels are combined and as virtualized workloads become more mobile, the security issues associated with virtualization become more critical to address," Gartner said.

Gartner identified six common security risks associated with virtualization deployments. First on the list is that 40% of virtualization projects are undertaken without information security professionals in the initial planning stages, according to survey data from Gartner conferences. "Typically, the operations teams will argue that nothing has really changed -- they already have skills and processes to secure workloads, operating systems and the hardware underneath," Gartner said. "While true, this argument ignores the new layer of software in the form of a hypervisor and virtual machine monitor (VMM) that is introduced when workloads are virtualized."

Secondly, Gartner notes that a threat to the virtualization layer can harm all hosted workloads. The hypervisor, as a new platform, contains new vulnerabilities including ones that have not yet been discovered. "Gartner recommends that organizations treat this layer as the most critical x86 platform in the enterprise data center and keep it as thin as possible, while hardening the configuration to unauthorized changes. Virtualization vendors should be required to support measurement of the hypervisor/VMM layer on boot-up to ensure it has not been compromised. Above all, organizations should not rely on host-based security controls to detect a compromise or protect anything running below it."

Additional risks include the following: Network-based security devices are blind to communications between virtual machines within a single host; workloads of different trust levels are consolidated onto single hosts without sufficient separation; virtualization technologies do not provide adequate control of administrative access to the hypervisor and virtual machine layer; and when physical servers are combined into a single machine, there is risk that system administrators and users could gain access to data they’re not allowed to see.

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