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 (https://appdefense.vmware.com) 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.!

Cheers

Chan

Chan

Lead Solutions Architect & Hybrid Cloud Practice Lead

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