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“Let’s get out of the weeds”

As part of VMware’s Security & Compliance Specialist team, we’re brought in to speak about a very wide range of concepts that extend from CPU architecture all the way up to the traditional tools like Firewalls, IPS’, Anti-Virus, and many others. Usually there’s some type of compliance question or concern driving the need to have a security conversation. And what most people don’t explicitly realize is that a discussion about security, whether physical or computer, always distills to the lowest common denominator being ‘trust’.

The concept of trust is an interesting notion. Trust is usually a faith or belief based emotion, and the hope that we hold for one another is that in matters of science and technology that trust is based upon some empirical evidence and well-informed reasoning. So obviously education is often our best methodology to assist customers with building that trust around our products.

Often the questions I receive are not about things like virtualized security products, like vShield, or the various API’s that have been developed. Instead the focus is most often on the vSphere platform itself. The reasoning behind this is mainly a lack of accurate information of sufficient detail available in the market. For several years VMware did a great job of building a secure architecture of vSphere but did not focus on advertising much of those design decisions, not because it wasn’t important but because it was not a topic our customers were expressing a need to have with us. Obviously as customers move through their own unique virtualization journey and move into Phase 2, Business Production, they are tackling security and compliance concerns around the more mission critical applications and data that are beginning to be virtualized. Having these conversations are also a pre-cursor  of things that need to be resolved prior to a company investing in a private, public, or hybrid “cloud” solution as it all relates back to how well a company can trust the technological controls that have been put in place.

Since I am so often asked questions about vSphere, that tell me the asker does not trust vSphere, or any hypervisor platform, I am frequently having a discussion on what I call “building a pyramid of trust”. Like any structure, the foundation is the most important part because without a well-formed base, in this case with regards to knowledge, it is highly unlikely the other pieces layered on top will be stable enough to continue adding more layers. In my pyramid, my base consists of the core constructs of virtualization. These are the Core Isolation Principles that describe exactly how the hypervisor is designed to separate out itself from the virtual machines and also what keeps each VM separate from one another.  Should these principles be violated, so would the isolation described by the very definition of virtualization.

To help explain the core principles I break apart the functions of the hypervisor into 4 key areas, CPU, Memory, Storage, and Networking. Each of these describe the physical functions that are abstracted into the VM’s themselves. The ways in which this abstraction occurs are very key concepts to fully grasping and understanding how we’ve developed our platform from the ground up with security in mind. It shows through in how we isolate specific CPU instructions, how our memory is layered, abstracted, and allocated, through the storage platform, and most importantly the protections guarding against remote exploit and arbitrary code execution. All of these things build defense in depth techniques that layer security in a virtualized environment.

Many security practitioners have built their careers focusing on more up leveled concepts of security, and their primary attention was never much directed to the physical hardware interfaces themselves. Much in the same way that server admins were not familiar with centralized storage and networking when we taught them how to virtualize over the last 10+ years. We are helping the security admins also break down their traditional barriers of understanding and now helping them to understand all of these other disciplines in the context of their day-to-day activities.

The interesting part is the resistance we face in educating security teams about all of these technologies and helping to build their trust in the technology. The experience thus far has shown that the typical US corporation is full of cliché terminology, which we’ve already known for years. Dilbert, The Office, SNL, all have made us laugh for hours at what we have become. Even with all this exposure to the ludicrousness of business clichés, I was taken aback a few weeks ago when an attendee at a meeting said we needed to “get out of the weeds”. It was obvious with that one statement that this person was not able to see the foundation of the pyramid being built. They were not willing to connect the dots and see how knowing the information being presented was able to answer all of their questions. Instead, they were using their pre-conceived notions that were founded on mis-information and FUD in the market to limit their ability to absorb the material in an educational context.

I don’t blame this person for their comment. In the day and age we live, time is precious and things happen so quickly it’s hard to keep up with changes in business without sacrificing too much personal time. We’re constantly being asked to make value judgments on which information is worthwhile to absorb vs deciding when it’s time to move on. For some of us, our thread of patience is stretched to the breaking point already.

After a few days had passed, the meeting organizer came back to me and said how grateful they were to have the conversation. They said the discussions that were sparked both during our meeting and in the days following has caused some very positive decisions to be made, mostly because of the comment made by that one individual to “get out of the weeds”. That was a key indicator for many other attendees that their co-worker was resistant to change and to use another cliché “unable to see the forest for the trees”.

This is not an all-too unique situation for us. In fact, it’s become more of a norm for our team to have initial education meetings followed a week or two later by another meeting to review the information again. The reason is that we’ve got to come back and reinforce and inspect that foundation of the pyramid so our audience fully builds their trust of our solution. We’re having great success in this education endeavor and we look forward to meeting with you and your teams in the future.





Rob Babb is a Senior Systems Engineer on the Security and Compliance Specialist team at VMware.