Home > Intrusion Prevention, Virtualization, VM HyperJacking > HyperJackStacking? Layers of Chewy VMM Goodness — the BLT of Security Models

HyperJackStacking? Layers of Chewy VMM Goodness — the BLT of Security Models

So Mogull is back on the bench and I’m glad to see him blogging again. 

As I type this, I’m listening to James Blunt’s  new single "1973" which is unfortunately where Rich’s timing seems to be on this topic.  ‘Salright though.  Can’t blame him.  He’s been out scouting the minors for a while, so being late to practice is nothing to be too wound up about.

<If you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic.  I only wish that Rich was
when he told me that his favorite TexMex place in his hometown is
called the "Pink Taco."  That’s all I’m going to say about that…>

The notion of the HyperJackStack (Hypervisor Jacking & Stacking) is actually a problem set that has been discussed at length and in the continuum of these discussions happened quite a while ago. 

To put it bluntly, I believe the discussion — for right or wrong — stepped over this naughty little topic months ago in lieu of working from the bottom up for the purpose exposing fundamental architectural deficiencies (or at least their potential) in the core of virtualization technology.  This is an argument that parallels dissecting a BLT sandwich…you’re approaching getting to the center of a symmetric stack so which end you start at is almost irrelevant.

The good/bad VMM/HV problem has really been relegated to push-pin on the to-do board of all of the virtualization vendors and this particular problem has been framed by said vendors to be apparently solved first operationally from the management plane and THEN dealt with from the security perspective.

So Rich argues that after boning up on Joanna and Thom’s research that they’re arguing the wrong case completely for the dangers of virtualized rootkits.  Instead of worrying about undetectability of this or that — pills and poultry be damned — one should be focused on establishing the relative disposition of *any* VMM/Hypervisor running in/on a host:

Problem is, they’re looking at the wrong problem. I will easily concede
that detecting virtualization is always possible, but that’s not the
real problem. Long-term virtualization will be normal, not an
exception, so detecting if you’re virtualized won’t buy you anything.
The bigger problem is detecting a malicious hypervisor, either the main
hypervisor or maybe some wacky new malicious hypervisor layered on top
of the trusted hypervisor.

To Rich’s credit, I think that this is a huge problem and one that deserves to be solved.  That does not mean that I think one is the "right" versus "wrong" problem to solve, however.  Nor does it mean this hasn’t been discussed.  I’ve talked about it many times already.  Maybe not as eloquently…

The flexibility of virtualization is what provides the surface expansion of vectors for threat; you can spin up, move or kill a VM across an enterprise with a point-click.  So the first thing to do before trying to determine if a VMM/HV is malicious is to detect its presence and layering in the first place…this is where Thom/Joanna’s research really does make sense.

You’re approaching this from a different direction, is all.

Thom responded here, and I have to agree with his overall posture; the notion of putting hooks into the VMM/HV to allow for "external" detection mechanisms for the sake solely of VMM/HV rootkit detection is unlikely given the threat, but we are already witness to the engineered capacities to allow for "plug-ins" such as Blue Lane’s that function "along side" the HV/VMM and there’s nothing saying one couldn’t adapt a similar function for this sort of detection (and/or prevention) as a value-add.

Ultimately though, I think that the point of response boils down to the definition of the mechanisms used in the detection of a malicious VMM/HV.  I ask you Rich, please define a "malicious" VMM/HV from one steeped in goodness. 

This sounds like in practice, it will come down to yet another iteration of the signature-driven IPS circle jerk to fingerprint/profile disposition.  We’ll no doubt see anomaly and behavioral analysis used here, and then we’ll have hashing, memory firewalls, etc…it’s going to be the Hamster Wheel all over again.  For the same reason we have trouble with validating security and compliance state for anything more than the cursory checks @ 30K feet today, you’ll face the same issue with virtualization — only worse.

I’ve got one for you…how about escaping from the entire VM "jail" entirely…Ed Skoudis over @ IntelGuardians just did an interview with the PaulDotCom boys on this topic…

I believe one must start from the bottom and work up; they’re trying to make up for the fact that this stuff wasn’t properly thought through in this iteration and are trying to expose the issue now. In fact, look at what Intel just announced today with vPro:

New in this product is Intel Trusted Execution Technology (Intel
TXT, formerly codenamed LaGrande). Intel TXT protects data within
virtualized computing environments, an important feature as IT managers
are considering the adoption of new virtualization-enabled computer
uses. Used in conjunction with a new generation of the company’s
virtualization technology – Intel Virtualization Technology for
Directed I/O – Intel TXT ensures that virtual machine monitors are less
vulnerable to attacks that cannot be detected by today’s conventional
software-security solutions. By isolating assigned memory through this
hardware-based protection, it keeps data in each virtual partition
protected from unauthorized access from software in another partition.

So no, Ptacek and Joanna aren’t fighting the "wrong" battle, they’re just fighting one that garners much more attention, notoriety, and terms like "HyperJackStack" than the one you’re singling out.  ;)


P.S. Please invest in a better setup for your blog…I can’t trackback to you (you need Halo or something) and your comment system requires registration…bah!  Those G-Boys have you programmed… ;)

  1. August 28th, 2007 at 09:03 | #1

    I think "hamster wheels" will turn out to be too generous of a description of static security solutions charged with securing virtual infrastructures. The levels of change and complexity being introduced combined with the shift to blades sets up the sigs/asic model for a vast re-architect project. Will every server blade, for example, contain a custom ASIC to carry the sig library and crunch patterns, that will in turn have to be updated for mutations and the return of old hacks? While tuning will be "interesting times" in the new world of meshed blades… I think the new processing and traffic demands may be the last gasp for signatures.

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