Who Owns VirtSec? Citrix vs. Chris Hoff

Includes: CTXS, VMW
by: Gregory Ness

Last year when I blogged about the impact of virtsec on the world of static security I focused on how virtualization could degrade the effectiveness of security solutions. Since then we’ve seen a surge of vendor marketing around virtualization security (virtsec), from a growing corral of one trick pony start-ups with various Barney announcements (“I love you, you love me…”) to the likes of the world’s leading security companies joining VMware’s (NYSE:VMW) unprecedented, visionary VMsafe initiative.

Last month I blogged about data center security’s key requirements, which included virtsec. My point was that virtsec will require more intelligence and agility than perimeter network security, because it will need to be deployed within the hypervisor layer and will consume hypervisor resources. Simply moving deep packet regular expression inspection engines into the hypervisor layer could add big hypervisor footprints and/or unacceptable levels of latency. These problems aren’t new; they’ve been hidden by faster and faster dedicated hardware at the network perimeter.

That’s why I found a recent virtsec blog exchange between Hoff and Crosby so disconcerting. Two brilliant guys with two very different perspectives are arguing about the ownership and accountability of virtualization security. Chris Hoff is a security guru with a sizable following who has been among the most vocal on the virtsec challenge. Security blogger Rothman calls Hoff Captain Virtual because he has been on a tear when it comes to the blog debate around virtsec.

Simon Crosby is leading the virtualization charge for Xen/Citrix (NASDAQ:CTXS) and he insists that virtualization platform vendors should stay focused on securing their platform versus the new infrastructure they’re enabling. Like Chris, Simon is one very smart guy with a deep technology background in virtualization. And from Simon’s perspective he doesn’t sound unreasonable.

The virtualization security debate thus far has had so many issues swept underneath it by various parties that it resembles a lumpy rug. Simon and Chris are exposing some of the lumps as they humor each other with comments about smoking cigars from the wrong end and the following (from Hoff):

Focusing only on your little patch of grass is short-sighted and it won’t work. Just like it hasn’t worked in the past. It’s a disaster waiting to happen, and you’re enabling it. - Hoff

The problem isn’t that these two very smart guys disagree; it’s rather that this disagreement promises to play itself out on a micro-level in enterprises around the world, as I commented last year in “VM Security- The Keys to the Virtualization Kingdom.” And no one stands to win, except those hoping for a slow adoption.

Perhaps Rothman is right to suggest that security will stay tactical and reactionary when it comes to virtsec, because that has been the recent history of netsec on many fronts. Yet if virtsec isn’t done right it could jeopardize the very flexibility and efficiency that virtualization enables. Strategic virtsec is an enabler of growth; tactical virtsec is a rocky road.
Rothman’s scenario seems to anticipate the rocky road: the slow and grinding deployment of hypervisors in production stretched out for years, as tactical decisions and budgets respond to new risks and events driven by cycles of hacks, reactionary regulatory responses and internal operations and security discussions. Feels a lot like the status quo today, doesn’t it? I hope he’s wrong.

The colorful and spirited debate between Hoff and Crosby is very symbolic of the issues we’ve discussed here since my initial virtsec blog in Feb 2007.

Unfortunately I think this debate risks becoming a metaphor for production data center virtualization; it feels to me like two different worlds colliding in a potentially myopic haze of finger-pointing and original sin debates. That scenario will not help Citrix/Xen virtualize production environments, and I think that is why Hoff’s points bear such weight. And I’m not sure that Crosby gets this given his thoughtful and understandable Mother of All Misunderstandings response to Hoff.

I think the mother of all misunderstandings is about to play itself out as “a funny thing happened on the way to the datacenter” scenario. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon he knew his security profile would change, but he still underestimated the Senate. If Citrix doesn’t show leadership (ala VMware and VMsafe, etc.) and instead talks about security as “other people’s problems” its growth in the data center could experience a thousand cuts Caesar style as internal conflicts and strife within customers (between the Hoff’s and Crosby’s) could demonize the incredible and undeniable power of virtualization to enhance data center security.

The virtualization and security vendors can either lead on this issue as an opportunity to enhance security today or merely create awareness around the new risks and dynamics and talk about far-off solutions that may one day work when the market matures. One strategy will lead to the faster deployment of hypervisors in production; the other will fulfill Rothman’s prediction.

Virtualization is a massive opportunity to escape the cycle of attack followed by tactical/regulatory response and establish a new order, with security pros getting powerful, flexible new capabilities to protect systems. That will require leadership and new thinking and a full appreciation by those who don’t want to relive the past. Security may turn out to be strategic to virtualization in ways that it couldn’t be strategic to the network. The hypervisor layer is perhaps the most substantial strategic security opportunity in many years. Let’s hope we leverage it to its fullest.

Disclosure: None

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