In the evolving landscape of cybersecurity threats, ransomware attacks targeting hypervisors have emerged as a significant concern. Hypervisors, the software responsible for creating and running virtual machines, have become prime targets due to their ability to control multiple virtual environments. An attack on a single hypervisor can lead to the compromise of multiple virtualized machines, making the potential damage extensive and the recovery process complex.

The Rise of Akira Ransomware:

The Akira ransomware group, active since April 2023, has been at the forefront of these advanced attacks. Their unique technique involves deploying ransomware onto Windows Hyper-V hypervisor systems, causing substantial damage to attached VMs. Despite advanced Endpoint Detection & Response (EDR) tools, Akira has managed to bypass these defenses by creating new, unmonitored VMs on the hypervisor, allowing them to execute their ransomware seamlessly.

Key Highlights from Akira’s Activities:

  1. Initial Access: Akira often infiltrates systems through VPNs lacking multi-factor authentication, obtaining credentials via info stealers and credential marketplaces.
  2. Intrusion Activities: Once inside, they engage in cyber-extortion activities, including network scanning, Active Directory data enumeration, and sensitive information exfiltration.
  3. Defence Evasion & Impact: Akira maintains access for weeks, sometimes disabling EDR tools using a vulnerable driver known as “Terminator.”
  4. Hypervisor Layer Attack: Instead of directly targeting the hypervisor, they create a new VM, bypassing the security controls of other hosts.

The Attack Cycle of Hypervisor Ransomware:

  1. Initial Compromise: Most attacks start with compromised credentials, with phishing emails being the primary method. If attackers access administrator-level accounts, they can easily map the network.
  2. Identifying the Hypervisor: Attackers use scripts to detect the operating system and other host details, pinpointing the hypervisor.
  3. Gaining Remote Shell Access: After identifying the target, attackers aim to gain a remote shell, a command-line interface for code execution on another networked computer.
  4. Encryption: The final step involves shutting down all virtual machines and initiating the encryption process, culminating in a ransomware note’s appearance.

Comprehensive Mitigation Strategies:

  1. Regular Updates and Patching:
    • Ensure that the hypervisor software is always updated to the latest version.
    • Set up automated patch management systems to detect, test, and apply patches as they become available.
    • Monitor vendor advisories and CVE databases for new vulnerabilities related to your hypervisor software.
  2. Network Segmentation:
    • Use VLANs to segregate traffic within the network. Ensure that the hypervisor management network is isolated from VM traffic.
    • Implement hardware and software-based firewalls to restrict traffic and define granular access control lists (ACLs).
  3. Strong Authentication Mechanisms:
    • Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA) using hardware tokens, software tokens, or biometric verification.
    • Regularly review and update password policies, ensuring complexity, rotation, and expiration requirements.
  4. Backup and Recovery:
    • Use incremental and differential backups to minimize backup windows.
    • Store backups both on-site (for quick recovery) and off-site (for disaster recovery).
    • Test backup restoration processes quarterly to ensure data integrity and availability.
  5. Monitoring and Alerting:
    • Deploy Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) solutions to aggregate and analyze logs from hypervisor systems.
    • Set up alerts for suspicious activities, such as unexpected VM creations, configuration changes, or high resource utilization.
  6. Least Privilege Principle:
    • Implement Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) on the hypervisor management platform.
    • Regularly review user roles and permissions, removing redundant or outdated access rights.
    • Audit administrative actions and maintain logs for a minimum of one year.
  7. Hypervisor Lockdown Mode:
    • Enable features like VMware’s Lockdown Mode, restricting direct host access and ensuring access only through centralized management tools.
    • Whitelist specific user accounts or service accounts that require direct access.
  8. Regular AD Access Level Auditing:
    • Use tools like Microsoft’s Advanced Group Policy Management (AGPM) to track changes in Active Directory.
    • Schedule periodic access reviews, ensuring that only necessary users have elevated privileges.
  9. Use VLANs for Network Segmentation:
    • Design a network topology where the management, storage, vMotion, and VM networks are on separate VLANs.
    • Implement micro-segmentation using solutions like VMware NSX to further isolate workloads and reduce the lateral movement of threats.
  10. Endpoint Protection and Response:
  11. Deploy advanced EDR solutions on the hypervisor host and VMs to detect and respond to threats in real-time.
  12. Regularly update EDR signatures and conduct periodic threat hunting exercises.
  13. Harden the Hypervisor:
  14. Follow vendor-specific hardening guides, such as the VMware vSphere Hardening Guide.
  15. Disable unnecessary services, ports, and features on the hypervisor host.
  16. Implement secure boot features to ensure only signed and trusted code is executed during the boot process.
  17. Incident Response Plan:
  18. Develop and regularly update an incident response plan tailored for hypervisor-based attacks.
  19. Conduct tabletop exercises and red teaming to test the organization’s response to a simulated ransomware attack on the hypervisor.


Ransomware attacks, especially those targeting hypervisors, remain a significant cybersecurity threat. By understanding the attack methodologies and implementing comprehensive mitigation strategies, organizations can significantly reduce the risk of a successful attack. As the cyber landscape continues to evolve, staying informed and proactive is the best defense against these sophisticated threats.

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