Security has always been a big issue in virtualization, even as more businesses embrace virtualized environments. New threats surface every day, and among the latest is virtual machine (VM) jumping, or hyper jumping, which can allow malicious users to gain access to several machines or hosts in an infrastructure.

Here’s how hyper jumping works, and how you can protect your virtual environment from this very real threat.

What is hyper jumping?

Virtual machine or hyper jumping exploits a weakness in a virtual machine, transforming it into a platform that can be used to launch attacks against other machines that are using the same infrastructure, similar to the way a virus that jumps from host to host.

Because of the density of machines on a cluster or host, the virtual environment is weak against this type of attack. Virtualized platforms offer powerful efficiency and significant savings on cooling, power and floor space with the ability to host nearly unlimited applications, but the downside is that packing so many machines into a single infrastructure creates a tempting target for hackers.

How can hyper jumping happen?

There are several conditions that can leave a virtual environment vulnerable to exploitation through hyper jumping. One of the most common issues comes with less-than-secure operating systems. Previous versions of Windows are particularly vulnerable - the XP operating system no longer receives support or security updates from Microsoft, and versions through Windows 7 lack modern security features like hardened stacks, memory address layout randomization and defense against poisoned cookies.

Virtual switches present another exploit window for VM jumping. Most virtualization platforms use a Layer 2 bridge, which handles all traffic between the virtual machines and the external network over the same set of NICs. If the attached switch is overloaded, the system preserves performance by pushing all packets out on all ports, which effectively turns the switch point into a dumb hub.

Finally, many platforms run VLAN TRUNK ALL for uplinks, which sends all VLANs to the network even if they’re not needed or in use. This can expose large portions of the virtual environment to possible exploitation.

Tips for Protecting Infrastructure From Hyper Jumping

Grouping and separating uplinks is one of the easiest ways to prevent VM jumping in your infrastructure. To do this, create separate groups of physical uplinks for similarly grouped VLANs, which in effect will separate database traffic from Web-facing traffic and prevent the database server from talking directly to the internal network.

You can also take this separation a step further and use private VLANs (PVLANs), which hide virtual machines from each other by allowing guests to talk only to the gateway.

To increase security for the host, you can set up a separate management network from the virtual machines port group, which by default are installed on the same uplink in most virtualized environments. This prevents VM and management traffic from mingling. You should also use separate, redundant uplinks for IP-based storage networks for further protection.

Finally, follow basic and common-sense security precautions such as using the built-in firewall for your virtual environment, running machines with the latest operating systems and staying on top of critical OS updates and security patches.