Introduction to Light Virtualization

I was asked by a colleague to write an article on light virtualization. While this kind of software is not my forte, I spent some time studying the market and testing various programs that offer the relevant functionality. This article should be a good starting point for anyone interested in an additional dimension of software, mostly useful for testing and security.

Today, I will give you a brief overview what light virtualization really means and what it offers, compare it to several alternatives, discuss the general pros and cons, as well as introduce a number of programs. We will focus on two types of light-virtualization programs: instant-snapshot-and-rollback programs and sandboxing tools.

What is light virtualization?

As the name implies, this kind of software involves some sort of an abstraction layer between your operating system and the higher application stack. Unlike full virtualization, where you can have fully encapsulated operating systems running on top of the host machine, light virtualization relies on your existing system to function. In other words, your system is an integral part of the solution. This means that you cannot port your setup between computers. However, light virtualization still offers more portability than a static setup, because you do have the ability to rollback changes to your system.

How does this work?

Light virtualization software uses drivers that intercept disk traffic and write changes to a temporary buffer. If committed, this buffer becomes a snapshot. If discarded, all changes done to your system are gone, as if they never happened. In a way, you can treat light virtualization as a mechanism that turns your underlying system or the portions under the control of the software into a read-only baseline and then builds layers of changes on top. If you like the changes, you can commit them, if not, you delete them.

How is this different from system imaging?

Full system imaging is very similar to light virtualization. However, some notable differences exist. Full system imaging is an all or nothing solution; you snapshot your entire system and then roll back all changes. Light virtualization programs normally allow you to monitor specific portions of your system, increasing your operational flexibility. Other useful features include the control of processes and data.

What is it good for?

Some people will say security. Personally, I believe that light virtualization is mostly useful for testing software in the native environment. This is particularly true for programs that require 3D acceleration, which will not be available in full virtualization. Moreover, in some cases, light virtualization may allow you to continue working without reboots or disruptions to your production setup. Security does play a secondary part, as you could use this kind of software to revert unwanted changes to your system or programs, but the correct use requires discipline and skill.

A combination of full virtualization and light virtualization, as well as system imaging and data backups can offer an extremely robust and flexible setup for advanced users, beta testers and software researchers. For example, you may want to run other operating systems as guests in your virtual machines, test new browser features inside a sandbox, revert registry changes following an undesired upgrade, as well as periodically save your system state in a full image.

What is it not good for?

Light virtualization is a parallel solution to the data and system image backup and the virtualization stack. In practice, you can easily get away without using light virtualization. You can multi-boot, use dedicated hardware for testing, use virtual machines for your specific work or corner cases and maintain system security by using vendor-provided security solutions like EMET. Light virtualization should not be treated as a silver bullet against malware, mistakes or neglect. Light virtualization will benefit users only when they are fully aware of their actions and with a solid backup plan in place.

Types of light virtualization software

There are two main types of light virtualization software.

One, full-system snapshot-and-restore programs that are almost identical to system imaging, except that you have the ability to monitor only specific parts of your system. Moreover, these kinds of programs will normally freeze your system state, allowing you to run in a virtual read-only mode, similar to working with a Linux live CD. Some of these applications will allow you to preserve your changes at the end of the day by unfreezing monitored programs or sections of the system. Again, to use the Linux analogy, this is similar to live CD persistence.

Two, sandboxing programs that allow you to freeze specific programs and/or isolate them into virtual containers that disallow access to the rest of the system. These programs force sandboxed processes to live with limited disk and memory access. Should violations occur, either deliberate or accidental, they will be contained inside the sandbox or even blocked from executing in the first place. Again, for the sake of convenience, many sandboxing programs will allow you to preserve the temporary buffer between sessions by committing changes to the disk. However, this should be done at the discretion of the user, as it is possible to preserve bad content along with the desired data.

We will now examine a small number of free programs, including a brief overview of their features, the ease of installation and use, the level of intrusiveness, convenience, flexibility, as well as the optimal use cases.

Returnil System Safe 2011

homepage

Returnil System Safe is advertised as an advanced anti-malware and virtualization technology. Several versions are available, with the free edition intended only for non-commercial and home use. The program has many features, including a real-time anti-malware and anti-spyware engine, a system restore management facility and the virtual mode, which lets you use your mode in the test-and-discard fashion.

The installation is quick, however the program has known compatibility issues with Windows 8 Developer Preview Edition. Overall, it is fairly simple to navigate, but the interface is rigid and non-resizable and uses its own theme. In my testing, the program worked well, although I did not test the anti-malware component, as I find it completely unnecessary.

Returnil System Safe 2011 main interface

TrustWare BufferZone Pro

homepage

BufferZone is a sandboxing solution you can use to create virtual zones for your Internet facing applications. This way, you can prevent errors that may occur in your software, plugins or extensions, whether as a result of bad coding, bugs or possible rogue activities and misuse, from carrying over into your system. BufferZone offers a similar functionality to Microsoft EMET. You can run programs inside and outside zones and create program snapshots. The program installs cleanly and is very easy to use. Sandboxed programs are marked by a red rectangle around the window border.

BufferZone main interface

Sandboxie

homepage

As the name implies, Sandboxie is a sandboxing solution for Windows, allowing you to run applications in an isolated space. The main focus of the program is on security, allowing users to browse the web securely, while enjoying privacy and protection against known and unknown vulnerability exploits in software. Sandboxie can also be useful for testing program changes and new features for existing applications.

For example, you might be interested in trying out browser addons or new media plugins and codecs. The program is very simple to install and use, although it does not yet work with Windows 8. You also get plenty of interactive help while using Sandboxie, which new users will definitely appreciate. Sandboxie paints window borders in yellow to distinguish them from regular, non-sandboxed instances.

Sandboxie main interface

Other solutions

This article cannot possibly cover all available programs, especially since many cost money and offer only limited free trials. However, you might also want to consider Microsoft EMET, a general-use toolkit that can help isolate applications from breaking out of their memory space and possibly damaging the rest of the system. The big advantage of EMET is the seamless, native integration with the system and zero performance overhead. However, Microsoft EMET is not a light virtualization technology per se, although it uses some of the same mechanisms employed by sandboxing software. It is definitely worth examining and testing.

Microsoft EMET 2.1

Conclusion

This article should get you started with light virtualization. It elaborates on the principles of light virtualization, differences compared to full virtualization and system imaging, and recommended use cases. You also have one full-system snapshot and rollback program and two sandboxing applications to begin your exploration and testing.

It is important to remember that light virtualization does not replace other important elements of your data and system integrity strategy, including verifiable periodic backups, caution when working with online content and general common sense. Light virtualization should be treated as a flexibility addon to an existing and already robust setup characterized by lots of frequent changes and testing. Security can also be incorporated as an additional benefit. However, from the security perspective, neither offers any significant advantages over Microsoft's EMET or dedicated virtual machines.

To wrap it up, light virtualization is a useful if less known application category probably best used for software beta testing, although skilled, advanced users will find security merits, too. You are welcome to disagree, of course. Well, that would be all.

Cheers,

Dedoimedo

 

About the author:
Igor Ljubuncic aka Dedoimedo is the guy behind dedoimedo.com. He makes a living out of his very hobby - Linux, and holds a bunch of certifications that make a nice pile in the bottom drawer.

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Comments

by Boris Z (not verified) on 7. November 2012 - 21:12  (102019)

Isn't Sandboxie to be tested in the latest round of tests from MRG? By the way, when are they slated to be released anyway? I believe they are about 2 weeks past the original scheduled time. Any reason for such a long delay? Thank You

by Jorpho (not verified) on 19. March 2012 - 15:55  (90836)

You might as well put "Sandboxing" in the article title, as that is probably the term everyone has heard of by now.

The last time I tried such software (I think it was BufferZone), I got so frustrated trying to figure out how to get something out of the sandbox (i.e. a downloaded program file) that I gave up on it.

by Dedoimedo on 19. March 2012 - 17:59  (90842)

Not a bad idea, but sandboxing is only one facet of the technology.
Dedoimedo

by Anonymous1 (not verified) on 18. March 2012 - 19:44  (90810)

A helpful addition to Sandboxie is Buster Sandbox Analyzer.
It analyzes process behavior and system changes to check for malware. It can even prevent malware from knowing it is operating in a virtual environment.
bsa.isoftware.nl

by clas on 18. March 2012 - 12:37  (90792)

Thanks for the review on this subject. i have used sandboxie for years and never have any problems with virus' and the like. Next step is to try win8 in a virtual environment. thanks again for the nice explanation. clas

by EasyDoesIt (not verified) on 21. February 2012 - 10:04  (89182)

The Bufferzone information only mentions half of its capabilities

1.) Sandbox all new executables on your harddrive
2.) Sandbox removable media

User can choose to Bufferzone (meaning to protect), run signed programs in or outside the sandbox or get a prompt, same with unsigned programs.

On top of that it offers a Internet Explorer only plug-in to deal with keyloggers. Sandboxie asked MRG to pull back from keylogger tests, since it was not designed to deal with it. Have no idea how effective this is plug-in is for in-session infection*.

*) explanation
Sandboxie provides some form of protection, since the sandbox is cleared after a session. Sandboxie does not provide protection against some keyloggers within a single Internet browsing session.

by gizmo.richards on 17. February 2012 - 22:50  (88991)

You've done a superb job on this Dedoimedo and should be congratulated. My only comment is that it would be useful to readers if you could clarify the freeware version restrictions and license terms for each of products you mentioned.

by Dedoimedo on 18. February 2012 - 11:30  (89016)

Thanks! From what I learned reading the website FAQ/terms, BufferZone and Sandboxie are free and unrestricted for personal use. Returnil's free version is available for home use only; business, educational and public access requires licensing.

Cheers,
Dedoimedo

by George.J on 17. February 2012 - 16:14  (88977)

Article is plain, easy to understand, informative and in simple language. Good work Dedoimedo. Should be useful for all the curious eyes and even for the novice.

by Av_Crazy on 17. February 2012 - 14:23  (88963)

How about toolwiz time freeze ?
http://www.toolwiz.com/products/toolwiz-time-freeze/
is this light virtualization or full ?

by Dedoimedo on 17. February 2012 - 14:26  (88964)

It runs within the context of your own operating system.
It does not run other operating systems.
Hence, light :)
Dedoimedo

by Kubo (not verified) on 19. February 2012 - 17:49  (89054)

In that point Toolwiz Time Freeze runs like Returnil: it's a System Light Virtualization application (Free); Sandboxie is a Application Light Virtualization based.

by MidnightCowboy on 17. February 2012 - 13:02  (88961)

Nice article :) IMO the best (at the time) was SafeSpace from Artificial Dynamics but sadly another good security program that ceased development. Long since removed from Softpedia and MajorGeeks but still available from some other download sites for anyone with XP or Vista who wants to check it out.

by Pansy (not verified) on 10. April 2012 - 22:53  (91868)

MC I could not fond SafeSpace on Major Geeks or Softpedia. Has the availability changed you think since your post?

by MidnightCowboy on 11. April 2012 - 5:11  (91885)

Hi Pansy,

It's still available from cnet. We no longer recommend them as a download source because of the wrapped installer, but if you search out the page and then click on the "Direct Download Link" under the main green download box, you should avoid getting anything else with the program.

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