9 Essential Tips for Virtual Desktop Security
#1 Do Not Use Persistent Virtual Desktops
Always use non-persistent virtual desktops. They are more secure because they are refreshed from their original image. Persistent virtual desktops behave like physical desktop PCs and are more susceptible to malware, virus infections, and corruption. They may be more difficult to implement and manage, with more requirements, but they are the safer bet in the long run.
Some users may be inconvenienced when their personal files such as Microsoft Word documents that they saved may no longer appear after a desktop refresh. However, as an administrator, you can address this problem by configuring the environment to save personal files and other auxiliary settings and restore them from the user’s network profile after they log in again.
Even though more time is required for managing a non-persistent refresh-ready virtual desktop environment, this investment is well worth the effort. As a case in point, a public school made a smart decision to virtualize about half of their nearly 1,000 desktops. When a virus attack was detected, they simply advised their users to log off. That action alone was all that was required to destroy the virus from all user-accessible VDI desktops, and in only about five minutes. Half the network was spared with only physical desktops and a few servers needing attention. Any non-virtualized PCs or non-persistent desktops required considerable time for remediation. Therefore, it is advised to virtualize the vast majority of your computing resources. For example, imagine the security you would enjoy if fully 90% of your desktops were virtual and only 10% of resources (typically servers) remained as physical hardware devices.
#2 Maintain Agentless Anti-Virus
Most PCs are running a standard anti-virus package. Don’t scale back on dedicated anti-virus. But if you want to optimize performance, you’ll need an agentless anti-virus solution. In tests, typical anti-virus software decreased storage IOPS performance by as much as 30 percent.
Consider an agentless option for the hypervisor, where a light agent is built into VMware Tools on every virtual machine. Since the agent is so small, the solution is considered agentless. VMware’s NSX or vShield also provide a structure to use agentless antivirus and you can put a product like TrendMicro Deep Security or McAfee MOVE on your infrastructure servers. You’ll achieve full-agentless antivirus scanning on virtual desktops.
When a user logs on, they get a fresh virtual machine with no virus. While using the desktop, real-time scans prevent a virus. And when the user logs off, the desktop is refreshed from a clean image. Again, no viruses.
Some customers (schools, municipalities, or small businesses looking to save money) might skip agentless anti-virus, or even skip out on licensing a standard anti-virus package on virtualized machines entirely. This is a poor decision. In these environments, the virus will be introduced, continue to exist, and spread. Even a refresh on a virtual desktop won’t eradicate the virus on these compromised systems. The recurrence of the virus will continue. Even if all users log off, while reducing infection risk dramatically, the potential threat continues to exist. You must maintain real-time anti-virus protection. Agentless options are preferred to eliminate the 30% performance hit.
#3 Disable Multiple Virtual Desktop Logins
Do not allow the same user to log on to multiple virtual desktops at the same time. As an administrator, you need to disable that setting.
The following example illustrates a potential problem scenario that you want to avoid:
A user logs on to their PC. Later that day, that user logs into a virtual machine (VM1). Without logging off of either machine, they go home and decide to use a remote connection to the same machine (VM1) or even a different one (VM2). The security concern is that the session on VM1 is still open and vulnerable while that user is not present. Anyone walking by the PC can assume control of that virtual session.
As a precaution, institute the following network security policy:
Whenever the same user logs into another virtual desktop, automatically log them off the previous machine or virtual desktop.
#4 Use Two-Factor Authentication
Strength and options depend on the vendor technology, but generally speaking, we’re talking about a strong password plus a second form of physical or biometric authentication. Authentication providers include Okta, Imprivata, RSA, Duo, Yubico and others.
You want to enable and maintain an effective two-factor authentication arrangement to prevent unwanted cyber-attacks, data breaches, security intrusions, viruses, malware, and hacks from home or remote PCs.
#5 Use Single-Sign-On (SSO) Tools
Network policies typically enforce strong passwords and force users to change their main desktop password used to establish SSO to network applications every 90 days. Strong SSO password policies typically enforce rules for a minimum length, number of special characters, letters, and numbers, as well as preventing common strings or recycled passwords as a precaution.
With SSO, instead of multiple passwords, users only have to remember one. They are automatically logged into their network applications based on their desktop ID in the corporate LDAP, active directory, or user store. Even remote cloud-hosted applications such as Salesforce.com and Office365 can authenticate users with SSO. That one SSO password is more convenient for both backend administrators and for users. The administrators don’t have to maintain separate user stores with their own password policies. And the users can typically remember their password without writing it down or copying it from an unprotected Excel file.
Security is also improved because there is a 1:1 ratio of unique identifiable usernames with real human employees as opposed to an environment without SSO where a single person might have 10, 20, or more different usernames that obscure the very notion of an authentic identity. However, in the event of a breach, the distributed separate passwords would then be more secure. Hacking or phishing for SSO credentials can allow the hacker to infiltrate more data.
Today, biometrics, once confined to science fiction, Hollywood, and television media, are common today including fingerprint, thumbprint, and retina pattern scanning. Thus, you can combine biometric two-factor authentication with SSO for a successful easy to use, yet secure solution. For the next 10-15 years, dual-authentication consisting of a thumb print or retina scan paired with a traditional memorized password seems likely to remain the de facto two-factor authentication gold standard for government security. Financial institutions are likely to continue one tier below that with a silver standard that consists of a password and a dynamically-generated temporary code.
#6 Restrict Access by Device Type
You can and should restrict access by device type. This involves establishing policies on Windows or Mac servers that restrict access by device type. These restrictions help you respond to the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) mania that took over corporate wireless networks over the past 10-15 years. More secure variations on this theme include restricting access to pre-configured Windows-based thin clients (good), Linux-based thin clients (better), and even more secure zero-clients (best).
Thin-clients are typically Windows or Linux workstations. As such, they could contain viruses. For example, a virus spreads malware onto the thin-client that contains keystroke capture spyware that could compromise the virtual desktop credentials. Linux and Mac clients are considered more secure than Windows devices because of the large Windows market share, and thus larger number of existing Windows viruses.
A more secure alternative is to procure zero-client hardware right from the start. These are dedicated hardware devices with no OS and only a standard BIOS architecture. Zero-clients are available from 10zig, Dell, HP, Samsung, and other popular vendors. A zero-client has no other function but to provide a secure connection to the virtual desktop. For that reason, since they have no OS or other local apps, they are very secure. Windows-based thin clients are not as secure and still remain susceptible to viruses.
For example, a recent innovative hospital was wheeling out patient care carts with diagnostic equipment and each cart had its own Apple iPad to establish a virtual patient chart. The administrators established a policy to allow exclusive access to a patient care app on a virtual desktop infrastructure locked down beyond the reach of other devices.
The following access restriction strategies are common:
You can prohibit connections from certain unwanted devices. For example, you can allow or deny access to users with a PC, Mac, a specific OS, a specific set of login credentials to a virtual desktop, an iPad, an iPhone, a tablet, an Android device, a Windows phone, a Chromebook, or a specific mobile OS. (Hint: Based on recent history, Apple iOS devices are more secure than Android devices.)
You can use management tools to establish policies that secure your own preset thin-clients or zero-clients. For example, Apple utilities and third-party management tools can turn the iPad into a zero-client.
For maximum security, you can reduce the number of access points to your network by enabling client security certificates. Essentially, you enable a tool for handling certificates and then use management software to push a policy to all approved thin or zero-clients to verify a certificate before allowing login.
#7 Configure VDI Servers, Desktops, and Devices on Separate VLANs
Do not use the same VLAN for all network components. For optimum performance and security, you want your virtual desktops, access devices, and infrastructure servers on their own separate VLANs. When on the same VLAN, a weak access point such as a PC with an older OS might become infected with a virus that would easily spread to other virtual desktop clients on the same VLAN. Even servers are not immune when on the same shared VLAN.
Separate VLANs with discrete gateways also add variation to IP addresses, which make device hacking more difficult. Another benefit is more DHCP IP addresses are available because you are splitting access across VLANs. On one C-class VLAN, you would be limited to 256 devices on a single gateway.
#8 Use Network Micro-Segmentation
Gaining in popularity, especially among big government, banking, finance, and pharmaceutical organizations, a micro-segmentation security strategy integrates directly into the VDI without a hardware firewall. Your network policies are synchronized with a virtual network, virtual machine, OS, or other virtual security target to create a security bubble. Access control capabilities in virtual switches replace existing firewall functions for segregation and controlled access across data center tenants.
Micro-segmentation is ideal for today’s software-defined networks with virtual desktops and pools of users on multiple smaller devices. For example, let’s say you want to protect a pool of desktops for the accounting business unit. That department stores very sensitive information and you must maintain a secure environment. With micro-segmentation, you allocate virtual desktops in that specific zone so they can only communicate with Internet and VDI servers, and are blocked from seeing any other desktops. Restricting IP traffic to any sibling desktops is extremely effective at neutralizing the spread of malware or viruses.
#9 Ensure regular Windows Updates and other patches
You must ensure to update your desktops with the latest Windows Updates and other patches. Even though you may use non-persistent desktops, you should regularly update your parent image and recompose your desktop pool, so every desktop gets the updates. You should also not forget about Adobe Flash, Java and other updates for your applications. For non-persistent desktops it may be a one-time manual update to the parent image. For persistent desktops it may require the use of WSUS from Microsoft or software deployment tools like Microsoft SCCM, LanDesk or Kaseya.