Securing VMs – vTPM, VBS, KMS and why you should not simply add a vTPM

Yesterday, I got one of these mails from a customer that make you think “Ehm, no”.

Can you please enable the TPM on all VMs.

The customer

The short answer is “Ehm, no!”. But I’m a kind guy, so I added some explanation to my answer.

Let’s add some context around this topic. The Trusted Platform Module (TPM) is a cryptoprocessor that offers various functions. For example, BitLocker uses the TPM to protect encryption keys. But there are another pretty interesting Windows features that require a TPM: “Virtualization-based Security“, or VBS. In contrast to BitLocker, VBS might be a feature that you want to use inside a VM.

VBS, uses virtualization features to create an isolated and secure region of memory, that is separated from the normal operating system. VBS is required if you want to use Windows Defender Credential Guard, which protects secrets like NTLM password hashes or Kerberos ticket-granting tickets against block pass-the-hash or pass-the-ticket (PtH) attacks. VBS is also required when you want to use Windows Defender Exploit Guard, or Windows Defender Application Control.

Credential Guard, Exploit Guard, and Application Control require a TPM 2.0 (and some other stuff, like UEFI, and some CPU extensions).

So, just add the vTPM module to a VM and you are ready to go? Ehm… no.

Prerequisites – or pitfalls

There are some prerequisites that must be met to use a vTPM:

  • the guest OS you use must be either Windows Server 2016, 2019 or Windows 10
  • the ESXi hosts must be at least ESXi 6.7, and
  • the virtual machine must use UEFI firmware

Okay, no big deal. But there is a fourth prerequisite that must be met:

  • your vSphere environment is configured for virtual machine encryption
imgflip.com

And now things might get complicated… or expensive… or both.

Why do you need VM encryption when you want to add a vTPM?

The TPM can be used to securly store encryption keys. So the vTPM must offer a similar feature. In case of the vTPM, the data is written to the “Non-Volatile Secure Storage” of the VM. This is the .nvram file in the VM directory. To protect this data, the .nvram file is encrypted using the vSphere VM Encryption feature. In addition to the .nvram file, parts of the VMX file, the swap file, the vmware.log, and some other files are also encrypted. But not the VMDKs, except you decide to encrypt them.

Before you can start using VM encryption, you have to add a Key Management Server (KMS) to your vCenter. And you better you add a KMS cluster to your vCenter, because you don’t want that the KMS is a single point of failure. The vCenter Server requests keys from the KMS. The KMS generates and stores the keys, and passes them to third party systems, like the vCenter, using the Key Management Interoperability Protocol (KMIP) 1.1

The KMS is not a part of the vCenter or of the PSC. It is a seperate solution you have to buy. The KMS must support KMIP 1.1. Take a look into the Key Management Server (KMS) compatibility documentation offered by VMware for supported KMS products.

Make sure that you think about administrator permissions, role-based access control (RBAC), or disaster recovery. When you have to deal with security, you don’t want to have users use a general, high priviedge administrator account. And think about disaster recovery! You won’t be able to start encrypted VMs, until you have re-established trust between your vCenter and your KMS (cluster). So be prepared, and do not implement a single KMS.

Summary

And this is why vTPM is nothing you simply enable on all VMs. Because it’s security. And security has to be done right.

Mike Foley has written two awesome blog posts about this topic. Make sure that you read them.

vSphere 6.7 – Virtual Trusted Platform Modules
Introducing support for Virtualization Based Security and Credential Guard in vSphere 6.7

Securing VMs – vTPM, VBS, KMS and why you should not simply add a vTPM
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Patrick Terlisten

vcloudnine.de is the personal blog of Patrick Terlisten. Patrick has a strong focus on virtualization & cloud solutions, but also storage, networking, and IT infrastructure in general. He is a fan of Lean Management and agile methods, and practices continuous improvement whereever it is possible.

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