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Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security

Thoughts on Virtualization, Security and Singularity


The “VMM Detection Myths and Realities” paper has been heavily reported and discussed before.  It considers whether a theoretical piece of software could detect if it is running inside a Virtual Machine Monitor (VMM).  An undetectable VMM would be “transparent”.  Many arguments are made against the practicality or the commercial viability of a VMM that could provide performance, stealth and reproducible, consistent timings.  The arguments are interesting and reasonably convincing that it is currently infeasible to absolutely guarantee undetectability. 

However, I note that the authors are arguing from essentially the same position as atheists arguing that there is no God.  They argue that the existence of a fully transparent VMM is unlikely, impractical or would require an absurd amount of resources, both physical and in software development efforts.  This is reasonable because the VMM has to fail only once in preventing detection and there are many ways in which it can fail, and preventing each kind of detection is complex.  However, this is not an hermetic, formal proof that it is impossible and cannot exist;  a new breakthrough technology or an “alien science-fiction” god-like technology might make it possible. 

Then the authors argue that with the spread of virtualization, it will become a moot point for malware to try to detect if it is running inside a virtual machine.  One might be tempted to remark, doesn’t this argument also work in the other way, making it a moot point for an operating system or a security tool to try to detect if it is running inside a malicious VMM? 

McAfee’s “secure virtualization”
The security seminar by George Heron answers some of the questions I was asking at last year’s VMworld conference, and elaborates on what I had in mind then.  The idea is to integrate security functions within the virtual machine monitor.  Malware nowadays prevents the installation of security tools and interferes with them as much as possible.  If malware is successfully confined inside a virtual machine, and the security tools are operating from outside that scope, this could make it impossible for an attacker to disable security tools.  I really like that idea. 
The security tools could reasonably expect to run directly on the hardware or with an unvirtualized host OS.  Because of this, VMM detection isn’t a moot point for the defender.  However, the presentation did not discuss whether the McAfee security suite would attempt to detect if the VMM itself had been virtualized by an attacker.  Also, would it be possible to detect a “bad” VMM if the McAfee security tools themselves run inside a virtualized environment on top of the “good” VMM?  Perhaps it would need more hooks into the VMM to do this.  Many, in fact, to attempt to catch any of all the possible ways in which a malicious VMM can fail to hide itself properly.  What is the cost of all these detection attempts, which must be executed regularly?  Aren’t they prohibitive, therefore making strong malicious VMM detection impractical?  In the end, I believe this may be yet another race depending on how much effort each side is willing to put into cloaking and detection.  Practical detection is almost as hard as practical hiding, and the detection cost has to be paid everywhere on every machine, all the time.

Which Singularity?
Microsoft’s Singularity project attempts to create an OS and execution environment that is secure by design and simpler.  What strikes me is how it resembles the “white list” approach I’ve been talking about.  “Singularity” is about constructing secure systems with statements (“manifests”) in a provable manner.  It states what processes do and what may happen, instead of focusing on what must not happen. 

Last year I thought that virtualization and security could provide a revolution;  now I think it’s more of the same “keep building defective systems and defend them vigorously”, just somewhat stronger.  Even if I find the name somewhat arrogant, “Singularity” suggests a future for security that is more attractive and fundamentally stable than yet another arms race.  In the meantime, though, “secure virtualization” should help, and expect lots of marketing about it.


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