IBM, with researchers at North Carolina State University, has annnounced an effective way to protect information and processes in multi-tenant environments – such as cloud and virtual deployments. In what they are calling the Strongly Isolated Computing Environment, installed below the hypervisor. The teaser is that the code is a mere 300 lines – a very small footprint means simplicity, which in turn implies both performance and security.

A new technique called Strongly Isolated Computing Environment (SICE) aims to isolate sensitive information and workload from the rest of the functions performed by a hypervisor, which serves as gateway to a virtual, cross-platform workspace shared by users in a cloud system.

This is positioned as VMM security for x86 architectures, residing in the BIOS. The code leverages the Systems Management Mode (SMM) of the Intel processor – think of it as something between a mini embedded OS and a hardware debugger. SMM is a general utility used for things such as power management, cryptographic subprocesses, and the occasional attack vector. The flexibility of this feature makes the approach interesting. But make no mistake: this is not ‘cloud’ security. This is quasi-hardware security for the benefit of virtual machine managers. Hijacking the overused ‘cloud’ term is purely PR.

While the research is not fully public at this time, it’s clear their goal is to provide secure containers for data and processes in multi-tenant environments. I find this interesting as, despite wide use of virtualization, questions on how best to secure the hypervisor – and the partitions that run on top of it – are still open for debate. And plenty of companies are offering different ideas for how to make this work. Technically the NC State team’s proposal is not a new approach. Isolating critical functions at the OS/BIOS/hardware layer has been done before – sometimes all three at once, with each layer validating the other. Nor is reducing attack surface a novel concept. And that’s why I am skeptical – given that every few years we are presented with a ‘new’ approach to security, which is as a rule nothing more than cycling through the different layers of the computing infrastructure. Network centric security, or host or OS security, or application layer, or perhaps user and and information centric security. For example, if you are using information centric security, you work at the data (DRM) or application (DLP) layer. The problem is that we have been cycling around for 20 years, and we never settle on a final answer.

Chris Hoff has written a ton about this perpetual cycle, and suggested why we should expect virtualization and security functions to evolve directly into the CPU. I think this is the first of many efforts we will see. Placing these functions in the BIOS/SMM could be the right solution – or just the next step before it’s fully embedded in the hardware. And then we’ll find that’s not flexible enough and place protections in the OS….