Honeypotting with VMware - basics

Kurt Seifried, [email protected]


Honeypots are becoming more common as security professionals attempt to conduct more detailed research on current "state of the art" practices among attackers. Honeypots are also invaluable for learning about an attackers motivations, their habits and patterns of behavior. Unfortunately setting up a proper honeypot is a non-trivial task, and correctly configuring network sensors to capture all data, as well as the resulting forensics tasks can be rather daunting. The good news is that there are a number of tools and techniques that can make life much easier for some honeypot administrators.

What is VMware?

VMware is essentially a set of software products, the workstation version installs onto Windows or Linux and allows you to run numerous Intel based operating systems on top of it. There is also a server line of products aimed at allowing people to run large numbers of operating systems on a single physical machine, one version of which provides it's own base operating system. Essentially this allows you to run multiple Intel based operating systems on a single physical machine. This alone would be reason enough for many honeypot administrators to celebrate, but there are other reasons as well to use VMware that will become evident. VMware is capable of running all versions of Windows, Linux, most of the BSD family, Solaris for Intel, Novell NetWare, and a number of other operating systems are unsupported but can be made to work.

In this article I will refer to the base operating system that is running VMware as the host, and the operating system running within VMware as the guest.


Virtual disks vs. raw disk partitions

Virtual disks are a set of files that VMware presents as a "real" harddrive to the guest operating system, raw disk partitions are a "real" partition on a "real" harddrive that the guest operating system is given access to. There are several advantages and disadvantages to either approach, largely depending on what your goals for the honeypot are. If your purpose is quick research or primarily as an early warning device and you do not plan to prosecute it is acceptable to use virtual disks. They allow for easy copying and recreation of a honeypot once it has been compromised and are the simplest to install. However if the guest operating system is sufficiently damaged you will not be able to access it very easily, and since it uses a custom file format you will not be able to examine it easily with common forensics tools such as TCT or EnCase. The major advantage of virtual disks is convenience, however you will lose much of any ability to perform forensics.

For deeper forensics, and especially if you plan to prosecute the best option is to use raw disk partitions. I would recommend using a physically separate harddrive from the host operating system's harddrive, this will ease partitioning and make potential cross contamination less likely. There is one primary piece of advice I feel compelled to offer: use a separate harddrive and put it in a drive tray to make removal as easy as possible. If you use drive trays you will be able to quickly swap the drive into a forensics system, although it is unlikely that the attacker will be able to break into a properly secured VMware host machine it is possible.

Setup and installation on a raw disk partition is relatively straight forward and well documented (especially the problems you are likely to run in to under Windows). By using an entire disk you make life much easier for yourself, cloning the drive can be accomplished by simply dd'ing the contents to an identical drive, and handling of evidence will be simplified if the only contents of the harddrive are related to the incident at hand and not several installations.

Forensics preparation

Probably the most important piece of preparation that can be done is to zero the partitions that the guest operating system data resides upon. For raw partitions simply zero the partition as you normally would. For virtual disks things are a bit more complex, VMware only makes the files as large as is necessary, growing them as more data is added, thus it is possible for contamination from existing data on the drive the virtual disks reside on. To complicate matters if you have multiple virtual disks (i.e. multiple guest operating systems) on a single partition as they grow and contract they may use hard disk areas previously used by other guest operating systems. Probably the simplest way to deal with this is to partition the drive so that each guest operating system's virtual disk files reside on a separate partition, and of course these partitions should be zeroed before use.

A handy little wiping utility is available from IBM for free at:
simply unpack it to a floppy disk and then use "wipe x" where x is the device number (0-7).

For UNIX systems simply use dd to wipe the disk, with a command such as:

dd bs=1000k if=/dev/zero of=/dev/partitionname


Examining data in memory

Volatile memory is one of the leading problems for forensics. Worms such as CodeRed are memory resident and do write themselves to the harddrive, if you turn the system off they disappear. One of the major advantages to Honeypotting with VMware is the ability to get ahold of data in memory and examine it.


Encouraging data to the hard disk

One technique is to give the guest operating system a minimal amount of memory (say 32 megabytes, or maybe even less), thus forcing it to use a swap file or partition, this will "encourage" data to be temporarily stored on the drive, giving you a much better chance long term of having data to examine. To "protect" the data written to a swap partition make the swap partition large, i.e. several hundred megabytes, in order to reduce the risk of it reusing space. For Windows simply create a separate partition (say "D") of several hundred megabytes and place the swap file there, make sure that your maximum swap file size is smaller then the partition or the system may experience difficulties. This may appear suspicious but can often be explained away as a cautious admin not wanting the system to crash due to memory constraints.


Suspending the OS

This is one of my favorite features of VMware, the ability to suspend the guest operating system, externally. Unlike a laptop system that supports hibernation the VMware suspend command works on any operating system (not all support laptop hibernation), and can be used easily on a compromised or heavily damaged system. When using suspend an image of what is in memory is written to an external file, one potential problem with using suspend or hibernation on a "real" system is that the disk may be full, preventing the ram image from being written properly. The memory image is placed in the configuration directory you specified for your guest operating system, for example a VMware guest system running Linux called "Red Hat Linux would result in the file:

V:\Red Hat Linux/Red Hat Linux

This file can be accessed with a variety tools, ranging from notepad to a hex editor. I highly recommend using "strings" and "grep" to extract information quickly.

The other major benefit of this capability is that you can take a snapshot of a compromised system, copy the files or partitions that comprise the guest operating system, and at your leisure run the operating system in the future repeatedly, allowing you to examine what is taking place. In effect it is like recording a TV show, you can hit play and rewind repeatedly to look for details.


Identifying VMware systems

Against most attackers a VMware system will not raise any suspicion, most will take the system at face value and assume it is running on it's own dedicated hardware like a "normal" system. Unfortunately there are a number of ways to identify systems running under VMware.


VMware tools

Of course one dead giveaway is if the system is running VMware tools, under windows this will show up in "Add/Remove programs", the Program Files directory and so forth. For UNIX there are Xfree86 patches to improve performance, as well as a complete Xfree86 server optimized for VMware guest operating systems, both of which can be identified by attackers. Much more obvious traces are also left, such as /etc/rc.d/init.d/dualconf, "Copyright (C) 1998-99, VMware Inc." and the /etc/vmware-tools/ directory. It is advisable to avoid installing VMware tools on VMware honeypots if at all possible.


AMD 1 gigahertz with 32 megabytes of ram?

One problem with VMware is the inability to hide the CPU type effectively, an astute attacker is likely to wonder why a server with 32 megabytes of ram has a 1 gigahertz AMD CPU. Unfortunately this is what will happen, and hiding this fact from an attacker is difficult. An attacker can simply "cat /proc/cpuinfo" for example under Linux, and among other things they will be told the speed, approximately, in MHz. Removing /proc support in Linux is one way to deal with this, but there are other ways to query cpu speed, and in other operating systems hiding the cpu type and speed is not so easy.


Computer BIOS

One way to identify VMware systems is by their BIOS, there are a number of free windows utilities that can query the BIOS for information and even extract a copy of the BIOS from the VMware system. The good news is that from within Windows NT/2000 you cannot easily access the BIOS and send commands as direct access to the hardware is blocked. You can however easily query the BIOS for information from within the guest operating system you will be given the following information:

BIOS ID: unknown
BIOS Date: 10/16/01
BIOS Signon: unknown
BIOS Type: PhoenixBIOS 4.0 Release 6.0 licensed to Intel
Super I/O: unknown
Chipset: Intel 440BX/ZX rev 1

Which is quite different then the actual BIOS in use on the host operating system.

As well there are a number of utilities to make a copy of the bios, BIOS Wizard is available for free and can easily make a copy of the system bios, considering that the BIOS VMware uses is relatively unique it becomes quite easy to check a signature of the BIOS file to see if it is a VMware BIOS. Unfortunately there is almost no way to hide this information from a savvy attacker, making it an Achilles' heel for VMware honeypot systems. Both these utilities are available from: http://www.bioscentral.com/misc/downloads.htm. There is a utility for Linux and BSD at: http://www.cgsecurity.org/.


Potential legal pitfalls

Since VMware proxies system calls and provides access to the hardware mediated through the host operating system it is critical that the host operating system be secure. It is likely that a defense lawyer will argue that the evidence was tainted by the host operating system, or perhaps directly modified from the host operating system without trace, among several possible problems. Access to the host operating system must be strictly controlled and activities logged, it is also probably a good idea to establish that common activities on the guest operating system can not or do not taint potential evidence, e.g. disk defragmentation would rearrange the virtual disk files, modifying the data. Access to other guest systems must also be regulated, if you are planning to use the results of a VMware honeypot as evidence it is probably best to only run one guest operating system per machine, although it is unlikely that guest operating systems could conflict or modify each other the potential does exist for a defense lawyer to cast doubt.

One major factor that could also cause a case to fall apart is if the guest operating system was given access to the host operating system's file system. This can be done via VMware, or could also be accomplished via network file sharing protocols such as SMB (Windows) or NFS (UNIX), ftp, http, peer to peer file sheering applications and so on. The host operating system must be secured, and access tightly limited. It is also advisable to turn on as much logging and auditing as possible on the host operating system in case any question do arise.



VMware is an invaluable tool for investigators wishing to deploy honeypots for research purposed, or as early warning devices. But like most complex tools it can end up creating a lot of unneeded work, or even maiming your foot if you are not careful. Fortunately VMware is relatively straightforward to use, and there are a number of simple techniques that will make life much easier when performing a forensic analysis of a honeypot running under VMware.




Last updated 15/2/2002

Copyright Kurt Seifried 2002