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The Race to Build a Secure Operating System

by Greg on May 11, 2010

By Kevin Coleman
Defense Tech Cyber Warfare Correspondent

In response to the continuous compromise of networks, multiple countries have begun developing secure platforms and operating systems. Computer companies, university researchers, defense R&D contractors and militaries around the world recognize the criticality of networks and embedded processors within their equipment. They also recognize how vulnerable they are and that’s why so much attention is being given to building in security at every level of the system including the operating system.

As discussed here, China’s Trusted Computing Platform (TCP) program has been underway for some time now and can be traced back to the early 2000s. The Chinese TCP includes multiple layers of built-in security, as well as trusted computing components at the chip operating system level and the machine operating system level.

European Union
Early in 2009 a Dutch university was awarded a grant for $3.3 million from the European Research Council to fund 5 more years of work on a Unix derivative version operating system called Minix. This research effort is designed to be more resilient and secure than either Linus or Windows. The most impressive feature in Minix is said to be its self healing feature. This is believed to be the first operating system with the capable of fixing itself when a bug is detected.

Australia
One of the more recent secure operating systems in the world is the Secure Microkernel Project (seL4). Late in 2009 NICTA announced that it has completed the formal verification of the seL4 kernel. It is believed that this makes seL4 the world’s first general purpose OS kernel with a formal mathematical proof that the implementation does what the specification says. The proof is machine checked and one of the largest ever done.

United States
In April, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago received a $1.15 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build a new computer operating system called Ethos. This secure OS is said to be based on virtual machines and the concept of isolation. Ethos is based on the Xen hypervisor and is being created with security as its primary objective.

Conclusion

The need to build security in at every level of a system is clear given how many networks have been penetrated, as well as the ever increasing frequency of complex and sophisticated cyber attacks. A secure operating system would be a huge step forward in reducing the overall vulnerability of critical systems and computing capabilities embedded in equipment. While there are other secure operating systems in play within the United States, Secure Linux seems to be the leader at this point. This is clearly part of the cyber defense arms race.

Photo: iPhoto/Simon Smith

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