Win a copy of my book!

What’s better than excerpts? That’s right: the entire book.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve got a book coming out with Wiley soon. It’s called “Trust in Computer Systems and the Cloud”, and the publisher’s blurb is available here. We’ve now got to the stage where we’ve completed not only the proof-reading for the main text, but also the front matter (acknowledgements, dedication, stuff like that), cover and “praise page”. I’d not heard the term before, but it’s where endorsements of the book go, and I’m very, very excited by the extremely kind comments from a variety of industry leaders which you’ll find quoted there and, in some cases, on the cover. You can find a copy of the cover (without endorsement) below.

Trust book front cover (without endorsement)

I’ve spent a lot of time on this book, and I’ve written a few articles about it, including providing a chapter index and summary to let you get a good idea of what it’s about. More than that, some of the articles here actually contain edited excerpts from the book.

What’s better than excerpts, though? That’s right: the entire book. Instead of an article today, however, I’m offering the opportunity to win a copy of the book. All you need to do is follow this blog (with email updates, as otherwise I can’t contact you), and when it’s published (soon, we hope – the March date should be beaten), I’ll choose one lucky follower to receive a copy.

No Wiley employees, please, but other than that, go for it, and I’ll endeavour to get you a copy as soon as I have any available. I’ll try to get it to you pretty much anywhere in the world, as well. So far, it’s only available in English, so apologies if you were hoping for an immediate copy in another language (hint: let me know, and I’ll lobby my publisher for a translation!).

Announcing Profian

Profian, a security start-up in the Confidential Computing space

I’m very excited to announce Profian, a security start-up in the Confidential Computing space that I co-founded with Nathaniel McCallum, came out of stealth mode today to announce that we’ve completed our Seed Round – you can find the press release here. This is the culmination of months of hard work and about two years of a vision that we’ve shared and developed since coming up with the idea of Enarx. Profian will be creating products and services around Enarx, and we’re committed to keeping everything we do open source: not just because we believe in open source as an ethical choice, but also because we believe that it’s best for security.

Enarx grew out of a vision that we had to simplify use of Trusted Execution Environments like AMD’s SEV and Intel’s SGX[1], while not compromising on the security that we believe the industry wants and needs. Enarx aims to allow you to deploy applications to any of the supported platforms without needing to recompile for each one, and to simplify both the development and deployment process. It supports WebAssembly as its runtime, allowing a seamless execution environment across multiple hardware types. Engineering for Enarx was initially funded by Red Hat, and towards the end of 2020, we started looking for a way to ensure long-term resourcing: out of this Profian was born. We managed to secure funding from two VC funds – Project A (lead investor) and Illuminate Financial – and four amazing angel investors. Coming out of stealth means that we can now tell more people about what we’re doing.

Profian is a member of two great industry bodies: the Confidential Computing Consortium (a Linux Foundation project to promote open source around Trusted Execution Environments) and the Bytecode Alliance (an industry group to promote and nurture WebAssembly, the runtime which Enarx supports).

The other important thing to announce is that with funding of Profian comes our chance to develop Enarx and its community into something really special.

If it’s your thing, you can find the press release on Business Wire, and more information on the company press page.

A few questions and answers

What’s confidential computing?

I tend to follow the Confidential Computing Consortium’s definition: “Confidential Computing protects data in use by performing computation in a hardware-based Trusted Execution Environment”.

What does Profian mean?

It’s Anglo-Saxon, the language also sometimes called “Old English”, which was spoken in (modern day) England and parts of Scotland from around the mid-5th century BCE to 1066, when Norman French had such an impact on the language that it changed (to Middle English).

One online Anglo-Saxon dictionary defines profian thus:

profian - 1. to esteem; regard as 2. to test ; try ; prove 3. to show evidence of ; evince

It’s the root of the English word “to prove”, from which we also get “proof” and “proven”. We felt that this summed up much of what we want to be doing, and is nicely complementary to Enarx.

How is Profian pronounced?

Not the way most pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxons would probably have pronounced it, to be honest. We (well, I) thought about trying to go with a more “authentic” pronunciation, and decided (or was convinced…) that it was too much trouble. We’re going with “PROH-vee-uhn”[2].

What does Enarx mean?

You’ll find more information about this (and how to pronounce Enarx), over at the Enarx FAQ. TL;DR – we made it up.

Who’s part of the company?

Well, there’s me (I’m the CEO), Nathaniel McCallum (the CTO) and a small team of developers. We also have Nick Vidal, who we recruited as Community Manager for Enarx. By the beginning of October, we expect to have six employees in five different countries spread across three separate continents[3].

What’s next?

Well, lots of stuff. There’s so much to do when running a company of which I knew next to nothing when we started. You would not believe the amount of work involved with registering a company, setting up bank accounts, recruiting people, paying people, paying invoices, etc. – and that’s not even about creating products. We absolutely plan to do this (or the investors are not going to be happy).

No – what’s next for this blog?

Ah, right. Well, I plan to keep it going. There will be more articles about my book on trust, security, open source and probably VCs, funding and the rest. There have been quite a few topics I’ve just not felt safe blogging about until Profian came out of stealth mode. Keep an eye out.


1 – there are more coming, such as Arm CCA (also known as “Realms”), and Intel’s TDX – we plan to support these are they become available.

2 – Anglo-Saxons would probably have gone with something more like “PRO-fee-an”, where the “o” has sound like “pop”.

3 – yes, I know we’ve not made it easy on ourselves.

Trust book – chapter index and summary

I thought it might be interesting to provide the chapter index and a brief summary of each chapter addresses.

In a previous article, I presented the publisher’s blurb for my upcoming book with Wiley, Trust in Computer Systems and the Cloud. I thought it might be interesting, this time around, to provide the chapter index of the book and to give a brief summary of what each chapter addresses.

While it’s possible to read many of the chapters on their own, I haved tried to maintain a logical progression of thought through the book, building on earlier concepts to provide a framework that can be used in the real world. It’s worth noting that the book is not about how humans trust – or don’t trust – computers (there’s a wealth of literature around this topic), but about how to consider the issue of trust between computing systems, or what we can say about assurances that computing systems can make, or can be made about them. This may sound complex, and it is – which is pretty much why I decided to write the book in the first place!

  • Introduction
    • Why I think this is important, and how I came to the subject.
  • Chapter 1 – Why Trust?
    • Trust as a concept, and why it’s important to security, organisations and risk management.
  • Chapter 2 – Humans and Trust
    • Though the book is really about computing and trust, and not humans and trust, we need a grounding in how trust is considered, defined and talked about within the human realm if we are to look at it in our context.
  • Chapter 3 – Trust Operations and Alternatives
    • What are the main things you might want to do around trust, how can we think about them, and what tools/operations are available to us?
  • Chapter 4 – Defining Trust in Computing
    • In this chapter, we delve into the factors which are specific to trust in computing, comparing and contrasting them with the concepts in chapter 2 and looking at what we can and can’t take from the human world of trust.
  • Chapter 5 – The Importance of Systems
    • Regular readers of this blog will be unsurprised that I’m interested in systems. This chapter examines why systems are important in computing and why we need to understand them before we can talk in detail about trust.
  • Chapter 6 – Blockchain and Trust
    • This was initially not a separate chapter, but is an important – and often misunderstood or misrepresented – topic. Blockchains don’t exist or operate in a logical or computational vacuum, and this chapter looks at how trust is important to understanding how blockchains work (or don’t) in the real world.
  • Chapter 7 – The Importance of Time
    • One of the important concepts introduced earlier in the book is the consideration of different contexts for trust, and none is more important to understand than time.
  • Chapter 8 – Systems and Trust
    • Having introduced the importance of systems in chapter 5, we move to considering what it means to have establish a trust relationship from or to a system, and how the extent of what is considered part of the system is vital.
  • Chapter 9 – Open Source and Trust
    • Another topc whose inclusion is unlikely to surprise regular readers of this blog, this chapter looks at various aspects of open source and how it relates to trust.
  • Chapter 10 – Trust, the Cloud, and the Edge
    • Definitely a core chapter in the book, this addresses the complexities of trust in the modern computing environments of the public (and private) cloud and Edge networks.
  • Chapter 11 – Hardware, Trust, and Confidential Computing
    • Confidential Computing is a growing and important area within computing, but to understand its strengths and weaknesses, there needs to be a solid theoretical underpinning of how to talk about trust. This chapter also covers areas such as TPMs and HSMs.
  • Chapter 12 – Trust Domains
    • Trust domains are a concept that allow us to apply the lessons and frameworks we have discussed through the book to real-world situations at large scale. They also allow for modelling at the business level and for issues like risk management – introduced at the beginning of the book – to be considered more explicitly.
  • Chapter 13 – A World of Explicit Trust
    • Final musings on what a trust-centric (or at least trust-inclusive) view of the world enables and hopes for future work in the field.
  • References
    • List of works cited within the book.

Trust book preview

What it means to trust in the context of computer and network security

Just over two years ago, I agreed a contract with Wiley to write a book about trust in computing. It was a long road to get there, starting over twenty years ago, but what pushed me to commit to writing something was a conference I’d been to earlier in 2019 where there was quite a lot of discussion around “trust”, but no obvious underlying agreement about what was actually meant by the term. “Zero trust”, “trusted systems”, “trusted boot”, “trusted compute base” – all terms referencing trust, but with varying levels of definition, and differing understanding if what was being expected, by what components, and to what end.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about trust over my career and also have a major professional interest in security and cloud computing, specifically around Confidential Computing (see Confidential computing – the new HTTPS? and Enarx for everyone (a quest) for some starting points), and although the idea of a book wasn’t a simple one, I decided to go for it. This week, we should have the copy-editing stage complete (technical editing already done), with the final stage being proof-reading. This means that the book is close to down. I can’t share a definitive publication date yet, but things are getting there, and I’ve just discovered that the publisher’s blurb has made it onto Amazon. Here, then, is what you can expect.


Learn to analyze and measure risk by exploring the nature of trust and its application to cybersecurity 

Trust in Computer Systems and the Cloud delivers an insightful and practical new take on what it means to trust in the context of computer and network security and the impact on the emerging field of Confidential Computing. Author Mike Bursell’s experience, ranging from Chief Security Architect at Red Hat to CEO at a Confidential Computing start-up grounds the reader in fundamental concepts of trust and related ideas before discussing the more sophisticated applications of these concepts to various areas in computing. 

The book demonstrates in the importance of understanding and quantifying risk and draws on the social and computer sciences to explain hardware and software security, complex systems, and open source communities. It takes a detailed look at the impact of Confidential Computing on security, trust and risk and also describes the emerging concept of trust domains, which provide an alternative to standard layered security. 

  • Foundational definitions of trust from sociology and other social sciences, how they evolved, and what modern concepts of trust mean to computer professionals 
  • A comprehensive examination of the importance of systems, from open-source communities to HSMs, TPMs, and Confidential Computing with TEEs. 
  • A thorough exploration of trust domains, including explorations of communities of practice, the centralization of control and policies, and monitoring 

Perfect for security architects at the CISSP level or higher, Trust in Computer Systems and the Cloud is also an indispensable addition to the libraries of system architects, security system engineers, and master’s students in software architecture and security. 

Defining the Edge

How might we differentiate Edge computing from Cloud computing?

This is an edited excerpt from my forthcoming book on Trust in Computing and the Cloud for Wiley.

There’s been a lot of talk about the Edge, and almost as many definitions as there are articles out there. As usual on this blog, my main interest is around trust and security, so this brief look at the Edge concentrates on those aspects, and particularly on how we might differentiate Edge computing from Cloud computing.

The first difference we might identify is that Edge computing addresses use cases where consolidating compute resource in a centralised location (the typical Cloud computing case) is not necessarily appropriate, and pushes some or all of the computing power out to the edges of the network, where it can computing resources can process data which is generated at the fringes, rather than having to transfer all the data over what may be low-bandwidth networks for processing. There is no generally accepted single industry definition of Edge computing, but examples might include:

  • placing video processing systems in or near a sports stadium for pre-processing to reduce the amount of raw footage that needs to be transmitted to a centralised data centre or studio
  • providing analysis and safety control systems on an ocean-based oil rig to reduce reliance and contention on an unreliable and potentially low-bandwidth network connection
  • creating an Internet of Things (IoT) gateway to process and analyse data environmental sensor units (IoT devices)
  • mobile edge computing, or multi-access edge computing (both abbreviated to MEC), where telecommunications services such as location and augmented reality (AR) applications are run on cellular base stations, rather than in the telecommunication provider’s centralised network location.

Unlike Cloud computing, where the hosting model is generally that computing resources are consumed by tenants – customers of a public cloud, for instance- in the Edge case, the consumer of computing resources is often the owner of the systems providing them (though this is not always the case). Another difference is the size of the host providing the computing resources, which may range from very large to very small (in the case of an IoT gateway, for example). One important factor about most modern Edge computing environments is that they employ the same virtualisation and orchestration techniques as the cloud, allowing more flexibility in deployment and lifecycle management over bare-metal deployments.

A table comparing the various properties typically associated with Cloud and Edge computing shows us a number of differences.


Public cloud computingPrivate cloud computingEdge computing
LocationCentralisedCentralisedDistributed
Hosting modelTenantsOwnerOwner or tenant(s)
Application typeGeneralisedGeneralisedMay be specialised
Host system sizeLargeLargeLarge to very small
Network bandwidthHighHighMedium to low
Network availabilityHighHighHigh to low
Host physical securityHighHighLow
Differences between Edge computing and public/private cloud computing

In the table, I’ve described two different types of cloud computing: public and private. The latter is sometimes characterised as on premises or on-prem computing, but the point here is that rather than deploying applications to dedicated hosts, workloads are deployed using the same virtualisation and orchestration techniques employed in the public cloud, the key difference being that the hosts and software are owned and managed by the owner of the applications. Sometimes these services are actually managed by an external party, but in this case there is a close commercial (and concomitant trust) relationship to this managed services provider, and, equally important, single tenancy is assured (assuming that security is maintained), as only applications from the owner of the service are hosted[1]. Many organisations will mix and match workloads to different cloud deployments, employing both public and private clouds (a deployment model known as hybrid cloud) and/or different public clouds (a deployment model known as multi-cloud). All these models – public computing, private computing and Edge computing – share an approach in common: in most cases, workloads are not deployed to bare-metal servers, but to virtualisation platforms.

Deployment model differences

What is special about each of the models and their offerings if we are looking at trust and security?

One characteristic that the three approaches share is scale: they all assume that hosts will have with multiple workloads per host – though the number of hosts and the actual size of the host systems is likely to be highest in the public cloud case, and lowest in the Edge case. It is this high workload density that makes public cloud computing in particular economically viable, and one of the reasons that it makes sense for organisations to deploy at least some of their workloads to public clouds, as Cloud Service Providers can employ economies of scale which allow them to schedule workloads onto their servers from multiple tenants, balancing load and bringing sets of servers in and out of commission (a computation- and time-costly exercise) infrequently. Owners and operators of private clouds, in contrast, need to ensure that they have sufficient resources available for possible maximum load at all times, and do not have the opportunities to balance loads from other tenants unless they open up their on premises deployment to other organisations, transforming themselves into Cloud Service Providers and putting them into direct competition with existing CSPs.

It is this push for high workload density which is one of the reasons for the need for strong workload-from-workload (type 1) isolation, as in order to be able to maintain high density, cloud owners need to be able to mix workloads from multiple tenants on the same host. Tenants are mutual untrusting; they are in fact likely to be completely unaware of each other, and, if the host is doing its job well, unaware of the presence of other workloads on the same host as them. More important than this property, however, is a strong assurance that their workloads will not be negatively impacted by workloads from other tenants. Although negative impact can occur in other contexts to computation – such as storage contention or network congestion – the focus is mainly on the isolation that hosts can provide.

The likelihood of malicious workloads increases with the number of tenants, but reduces significantly when the tenant is the same as the host owner – the case for private cloud deployments and some Edge deployments. Thus, the need for host-from-workload (type 2) isolation is higher for the public cloud – though the possibility of poorly written or compromised workloads means that it should not be neglected for the other types of deployment.

One final difference between the models is that for both public and private cloud deployments the physical vulnerability of hosts is generally considered to be low[2], whereas the opportunities for unauthorised physical access to Edge computing hosts are considered to be much higher. You can read a little more about the importance of hardware as part of the Trusted Compute Base in my article Turtles – and chains of trust, and it is a fundamental principle of computer security that if an attacker has physical access to a system, then the system must be considered compromised, as it is, in almost all cases, possible to compromise the confidentiality, integrity and availability of workloads executing on it.

All of the above are good reasons to apply Confidential Computing techniques not only to cloud computing, but to Edge computing as well: that’s a topic for another article.


1 – this is something of a simplification, but is a useful generalisation.

2 – Though this assumes that people with authorised access to physical machines are not malicious, a proposition which cannot be guaranteed, but for which monitoring can at least be put in place.

Masks, vaccinations, social distancing – and cybersecurity

The mappingn the realms of cybersecurity and epidemiology is not perfect, but metaphors can be useful.

Waaaaay back in 2018 (which seems a couple of decades ago now), I wrote an article called Security patching and vaccinations: a surprising link. In those days, Spectre and Meltdown were still at the front of our minds, and the impact of something like Covid-19 was, if not unimaginable, then far from what most of us considered in our day-to-day lives. In the article, I argued that patching of software and vaccination (of humans or, I guess, animals[1]) had some interesting parallels (the clue’s in the title, if I’m honest). As we explore the impact of new variants of the Covid-19 virus, the note that “a particular patch may provide resistance to multiple types of attack of the same family, as do some vaccinations” seems particularly relevant. I also pointed out that although there are typically some individuals in a human population for whom vaccination is too risky, a broad effort to vaccinate the rest of the population has positive impact for them; in a similar way to how patching most systems in a deployment can restrict the number of “jumping off points” or attack.

I thought it might be interesting to explore other similarities between disease management in the human sphere with how we do things in cybersecurity, not because they are exact matches, but because they can be useful metaphors to explain to colleagues, family and friends what we do.

Vaccinations

We’ve looked a vaccinations a bit above: the key point here is that once a vulnerability is discovered, software vendors can release patches which, if applied correctly, protect the system from those attacks. This is not dissimilar in effect to the protection provided by vaccinations in human settings, though the mechanism is very different. Computer systems don’t really have an equivalent to anti-bodies or immune systems, but patches may – like vaccines – provide protection for more than one specific attack (think virus strain) if others exploit the same type of weakness.

Infection testing

As we have discovered since the rise of Covid-19, testing of the population is a vital measure to understand what other mechanisms need to be put in place to control infection. The same goes for cybersecurity. Testing the “health” of a set of systems, monitoring their behaviour and understanding which may be compromised, by which attacks, leveraging which vulnerabilities, is a key part of any cybersecurity strategy, and easily overlooked when everything seems to be OK.

Masks

I think of masks as acting a little like firewalls, or mechanisms like SELinux which act to prevent malicious programs from accessing parts of the system which you want to protect. Like masks, these mechanisms reduce the attack surface available to bad actors by stopping up certain “holes” in the system, making it more difficult to get in. In the case of firewalls, it’s network ports, and in the case of SELinux, it’s activities like preventing unauthorised system calls (syscalls). We know that masks are not wholly effective in preventing transmission of Covid-19 – they don’t give 100% protection from oral transmission, and if someone sneezes into your eye, for instance, that could lead to infection – but we also know that if two people are meeting, and they both wear masks, the chance of transmission from an infected to an uninfected person is reduced. Most cybersecurity controls aim mainly to protect the systems on which they reside, but a well thought-out deployment may also aim to put in controls to prevent attackers from jumping from one system to another.

Social distancing

This last point leads us to our final metaphor: social distancing. Here, we put in place controls to try to make it difficult for an attacker (or virus) to jump from one system to another (or human to another). While the rise of zero trust architectures has led to something of a down-playing of some of these techniques within cybersecurity, mechanisms such as DMZs, policies such as no USB drives and, at the extreme end, air-gapping of systems (where there is no direct network connection between them) all aim to create physical or logical barriers to attacks or transmission.

Conclusion

The mapping between controls in the realms of cybersecurity and epidemiology is not perfect, but metaphors can be useful in explaining the mechanisms we use and also in considering differences (is there an equivalent of “virus load” in computer systems, for instance?). If there are lessons we can learn from the world of disease managemet, then we should be keen to do so.


1 – it turns out that you can actually vaccinate plants, too: neat.

Dependencies and supply chains

A dependency on a component is one which that an application or component needs to work

Supply chain security is really, really hot right now. It’s something which folks in the “real world” of manufactured things have worried about for years – you might be surprised (and worried) how much effort aircraft operators need to pay to “counterfeit parts”, and I wish I hadn’t just searched online the words “counterfeit pharmaceutical” – but the world of software had a rude wake-up call recently with the Solarwinds hack (or crack, if you prefer). This isn’t the place to go over that: you’ll be able to find many, many articles if you search on that. In fact, many companies have been worrying about this for a while, but the change is that it’s an issue which is now out in the open, giving more leverage to those who want more transparency around what software they consume in their products or services.

When we in computing (particularly software) think about supply chains, we generally talk about “dependencies”, and I thought it might be useful to write a short article explaining the main dependency types.

What is a dependency?

A dependency on a component is one which that an application or component needs to work, and they are generally considered to come in two types:

  • build-time dependencies
  • run-time dependencies.

Let’s talk about those two types in turn.

Build-time dependencies

these are components which are required in order to build (typically compile and package) your application or library. For example, if I’m writing a program in Rust, I have a dependency on the compiler if I want to create an application. I’m actually likely to have many more run-time dependencies, however. How those dependencies are made visible to me will depend on the programming language and the environment that I’m building in.

Some languages, for instance, may have filesystem support built in, but others will require you to “import” one or more libraries in order to read and write files. Importing a library basically tells your build-time environment to look somewhere (local disk, online repository, etc.) for a library, and then bring it into the application, allowing its capabilities to be used. In some cases, you will be taking pre-built libraries, and in others, your build environment may insist on building them itself. Languages like Rust have clever environments which can look for new versions of a library, download it and compile it without your having to worry about it yourself (though you can if you want!).

To get back to your file system example, even if the language does come with built-in filesystem support, you may decide to import a different library – maybe you need some fancy distributed, sharded file system, for instance – from a different supplier. Other capabilities may not be provided by the language, or may be higher-level capabilities: JSON serialisation or HTTPS support, for instance. Whether that library is available in open source may have a large impact on your decision as to whether or not to use it.

Build-time dependencies, then, require you to have the pieces you need – either pre-built or in source code form – at the time that you’re building your application or library.

Run-time dependencies

Run-time dependencies, as the name implies, only come into play when you actually want to run your application. We can think of there being two types of run-time dependency:

  1. service dependency – this may not be the official term, but think of an application which needs to write some data to a window on a monitor screen: in most cases, there’s already a display manager and a window manager running on the machine, so all the application needs to do is contact it, and communicate the right data over an API. Sometimes, the underlying operating system may need to start these managers first, but it’s not the application itself which is having to do that. These are local services, but remote services – accessing a database, for instance – operate in the same sort of way. As long as the application can contact and communicate with the database, it doesn’t need to do much itself. There’s still a dependency, and things can definitely go wrong, but it’s a weak coupling to an external application or service.
  2. dynamic linking – this is where an application needs access to a library at run-time, but rather than having added it at build-time (“static linking”), it relies on the underlying operating system to provide a link to the library when it starts executing. This means that the application doesn’t need to be as large (it’s not “carrying” the functionality with it when it’s installed), but it does require that the version that the operating system provides is compatible with what’s expected, and does the right thing.

Conclusion

I’ve resisted the temptation to go into the impacts of these different types of dependency in terms of their impact on security. That’s a much longer article – or set of articles – but it’s worth considering where in the supply chain we consider these dependencies to live, and who controls them. Do I expect application developers to check every single language dependency, or just imported libraries? To what extent should application developers design in protections from malicious (or just poorly-written) dynamically-linked libraries? Where does the responsibility lie for service dependencies – particularly remote ones?

These are all complex questions: the supply chain is not a simple topic (partly because there is not just one supply chain, but many of them), and organisations need to think hard about how they work.

3 types of application security

There are security applications and there are applications which have security.

I’m indebted to my friend and colleague, Matt Smith, for putting me on the road to this article: he came up with a couple of the underlying principles that led me to what you see below. Thanks, Matt: we’ll have a beer (and maybe some very expensive wine) – one day.

There are security applications and there are applications which have security: specifically, security features or functionality. I’m not saying that there’s not a cross-over, and you’d hope that security applications have security features, but they’re used for different things. I’m going to use open source examples here (though many of them may have commercial implementations), so let’s say: OpenVPN is a security product, whose reason for existence is to provide a security solution, where as Kubernetes is not a security application, though it does include security features. That gives us two types of application security, but I want to add another distinction. It may sound a little arbitrary, at least from the point of the person designing or implementing the application, but I think it’s really important for those who are consuming – that is, buying, deploying or otherwise using an application. Here are the three:

  1. security application – an application whose main purpose is to solve a security-related problem;
  2. compliance-centric security – security within an application which aims to meet certain defined security requirements;
  3. risk-centric security – security within an application which aims to allow management or mitigation of particular risk.

Types 2 and 3 are subsets of the non-security application (though security applications may well include them!), and may not seem that different, until you look at them from an application user’s point of view. Those differences are what I want to concentrate on in this article.

Compliance-centric

You need a webserver – what do you buy (or deploy)? Well, let’s assume that you work in a regulated industry, or even just that you’ve spent a decent amount of time working on your risk profile, and you decide that you need a webserver which supports TLS 1.3 encryption. This is basically a “tick box” (or “check box” for North American readers): when you consider different products, any which do not meet this requirement are not acceptable options for your needs. They must be compliant – not necessarily to a regulatory regime, but to your specific requirements. There may also be more complex requirements such as FIPS compliance, which can be tested and certified by a third party – this is a good example of a compliance feature which has moved from a regulatory requirement in certain industries and sectors to a well-regarded standard which is accepted in others.

I think of compliance-centric security features as “no” features. If you don’t have them, the response to a sales call is “no”.

Risk-centric

You’re still trying to decide which webserver to buy, and you’ve come down to a few options, all of which meet your compliance requirements: which to choose? Assuming that security is going to be the deciding factor, what security features or functionality do they provide which differentiate them? Well, security is generally about managing risk (I’ve written a lot about this before, see Don’t talk security: talk risk, for example), so you look at features which allow you to manage risks that are relevant to you: this is the list of security-related capabilities which aren’t just compliance. Maybe one product provides HSM integration for cryptographic keys, another One Time Password (OTP) integration, another integrity-protected logging. Each of these allows you to address different types of risk:

  • HSM integration – protect against compromise of private keys
  • OTP integration – protect against compromise of user passwords, re-use of user passwords across sites
  • integrity-protected logging – protect against compromise of logs.

The importance of these features to you will depend on your view of these different risks, and the possible mitigations that you have in place, but they are ways that you can differentiate between the various options. Also, popular risk-centric security features are likely to morph into compliance-centric features as they are commoditised and more products support them: TLS is a good example of this, as is password shadowing in Operating Systems. In a similar way, regulatory regimes (in, for instance, the telecommunications, government, healthcare or banking sectors) help establish minimum risk profiles for applications where customers or consumers of services are rarely in a position to choose their provider based on security capabilities (typically because they’re invisible to them, or the consumers do not have the expertise, or both).

I think of risk-centric security features as “help me” features: if you have them, the response to a sales call is “how will they help me?”.

Why is this important to me?

If you are already a buyer of services, and care about security – you’re a CISO, or part of a procurement department, for instance – you probably consider these differences already. You buy security products to address security problems or meet specific risk profiles (well, assuming they work as advertised…), but you have other applications/products for which you have compliance-related security checks. Other security features are part of how you decide which product to buy.

If you are a developer, architect, product manager or service owner, though, think: what I am providing here? Am I providing a security application, or an application with security features? If the latter, how do I balance where I put my effort? In providing and advertisingcompliance-centric or risk-centric features? In order to get acceptance in multiple markets, I am going to need to address all of their compliance requirements, but that may not leave me enough resources to providing differentiating features against other products (which may be specific to that industry). On the other hand, if I focus too much on differentiation, you may miss important compliance features, and not get in the door at all. If you want to getting to the senior decision makers in a company or organisation and to be seen as a supplier of a key product – one which is not commoditised, but is differentiated from your competitors and really helps organisations manage risk – then you need to thinking about moving to risk-centric security features. But you really, really need to know what compliance-centric features are expected, as otherwise you’re just not going to get in the door.

The importance of hardware End of Life

Security considerations are important when considering End of Life.

Linus Torvald’s announcement this week that Itanium support is “orphaned” in the Linux kernel means that we shouldn’t expect further support for it in the future, and possibly that support will be dropped in the future. In 2019, floppy disk support was dropped from the Linux kernel. In this article, I want to make the case that security considerations are important when considering End of Life for hardware platforms and components.

Dropping support for hardware which customers aren’t using is understandable if you’re a proprietary company and can decide what platforms and components to concentrate on, but why do so in open source software? Open source enthusiasts are likely to be running old hardware for years – sometimes decades after anybody is still producing it. There’s a vibrant community, in fact, of enthusiasts who enjoying resurrecting old hardware and getting it running (and I mean really old: EDSAC (1947) old), some of whom enjoy getting Linux running on it, and some of whom enjoy running it on Linux – by which I mean emulating the old hardware by running it on Linux hardware. It’s a fascinating set of communities, and if it’s your sort of thing, I encourage you to have a look.

But what about dropping open source software support (which tends to centre around Linux kernel support) for hardware which isn’t ancient, but is no longer manufactured and/or has a small or dwindling user base? One reason you might give would be that the size of the kernel for “normal” users (users of more recent hardware) is impacted by support for old hardware. This would be true if you had to compile the kernel with all options in it, but Linux distributions like Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian and RHEL already pare down the number of supported systems to something which they deem sensible, and it’s not that difficult to compile a kernel which cuts that down even further – my main home system is an AMD box (with AMD graphics card) running a kernel which I’ve compiled without most Intel-specific drivers, for instance.

There are other reasons, though, for dropping support for old hardware, and considering that it has met its End of Life. Here are three of the most important.

Resources

My first point isn’t specifically security related, but is an important consideration: while there are many volunteers (and paid folks!) working on the Linux kernel, we (the community) don’t have an unlimited number of skilled engineers. Many older hardware components and architectures are maintained by teams of dedicated people, and the option exists for communities who rely on older hardware to fund resources to ensure that they keep running, are patched against security holes, etc.. Once there ceases to be sufficient funding to keep these types of resources available, however, hardware is likely to become “orphaned”, as in the case of Itanium.

There is also a secondary impact, in that however modularised the kernel is, there is likely to be some requirement for resources and time to coordinate testing, patching, documentation and other tasks associated with kernel modules, which needs to be performed by people who aren’t associated with that particular hardware. The community is generally very generous with its time and understanding around such issues, but once the resources and time required to keep such components “current” reaches a certain level in relation to the amount of use being made of the hardware, it may not make sense to continue.

Security risk to named hardware

People expect the software they run to maintain certain levels of security, and the Linux kernel is no exception. Over the past 5-10 years or so, there’s been a surge in work to improve security for all hardware and platforms which Linux supports. A good example of a feature which is applicable across multiple platforms is Address Space Layout Randomisation (ASLR), for instance. The problem here is not only that there may be some such changes which are not applicable to older hardware platforms – meaning that Linux is less secure when running on older hardware – but also that, even when it is possible, the resources required to port the changes, or just to test that they work, may be unavailable. This relates to the point about resources above: even when there’s a core team dedicated to the hardware, they may not include security experts able to port and verify security features.

The problem goes beyond this, however, in that it is not just new security features which are an issue. Over the past week, issues were discovered in the popular sudo tool which ships with most Linux systems, and libgcrypt, a cryptographic library used by some Linux components. The sudo problem was years old, and the libgcrypt so new that few distributions had taken the updated version, and neither of them is directly related to the Linux kernel, but we know that bugs – security bugs – exist in the Linux kernel for many years before being discovered and patched. The ability to create and test these patches across the range of supported hardware depends, yet again, not just on availability of the hardware to test it on, or enthusiastic volunteers with general expertise in the platform, but on security experts willing, able and with the time to do the work.

Security risks to other hardware – and beyond

There is a final – and possibly surprising – point, which is that there may sometimes be occasions when continuing support for old hardware has a negative impact on security for other hardware, and that is even if resources are available to test and implement changes. In order to be able to make improvements to certain features and functionality to the kernel, sometimes there is a need for significant architectural changes. The best-known example (though not necessarily directly security-related) is the Big Kernel Lock, or BLK, an architectural feature of the Linux kernel until 2.6.39 in 2011, which had been introduced to aid concurrency management, but ended up having significant negative impacts on performance.

In some cases, older hardware may be unable to accept such changes, or, even worse, maintaining support for older hardware may impose such constraints on architectural changes – or require such baroque and complex work-arounds – that it is in the best interests of the broader security of the kernel to drop support. Luckily, the Linux kernel’s modular design means that such cases should be few and far between, but they do need to be taken into consideration.

Conclusion

Some of the arguments I’ve made above apply not only to hardware, but to software as well: people often keep wanting to run software well past its expected support life. The difference with software is that it is often possible to emulate the hardware or software environment on which it is expected to run, often via virtual machines (VMs). Maintaining these environments is a challenge in itself, but may actually offer a via alternative to trying to keep old hardware running.

End of Life is an important consideration for hardware and software, and, much as we may enjoy nursing old hardware along, it doesn’t makes sense to delay the inevitable – End of Life – beyond a certain point. When that point is will depend on many things, but security considerations should be included.

Trust in Computing and the Cloud

I wrote a book.

I usually write and post articles first thing in the morning, before starting work, but today is different. For a start, I’m officially on holiday (so definitely not planning to write any code for Enarx, oh no), and second, I decided that today would be the day that I should finish my book, if I could.

Towards the end of 2019, I signed a contract with Wiley to write a book (which, to be honest, I’d already started) on trust. There’s lots of literature out there on human trust, organisational trust and how humans trust each other, but despite a growing interest in concepts such as zero trust, precious little on how computer systems establish and manage trust relationships to each other. I decided it was time to write a book on this, and also on how trust works (or maybe doesn’t) in the Cloud. I gave myself a target of 125,000 words, simply by looking at a couple of books at the same sort of level and then doing some simple arithmetic around words per page and number of pages. I found out later that I’d got it a bit wrong, and this will be quite a long book – but it turns out that the book that needed writing (or that I needed to write, which isn’t quite the same thing) was almost exactly this long, as when I finished around 1430 GMT today, I found that I was at 124,939 words. I have been tracking it, but not writing to the target, given that my editor told me that I had some latitude, but I’m quite amused by how close it was.

Anyway, I emailed my editor on completion, who replied (despite being on holiday), and given that I’m 5 months or so ahead of schedule, he seems happy (I think they prefer early to late).

I don’t have many more words in me today, so I’m going to wrap up here, but do encourage you to read articles on this blog labelled with “trust”, several of which are edited excerpts from the book. I promise I’ll keep you informed as I get information about publication dates, etc.

Keep safe and have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, or whatever you celebrate.