Cloud-based services have grown to monopolize some segments of the tech fields. In many cases, it is simply more economically feasible to go to companies like Amazon and make use of their distributed computational infrastructure than to purchase and run servers on location. Here we will look at some of the options available, and what parts of an enterprise can be virtualized.
Virtualization involves the use of what are called VMs or Virtual Machines. A program such as VMware or VirtualBox allows the real-time simulation of various operating systems from Linux, Mac, and Windows to less well known OS’s such as those used for routers and on Cisco devices. In many cases, companies choose to use virtual machines instead of physical hardware to more cheaply and efficiently operate high-traffic scenarios.
Virtual machines can either be run “bare-metal”, meaning directly on the hardware and below any other operating system, or in the previously mentioned hypervisor programs which are capable of managing multiple virtual machines on one physical machine so long as the computational power and memory exists to do so. These are known respectively as Type 1 and Type 2 hypervisors.
Type 1/bare-metal hypervisors without an underlying OS have the advantage of having no OS or device drivers to contend with for resources and are generally regarded as the most efficient form of hypervisor with the best performance. Some examples are VMware ESXi, Microsoft Hyper-v server and open source KVM. These hypervisors are also highly secure. The kinds of vulnerabilities intrinsic to Type 2 hypervisors are absent from bare-metal solutions due to the removal of the attack surface of Type-2 running on the underlying OS of the physical machine. This provides for the logical isolation of Type-1 hypervisors against attack.
Type-2 hypervisors have an unavoidable latency because all their work must pass through the host’s OS. Any security flaws in the OS (of which Windows in particular has many) could potentially compromise all VMs running above it. Because of this, Type-2 hypervisors are typically not used for data centers, instead being used more on end-user systems and in situations where performance and security are not as great a concern. These hypervisors are often used by developers to test products before release.
Both types use something called “hardware acceleration” to different degrees, though Type-2 hypervisors can fall back on software emulation if the native hardware is not supported on the computer. Hardware acceleration includes Intel Virtualization Technology extensions and AMD extensions for those CPU types.
The appeal of virtual machines is obvious. Whereas in the past it was necessary to have a physical infrastructure of servers to support even relatively basic enterprises, companies now can choose to use a subscription to a service dedicated to hosting this storage and processing power off-site. Virtual machines move this infrastructure into a logical space and reduce attack surface and costs associated with having a sprawling network of machines on-site. Firewalls are often virtualized today, as are the resources responsible for single-sign on for end users and user authentication.
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Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) is the set of standards and methods required to manage the process of generating digital certificates and creating cryptographic methods of communication between parties. PKI allows for information to be securely moved through networks and is used in a vast array of network based activities. Essentially, a public key is provided by some entity or party (held on a server) to be verified against the private key, which is specific to an individual.
Fundamentally, PKI is about cryptography. An example of this type of infrastructure in use is during the process of a cryptomalware ransomware attack. In this case, the threat actor (who has encrypted the files of the victim) holds the private key. He makes available the public key, and upon payment of the ransom, hopefully he releases the private key to the victim for decryption.
PKI is also used in industries such as banking and generally in situations where a password would be insufficient to confirm the identity of the parties involved.
RFC and Internet Draft
Internet Drafts (I-D) are essentially technical documents which are published by the IETF. They contain research related to networking and sometimes are intended to end up as an RFC (Request For Comments). This RFC, developed by computer scientists and network experts will then be submitted for peer review. Some RFCs will be adopted by the IETF as standards, though some are purely research or experimental in nature.
Here we will take a look at one particular standard, LDAPv2. LDAP is an acronym for Lightweight Directory Access Protocol. LDAPv2 was developed as a vendor-neutral protocol for accessing X.500 directory standards, but being as it was developed in 1995, a number of vulnerabilities have emerged over time. According to the document, LDAPv2 does not support “modern authentication mechanisms” such as as Kerberos V.
One of its core features is its ability to maintain central storage of passwords and usernames, however in the document provided at datatracker.ietf.org/doc/
The Pros and Cons of PKI
There is an argument to be made that in some cases, PKI can simply be unnecessary, especially when it is easier to implement two-factor authentication such as OTP (One Time Password) tokens or smart cards. Maintaining a PKI infrastructure can be complicated, time-consuming and expensive, and thus some organizations choose to outsource the job. However, the primary advantage of using PKI through SSH (Secure Shell) is its high degree of security. So long as the private-key is kept secret, a threat actor would not be able to execute a dictionary (brute-force) attack to crack a user’s password.
To sum up, the Advantages of PKI lie in the fact that it is vastly more secure than a simple password system, as a threat actor must obtain not only the cleartext or hashed password, but also the private key in order to impersonate a user.
The Disadvantages are primarily related to the lack of scalability, especially in larger environments. Furthermore, in some situations, the use of PKI could simply be considered overkill, and two-factor, OTP, or CAC may be the superior option.