Saturday, September 10, 2016

Guest Post: Virtualization for Legacy Systems

by George Groot
George is a member of our Facebook Group and has written for us before.

So much critical infrastructure is running off of outdated computer software and hardware that it isn’t funny. In fact, it's a serious problem. But the first rule of government infrastructure is “If it’s working, don’t break it”, which explains why ancient UNIX servers from now-defunct companies are still hanging about the IT cabinets of agencies all across the USA.

How this affects you:
  • Did you spring for an IP-based surveillance system? 
  • Did it come with software from the manufacturer? 
  • Are you willing to bet that software updates and patches won't stop coming any time soon?
If you answered Yes, Yes, and No, here's how you keep your home surveillance system up and running while minimizing your cyber security risks.

Using Virtual Machines
It isn’t a perfect solution, but it is a common way to use legacy software to interface with legacy hardware. There are blue collar people in the IT world, too: techs and installers, low-level admins and help desk personnel. Virtualization is generally an "admin" level task (usually white collar), but just like we learn advanced first aid for when there isn't a doctor, we can learn to support ourselves when there isn't a tech support.

I won’t promise you that it is easy, but I will promise you that it is it is do-able and. If you are "time rich" but "money poor", this is essentially a “free” solution to getting more life out of hardware you’ve already paid for.  I make this distinction because your time has a non-zero value to you and others, so if your time is more valuable than simply buying a new system, buy the new system and sell or give away the old system to someone who is willing to make use of your old gear.

If you don’t think that making old electronic devices functional isn’t a useful skill, peruse a bazaar in the less-affluent areas of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, South America or Africa sometime. Simple soldering skills, along with some computer know-how, are actually fairly in-demand skills in the developing world -- which is essentially what any first-world nation will become after an economic collapse.

First off is the free and easy to use option.  If you started reading this article by asking “What’s virtualization?”, then this is the hypervisor for you (a hypervisor is the bit of technology that creates the environment to run an operating system as an application).

VirtualBox is a full-on graphical user interface (GUI) solution that is free to the normal user who isn’t going to rip it apart and build a competing product for profit, and it runs on Mac, Windows, and Linux.

VirtualBox isn’t perfect; as with all “free” products, the “free” comes with essentially “free” support in the form of forums and sparse documentation, but there are some surprisingly good YouTube videos on how to get started. If you like to learn, you'll be fine. If , however, you are a computer user who "just wants it to work" and has the money, then just buy gear that works -- after all, having a steady upgrade cycle ensures you have decent gear in the event of an emergency.

If you are a Microsoft fan, the Hyper-V hypervisor is also available. As long as you have licenses for the operating systems you plan to install as virtual appliances, you are good to go, although Hyper-V doesn’t officially support anything older than Windows Vista SP2.

Other Solutions
VMWare, Xen, and KVM are some of the more common virtualizations. But if you just need the basic functionality of a virtual machine to handle some legacy gear, VirtualBox is probably the most approachable for new users.

Closing Thoughts
If you don’t have any legacy hardware you want to support, but have a beloved program that only plays on old Windows 9X (95, 98, 98SE, Me) versions, you can pull that dusty CD out of the drawer, pop it in the drive, load up a virtual machine on your current machine, and run your old program again. But if you do that, do not connect that virtual machine to the internet. Seriously, just don’t. The rate of infection for an unpatched Windows machine on today’s internet is measured in seconds, often with decimal points.

However, virtualization can really tax your hardware. If your current computer doesn’t have at least 4 logical cores (two physical with “hyperthreading” for Intel, or a quad core AMD), then virtualization is probably not a good thing for that particular machine. The good news is that pretty much any processor made since 2009 has hardware level virtualization support and as long as it has a few cores it is good to go.

So there you have it: a way to install the custom software that came with your IP surveillance system that only works on WinXP into your new system for free(ish). Or you can just use it  to play really old PC games again!

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