Tag Archives: Virtual Machine Introspection

Virtual Machine Introspection: A Security Innovation With New Commercial Applications

The article from Lars Kurth, the Xen Project chairperson, was first published on Linux.com.

A few weeks ago, Citrix and Bitdefender launched XenServer 7 and Bitdefender Hypervisor Introspection, which together compose the first commercial application of the Xen Project Hypervisor’s Virtual Machine Introspection (VMI) infrastructure. In this article, we will cover why this technology is revolutionary and how members of the Xen Project Community and open source projects that were early adopters of VMI (most notably LibVMI and DRAKVUF) collaborated to enable this technology.

Evolving Security Challenges in Virtual Environments

Today, malware executes in the same context and with the same privileges as anti-malware software. This is an increasing problem, too. The Walking Dead analogy I introduced in this Linux.com article is again helpful. Let’s see how traditional anti-malware software fits into the picture and whether our analogy applies to anti-malware software.

In the Walking Dead universe, Walkers have taken over the earth, feasting on the remaining humans. Walkers are active all the time, and attracted by sound, eventually forming a herd that may overrun your defences. They are strong, but are essentially dumb. As we explored in that Linux.com article, people make mistakes, so we can’t always keep Walkers out of our habitat.

For this analogy, let’s equate Walkers with malware. Let’s assume our virtualized host is a village, consisting of individual houses (VMs) while the Hypervisor and network provides the infrastructure (streets, fences, electricity, …) that bind the village together.

Enter the world of anti-malware software: assume the remaining humans have survived for a while and re-developed technology to identify Walkers fast, destroy them quickly and fix any damage caused. This is the equivalent of patrols, CCTV, alarmed doors/windows and other security equipment, troops to fight Walkers once discovered and a clean-up crew to fix any damage. Unfortunately, the reality of traditional malware security technology can only be deployed within individual houses (aka VMs) and not on the streets of our village.

To make matters worse, until recently malware was relatively dumb. However, this has changed dramatically in the last few years. Our Walkers have evolved into Wayward Pine’s Abbies, which are faster, stronger and more intelligent than Walkers. In other words, malware is now capable of evading or disabling our security mechanisms.

What we need is the equivalent of satellite surveillance to observe the entire village, and laser beams to remotely destroy attackers when they try and enter our houses. We can of course also use this newfound capability to quickly deploy ground troops and clean-up personnel as needed. In essence that is the promise that Virtual Machine Introspection gives us. It allows us to address security issues from outside the guest OS without relying on functionality that can be rendered unreliable from the ground. More on that topic later.

From VMI in Xen to the First Commercial Application: A Tale of Collaboration

The development of Virtual Machine Introspection and its applications show how the Xen Project community is bringing revolutionary technologies to market.

The development of Virtual Machine Introspection and its applications show how the Xen Project community is bringing revolutionary technologies to market.

The idea of Virtual Machine Introspection for the Xen Project Hypervisor hatched at Georgia Tech in 2007, building on research by Tal Garfinkel and Mendel Rosenblum in 2003. The technology was first incorporated into the Xen Project Hypervisor via the XenAccess and mem-events APIs in 2009. To some degree, this was a response to VMware’s VMsafe technology, which was introduced in 2008 and deprecated in 2012, as the technology had significant limitations at scale. VMSafe was replaced by vShield, which is an agent-based, hypervisor-facilitated, file-system anti-virus solution that is effectively a subset of VMsafe.

Within the Xen Project software however, Virtual Machine Introspection technology lived on due to strong research interests and specialist security applications where trading off performance against security was acceptable. This eventually led to the creation of LibVMI (2010), which made these APIs more accessible. This provided an abstraction that eventually allowed exposure of a subset of Xen’s VMI functionality to other open source virtualization technologies such as KVM and QEMU.

In May 2013, Intel launched its Haswell generation of CPUs, which is capable of maintaining up to 512 EPT pointers from the VMCS via the #VE and VMFUNC extensions. This proved to be a potential game-changer for VMI, enabling hypervisor controlled and hardware enforced strong isolation between VMs with lower than previous overheads, which led to a collaboration of security researchers and developers from Bitdefender, Cisco, Intel, Novetta, TU Munich and Zentific. From 2014 to 2015, the XenAccess and mem-events APIs have been re-architected into the Xen Project Hypervisor’s new VMI subsystem, alt2pm and other hardware capabilities have been added, as well as support for ARM CPUs and a baseline that was production ready has been released in Xen 4.6.

Citrix and Bitdefender collaborated to bring VMI technology to market: XenServer 7.0 introduced its Direct Inspect APIs built on the Xen Projects VMI interface. It securely exposes the introspection capabilities to security appliances, as implemented by Bitdefender HVI.

What Can Actually Be Done Today?

Coming back to our analogy: what we need is the equivalent of satellite surveillance to observe the entire village. Does VMI deliver? In theory, yes: VMI makes it possible to observe the state of any virtual machine (house and its surroundings in the village), including memory and CPU state and to receive events when the state of the virtual machine changes (aka if there is any movement). In practice, the performance overhead of doing this is far too high, despite using hardware capabilities.

In our imagined world that is overrun by Walkers and Abbies, this is equivalent to not having the manpower to monitor everything, which means we have to use our resources to focus on high value areas. In other words, we need to focus on the suspicious activity on system perimeters (the immediate area surrounding each of our houses).

This focus is executed by monitoring sensitive memory areas for suspicious activity. When malicious activity is detected, a solution can take corrective actions on the process state (block, kill) or VM state (pause, shutdown) while collecting and reporting forensic details directly from a running VM.

Think of a laser beam on our satellite that is activated whenever an Abbie or Walker approaches our house. In technical terms, the satellite and laser infrastructure maps to XenServer’s Direct Inspect API, while the software which controls and monitors our data maps onto Bitdefenders Hypervisor Introspection.

It is important to stress that monitoring and remedial action takes place from the outside, using the hypervisor to provide hardware-enforced isolation. This means that our attackers cannot disable surveillance nor laser beams.

Of course, no security solution is perfect. This monitoring software may not always detect all suspicious activity, if that activity does not impact VM memory. This does not diminish the role of file-system-based security; we must still be vigilant, and there is no perfect defense. In our village analogy, we could also be attacked through underground infrastructure such as tunnels and canalisation. In essence this means we have to use VMI together with traditional anti-malware software.

How does VMI compare to traditional hypervisor-facilitated anti-virus solutions such as vShield? In our analogy, these solutions require central management of all surveillance equipment that is installed in our houses (CCTV, alarmed doors/windows, …) while the monitoring of events is centralized very much like a security control centre in our village hall. Albeit such an approach significantly simplifies monitoring and managing of what goes on within virtual machines, it does not deliver the extra protection that introspection provides.

You can find more information (including some demos) about VMI, XenServer Direct Inspect API and BitDefender Hypervisor Introspection here:

Xen Project Virtual Machine Introspection


The development of VMI and its first open source and commercial applications show how the Xen Project community is innovating in novel ways, and is capable of bringing revolutionary technologies to market. The freedom to see the code, to learn from it, to ask questions and offer improvements has enabled security researchers and vendors such as Citrix and Bitdefender to bring new solutions to market.

It is also worth pointing out that hardware-enabled security technology is moving very fast: only a subset of Intel’s #VE and VMFUNC extensions are currently being deployed in VMI. Making use of more hardware extensions carries the promise of combining the protection of out-of-guest tools with the performance of in-guest tools.

What is even more encouraging is that other vendors such as A1Logic, Star Lab and Zentific are working on new Xen Project-based security solutions. In addition, the security focused, Xen-based OpenXT project has started to work more closely with the Xen Project community, which promises further security innovation.

A few of these topics will be discussed in more detail during Xen Project Developer Summit happening in Toronto, CA from August 25 – 26, 2016. You learn more about the event here.

Stealthy monitoring with Xen altp2m

One of the core features that differentiates Xen from other open-source hypervisors is its native support for stealthy and secure monitoring of guest internals (aka. virtual machine introspection [1]). In Xen 4.6 which was was released last autumn several new features have been introduced that make this subsystem better; a cleaned-up, optimized API and ARM support being just some of the biggest items on this list. As part of this release of Xen, a new and unique feature was also successfully added by a team from Intel that make stealthy monitoring even better on Xen: altp2m. In this blog entry we will take a look at what it’s all about.

p2mIn Xen’s terminology, p2m stands for the memory management layer that handles the translation from guest physical memory to machine physical. This translation is critical for safely partitioning the real memory of the machine between Xen and the various VMs running as to ensure a VM can’t access the memory of another without permission. There are several implementations of this mechanism, including one with hardware support via Intel Extended Page Tables (EPT) available to HVM guests and PVH . In Xen’s terminology, this is called Hardware Assisted Paging (hap). In this implementation the hypervisor maintains a second pagetable, similar to the one in 64-bit operating systems use, dedicated to running the p2m translation. All open-source hypervisors that use this hardware assisted paging method use a single EPT per virtual machine to handle this translation, as most of the time the memory of the guest is assigned at VM creation and doesn’t change much afterwards.

altp2mXen altp2m is the first implementation which changes this setup by allowing Xen to create more then one EPT for each guest. Interestingly, the Intel hardware has been capable of maintaining up to 512 EPT pointers from the VMCS since the Haswell generation of CPUs. However, no hypervisor made use of this capability until now. This changed in Xen 4.6, where we can now create of up to 10 EPTs per guest. The primary reason for this feature is to use it with the #VE and VMFUNC extensions.

It can also be used by external monitoring applications via the Xen vm_event system.

Why alt2pm is a game-changer

Alt2pm is a game-changer for applications performing purely external monitoring is because it simplifies the monitoring process of multi-vCPU guests. The EPT layer has been successfully used in stealthy monitoring applications to track the memory accesses made by the VM from a safe vantage point by restricting the type of access the VM may perform on various memory pages. Since EPT permission violations trap into the hypervisor, the VM would receive no indication that anything out of the ordinary has happened. While the method allowed for stealthy tracing of R/W/X memory accesses of the guest, the memory permission needs to be relaxed in order to allow the guest to continue execution. When a single EPT is shared across multiple running vCPUs, relaxing the permissions to allow one vCPU to continue may inadvertently allow another one to perform the memory access we would otherwise want to track. While under normal circumstances such race-condition may rarely occur, malicious code could easily use this to hide some of its actions from a monitoring application.

Solutions to this problem exist already. For example we can pause all vCPUs while the one violating the access is single-stepped. This approach however introduces heavy overhead just to avoid a race-condition that may rarely occur in practice. Alternatively, one could emulate the instruction that was violating the EPT permission without relaxing the EPT access permissions, as Xen’s built-in emulator doesn’t use EPT to access the guest memory. This solution, while supported in Xen, is not particularly ideal either as Xen’s emulator is incomplete and is known to have issues that can lead to guest instability [2]. Furthermore, over the years emulation has been a hotbed of various security issues in many hypervisors (including Xen [3]), thus building security tools based on emulation is simply asking for trouble. It can be handy but should be used only when no other option is available.

Xen’s altp2m system changes this problem quite significantly. By having multiple EPTs we can have differing access permissions defined in each table, which can be easily swapped around by changing the active EPT index in the VMCS. When the guest makes a memory access that is monitored, instead of having to relax the access permission, Xen can simply switch to an EPT (called a view) that allows the operation to continue. Afterwards the permissive view can be switched back to the restricted view to continue monitoring. Since each vCPU has its own VMCS where this switching is performed, this monitoring can be performed specific to each vCPU, without having to pause any of the other ones, or having to emulate the access. All without the guest noticing any of this switching at all. A truly simple and elegant solution.

Other introspection methods for stealthy monitoring

EPT based monitoring is not the only introspecting technique used for stealthy monitoring. For example, the Xen based DRAKVUF Dynamic Malware Analysis [4] uses it in combination with an additional technique to maximum effect. The main motivation for that is because EPT based monitoring is known to introduce significant overhead, even with altp2m: the granularity of the monitoring is that of a memory page (4KB). For example, if the monitoring application is really just interested in when a function-entry point is called, EPT based monitoring creates a lot of “false” events when that page is accessed for the rest of the function’s code.

This can be avoided by enabling the trapping of debug instructions into the hypervisor, a built-in feature of Intel CPUs that Xen exposes to third-party applications. This method is used in DRAKVUF, which writes breakpoint instructions into the guests’ memory at code-locations of interest. Since we will only get an event for precisely the code-location we are interested in this method effectively reduces the overhead. However, the trade-off is that unlike EPT permissions the breakpoints are now visible to the guest. Thus, to hide the presence of the breakpoints from the guest, these pages need to get further protected by restricting the pages to be execute-only in the EPT. This allows DRAKVUF to remove the breakpoints before in-guest code-integrity checking mechanisms (like Windows Patchguard) can access the page. While with altp2m the EPT permissions can be safely used with multi-vCPU systems, using breakpoints similarly presents a race-condition: the breakpoint hit by one vCPU has to be removed to allow the guest to execute the instruction that was originally overwritten, potentially allowing another vCPU to do so as well without notice.

altp2m-shadowFortunately, altp2m has another neat feature that can be used to solve this problem. Beside allowing for changing the memory permissions in the different altp2m views, it also allows to change the mapping itself! The same guest physical memory can be setup to be backed by different pages in the different views. With this feature we can really think of guest physical memory as “virtual”: where it is mapped really depends on which view the vCPU is running on. Using this feature allows us to hide the presence of the breakpoints in a brand new way. To do this, first we create a complete shadow copy of the memory page where a breakpoint is going to be written and only write the breakpoint into this shadow copy. Now, using altp2m, we setup a view where the guest physical memory of the page gets mapped to our shadow copy. The guest continues to access its physical memory as before, but underneath it is now using the trapped shadow copy. When the breakpoint is hit, or if something is trying to scan the code, we simply switch the view to the unaltered view for the duration of a single-step, then switch back to the trapped view. This allows us to hide the presence of the breakpoints specific to each vCPU! All without having pause any of the other vCPUs or having to emulate. The first open-source implementation of this tracing has been already merged into the DRAKVUF Malware Analysis System and is available as a reference implementation for those interested in more details.


As we can see, Xen continues to be on the forefront of advancing the development of virtualization based security application and allowing third-party tools to create some very exotic setups. This flexibility is what’s so great about Xen and why it will continue to be a trend-setter for the foreseeable future


[1] Virtual Machine Introspection
[2] xen-devel@: Failed vm entry with heavy use of emulator
[3] Hardening Hypervisors Against VENOM-Style Attacks
[4] DRAKVUF Malware Analysis System (drakvuf.com)
[5] Stealthy, Hypervisor-based Malware Analysis (Presentation)

Xen-API Community Project Update

The kickoff meeting for the Xen-API community project is scheduled for May 15, 2008 at 4pm EST. I am still looking for people interested in working on this project and the meeting is open to all Xen.org community members. I will be posting all meeting minutes and activities on the Xen Wiki once the project is underway so attendance at the meetings is not mandatory; however, the first few meetings will be important as we discuss what work items need to be complete and people get a chance to volunteer.

The dial-in information for the meeting is:

US: 1.888.371.8921
Int’l: http://www.btconferencing.com/citrix/globalaccess/
Code: 275279

Xen-API Community Project

Several community members have contacted me recently about the Xen-API utilities. I looked into this and discovered a great opportunity for community members looking for a project to contribute to. So, I am announcing a new community effort to complete the development of the Xen-API utilities. If you are interested in working on the Xen-API project please email me at stephen.spector@xen.org and I will call a meeting in mid-May with all people interested to get the project underway.

NOTE – This interface is not to be seen as a replacement for the existing XML-RPC interface and people should not infer anything by this project.

Here are some thoughts on the importance of the Xen-API if you are considering joining this community effort:

  • Xen-API cleans up a lot of the cruft of the older APIs
  • Authentication aspect to the Xen-API allows the API to be used off-box securely
  • Xen-API’s event registration / dispatch piece is much better than the old API, making it much easier to build web GUIs or health monitors
  • The Xen-API has two mechanisms, one for synchronous task invocation, and a congruent one for asynchronous tasks. This means, for example, that you can reboot a VM, and either block waiting for it to complete, or get a task handle and poll back later. This gives application developers the freedom to choose how they interact with Xend
  • Xend will get a code update from this project and will give developers a chance to learn more about xm as well as Xend (Xend is written in Python)
  • Xen-API already has C and Python bindings in the Xen tree; Ruby bindings are also rumored to exist

Available information on Xen-API: