Software always needs testing before you can deploy it for official use — that’s a given. Sandboxes, and specifically virtual machines, are often used to test out new programs in a safe, isolated environment away from critical servers and resources.
What Is a Sandbox Virtual Machine?
A sandbox is a virtual machine used to run software in a testing environment. Executing the code in a sandbox keeps it separate from an actual production environment so that any potential issues that come up don’t impact the business.
This level of testing occurs in cybersecurity when the user wants to check whether a piece of code downloaded from the Internet is a virus or not. It can also be used to check for glitches in software platforms the company plans on using for its own internal operations. And finally, a product sandbox is useful for showing off the functionality of the software packages you’re selling to clients, as we’ll discuss later.
No matter what the purpose is, any sandbox virtual machine consists of code used to emulate a particular device or operating system. Virtualization technology enables you to emulate the real-world use case of the software being tested. Virtual machines can also be reformatted quickly to “start fresh” and ensure that one test doesn’t interfere with another.
Sandboxes are common almost everywhere in modern operating systems and applications, such as:
- Web browsers
- Programming languages like Java and C++
- Operating systems like Windows 10 and Linux
While we’re mostly referring to sandboxes in the form of virtual machines, sandboxes can also be delivered through containerization or by the operating system itself.
Why Is a Sandbox Virtual Environment So Important, Especially in Today’s World?
Companies are operating online more than ever. They must use third-party software and receive communications from external parties on a regular basis online, so an ability to test out incoming data is necessary to minimize the threat of malware and other digital risks.
VM testing is becoming more important as malware developers are getting more crafty and malware detection becomes more difficult. Many viruses have found ways to bypass typical network security protocols, and sandboxing is just another line of defense.
For companies that sell software, two main benefits here include testing out your own software to check for bugs as well as demonstrating the features of your software suite to clients through online virtual machines. In both cases, having a safe, isolated environment means that testing can be done without impacting the real workflow.
Virtual machine sandboxes are especially relevant today since they can be created and managed quickly. The advantages here then are:
- On-demand availability: You only have to dedicate temporary resources and server time to a virtual machine. This way, you can turn a sandbox on and off at will whenever you need it, optimizing your server time.
- Easy deletion: Should a software bug cause problems or a virus be detected, deleting a virtual machine can be done safely without impacting the rest of the company. Formatting a virtual machine, in other words, is quick and painless.
- Accurate emulation: It’s only worth testing out software when it’s in an appropriate environment. For instance, if you want to show potential clients what your software can do, you want to emulate the clients’ own environment. This strategy is possible through virtualization.
Even third-party developers might use a production environment’s sandboxing feature to validate their own code before pushing it to the server.
What Are the Benefits of Using a Sandbox Testing Environment?
The benefits of sandboxing are numerous, but their advantages are most apparent in these common use cases.
As a Safe Testing Environment
Say you’ve developed or deployed a brand new application or resource but aren’t sure of what its effects on your main production line would be. Do you take the risk by pushing it to official production resources immediately, or would you rather run it in a safe sandbox environment first?
This separation ensures that any problems are caught safely before the software enters the production environment. Should new software potentially cause issues for your company, sandbox testing beforehand lets you spot threats like programming glitches and potential malware before they impact your critical resources.
As an Email Quarantine
Malware delivered through email attachments are a common nuisance, even for organizations. While most email filters block out the obvious ones, system administrators may need to inspect potentially risky messages to check for false positives.
That’s where we can find another use case for sandbox environment testing. It’s much safer to open an attachment and inspect its contents when you have a separated, quarantined place to do so.
For example, documents produced in the Microsoft Office productivity suite may include potentially harmful macros. Checking these potentially malicious elements is recommended before opening them.
As Zero-Day Threat Protection
Zero-day threats are viruses and malware that take advantage of unreported software vulnerabilities. Before any antiviruses can detect the problem, these threats require that businesses test suspicious programs immediately in safe testing environments before deploying them out in the field.
Even cybersecurity professionals use sandboxing to test out known malware. They can prevent future attacks and patch up weaknesses in network security by studying how the programs work in a safe environment. Some signs that a tested program is a virus include:
- Self-replicating code
- Automatically downloading other software
- Attempting to access sensitive data or servers
- Encrypting what it thinks are important files
It’s worth noting that not all zero-day threats can be solved this way; some well-programmed malware packages can detect whether they’re running in a sandbox environment. However, a combination of antivirus and regular sandbox testing can nonetheless offer a strong defense against malicious code that can compromise your business’s operations and digital security.
How To Use Sandbox Testing Environments For Customer Training and Sales Demos
The first step in using this technology is the process of setting a sandbox up, which can vary depending on what you’re using the environment for. Some cloud platforms have their own built-in tools to generate sandboxes. An AWS sandbox environment, for example, allows you to experiment with services provided by Amazon Web Services. Developers may need to install their own virtual machines to test their code.
Two use cases we haven’t discussed yet are customer training and sales demos. Service providers that sell software directly to clients must show those clients how to use the programs effectively. This way, customers maximize the value they receive from your product and are more likely to become loyal buyers as a result. Sandboxing helps in this case in several ways:
- Demonstration: Customers can see firsthand the features of your software in action and gain real-world experience. Compared to a more passive sales demo or proof-of-concept presentation, this strategy is interactive and therefore engaging.
- Testing: Some clients want to test out new features before they integrate that functionality into their own work. A sandbox allows them to do so in a safe and separated environment and even helps them customize the solution to their own needs.
- Encouraging sales: Whether we’re talking about prospective customers or current ones considering a service upgrade, sandboxes help bolster the sale through interactive demos and increase the chance of landing a subscription if you sell your software as a service.
You can deliver sandbox environments directly to your clients along with pre-set test data so that the user can properly experiment with the features. While sales teams can deploy sandboxes onto clients’ local environments, using a cloud sandbox service enables you to offer these demos conveniently through the Internet.