Introduction To VMware App Defense – Application Security as a Service

Yesterday at VMworld 2017 US, VMware annouced the launch of AppDefense. This post is a quick introduction to look a little closely at what it is & my initial thoughts on it.

AppDefense – What is it?

AppDefense is a solution that uses the Hypervisor to introspect the guest VM application behaviour. It involves analysing the applicaiton (within guest VM) behaviourestablishing its normaly operational behaviour (intended state) & once verified to be the accurate, constantly measuring the future state of those applications against the intended state & least privilege posture and controlling / remediating its behaviour should non-conformance is detected. The aim is increase application security to detect infiltrations at the application layer and automatically prevent propogation of those infiltrations untill remediation.

AppDefense is a cloud hosted managed solution (SaaS) from VMware that is hosted on AWS ( that is managed by VMware rather than an onpremises based monitoring & management solution. It is a key part of the SaaS solution stack VMware also announced yesterday, VMware Cloud Services. (A separate detailed post to follow about VMware Cloud Services)

If you know VMware NSX, you know that NSX will provide least privillege execution environment to prevent attacks or propogation of security attacks through enforcing least privillege at the network level (Micro-Segmentation). AppDefense adds an additional layer by enforcing the same least privillege model to the actual application layer as well within the VM’s guest OS.

AppDefense – How does it work?

The high level stages employed by AppDefense in identifying and providing application security consist of the following high level steps (based on what I understand as of now).

  1. Application base lining (Intended State):  Automatically identifying the normal behavious of an application and producing a baseline for the application based on its “normal” behavioural patters (Intended state).                                                    This intended state can come from analyzing normal, un-infected application behaviour within the guest or even from external application state definition platforms such as Puppet…etc. Pretty cool that is I think!  
  2. Detection:  It will then constantly monitor the application behaviour against this baseline to see if there are any deviations which could amont to potential malicious behaviuours. If any are detected, AppDefense will either block those alien application activities or automatically isolate the application using the Hypervisor constructs, in a similar manner to how NSX & 3rd party AV tools auto isolate guest introspection using heuristic analysis. AppDefense uses an in-memory process anomaly detector rather than taking a hash of the VM file set (which is often how 3rd party security vendors work) which is going to be a unique selling point, in comparison to typical AV tools. An example demo showed by VMware was on an application server that ordinarily talks to a DB server using a SQl server ODBC connectivity, where once protected by AppDefense, it automaticlaly blocks any other form of direct connectivity from that app server to the DB server (say a Powershell query or a script running on the app server for example) even if that happened to be on the same port that is already permitted. – That was pretty cool if you ask me.  
  3. Automated remediation:  Similar to above, it can then take remediation action to automatically prevent propogation.


AppDefense Architecture

AppDefense, despite being a SaaS application, will work with cloud (VMware Cloud on AWS) as well as on-premises enviornment. The onpremises proxy appliance will act as the broker. Future road map items will include extending capabilities to non vSphere as well as bare metal workloads onpremises. There will be an agent that is deployed in to the VM’s (guest agent) that will run inside a secure memory space to ensure it’s authenticity.

For the on-premis version, vCenter is the only mandatory pre-req whereas NSX mgr and vRA are optional and only required for remediation and provisioning. (No current plans for Security Manager to be available onsite, yet).

AppDefense Integration with 3rd parties*

  • IBM Security:
    • AppDefense plans to integrate with IBM’s QRadar security analytics platform, enabling security teams to understand and respond to advanced and insider threats that cut across both on-premises and cloud environments like IBM Cloud. IBM Security and VMware will collaborate to build this integrated offering as an app delivered via the IBM Security App Exchange, providing mutual customers with greater visibility and control across virtualized workloads without having to switch between disparate security tools, helping organizations secure their critical data and remain compliant.
  • RSA:
    • RSA NetWitness Suite will be interoperable with AppDefense, leveraging it for deeper application context within an enterprise’s virtual datacenter, response automation/orchestration, and visibility into application attacks. RSA NetWitness Endpoint will be interoperable with AppDefense to inspect unique processes for suspicious behaviors and enable either a Security Analyst or AppDefense Administrators to block malicious behaviors before they can impact the broader datacenter.
  • Carbon Black:
    • AppDefense will leverage Carbon Black reputation feeds to help secure virtual environments. Using Carbon Black’s reputation classification, security teams can triage alerts faster by automatically determining which behaviors require additional verification and which behaviors can be pre-approved. Reputation data will also allow for auto-updates to the manifest when upgrading software to drastically reduce the number of false positives that can be common in whitelisting.
  • SecureWorks:
    • SecureWorks is developing a new solution that leverages AppDefense. The new solution will be part of the SecureWorks Cloud Guardian™ portfolio and will deliver security detection, validation, and response capabilities across a client’s virtual environment. This solution will leverage SecureWorks’ global Threat Intelligence, and will enable organizations to hand off the challenge of developing, tuning and enforcing the security policies that protect their virtual environments to a team of experts with nearly two decades of experience in managed services.
  • Puppet:
    • Puppet Enterprise is integrated with AppDefense, providing visibility and insight into the desired configuration of VMs, assisting in distinguishing between authorized changes and malicious behavior

*Credit: VMware AppDefense release news

Having spoken to the product managers, my guess is these partnerships will grow as the product goes through its evolution to include many more security vendors.


Comparison to competition

In comparison to other 3rd party AV tools that have heuristic analysis tools that does similar anomaly detection within the guests, VMware AppDefense is supposed to have a number of unique selling points such as the ability to better understand distributed application behaviours than competition to reduce false positives, the ability to not jut detect but also take remediation orchesatration capabilities (through the use of vRA and NSX) as well as the near future roadmap to use Machine learning capabilities to enhance anomaly detection within the guest which is pretty cool.

Understanding the “Intended state”

Inteded state can come from various information collected from various data center state definition tools such as vCenter, Puppet, vRealize Automation & othr configuraoin management solutions as well as devlopper workflows such as Ansible, Jenkins…etc.

App Defense agent (runs in the guest OS) runs in a protected memory space within the guest (via the hypervisor) to store the security controls that is tamper proof (secure runtime). Any attempts to intrude in to this space are detected and actioned upon automatically. While this is secure, it’s not guranteed at the HW layer (Think HyTrust that uses Intel CPU capabilities such as TXT to achieve HW root of trust), though I suspect this will inevitably come down the line.


AppDefense – My (initial) Thoughts

I like the sound of it and its capabilities based on what I’ve seen today. Obviously its a SaaS based application and some people may not like that to monitor and enforce your security, especially if you have an on-premises environment that you’d like to monitor and manage security on, but if you can get over that mindset, this could be potentially quite good. But obviously if you use VMware Cloud Services, especially VMware Cloud on AWS for example, this would have direct integration with that platform to enforce application level security which could be quite handy. As with all products however, the devil is normally in the detail and the this version has only just been released so the details available is quite scarse in order to form a detailed & an accurate opinion. I will be aiming to test this out in detail in the coming future, both with VMware cloud on AWS as well as On-Premises VMware SDDC stack and provide some detailed insights. Furthermore, its a version 1.0 product and realistically, most production customers will likely wait until its battle hardened and becomes richer with capabilities such as using Hardware root of trust capabilities are added before using this for key production workloads.

However until then, its great to see VMware are focusing more on security in general and building in native, differentiated security capabilities focusing on the application layer which is equally important as the security at the infrastructure layer. I’m sure the product will evolve to incorporate things such as AI & machine learning to provide more sophisticated preventive measures in the future. The ability to taken static applicatio / VM state definitions from external platforms like Puppet is really useful and I suspect would probably be where this would be popular with customers, at least initially.

Slide credits go to VMware.!



VMware & DataGravity Solution – Data Management For the Digital Enterprise



Yesterday, I had the priviledge to be invited to an exclusive VMware #vExpert only webinar oraganised by the vExpert community manager, Corey Romero and DataGravity, one of their partner ISV’s to get a closer look at the DataGravity solution and its integration with VMware.  My initial impression was that its a good solution and a good match with VMware technology too and I kinda like what I saw. So decided to post a quick post about it to share what I’ve learned.

DataGravity Introduction

DataGravity (DG from now on) solution appear to be all about data managament, and in perticular its about data management in a virtualised data center. In a nutshell, DG is all about providing a simple, virtualisation friendly data management solution that, amongst many other things, focuses on the following key requirements which are of primary importance to me.

  • Data awareness – Understand different types of data available within VMs, structured or unstructured along with various metadata about all data. It automatically keeps a track of data locations, status changes and various other metadata information about data including any sensitive contents (i.e. Credit card information) in the form of an easy to read, dashboard style interface
  • Data protection & security –  DG tracks sensitive data and provide a complete audit trail including access history helpo remediate any potential loss or compromise of data

DG solution is currently specific to VMware vSphere virtual datacenter platforms only and serves 4 key use cases as shown below

Talking about the data visulation itself, DG claim to provide a 360 degree view of all the data that reside within your virtualised datacenter (on VMware vSphere) and having see the UI on the live demo, I like that visualisation of it which very much resemblbes the interface of VMware’s own vrealise operations screen.

The unified, tile based view of all the data in your datacenter with vROPS like context aware UI makes navigating through the information about data pretty self explanatory.

Some of the information that DG automatically tracks on all the data that reside on the VMware datacenter include information as shown below

Some of the cool capabilities DG has when it comes to data protection itself include behaviour based data protection where it proactively monitor user and file activities and mitigates potential attacks through sensing anomolous behaviours and taking prevenetive measures such as orchestratin protection points, alerting administrators to even blocking user access automatically.

During a recovery scenario, DG claims to assemble the forensic information needed to perform a quick recovery such as cataloging files and incremental version information, user activity information and other key important meta data such as known good state of various files which enable the recovery with few clicks.

Some Details

During the presentaiton, Dave Stevens (Technical Evangelist) took all the vExperts through the DG solution in some detail and its integration with VMware vSphere which I intend to share below for the benefit of all others (sales people: feel free to skip this section and read the next).

The whole DG solution is deployed as a simple OVA in to vCenter and typically requires connecting the appliance to Microsoft Active Directory (for user access tracking) initially as a one off task. It will then perform an automated initial discovery of data and the important thing to note here is that it DOES NOT use an agent in each VM but simply uses the VMware VADP, or now known as vSphere Storage API to silently interrogate data that live inside the VMs in the data center with minimal overhead. Some of the specifics around the overhead around this are as follows

  • File indexing is done at a DiscoveryPoint (Snapshot) either on a schedule or user driven. (No impact to real-time there access from a performance point of view).
  • Real time access tracking overhead is minimal to non existent
    • Real-time user activity is 200k of memory
    • Network bandwidth about 50kbps per VM.
    • Less than 1% of CPU

From an integration point of view, while DG solution integrates with vSphere VM’s as above irrespective of the underlying storage platform, it also has the ability to integrate with specific storage vendors too (licensing prerequisites apply)

Once the data discovery is complete, further discoveries are done on an incremental basis and the management UI is a simple web interface which looks pretty neat.

Similar to VMware vROPS UI for example, the whole UI is context aware so depending on what object you select, you are presented with stats in the context of the selected object(s).

The usage tracking is quite granular and keeps a track of all types of user access for data in the inventory which is handy.


Searching for files is simple and you can also use tags to search using, which are simple binary expressions. Tags can be grouped together in to profiles too to search against which looks pretty simple and efficient.

I know I’ve mentioned this already but the simple, intuitive user interface makes consuming the information on the UI about all your data in  singple pane of glass manner looks very attractive.

Current Limitations

There are some current limitations to be aware of however and some of the important ones include,

  • Currently it doesn’t look inside structured data files (i.e. Database files for example)
    • Covers about 600 various file types
  • File content analytics is available for Windows VMs only at present
    • Linux may follow soon?
  • VMC (VMware Cloud on AWS) & VCF (Vmware Cloud Foundation) support is not there (yet)
    • Is this to be annouced during a potential big event?
  • No current availability on other public cloud platforms such as AWS or Azure (yet)


My Thoughts

I lilke the solution and its capabilities due to various reasons. Primarily its because the focus on data that reside in your data center is more important now that its ever been. Most organisaitons simply do not have a clue of the type of th data they hold in a datacenter, typically scattered around various server, systrems, applications etc, often duplicated and most importantly left untracked on their current relevence or even the actual usage as to who access what. Often, most data that is generated by an organisation serves its initial purpose after a certain intial period and that data is now simply just kept on the systems forever, intentionally or unintentionally. This is a costly exercise, especially on the storage front and you are typically filling your SAN storage with stale data. With a simple, yet intelligent data management solution like DG, you now have the ability to automatically track data and their ageing across the datacenter and use that awareness of your data to potentially move stale data on to a different tier, especially a cheaper tier such as a public cloud storage platform.

Furthermore, not having an understanding of data governance, especifically not monitoring the data access across the datacenter is another issue where many organisations do not collectively know what type of data is available where within the datacenter and how secure that data is including their access / usage history over their existence. Data security is probably the most important topic in the industry today as organisations are in creasingly becoming digital thanks to the Digital revelution / Digital Enterprise phoenomena (in other words, every organisation is now becoming digital) and a guranteed by product of this is more and more DATA being generated which often include all if not most of an organisations intelectual property. If theres no credible way of providing a data management solution focusing around security for such data, you are risking loosing the livelyhood of your organisation and its potential survival in a fiercely coimpetitive global economy.

It is important to note that some regulatory compliance has always enforced the use of data management & governance solutions such as DG tracking such information about data and their security for certain type of data platforms (i.e.  PCI for credit card information…etc). But the issue is no such requirement existed for all types of data that lives in your datacenter. This about to change, at least here in the Europe now thanks to the European GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) which now legally oblighes every orgnisation to be able to provide auditeble history of all types of data that they hold and most organisations I know do not have a credible solution covering the whole datacenter to meet such demands rearding their data today.

A simple, easily integrateble solution that uses little overhead like DataGravity that, for the most part harness the capabilities of the underlying infrastructure to track and manage the data that lives on it could be extremely attractive to many customers. Most customers out there today use VMware vSphere as their preferred virtualisaiton platform and the obvious integration with vSphere will likely work in favour of DG. I have already signed up for a NFR download for me to have doiwnload and deploy this software in my own lab to understand in detail how things work in detail and I will aim to publish a detailed deepdive post on that soon. But in the meantime, I’d encourage anyone that runs a VMware vSphere based datacenter that is concerned about data management & security to check the DG solution out!!

Keen to get your thoughts if you are already using this in your organisation?




Slide credit to VMware & DataGravity!