Former Citrix CTO says virtualization will solve security problems

Bromium has some big names, particularly from Citrix

While IT shops and vendors struggle to apply security practices to virtualized systems, a startup called Bromium claims it will turn the question on its head, using virtualization to secure all types of devices.

The idea is that a hypervisor can isolate and protect applications, turning the virtualization platform into the security tool.

Battle looms over securing virtualized systems

Bromium has some big names, particularly from Citrix and the community around the Xen hypervisor. We caught up this week with Bromium co-founder and CTO Simon Crosby, who says the question of how to secure virtualized systems - as opposed to using virtualization to secure everything else - is "a yawn in my view."

Crosby previously held the CTO position at Citrix and virtualization vendor XenSource, which was purchased by Citrix in 2007. Crosby's resume includes time at Intel leading research in "distributed autonomic computing, platform security and trust," and he is an active participant in the and OpenStack open source projects.

Moving from an established company with a diversified portfolio to a startup betting it all on one technology carries risk and could end up a spectacular failure, Crosby acknowledges. But the payoff if it's successful will be huge, he believes.

"If we can manage to pull this stunt off it's going to be big in the sense that virtualization's primary benefit will turn out to be security," he says. "It will be bigger than all the other benefits."

Crosby's fellow co-founders at Bromium are CEO Guarav Banga, previously CTO and senior vice president at Phoenix Technologies; and senior vice president of products Ian Pratt, previously chairman of and co-founder of XenSource.

Bromium will be up to 15 employees soon. "At the moment we're a highly technical team," and is hiring more software engineers, Crosby says. Crosby left Citrix on good terms and has $9.2 million in first-round funding for Bromium from Andreessen Horowitz, Ignition Partner and Lightspeed Venture Partners.

Bromium products aren't expected to hit the market until next year, and for now, Crosby will only describe the company's technology in generalities. So far, virtualization has been used primarily to reduce hardware costs and make data centers run more efficiently, but Crosby and his team say the ability of a hypervisor to isolate workloads should be applied to security. Crosby says the approach will go far beyond traditional sandboxing methods, making the hypervisor the only software able to control execution of code.

The Bromium technology causes all I/O operations, all system resources to be redirected through a "narrow API," so that "any interaction between that code and the outside world will cross this very narrow [system], which is highly secure by design," Crosby says.

Bromium's hypervisor-based security product will consist of about 10,000 lines of code, rather than the millions of lines of code in systems like Windows, Crosby says. Instead of black-listing suspicious programs, Bromium won't allow anything through without explicit permission.

"Our view is no code can be trusted. Anything could be an attack," Crosby says. "All you can do is get granular control over execution. We are using virtualization technology to dramatically reshape the boundaries in terms of trust around code."

Bromium is trying to reduce the question of deciding which processes can be trusted to a math problem, making calculations based on a form of calculus to decide if code comes from an attacker or a legitimate source.

Crosby says the technology will be aimed at service providers, rather than consumers, and promises it can apply to any type of system from mobile devices to Windows or Mac desktops and cloud services.

But, of course, the technology's success will depend both on its ability to distinguish between attacks and legitimate code, and to run across platforms. Given Bromium executives' background, it stands to reason the company's hypervisor is based on the open source Xen. But Crosby says the company isn't revealing whether that's true. While he says "the technology would apply to any appropriately modified hypervisor," the ability of Bromium to work with competing virtualization products would depend on cooperation from VMware, a rival to Citrix.

Crosby is leaving Citrix in a strong position. The vendor was just named the leader in the desktop virtualization market by analyst firm IDC. Rackspace is powering at least one of its cloud services with Citrix Xenserver and the open source version of Xen - which Citrix does not profit from - is used by Amazon for its Elastic Compute Cloud.

Citrix's failure is losing the enterprise server virtualization market to VMware, which owns the vast majority of customers in the Fortune 1000. But Crosby contends Citrix's success in the public cloud market will eventually overshadow VMware's success in helping businesses build private clouds.

When Citrix bought XenSource, "we thought we were competing with VMware in enterprise server virtualization," Crosby says. Now, the goal is to use server virtualization to build public cloud services that will be used by enterprises.

"The public cloud model is growing way faster than the private cloud model," Crosby says. "Where we find ourselves is building these enormous clouds, such as the Rackspace cloud, and learning how to drive the cost of infrastructure down."

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