August 25, 2010

X-Force Warns Earth’s Citizens of Imminent Threat

Nicole Hemsoth

The IBM X-Force team, which the company describes as the “premier security research organization within IBM that has catalogued, analyzed and researched more than 50,000 vulnerability disclosures since 1997” seems to me to be very much like like the X-Men; a protected group of particularly gifted IT superhero types who are cloistered in majestic, isolated quarters until they are needed by the masses.

A group of freakishly-talented protectors that live to hone their gifts in secret, defending us from threats we never see, able to relish the joys and tragedies of their societal burden only from the confines of their own community of special people as the world spins on, oblivious to the dangers that have been squelched as we dreamed and vacuumed our dens.

I could be wrong about that, but I prefer to think of things in these ways so please don’t ever tell me otherwise. If nothing else, it makes writing about IBM’s take on cloud security much more interesting.

In their seek and destroy (well, probably more like discover and analyze) missions for the sake of protecting the cloud that so many have come to appreciate, the X-Force team has released its Trend and Risk Report for the first part of the year, stating that there are new threats emerging and virtualization is a prime target.

Of the cloud, X-Force stated today, “As organizations transition to the cloud, IBM recommends that they start by examining the security requirements of the workloads they intend to host in the cloud, rather than starting with an examination of different potential service providers.”

IBM is making a point of warning consumers of cloud services to look past what the vendors themselves are claiming to offer and to take a much closer glance at the application-specific security needs. Since security (not to mention compliance and other matters related to this sphere for enterprise users) depends on the workload itself, this is good advice, but when the vendors, all of whom are pushing their services, discourage this by taking a “we’ll take care of everything for you” approach, it’s no surprise that IBM feels the need to repeat this advice.

The X-Force team also contributed a few discussion points about virtualization and a multi-tenant environment, stating that “as organizations push workloads into virtual server infrastructures to take advantage of ever-increasing CPU performance, questions have been raised about the wisdom of sharing workloads with different security requirements on the same physical hardware.” 

On this note, according to the team’s vulnerability reports, “35 percent of vulnerabilities impacting server class virtualization systems affect the hypervisor, which means that an attacker with control of one virtual system may be able to manipulate other systems on the same machine.”

The concept of an evil supergenius attacking the hypervisor and creating “puppets” out of other systems is frightening indeed and there have been some examples of this occurring, although not frequently enough (or on a large-enough scale) to generate big news. However, this point of concern is enough to keep cloud adoption rates down if there are not greater efforts to secure the hypervisor against attack.

IBM recommends that enterprises plan their own strategy with careful attention to application requirements versus reliance on vendor support.

I recommend a laser death ray.

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