Arm joins the Confidential Computing party

Arm’s announcement of Realms isn’t just about the Edge

House balances on the edge of a cliff

The Confidential Computing Consortium is a Linux Project designed to encourage open source projects around confidential computing. Arm has been part of the consortium for a while – in fact, the company is Premier Member – but things got interesting on the 30th March, 2021. That’s when Arm announced their latest architecture: Arm 9. Arm 9 includes a new set of features, called Realms. There’s not a huge amount of information in the announcement about Realms, but Arm is clear that this is their big play into Confidential Computing:

To address the greatest technology challenge today – securing the world’s data – the Armv9 roadmap introduces the Arm Confidential Compute Architecture (CCA).

I happen to live about 30 minutes’ drive from the main Arm campus in Cambridge (UK, of course), and know a number of Arm folks professionally and socially – I think I may even have interviewed for a job with them many moons ago – but I don’t want to write a puff piece about the company or the technology[1]. What I’m interested in, instead, is the impact this announcement is likely to have on the Confidential Computing landscape.

Arm has had an element in their architecture for a while called TrustZone which provides a number of capabilities around security, but TrustZone isn’t a TEE (Trusted Execution Environment) on its own. A TEE is the generally accepted unit of confidential computing – the minimum building block on which you can build. It is arguably possible to construct TEEs using TrustZone, but that’s not what it’s designed for, and Arm’s decision to introduce Realms strongly suggests that they want to address this. This is borne out by the press release.

Why is all this important? I suspect that few of you have laptops or desktops that run on Arm (Raspberry Pi machines apart – see below). Few of the servers in the public cloud run Arm, and Realms are probably not aimed particularly at your mobile phone (for which TrustZone is a better fit). Why, then, is Arm bothering to make a fuss about this and to put such an enormous design effort into this new technology? There are two answers, it seems to me, one of which is probably pretty much a sure thing, and the other of which is more of a competitive gamble.

Answer 1 – the Edge

Despite recent intrusions by both AMD and Intel into the Edge space, the market is dominated by Arm-based[3] devices. And Edge security is huge, partly because we’re just seeing a large increase in the number of Edge devices, and partly because security is really hard at the Edge, where devices are more difficult to defend, both logically (they’re on remote networks, more vulnerable to malicious attack) and physically (many are out of the control of their owners, living on customer premises, up utility poles, on gas pipelines or in sports stadia, just to give a few examples). One of the problems that confidential computing aims to solve is the issue that, traditionally, once an attacker has physical access to a system, it should be considered compromised. TEEs allow some strong mitigations against that problem (at least against most attackers and timeframes), so making it easy to create and use TEEs on the Edge makes a lot of sense. With the addition of Realms to the Arm 9 architecture, Arm is signally its intent to address security on the Edge, and to defend and consolidate its position as leader in the market.

Answer 2 – the Cloud

I mentioned above that few public cloud hosts run Arm – this is true, but it’s likely to change. Arm would certainly like to see it change, and to see its chipsets move into the cloud mainstream. There has been a lot of work to improve support for server-scale Arm within Linux (in fact, open source support for Arm is generally excellent, not least because of the success of Arm-based chips in Raspberry Pi machines). Amazon Cloud Services (AWS) started offering Arm-based servers to customers as long ago as 2018. This is a market in which Arm would clearly love to be more active and carve out a larger share, and the growing importance of confidential computing in the cloud (and public and private) means that having a strong story in this space was important: Realms are Arm’s answer to this.

What next?

An announcement of an architecture is not the same as availability of hardware or software to run on it. We can expect it to be quite a few months before we see production chips running Arm 9, though evaluation hardware should be available to trusted partners well before that, and software emulation for various components of the architecture will probably come even sooner. This means that those interested in working with Realms should be able to get things moving and have something ready pretty much by the time of availability of production hardware. We’ll need to see how easy they are to use, what performance impact they have, etc., but Arm do have an advantage here: as they are not the first into the confidential computing space, they’ve had the opportunity to watch Intel and AMD and see what has worked, and what hasn’t, both technically and in terms of what the market seems to like. I have high hopes for Arm Realms, and Enarx, the open source confidential computing project with which I’m closely involved, has plans to support them when we can: our architecture was designed with multi-platform support from the beginning.


1 – I should also note that I participated in a panel session on Confidential Computing which was put together by Arm for their “Arm Vision Day”, but I was in no way compensated for this[2].

2 -in fact, the still for the video is such a terrible picture of me that I think maybe I have grounds to sue for it to be taken down.

3 – Arm doesn’t manufacture chips itself: it licenses its designs to other companies, who create, manufacture and ship devices themselves.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat. マイク・バーゼル: オープンソースとLinuxに長く従事。他にも分散セキュリティシステムなども手がける。現在Red Hatのチーフセキュリティアーキテクト

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