VMWare wants software defined data centres for better security

In a world that's only starting to agree on what defines “software defined networking”, it may sound surprising that VMWare believes the “SD” initials can be put in front of “data centres”—that's what the virtualisation vendor was putting forward at the Evolve 2013 Security Conference in Sydney.

VMWare senior systems engineer Trevor Gerdes told delegates that the idea is to complete the abstraction of everything into a virtualised environment.

While it may not be something that could be accomplished this week or month, the VMWare position is that if everything – even the data centre – can be reduced to an abstraction layer, and it should have considerable upsides for customer security.

Gerdes said that the move of resources and capabilities into the cloud is already creating challenges.

A discrete silo system such as an Oracle database server, which existed as a discrete physical server presenting a single interface to the network is relatively easy to secure, he said. But as that moves into the cloud, the environment is far more difficult to define by its perimeter.

“We have to look at providing different mechanisms to secure this in the future,” Gerdes explained.

“There's too much of a patchwork of technical solutions – the cloud being an interwoven mix of resources, with all of the security technologies sitting outside, and you're unable to see inside.

“The firewall, the airgaps – all this stuff sitting in different locations – what happens when it's virtualised?”

Hence VMWare's unsurprising suggestion that everything that's still seen as a discrete function needs to become virtualised, with the virtualisation ecosystem of cloud-capable vendors providing the interfaces to access and control it all.

“The software defined data centre is about providing software controls for absolutely everything in the data centre – all of the controls can be provided as a software abstract,” he said. “Instead of having a black box in the cloud, what I want is to have the functionality of the black box as part of my data centre in software form.”

Gerdes – and VMWare – means “everything”: the firewall, the intrusion detection system, the intrusion prevention system, anti-virus/anti-malware, storage and systems management.

With the hypervisor at the centre of the universe, so to speak, there is an opportunity to look at what the machines are doing as a “view from outside”. “The hypervisor sees every CPU instruction, every I/O memory write, every network packet.”

That makes the hypervisor a good candidate for catching security threats, he said. Through partnerships (including with Trend), “we're now able to use that hypervisor to provide an offload capability for security. I no longer run the anti-virus agent in my operating system – it's running in the hypervisor. Malware can't turn it off, and it's “in a different security context to where the malware is residing”.

Gerdes noted that the new world creates an operational (rather than a technical) vulnerability. “You have to understand who has the rights and permissions – the idea that the Vsphere administrator is the equivalent to God, who can create machines, delete machines, move machines in and out of the organisation … should that be allowed?”

As virtualisation becomes more pervasive, he said, there is an increased, “need to control who is allowed to do what in this environment.”

“I want to virtualise security,” he said, adding that virtualisation users need to learn how to create what he calls “logical trust zones”.

And, “if I'm going to a cloud provider, how do I build different ‘network segments’ and how do I evolve my processes and policies?”

Other Evolve Security Conference Coverage for 2013:

Evolve Security Conference 2013 Slideshow

BYOD plus social creating the vector of the future: Frost & Sullivan

Banks must innovate around IT-security regulatory hurdles: NAB

Malware authors’ hard-fought “professionalism” impressive, frightening: researcher

With viruses passé and money involved, malware’s just no fun anymore: Genes

Howard Schmidts Video on Cyberwar, Cybercrime, CyberSpy



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