2019年はEnarxの年でした

2020年はデモなど色々なプランを考えています!

 

私にとって2019年はEnarxプロジェクトがほとんどでした。

他のしなければいけない業務もあって、例えば顧客会議、IBM(7月に私の勤めるRed Hatを買収してます)の業務、Kubernetesのセキュリティやパートナー企業と協業など重要なことは色々ありました。しかしEnarxが2019年のハイライトです。

 

年始に私たちは実現できることがあると確信し、内部のリーダーシップチームに対して、達成可能であることの証明を課されました。

その課題に対して、私たちはAMDのSEVチップと五月のボストンでのRed Hat Summitでデモを行い、このブログでアナウンスをしました。

IntelのSGXチップセットと10月のリヨンでのOpen Source Summitでフォローアップをしています。2019年のEnarxの開発でとても大切なことだったと考えています。

 

チーム

 

Enarxは私だけのものではもちろん、ありません。Nathaniel McCallumと共にプロジェクトの共同創立者の一人であることは非常に誇りです。ここまで達成できたのは多くのチームメンバーのおかげですし、オープンソースプロジェクトとして貢献し使用している皆様のおかげです。貢献者ページにはたくさんのメンバーの名前がありますが、まだ全員の名前が挙がっているわけではありません。また、Red Hat内外の何人かの方から頂いたプロジェクトに対するアドバイス、サポートとスポンサリングはとても大切なものです。その皆様の名前を言う許可は得ていないので、ここではお話しせず、丁重に扱う事とします。皆様のサポートとそのお時間を頂けたことに非常に感謝しています。

 

ユースケースとパートナー

 

2019年に成し得た重要なことの一つに、皆さんがどのように「野良状態で」Enarxを使いたいのかをまとめたことと、その比較的詳細な分析を行い、書き上げたことです。

その全てが公開されたわけではないですが、(私が任されていることなんですけどもね)これは実際にEnarxを使用したいと考えているパートナーを見つけるのに不可欠です。まだ公表できませんが、皆さんも聞いたことがあるグローバル企業のいくつかから、また将来的に増えるであろうスタートアップ企業からも、とても興味深いユースケースが挙がってきています。このように興味を持っていただくことは、ロジェクトの実用化に不可欠で、Enarxはただエンジニアの情熱から飛び出しただけのプロジェクトではないと言う事なのです。

 

外部を見ると

 

2019年の重大イベントはLinux FoundationのOpen Source SummitでのConfidential Computing Consortiumの発表でした。私たちRed HatではEnarxはこの新しいグループにぴったりだと考えており、10月の正式発足でプレミアメンバーになったことを嬉しく思っています。これを書いている2019年12月31日時点では、会員数は21、このコンソーシアムは幅広い業界で懸念と興味を惹きつけるものだと言うことがはっきりしてきました。Enarxの信念と目的が裏付けされていると言うことです。

 

2019年に成し遂げたのはコンソーシアムへの参加だけではありません。カンファレンスで講演を行い、このブログ上やNext.redhat.comまたOpensource.comで記事を発表、プレスとの会見、ウェブキャストなどです。一番大切なのは六角形のステッカーを作ったことでしょう!(欲しい方がいらっしゃったらご連絡ください)

 

最後に大切なことを一つ。私たちはプロジェクトを公表していきます。内製のプロジェクトからRed Hat外の参加を促進するために活動しています。詳細は12月17日のBlogをご覧ください。

 

アーキテクチャとコード

 

他に何かあるでしょうか。そうだ、コードですね。そしていくつかのコンポーネントの成熟しつつあるアーキテクチャセットです。

私たちは当然これら全てを外部に公表するつもりですが、まだできていない状態です。すべきことが本当にたくさんあるのです。私たちは皆さんが使用できるようにコードを公開することに尽力していて、2020年に向けデモやそれ以外の大きな計画を立てています。

 

最後に

 

他にも大切なことはもちろんあり、私がWileyから出版するトラスト(信頼性)に関連する本を書いていることです。これはEnarxに深く関連するものです。基本的に、技術はとても「クール」なものですが、Enarxプロジェクトは既存の需要に見合うものですから、Nathanielと私はクラウドやIoT、エッジ、その他機密情報とアルゴリズムが実装される全てのワークロードの管理方法を変えていくいい機会だと考えています。

 

このブログはセキュリティに関するものですが、トラスト(信頼性)と言うものはとても重要な部分だと考えています。Enarxはそれにぴったりと合うのです。ですから、これからも信頼性とEnarxに関するポストをしていきます。Enarx.ioの最新情報に注目していてください。

 

元の記事:https://aliceevebob.com/2019/12/31/2019-a-year-of-enarx/

2019年12月31日 Mike Bursell

 

タグ:セキュリティ、Enarx、オープンソース、クラウド

 

2019: a year of Enarx

We have big plans for demos and more in 2020

2019年はEnarxの年でした

This year has, for me, been pretty much all about the Enarx project.  I’ve had other work that I’ve been doing, including meeting with customers, participating in work with IBM (who acquired the company I work for, Red Hat, in July), looking at Kubernetes security, interacting with partners and a variety of other important pieces, but it’s been Enarx that has defined 2019 for me from a work point of view.

We started off the year with a belief that we could do something, and a challenge from our internal leadership to prove that it was possible.  We did that with a demo on AMD’s SEV chipset at Red Hat Summit in Boston, MA in May, and an announcement of the project on this blog.  We followed up with a demo on Intel’s SGX chipset at Open Source Summit Europe in Lyon in October.  I thought I would mention some of the most important components for the development (in the broadest sense) of Enarx this year.

Team

Enarx is not mine: far from it.  I’m proud to be counted one of the co-founders of the project with Nathaniel McCallum, but we wouldn’t be where we are without a broader team, and as an open source project, it belongs to everyone who contributes and to everyone who uses it.  You’ll find many of the members on the contributors page, but not everybody is up there yet, and there have been some very important people whose contribution has been advice, support and sponsorship of the project both within Red Hat and outside it.  I don’t have permission to mention everybody’s name, so I’m going to play it safe and mention none of them.  You know who you are, and we really appreciate your time.

Use cases – and partners

One of the most important things that we’ve done this year is to work out how people might want to use Enarx “in the wild”, as it were, and to perform some fairly detailed analysis and write-ups.  Not enough of these are externally available yet, which is down to me, but the fact that we had done the work was vital in finding partners who are actually interested in using Enarx for real.  I can’t talk about any of these in public yet, but we have some really interesting use cases from a number of multi-national organisations of whom you will definitely have heard, as well as some smaller start-ups about whom you may well be hearing more in the future.  Having this kind of interest was vital to get buy-in to the project and showed that Enarx wasn’t just a flight of fancy by a bunch of enthusiastic engineers.

Looking outside

The most significant event in the project’s year was the announcement of the Confidential Computing Consortium at the Linux Foundation’s Open Source Summit this year.  We at Red Hat realised that Enarx was a great match for this new group, and was very pleased to be a premier member at the official launch in October.  At time of writing, there are 21 members, and it’s becoming clear that this the consortium has identified an area of concern and interest for the wider industry: this is another great endorsement of the aims and principles of Enarx.

Joining the Consortium hasn’t been the only activity in which we’ve been involved this year.  We’ve spoken at conferences, had articles published (on Alice, Eve and Bob, on now + Next and on Opensource.com), spoken to press, recorded webcasts and more.  Most important (arguably), we have hex stickers (if you’re interested, get in touch!).

Last, but not least, we’ve gone external.  From being an internal project (though we always had our code as open source), we’ve taken a number of measures to try to encourage and simplify involvement by non-Red Hat contributors – see 7 tips for kicking off an open source project for a little more information.

Architecture and code

What else?  Oh, there’s code, and an increasingly mature set of architectures for the various components.  We absolutely plan to make all of this externally visible, and the fact that we haven’t yet is that we’re just running to stand still at the moment: there’s just so much to do.  Our focus is on getting code out there for people to use and contribute to themselves and, without giving anything away, we have some pretty big plans for demos and more in 2020.

Finally

There’s one other thing that’s been important, of course, and that’s the fact that I’m writing a book for Wiley on trust, but I actually see that as very much related to Enarx.  Fundamentally, although the technology is cool, and we think that the Enarx project meets an existing need, both Nathaniel and I believe that there’s a real opportunity for it to change how people manage trust for workloads in the cloud, in IoT, at the Edge and wherever else sensitive data and algorithms need to be executed.

This blog is supposed to be about security, and I’m strongly of the opinion that trust is a very important part of that.  Enarx fits into that, so don’t be surprised to see more posts around trust and about Enarx over the coming year.  Please keep an eye out here and at https://enarx.io for the latest information.

 

 

What’s a Trusted Compute Base?

Tamper-evidence, auditability and measurability are three important properties.

A few months ago, in an article called “Turtles – and chains of trust“, I briefly mentioned Trusted Compute Bases, or TCBs, but then didn’t go any deeper.  I had a bit of a search across the articles on this blog, and realised that I’ve never gone into this topic in much detail, which feels like a mistake, so I’m going to do it now.

First of all, let’s think about computer systems.  When I talk about systems, I’m being both quite specific (see Systems security – why it matters) and quite broad (I don’t just mean computer that sits on your desk or in a data centre, but include phones, routers, aircraft navigation devices – pretty much anything that has a set of chips inside it).  There are surely some systems that you don’t rely on too much to do important things, but in most cases, you’re going to care if they go wrong, or, more relevant to this discussion, if they get compromised.  Even the most benign of systems – a smart light-bulb, for instance – can become a nightmare if compromised.  Even if you don’t particularly care whether you can continue to use it in the way it was intended, there are still worries about its misuse in the case of compromise:

  1. it may become a “jumping off point” for malicious attacks into your network or other systems;
  2. it may be used as part of a botnet, piggybacking on your network to attack other systems (leading to sanctions against your legitimate systems from outside);
  3. it may be used as part of a botnet, using up resources such as network bandwidth, storage or electricity (leading to resource constraints or increased charges).

For any systems dealing with sensitive data – anything from your messages to loved ones on your phone through intellectual property secrets for a manufacturing organisation through to National Security data for government department – these issues are compounded.  In order to protect your system, you can’t just say “this system is secure” (lovely as that would be).  What can you do to start making statement about the general security of a system?

The stack

Systems consist of multiple components, and modern computing systems are typically composed from multiple layers (one of my favourite xkcd comics, Stack, shows some of them).  What’s relevant from the point of view of this article is that, on the whole, the different layers of the stack start up – boot up – from the bottom upwards.  This means, following the “bottom turtle” rule (see the Turtles article referenced above), that we need to ensure that the bottom layer is as secure as possible.  In fact, in order to build a system in which we can have assurance that it will behave as expected and designed (in other words, a system in which we can have a trust relationship), we need to build a Trusted Compute Base.  This should have at least the following set of properties: tamper-evidence, auditability and measurability, all of which are related to each other.

Tamper-evidence

We want to know if the TCB – on which we are building everything else – has a problem.  Specifically, we need a set of layers or components that we are pretty sure have not been compromised, or which, if compromised, will be tamper-evident:

  • fail in expected ways,
  • refuse to start, or
  • flag that they have been compromised.

It turns out that this is not easy, and typically becomes more difficult as you move up the stack – partly because you’re adding more layers, and partly because those layers tend to get more complex.

Our TCB should have the properties listed above (around failure, refusing to start or compromise-flagging), and be as small as possible.  This seems the wrong way around: surely you would want to ensure that as much of your system was trusted as possible?  In fact, what you want is a small, easily measurable and easily auditable TCB on which you can build the rest of your system – from which you can build a “chain of trust” to the other parts of your system about which you care.  Auditability and measurability are the other two properties that you want in a TCB, and these two properties are why open source is a very useful tool in your toolkit when building a TCB.

Auditability (and open source)

Auditability means that you – or someone else who you trust to do the job – can look into the various components of the TCB and assure yourself that they have been written, compiled and  are executing properly.  As I explained in Of projects, products and (security) community, the person may not always be you, or even someone in your organisation, but if you’re using widely deployed open source software, the rest of the community can be doing that auditing for you, which is a win for you and – if you contribute your knowledge back into the community – for everybody else as well.

Auditability typically gets harder the further you go down the stack – partly because you’re getting closer and closer to bits – ones and zeros – and to actual electrons, and partly because there is very little truly open source hardware out there at the moment.  However, the more that we can see and audit of the TCB, the more confidence we can have in it as a building block for the rest of our system.

Measurability (and open source)

The other thing you want to be able to do is ensure that your TCB really is your TCB.  Tamper-evidence is related to this, but that’s a run-time property only (for software components, at least).  Being able to measure when you provision your system and then to check that what you originally loaded is still what you think it should be when you boot it is a very important property of a TCB.  If what you’re running is open source, you can check it yourself, against your own measurements and those of the community, and if changes are made – by you or others – those changes can be checked (as part of auditing) and then propagated through measurement checking to the rest of the community.  Equally important – and much more difficult – is run-time measurability.  This turns out to be very difficult to do, although there are some techniques emerging which are beginning to get traction – for now, we tend to rely on tamper-evidence, which is easier in hardware than software.

Summary

Trusted Compute Bases (TCBs) are a key concept in building systems that we hope will behave in ways we expect – or allow us to find out when they are not.  Tamper-evidence, auditability and measurability are three important properties that they should display, and it turns out that open source is an important factor in helping us ensure two of those.

 

 

 

What is confidential computing?

Industry interest has been high, and overwhelmingly positive.

On Wednesday, 21st August, 2019 (just under a week ago, at time of writing), Jim Zemlin of the Linux Foundation announced the intent to form the Confidential Computing Consortium, with members including Alibaba, Arm, Baidu, Google Cloud, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Red Hat, Swisscom and Tencent.  I’m particularly proud as Red Hat (my employer) is one of those[1], and I spent the preceding few weeks and days working very hard to ensure that we would be listed as one of the planned founding members.

“Confidential Computing” sounds like a lofty goal, and it is.  We’ve known for ages that you should encrypt sensitive data at rest (in storage), in transit (on the network), but confidential computing, as defined by the consortium, is about doing the same for sensitive data – and algorithms – in use.  The consortium plans to encourage industry to use hardware technologies generally called Trust Execution Environments to allow applications and processes to be encrypted as they are running.

This may sound somewhat familiar to those who follow my blog, and it should: Enarx, an open source project launched by Red Hat, was announced as one of the projects that should be part of the initial launch.  I’ve written about Enarx in several places:

Additionally, you’ll find lots of information on the introduction page of the Enarx wiki.

The press release from the Linux Foundation lists the following goals for the Confidential Computing Consortium (my emboldening):

The Confidential Computing Consortium will bring together hardware vendors, cloud providers, developers, open source experts and academics to accelerate the confidential computing market; influence technical and regulatory standards; and build open source tools that provide the right environment for TEE development. The organization will also anchor industry outreach and education initiatives.

Enarx, of course, fits perfectly into this description, as per the text in bold.  Beyond that, however, is the alignment that there is with the other aims of the Enarx project, and the opportunities with which a wider consortium presents us.  The addition of hardware vendors gives us – and the other participants – opportunities to discuss implementations (hardware and software) in an open environment, cloud providers and other users will give us great use cases, and academic involvement broadens the likelihood of quick access to new ideas and research.

We also expect industry and regulatory standards to be forthcoming, and a need for education as the more sectors and industries engage with confidential computing: the consortium provides a framework to engage in related activities.

It’s early days for the Confidential Computing Consortium, but I’m really hopeful and optimistic.  Already, the openness displayed between the planned members on both technical and non-technical collaboration has gone far beyond what I would have expected.  The industry interest – as evidenced by press and community activities – has been high, and overwhelmingly positive. Fans of Enarx – and confidential computing generally – should be excited by the prospect of greater visibility and collaboration.  After all, isn’t that what open source is about in the first place?


1 – this seems like a good place to point out that the views in this article and blog are my own, and may not represent those of my employer, of the Confidential Computing Consortium, the Linux Foundation or any other body.

Enarx for everyone (a quest)

In your backpack, the only tool that you have to protect you is Enarx…

You are stuck in a deep, dark wood, with spooky noises and roots that seem to move and trip you up.  Behind every tree malevolent eyes look out at you.  You look in your backpack and realise that the only tool that you have for your protection is Enarx, the trusty open source project given you by the wizened old person at the beginning of your quest.  Hard as you try, you can’t remember what it does, or how to use it.  You realise that now is that time to find out.

What do you do next?

  • If you are a business person, go to 1. Why I need Enarx to reduce business risk.
  • If you are an architect, go to 2. How I can use Enarx to protect sensitive data.
  • If you are a techy, go to 3. Tell me more about Enarx technology (I can take it).

1. Why I need Enarx to reduce business risk

You are the wise head upon which your business relies to consider and manage risk.  One of the problems that you run into is that you have sensitive data that needs to be protected.  Financial data, customer data, legal data, payroll data: it’s all at risk of compromise if it’s not adequately protected.  Who can you trust, however?  You want to be able to use public clouds, but the risks of keeping and processing information on systems which are not under your direct control are many and difficult to quantify.  Even your own systems are vulnerable to outdated patches, insider attacks or compromises: confidentiality is difficult to ensure, but vital to your business.

Enarx is a project which allows you to run applications in the public cloud, on your premises – or wherever else – with significantly reduced and better quantifiable risk.  It uses hardware-based security called “Trust Execution Environments” from CPU manufacturers, and cuts out many of the layers that can be compromised.  The only components that do need to be trusted are fully open source software, which means that they can be examined and audited by industry experts and your own teams.

Well done: you found out about Enarx.  Continue to 6. Well, what’s next?


2. How I can use Enarx to protect sensitive data

You are the expert architect who has to consider the best technologies and approaches for your organisation.  You worry about where best to deploy sensitive applications and data, given the number of layers in the stack that may have been compromised, and the number of entities – human and machine – that have the opportunity to peek into or mess with the integrity of your applications.  You can’t control the public cloud, nor know exactly what the stack it’s running is, but equally, the resources required to ensure that you can run sufficient numbers of hardened systems on premises are growing.

Enarx is an open source project which uses TEEs (Trusted Execution Environments), to allow you to run applications within “Keeps” on systems that you don’t trust.  Enarx manages the creation of these Keeps, providing cryptographic confidence that the Keeps are using valid CPU hardware and then encrypting and provisioning your applications and data to the Keep using one-time cryptographic keys.  Your applications run without any of the layers in the stack (e.g. hypervisor, kernel, user-space, middleware) being able to look into the Keep.  The Keep’s run-time can accept applications written in many different languages, including Rust, C, C++, C#, Go, Java, Python and Haskell.  It allows you to run on TEEs from various CPU manufacturers without having to worry about portability: Enarx manages that for you, along with attestation and deployment.

Well done: you found out about Enarx.  Continue to 6. Well, what’s next?


3. Tell me more about Enarx technology (I can take it)

You are a wily developer with technical skills beyond the ken of most of your peers.  A quick look at the github pages tells you more: Enarx is an open source project to allow you to deploy and applications within TEEs (Trusted Execution Environments).

  • If you’d like to learn about how to use Enarx, proceed to 4. I want to use Enarx.
  • If you’d like to learn about contributing to the Enarx project, proceed to 5. I want to contribute to Enarx.

Well done: you found out about Enarx.  Continue to 6. Well, what’s next?


4. I want to use Enarx

You learn good news: Enarx is designed to be easy to use!

If you want to run applications that process sensitive data, or which implement sensitive algorithms themselves, Enarx is for you.  Enarx is a deployment framework for applications, rather than a development framework.  What this means is that you don’t have to write to particular SDKs, or manage the tricky attestation steps required to use TEEs.  You write your application in your favourite language, and as long as it has WebAssembly as a compile target, it should run within an Enarx “Keep”.  Enarx even manages portability across hardware platforms, so you don’t need to worry about that, either.  It’s all open source, so you can look at it yourself, audit it, or even contribute (if you’re interested in that, you might want to proceed to 5. I want to contribute to Enarx).

Well done: you found out about Enarx.  Continue to 6. Well, what’s next?


5. I want to contribute to Enarx

Enarx is an open source project (under the Apache 2.0 licence), and we welcome contributions, whether you are a developer, tester, documentation guru or other enthusiastic bod with an interest in providing a way for the rest of the world to up the security level of the applications they’re running with minimal effort.  There are various components to Enarx, including attestation, hypervisor work, uni-kernel and WebAssembly run-time pieces.  We want to provide a simple and flexible framework to allow developers and operations folks to deploy applications to TEEs on any supported platform without recompilation, having to choose an obscure language or write to a particular SDK.  Please have a look around our github site and get in touch if you’re in a position to contribute.

Well done: you found out about Enarx.  Continue to 6. Well, what’s next?


6. Well, what’s next?

You now know enough to understand how Enarx can help you: well done!  At time of writing, Enarx is still in development, but we’re working hard to make it available to all.

We’ve known for a long time that we need encryption for data at rest and in transit: Enarx helps you do encryption for data in use.

For more information, you may wish to visit:

Open source and – well, bad people

For most people writing open source, it – open source software – seems like an unalloyed good.  You write code, and other nice people, like you, get to add to it, test it, document it and use it.  Look what good it can do to the world!  Even the Organisation-Formerly-Known-As-The-Evil-Empire has embraced open source software, and is becoming a happy and loving place, supporting the community and both espousing and proselytising the Good Thing[tm] that is open source.  Many open source licences are written in such a way that it’s well-nigh impossible for an organisation to make changes to open source and profit from it without releasing the code they’ve changed.  The very soul of open source – the licence – is doing our work for us: improving the world.

And on the whole, I’d agree.  But when I see uncritical assumptions being peddled – about anything, frankly – I start to wonder.  Because I know, and you know, when you think about it, that not everybody who uses open source is a good person.  Crackers (that’s “bad hackers”) use open source.  Drug dealers use open source.  People traffickers use open source.  Terrorists use open source.  Maybe some of them contribute patches and testing and documentation – I suppose it’s even quite likely that a few actually do – but they are, by pretty much anyone’s yardstick, not good people.  These are the sorts of people you probably shrug your shoulders about and say, “well, there’s only a few of them compared to all the others, and I can live with that”.  You’re happy to continue contributing to open source because many more people are helped by it than harmed by it.  The alternative – not contributing to open source – would fail to help as many people, and so the first option is the lesser of two evils and should be embraced. This is, basically, a utilitarian argument – the one popularised by John Stuart Mill: “classical utilitarianism”[1].  This is sometimes described as:

“Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote overall human happiness.”

I certainly hope that open source does tend to promote overall human happiness.  The problem is that criminals are not the only people who will be using open source – your open source – code.  There will be businesses whose practices are shady, governments that  oppress their detractors, police forces that spy on the citizens they watch.  This is your code, being used to do bad things.

But what even are bad things?  This is one of the standard complaints about utilitarian philosophies – it’s difficult to define objectively what is good, and, by extension, what is bad.  We (by which I mean law-abiding citizens in most countries) may be able to agree that people trafficking is bad, but there are many areas that we could call grey[2]:

  • tobacco manufacturers;
  • petrochemical and fracking companies;
  • plastics manufacturers;
  • organisations who don’t support LGBTQ+ people;
  • gun manufacturers.

There’s quite a range here, and that’s intentional.  Also the last example is carefully chosen. One of the early movers in what would become the open source movement is Eric Raymond (known to one and all by his initials “ESR”), who is a long-standing supporter of gun rights[3].  He has, as he has put it, “taken some public flak in the hacker community for vocally supporting firearms rights”.  For ESR, “it’s all about freedom”.  I disagree, although I don’t feel the need to attack him for it.  But it’s clear that his view about what constitutes good is different to mine.  I take a very liberal view of LGBTQ+ rights, but I know people in the open source community who wouldn’t take the same view.  Although we tend to characterise the open source community as liberal, this has never been a good generalisation.  According to the Jargon File (later published as “The Hacker’s Dictionary”, the politics of the average hacker are:

Vaguely liberal-moderate, except for the strong libertarian contingent which rejects conventional left-right politics entirely. The only safe generalization is that hackers tend to be rather anti-authoritarian; thus, both conventional conservatism and ‘hard’ leftism are rare. Hackers are far more likely than most non-hackers to either (a) be aggressively apolitical or (b) entertain peculiar or idiosyncratic political ideas and actually try to live by them day-to-day.

This may be somewhat out of date, but it still feels that this description would resonate with many of the open source community who self-consciously consider themselves as part of that community.  Still, it’s clear that we, as a community, are never going to be able to agree on what counts as a “good use” of open source code by a “good” organisation.  Even if we could, the chances of anybody being able to create a set of licences that would stop the people that might be considered bad are fairly slim.

I still think, though, that I’m not too worried.  I think that we can extend the utilitarian argument to say that the majority of use of open source software would be considered good by most open source contributors, or at least that the balance of “good” over “bad” would be generally considered to lean towards the good side. So – please keep contributing: we’re doing good things (whatever they might be).


1 – I am really not an ethicist or a philosopher, so apologies if I’m being a little rough round the edges here.

2 – you should be used to this by now: UK spelling throughout.

3 – “Yes, I cheerfully refer to myself as a gun nut.” – Eric’s Gun Nut Page

Trust & choosing open source

Your impact on open source can be equal to that of others.

A long time ago, in a standards body far, far away, I was involved in drafting a document about trust and security. That document rejoices in the name ETSI GS NFV-SEC 003: Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV);NFV Security; Security and Trust Guidance[1], and section 5.1.6.3[2] talks about “Transitive trust”.  Convoluted and lengthy as the document is, I’m very proud of it[3], and I think it tackles a number of  very important issues including (unsurprisingly, given the title), a number of issues around trust.  It defines transitive trust thus:

“Transitive trust is the decision by an entity A to trust entity B because entity C trusts it.”

It goes on to disambiguate transitive trust from delegated trust, where C knows about the trust relationship.

At no point in the document does it mention open source software.  To be fair, we were trying to be even-handed and show no favour towards any type of software or vendors – many of the companies represented on the standards body were focused on proprietary software – and I wasn’t even working for Red Hat at the time.

My move to Red Hat, and, as it happens, generally away from the world of standards, has led me to think more about open source.  It’s also led me to think more about trust, and how people decide whether or not to use open source software in their businesses, organisations and enterprises.  I’ve written, in particular, about how, although open source software is not ipso facto more secure than proprietary software, the chances of it being more secure, or made more secure, are higher (in Disbelieving the many eyes hypothesis).

What has this to do with trust, specifically transitive trust?  Well, I’ve been doing more thinking about how open source and trust are linked together, and distributed trust is a big part of it.  Distributed trust and blockchain are often talked about in the same breath, and I’m glad, because I think that all too often we fall into the trap of ignoring the fact that there definitely trust relationships associated with blockchain – they are just often implicit, rather than well-defined.

What I’m interested in here, though, is the distributed, transitive trust as a way of choosing whether or not to use open source software.  This is, I think, true not only when talking about non-functional properties such as the security of open source but also when talking about the software itself.  What are we doing when we say “I trust open source software”?  We are making a determination that enough of the people who have written and tested it have similar requirements to mine, and that their expertise, combined, is such that the risk to my using the software is acceptable.

There’s actually a lot going on here, some of which is very interesting:

  • we are trusting architects and designers to design software to meet our use cases and requirements;
  • we are trusting developers to implement code well, to those designs;
  • we are trusting developers to review each others’ code;
  • we are trusting documentation folks to document the software correctly;
  • we are trusting testers to write, run and check tests which are appropriate to my use cases;
  • we are trusting those who deploy the code to run in it ways which are similar to my use cases;
  • we are trusting those who deploy the code to report bugs;
  • we are trusting those who receive bug reports to fix them as expected.

There’s more, of course, but that’s definitely enough to get us going.  Of course, when we choose to use proprietary software, we’re trusting people to do that, but in this case, the trust relationship is much clearer, and much tighter: if I don’t get what I expect, I can choose another vendor, or work with the original vendor to get what I want.

In the case of open source software, it’s all more nebulous: I may be able to identify at least some of the entities involved (designers, software engineers and testers, for example), but the amount of power that I as a consumer of the software have over their work is likely to be low.  There’s a weird almost-paradox here, though: you can argue that for proprietary software vendors, my power over the direction of the software is higher (I’m paying them or not paying them), but my direct visibility into what actually goes on, and my ability to ensure that I get what I want is reduced when compared to the open source case.

That’s because, for open source, I can be any of the entities outlined above.  I – or those in my organisation – can be architect, designer, document writer, tester, and certainly deployer and bug reporter.  When you realise that your impact on open source can be equal to that of others, the distributed trust becomes less transitive.  You understand that you have equal say in the creation, maintenance, requirements and quality of the software which you are running to all the other entities, and then you become part of a network of trust relationships which are distributed, but at less of a remove to that which you’ll experience when buying proprietary software.

Why, then, would anybody buy or license open source software from a vendor?  Because that way, you can address other risks – around support, patching, training, etc. – whilst still enjoying the benefits of the distributed trust network that I’ve outlined above.  There’s a place for those who consume directly from the source, but it doesn’t mean the risk appetite of all software consumers – including those who are involved in the open source community themselves.

Trust is a complex issue, and the ways in which we trust other things and other people is complex, too (you’ll find a bit of an introduction in Of different types of trust), but I think it’s desperately important that we examine and try to understand the sorts of decisions we make, and why we make them, in order to allow us to make informed choices around risk.


1 – if you’ve not been involved in standards creation, this may fill you with horror, but if you have so involved, this sort of title probably feels normal.  You may need help.

2 – see 1.

3 – I was one of two “rapporteurs”, or editors of the document, and wrote a significant part of it, particularly the sections around trust.