Jan 27

Virtual Desktops and Security–Leverage, Control, Enable

First, IMHO, VDI is not like the virtualization of servers where I consolidate 100 servers into 10 boxes and come out being a hero to finance because I saved $70k in A/C and electricity. The cost savings are not as blatant (and easy) as that.

Instead, in my view, VDI is an enabling technology for governance, risk and compliance. Primarily because the desktop infrastructure is now off of desktop/laptop hardware and back under control of the datacenter. This infrastructure gives me unparalleled visibility into the goings on. I can more easily monitor traffic and actions, control access and respond to bad things. I can now protect my desktops with datacenter class security.

With other technologies like vShield, I can now group VM’s in a way that aligns with the business and apply/enforce policies accordingly. eng-finWith vShield’s new Data Security feature, you are now leveraging the RSA Data Loss Prevention engine to audit your virtual machines.

For example: I can assign policies at the group bases so that the Engineering group will be scanned for PCI data and if found, it will be reported. But the finance folks, because they are trained in PCI, will only be audited. As I add new VM’s to the groups, the VM’s will fall under the appropriate policies with no special configuration. Consistency!


Last year I talked with a customer in a government agency about VDI and security. They had a requirement that every time an analyst logs into a desktop, that the desktop was “fresh”. With VDI, that’s easy.

  • The analyst logs into a fresh desktop cloned from a gold master.
  • At the end of the shift, the desktop is moved into a different pool for forensic analysis
  • A new desktop is provisioned.

All easily automatable/scriptable and orchestrated (and you know how much I like automating things!). Because it’s all automatable, you can now do things in a consistent manner. Inconsistent events and actions will be easier to spot and react. And because all of these events are logged and processed by a SIEM I’ve now got a step up on when things DO go wrong!


What this also did for the customer was shrink their window of vulnerability. How so? Well, the desktop was fresh at every shift change. The timeframe for which malware could get a hold was shrunk from weeks/months/years to an 8 hour shift. With 88% of corporations having systems infected with trojan’s and not knowing about them, this can really help mitigate bad stuff lying around!


VDI is also an enabling technology in that I, as the IT guy, can embrace new trends quicker with less risk. Look how fast the iPad has become part of the enterprise? You only have to Google “iPad Enterprise Adoption” and see study after study on this increasing trend. For example, I was talking with a customer who wanted to replace all corporate laptops for their thousands of field people with an iPad + Virtual Desktop. The key driver for this was that customer data would never resided on the endpoint. If the iPad was lost or stolen, no worries. Go expense a new one and get back to work.

In terms of inter-office usability, consider the situation where your corporate laptop has been infected (don’t let your 15yr old son use it. EVER!) and now, instead of 2 days of re-imaging downtime, the IT guy hands you a thin client and you’re back to work in minutes.

What if you lost your laptop? Well, because your only access to sensitive data is through your virtual desktop and isn’t allowed on an endpoint device like a laptop, the loss of the laptop may not need to be reported to regulatory authorities. Google “Stolen Laptop Data Breach”. And for those that say “but our laptops are encrypted!”, well, only 30% of you are doing that according to a study at the Ponemon Institute funded by Intel.

Back to work in minutes, no regulatory reporting for a stolen laptop. How does Finance measure that productivity gain/potential corporate risk?

In closing

VDI isn’t for the faint of heart nor is it for everyone. However, with the capabilities available today, you can use it to really get back the control you had back in the timesharing days (I miss you VMS!) while being flexible to adopting new technologies in a more secure way.

I’m a huge fan of VDI. I’ve been using it now for well over a year and wouldn’t give it up. I have my personal MacBook Air laptop and the only corporate info on it is some non-NDA presentations. All other EMC “stuff” is done on my VMware View desktop. This keeps that nice separation between what’s mine and what EMC’s very clear. And yes, the SSD in the Air is encrypted with FileVault!

Finally, when it comes to security, it’s no longer sufficient to just run ON a virtual platform. For security to move to the next step, it has to leverage these inherent capabilities that are presented to it. You can start today by considering a virtual desktop strategy. Just don’t forget the security tools!