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Protect your infrastructure with virtualization security management

Before implementing virtualization in your data center, assess all of its potential risks -- from system outages to cyberattacks -- and how to manage them.

Virtualization has effectively changed the way we look at and handle IT. But for all of its many benefits, it also...

comes with a unique set of security risks. Simply put, virtualized assets are more difficult to protect than physical servers and require specialized tools and training to manage.

Consolidation makes virtualized assets a particularly appealing target for would-be hackers and cybersecurity attacks. Virtualization also comes at a greater risk for failure and outages than physical servers. However, with the proper knowledge, tools and methodology, you can defend your virtual environment against both failure and malicious activity.

Educate yourself on common virtualization risks and get a handle on virtualization security management with these five tips.

Beware the danger of data theft

One of the primary benefits of server virtualization is there's less surface area to protect than physical servers. That said, one of the biggest issues with virtualization is instances can quickly be spun up and deployed without authorized approval. Although a single rogue server isn't likely to take down your entire infrastructure, it can pose a serious threat to infrastructure stability. The best way to prevent this kind of threat is to know exactly what's in your environment, but this is easier said than done.

Virtualization is also more susceptible to data theft because thieves can easily clone data on running systems without interrupting the original server. There's also the issue of data destruction. Since VMs are simply a collection of files, data can be just as easily deleted as copied. Due to this, it's essential to keep things like availability and redundancy in mind when evaluating and choosing a virtualization security management system for your data center.

Don't lose sight of common security concerns

Too often, administrators make the mistake of relying solely on backups, firewalls, password and security tools to secure their data centers, but this approach doesn't cover all the bases. It focuses on the virtual end of things and neglects the intricate relationship between virtualization software and hardware. System outages and failure are an inevitable part of life and will occur at some point. Therefore, the primary goal should not be to prevent failure entirely, but rather to mitigate the damage caused by an outage.

A good place to start is to take a closer look at the underlying hardware. Is your hardware redundant? Designing for redundancy can be difficult, but without redundancy across multiple technical silos, your data center will be left vulnerable. Consider investing in dual power supply servers to decrease the risk of hardware failure and increase availability.

Even a fully redundant infrastructure is liable to fail, so you should also make sure you have adequate failover provisions -- not just Active Directory and Network Time Protocol servers, but also intrusion detection systems, properly updated firewalls and accurate documentation. Six-nines availability may be difficult to achieve, even financially impossible for some, but making adjustments to both your software and hardware can go a long way in minimizing the effects of a system outage.

Keep an eye on internal affairs

When it comes to virtualization security management, sometimes, the greatest threats are internal. Mistakes made by staff members, especially your virtual administrator, can easily leave your environment vulnerable to cyberattacks. This is a complex issue -- one that can be traced back to the earliest days of virtualization.

Organizations used to divide data center staff into silos based on which operations they managed, such as network, storage or telecom. Over time, organizations merged these silos, creating new roles, including that of the virtual administrator. Nowadays, more technologies fall under the purview of the virtual administrator, which can be an issue. If a virtual administrator makes an error, it's going to have a much greater effect than one made by a lower-ranking staff member.

There are a few ways for organizations to avoid this potential problem, starting with breaking down barriers even further. By allowing other specialized administrators to take on some of the work traditionally done by virtual administrators, you can cover your bases more thoroughly. The next thing is to implement compliance software, which allows you to create customizable policies to prevent misuse of a virtual environment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, document everything. Make sure your virtual administrator carefully documents how she runs the environment from Day 1 so that, in the event she leaves the company, her replacement isn't left in the lurch.

Safeguard against cyberattacks

In the virtualized world, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to cybersecurity. The key to creating a truly effective cybersecurity strategy is to take a multilayered approach to securing both VMs and the virtualization stack. Start by securing your virtualization hosts. One way to do this is to restrict physical access to the host servers and their storage, thus preventing unauthorized users from compromising VMs on the host. As an additional measure, you can place your host servers and virtualization management servers in an Active Directory forest. This reduces the risk of pass-the-hash attacks -- cyberattacks designed to steal hashed user credentials and dupe the authentication system.

There are a number of ways to improve VM security, as well. For instance, you can group VMs by posture. This makes it so a high-security VM is not mistakenly placed on the same host as a lower-security VM. You can also leverage network virtualization to secure your VMs by using front-end and back-end topologies and traffic isolation to make sure certain VMs are never exposed to network traffic. Finally, be sure to check your hypervisor's security recommendations to see what additional measures you should take to secure VMs.

VM management software makes a difference

You can have all the security software in the world installed in your data center, but your virtual infrastructure will still be at risk if that software isn't up to date. Legacy tools can't always see VMs, networks and configurations, and can leave your infrastructure with a pretty significant security blind spot. Smaller organizations are more likely to fall prey to this than larger organizations, as they are often slower to adopt new virtualization security management tools.

If you're unable to upgrade or replace your current virtualization security management system, there are still some steps you can take to make sure your infrastructure is secure, such as making sure your antimalware, host firewalls and other existing tools are virtualization-aware. If, however, you are in the market for new management software, make sure you choose one that offers asset tracking, inventory control and change management. In order to fully maximize your security, you should also assess your VM migration tools to make certain they transfer all configuration details to the destination server so VMs aren't left exposed during migration.

Next Steps

Best practices for planning virtual environment security

Discover cross-cloud virtualization security tools

Don't be lured into a false sense of virtualization security

This was last published in March 2017

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