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What is VDI security?

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) security encompasses the technologies and best practices employed to secure virtual desktops. Virtual desktops work by delivering a desktop image of an operating system, such as Microsoft Windows, over a network to an endpoint device, such as a smartphone, traditional PC or thin client device. VDI uses virtual machines to provide and manage these virtual desktops. Users can connect to virtual desktops anywhere, anytime, from any device, making VDI an ideal solution for remote workforces.

But while VDI enhances mobility and remote access to mission-critical applications, it also raises serious security concerns. An insecure device, stolen password or compromised user desktop session can easily expose an organization to the following security threats:

  • Ransomware
  • Malware
  • Insider threats
  • Network sniffing

In some ways, VDI offers its own protection. Users can access their desktops remotely from a laptop or smartphone while data lives securely on the server and not on the end client device. Application software is also isolated from the operating system so that if an application in a VM becomes compromised, only one operating system on that server is impacted.

However, VDI still faces its own unique set of security risks, which call for a robust VDI security architecture.

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VDI security architecture

VDI security architecture is critical to minimizing the desktop security vulnerabilities common to virtual environments. The key components of a VDI security architecture are as follows:

  • Unified management platform: The pace of business today requires IT administrators to allocate resources, such as virtual storage, virtual compute and virtual networking, as demands arise. Keeping track of these virtual and remote desktops and applications requires a robust management platform. A single virtualization platform not only accelerates and simplifies provisioning of virtual desktops, but better protects data center infrastructure and workloads.
  • Real-time compliance monitoring: Adhering to regulations such as GDPR, HIPAA and PCI can be challenging. Real-time compliance monitoring technology can help by continuously monitoring the virtual infrastructure for anomalies and sudden changes. Automated alerts ensure prompt and proactive remedial action to preserve the integrity of virtual desktop data and resources.
  • Vulnerability scanning: IT administrators can’t be expected to survey their systems at all times. Vulnerability scanning eliminates the need for constant human intervention by automating remedial action when questionable activity occurs. These actions range from blocking network traffic to quarantining a virtual machine (VM).
  • Data loss prevention: Data is the lifeblood of most organizations. One way to ensure its protection is to encrypt virtual machine files, virtual disk files and core dump files. By encrypting virtual machines, both existing and right out of the box, organizations can better protect sensitive data and meet compliance standards.

VDI security best practices

Securing a virtualized environment requires more than cutting-edge tools. Best practices can go a long way toward safeguarding mission-critical systems and confidential data. These include:

  • Setting controls to disable a device in local mode if it is not synchronized within a predetermined time interval. This allows companies to stay ahead of hackers on the lookout for new ways to outsmart security protocols.
  • Preventing unauthorized access by establishing stringent policy-driven access controls for desktops and apps across corporate and employee-owned devices.
  • Quarantining intrusions with micro-segmentation so that they don’t spread across the network.
  • Protecting data by leveraging built-in encryption capabilities, data at rest encryption and distributed firewall support.
  • Investing in employee training to minimize data leakage from lost or stolen devices.
  • Ensuring endpoint protection by applying the latest security patches to operating systems, constantly updating antimalware software, and taking advantage of an endpoint device’s built-in, hardware security capabilities.

VDI security risks

Although known for its intrinsic security capabilities, VDI can present unique security risks. Here are some key points of vulnerability:

The hypervisor: Ill-intentioned actors can use malware to burrow beneath an operating system and take control of the hypervisor. Known as hyperjacking, this tough-to-detect attack grants a hacker access to everything connected to the server, from access privileges to storage resources.

The network: Although all networks are vulnerable to attack, virtual network environments are particularly at risk because of their shared use of physical resources. For example, if a network falls victim to a security breach, it instantly puts all the routers and links from other virtual networks in danger.

The employee: Often overlooked as an imminent threat, employees can intentionally—or unintentionally—break into a server room and compromise a server directly.

Unpatched VMs: It takes time to patch, maintain and secure virtual machines, each with its own operating system and unique configuration. Without automating this process, IT administrators run the risk of falling behind on enterprise-wide patch management, increasing exposure to security breaches.

VDI security benefits

Whereas many technology solutions require additional investment in security add-ons, VDI by design can bolster an organization’s security posture. Key examples include:

Disaster recovery: Because virtual desktops can be hosted in any corporate data center, IT teams can quickly move a virtual machine to a healthy host if the one it currently resides on experiences a hardware failure.

Data security: Employees are less likely to fall victim to data theft from lost or stolen devices as virtualization centralizes data on premises or in the cloud rather than on endpoint devices.

IT control: IT teams can automatically enable or disable key features, such as USB access, print capabilities and cut-and-paste, based on a wide range of variables, including role, device and even IP address, for consistent policy-based access control.

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