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10 Ways Virtualization Can Improve Security

By Kaushik Pal | Reviewed by John MeahCheckmark
Published: October 22, 2021 | Last updated: November 2, 2021
Key Takeaways

Virtualization has become a necessity for all organizations irrespective of their sizes, but many people don't think of it in terms of its security benefits.

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In plain terms, virtualization utilizes software to create a layer of abstraction over the physical hardware that has been deployed. It turns out to be a rather economical process that allows any organization to run several virtual computers, applications or operating systems in just one physical server. The principle of virtualization is to partition a single physical server into several virtual servers.

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Security has become an important factor in modern computing systems. The security of any system is paramount to its performance and usability. One of the most effective ways to increase the level of protection against various risks or attacks is virtualization.

There are two types of virtualization, Type 1, which is more commonly known as full virtualization, and Type 2, which is also known as paravirtualization. The main difference between Type 1 and Type 2 hypervisors is that Type 1 runs on bare metal and Type 2 runs on top of an operating system.

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In today's era, considering that enterprise systems bear a demanding workload, virtualization is a very good option that meets these needs and at the same time, keeps costs down.

Besides this, there are several other benefits too, such as:

  • High availability of systems
  • Decoupling of the operating system from the underlying hardware
  • Freedom of movement between hosts
  • Security

In essence, virtualization is a complete and total duplication of the hardware and the software configuration of a particular server platform. It enables multiple operating systems and applications to run simultaneously on one machine.

There are many types of virtualization technologies that work on different platforms: Virtualization may be used to share resources such as memory, disk space, bandwidth, or even machines - like if you need 10 servers for a project.

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Security: The Primary Concern

Security is without doubt, the foremost in the list of concerns an organization faces with regards to its enterprise systems. Every organization realizes that there is immense scrutiny in terms of the technology infrastructure it outlays. In an environment where data breaches make headlines almost every other day, security can't be an afterthought. Security, rather, needs to be an inbuilt component in the entire process.

As long as the correct configuration has been put in place, virtualization takes care of the security requirements rather well and has gotten rid of many of the issues that were commonly found in the physical environment.

Let us delve into the ten major means by which visualization helps improve security for enterprise system infrastructure.

Containerization

Containerization is the latest way of virtualization. It is also known as OS-Level virtualization. In this process, the operating system creates separate and completely isolated spaces for each and every application. So, all the applications will behave as if they are the only applications running on the system.

From the security point of view, applications cannot see each other and hence they are protected. There are many platforms available, including Apache Mesos and Kubernetes; Docker is one of the most popular software to provide containerization. (Read also: How Can Containerization Help Your Project with Speed and Efficiency?)

Sandboxing

The mechanism of sandboxing is a popular and widely used feature in virtualization. The process implies the running of programs that execute codes untested in production from unknown websites, parties or vendors, separately.

The idea behind sandboxing is that it allows for the isolation of the application, in order to guard it against the external malware, viruses or any threats. Isolating this way keeps the system safe from untested code or applications. Virtualization is practically the implementation of this sandboxing technology on a larger scale. Without sharing vital information and data, the technology allows for the sharing of systems and is flexible in nature.

Sandboxing can have two different contexts. One is OS level, where the OS provides an environment to run your application and they cannot get any access to other applications. On the other hand, sandbox is used to run your application and analyze the security threats, thus ensuring that any malicious activity does not affect your production network.

Server Virtualization

Server resources can be masked using this technique and it also assists in maximization of resources. The underlying physical server is sub-divided into several smaller virtual chunks by the admin, each with its own diverse virtual environment. While these virtual servers can run and reboot independently, the main advantage is that it creates a layer of abstraction between the operating system and the virtualized hardware. Hence, any compromised applications can be isolated via the use of virtual servers. (Read also: 3 Tips to Get the Most from Server Virtualization.)

Network Virtualization

Software and hardware network resources are combined in this method to provide for a single virtual network. Using the underlying network hardware, network virtualization combines with virtual networks to form logical virtual networks.

Isolation and segmentation are two basic constituents of network virtualization.

  • Isolation allows the co-existence of several isolated virtual networks which are known to provide end-to-end services over the cloud. The network resources are provided by infrastructure providers, which allow several services to be used on virtual networks by sharing.


  • Segmentation sub-divides the network into sub-networks to minimize the traffic through them and giving a boost to performance. It also hides the internal network structure from the outside, making it very secure.

Desktop Virtualization

Desktop virtualization is a form where users are given the access to create, modify or remove images from the physical computer that is used for access. It allows for the separation of the desktop environment as well. Administrators find the usage of desktop virtualization very helpful as it allows them to manage the computers of employees easily. It also helps them to upgrade the resources on time, or even remove unnecessary applications no longer required. As a result, there is no chance of unauthorized access or the possibility of introducing any type of malware, as long as the correct permissions, protections, and configurations are adopted.

The user also benefits in this case by getting access to the image of the OS for the desktop. It allows them to save/copy data to the server and not the disk, thus making it a secure option to use.

Hypervisor Security

Hypervisor is term that denotes a small piece of hardware or software that bears the functionality of creating and running virtual machines. The host machine is the system that contains the hypervisor and is used for enabling virtualization that includes development, implementation and management.

There are certain recommendations for hypervisor security, namely –

  • Hypervisors usually update automatically when they are released by the vendor. However, it is a good practice to manually check for updates from time to time. However, in a secure, locked-down protected environment, any updates to the hypervisor are thoroughly vetted and tested prior to deployment into production.

  • The use of thin hypervisors allows for easy deployment and less overhead in computing terms. This also has an added advantage in case there is a malicious attack, where the malware code is unlikely to reach the hypervisor.

  • The use of network interface cards (NICs) or unused physical hardware to the host system must be avoided. Any disks that are used for backing up data should be disconnected when not in use.

  • Disable any services that aren’t required. This is especially applicable in the case of file sharing services between guest and host OS.

  • Guest OSes must have security between them when they are communicating. Environments that are non-virtualized must have security control systems in places, such as firewalls.

Virtual and Physical Switches

The use of a virtual switch provides security between virtual machines by isolation and control inspection. It is essentially a software program and prevents inter-switch link attacks. It permits network connectivity for communication with virtual machines and applications within the virtual network and the physical network.

In this context, high end physical switches are also capable of protecting the system. It can disable sniffing of traffic addresses or other connected systems. Physical switches provide the same level of protection as the virtual switches.

Infrastructure & Guest OS Security

The use of a virtualized information infrastructure helps in restricting access to resources and also in proper information handling due to visibility. The infrastructure must be such that all information can be tracked in the environment.

Guest OS is the OS in the virtual machine and is used for hosting the main OS. It also enables the sharing of other resources with other virtual machines using the same host, such as the sharing of information using disks and folders using network disks.

Server Isolation & Virtual Hard Disk (HD) Encryption

Since running multiple servers on a single server is a risky proposition for businesses, multiple servers can be used on a single virtual machine. The usage of virtualizations helps run multiple servers on a single machine, at the same time isolating them from each other.

Virtual hard disk encryption is another good way to protect your data. This is more applicable, when the hard disk it travelling from one location to another location. If the virtual HD is encrypted, the data cannot be read with present day technology as it is, even if a copy of HD is stolen by the attacker.

Availability and Disaster Recovery

Data preservation and service availability are of primary importance these days. The use of virtualizations permits the backup of data in the form of a large and unique file. This helps in the quick reinstallation of OS and restoration of data, thus reducing cost and time required to mitigate failures.

Conclusion

Virtualization is perhaps one of the best methods that can be employed by enterprises to counter harm and malicious intent on the security front. These points highlight the advantages of deploying virtualization for your enterprise. (Read also: Do You Really Understand Virtualization?)

As with all things technology-based, (virtualization included,) regular updates, and vulnerability scans must be performed to eliminate the possibility of weakness, and the use of hardened virtual machine images is strongly advised.

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Written by Kaushik Pal | Contributor

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Kaushik is a technical architect and software consultant, having over 20 years of experience in software analysis, development, architecture, design, testing and training industry. He has an interest in new technology and innovation areas. He focuses on web architecture, web technologies, Java/J2EE, open source, WebRTC, big data and semantic technologies. Kaushik is also the founder of TechAlpine, a technology blog/consultancy firm based in Kolkata. The team at TechAlpine works for different clients in India and abroad. The team has expertise in Java/J2EE/open source/web/WebRTC/Hadoop/big data technologies and technical writing.

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