Qubes OS: An Operating System Designed For Security

The Slowly Evolving World Of Security

Alan: Do you see Qubes as simply a proof-of-concept or something that will ultimately be a mainstream release?

Joanna: Definitely not a proof of concept! We hope it will be of interest to various organizations, commercial and government, which care about data security and are willing to invest some effort into configuring Qubes desktops. We plan to work on some commercial extensions, such as centralized policy management. The Qubes architecture is just great for use with Remote Attestation technology that might provide good security control to the IT staff over how employees’ workstations are configured (i.e. that they are configured properly).

On the other hand, I'm realistic enough to realize that it would never be a system for home users. The setup part would be just too difficult for a typical user, at least to do it right.

Alan: Are you still on track for a production-quality, stable release in October?

Joanna: I'd rather expect it at the end of the year :)

Alan: Why do you think things happen so slowly in security? We have the hardware technology to develop more secure operating systems. But it’s slow to get adopted. TPM still isn’t a standard feature on every new computer in 2011, despite the fact that it was introduced seven years ago. We even have software technology to develop secure systems, but it’s not getting implemented either. What will it take to get companies on-board?

Joanna: TPM is not something that can auto-magically make your system more secure. It can help implement trusted boot, which might be a reasonably good measure against Evil Maid Attacks, but doesn't make your OS any more secure against software attacks.

Much more important security technology is the previously-mentioned Intel VT-d, which allows for creation of untrusted driver subsystems like an untrusted networking subsystem, a USB subsystem, and so on. But this requires a radical redesign of the OS, so no surprise that it's not being adopted by most vendors.

I'm not sure which "software technology to develop secure systems" you have in mind? Perhaps you’re referring to Safe Languages and projects like Microsoft's Singularity?

Alan: Yeah.

Joanna: Well, when we read some early papers from the Singularity folks, such as this one, we see how excited they were about the software-enforced isolation that they have even proposed to remove some hardware isolation technologies from the processor (MMU, ring0/3)! Then, fast-forward two years ahead, and in another paper from the same folks, we see how they suddenly start to reconsider the use of hardware-enforced memory protection. Why do you think this happened? Because, hardware-enforced memory protection happens in just a bunch of gates (say a few thousand, maybe?), while the safe language-enforced protection is likely to be millions of lines of code that comprise the compiler/verifier and the runtime (e.g. garbage collector) that all need to be trusted!

So, don't get me wrong, I wish we had more software written in safe languages (I would love to have an email client written in a safe language), but we will never be able to replace the low-level hardware security mechanisms, such as memory protection (MMU), or DMA protection (IOMMU). The latter technology (Intel VT-d is an example of IOMMU) is absolutely critical, and even the early reports from the Singularity people (the optimistic ones) still recognize it.

  • Interesting.
  • iam2thecrowe
    i wont use it, because i dont really understand half of what is written in the article, they lost me at Bare Metal Hypervisor, but what the hell is with the seemingly random picture of the woman with the scarfe around her neck?
  • OpenBSD: An Operating System Designed For Security
    iam2thecrowei wont use it, because i dont really understand half of what is written in the article, they lost me at Bare Metal Hypervisor, but what the hell is with the seemingly random picture of the woman with the scarfe around her neck?
    The "bare metal hypervisor" is Xen. In a nutshell, it runs directly on the hardware of the server machine, and that is all it does (you install Xen, and it consumes the whole drive) You then install your operating systems virtually ontop of Xen. To access your operating system, you login to it from another machine using special Xen client software.

    As Xen is what runs the amazon elastic cloud, there is need for high security OSes like Qubes for enterprise business applications.
  • FloKid
    Life always finds a way. I just wonder if you put a function for a USB and a function for an ethernet port in the same code, won't that start two kernels even if they are isolated and basically give you access to both in the same code? I might not be getting something, but I could see the same program having a hard time accessing all of the other kernels, since they are not in the same process. Could be good I guess, but I can see sorta a way around that if you have other malicious software already running hidden.
  • 3-R4Z0R
    So this is essentially the same thing as Minix, only that it's been reinventing Minix again (just like about 20 other projects during the last 15 years that have never come as far as EU funded Minix which is even partially POSIX compatible)?
  • i`d hit
  • nevertell
    So what they are doing is sandboxing stuff into partitions using Xen ? WHY?
    I am more interested how are they making the transition between the domains, because if they're using IOMMU to have a discrete videocard available to the domains, how are they sharing it between the domains ?

    Tom's, you could make an article about virtualizing Windows 7 on top of xen with a normal Ubuntu install in dom0 and have a discreet videocard for windows 7 and use the integrated one for ubuntu/linux, like a sandy bridge igpu and some nvidia/radeon. If you prove that the transition between the domains is fast and easy, this would be AWESOME for regular linux users, as I hate to reboot to play some games. But that way, I could just switch between the domains, at any given time. I mean, RAM is cheap.

  • killerclick
    Wow, it's a girl. Let's have an article about her, it'll draw the horny teenager crowd!
  • amigafan
    Lol there would be more comments on this particular article but veterans know they'd quickly get decimated with thumbs downs ;)

    I won't even bother with mentioning "kitchen" in any context :D