The Xen open source virtualisation project has started development of technology that aims to increase the level of security in open source software.
The offering, dubbed Security Enchanced Xen or XenSE, could increase the level of security for desktop users, Intel researcher Rolf Neubauer told vnunet.com at the Research at Intel Day at the company's headquarters in Santa Clara, California.
XenSE is designed to allow desktop users to create securely separated compartments to run applications that contain highly confidential information. The system would prevent such data from overflowing from one compartment to another.
The technology could end current practice at banks, hospitals and government agencies where applications containing sensitive data are run on a second computer that does not have an internet connection.
Although XenSE would also benefit servers, Neubauer considered the desktop to offer greater potential because virtualisation has been available on enterprise servers for years.
Xen started out as a Cambridge University project partially funded by Intel. It is now the principal virtualisation technology for Linux, and will soon be shipping as part of the Red Hat and SuSE Linux distributions.
The technology allows users to split a single system into several virtual systems. As virtualisation creates the illusion that each of the systems runs on its own hardware, it enables server consolidation.
Software security is measured by Evaluation Assurance Levels. On a scale from one to seven, this indicates the level of trust that users can attribute to a system in having the capability to resist attacks.
Red Hat, SuSE and Windows are all at level four, which is generally considered the highest that can be reached by any commercial and widely available software application.
"We hope that XenSE will be verifiable for EAL level five security," said Neubauer, adding that this would make it the only open source application with such a level of security certification.
Neubauer explained that this strength of security is required because the virtualisation engine sets the bar for all the software that runs on top; if Xen was at level three, it would force the operating system down to level three as well.
As part of the project, Intel is heading up development of a virtual version of the Trusted Platform Module (TPM) to create secure and separated compartments inside a computer. The virtual TPM would create an unbreakable boundary between each compartment.
The TPM is an industry standard chip, governed by the non-profit making Trusted Computing Group that is used to encrypt and safely store data. IBM will focus on memory access control, according to Neubauer.
Neubauer indicated that the project will not be finished until version 4.0 of the virtualisation product is ready. Xen is currently wrapping up development of version 3.0.
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