Microsoft researchers create a secure haven in the Cloud

To ensure trusted cloud operations, Microsoft Haven uses a new type of virtual machine and a set of new Intel chip security calls

Microsoft researchers have figured out a new way to keep data and applications secure in the cloud, by cordoning them off in memory from the underlying infrastructure.

The approach, which Microsoft calls Haven, could help enterprises feel more comfortable using the cloud for mission-essential data and applications, said the researchers, who are presenting the approach at the USENIX Symposium on Operating Systems Design and Implementation in Broomfield, Colorado, this week. Microsoft researchers Andrew Baumann, Marcus Peinado and Galen Hunt authored a paper about Haven, which USENIX named the best of the conference.

They use a technique called "shielded execution," which protects the program and associated data from the platform on which they run, including the cloud provider's operating system, administrative software, firmware, and other software that supports the application.

Haven provides additional protection that can't be offered by existing techniques, runs on commodity operating systems and works with any legacy application.

"The single most common barrier to adopting cloud computing is the lack of trust in the cloud provider's ability to provide the same level of confidentiality and integrity as one could with an on-premise solution," wrote Jonathan Trull, chief information security officer for security research firm Qualys, in an email exchange about Haven.

Haven relies on two new technologies.

One is Intel's Software Guard Extensions (SGX), a set of CPU instructions for setting aside private areas in memory.

The other is Microsoft's Drawbridge, an experimental virtual container that can offer secure sandboxing of applications.

Using the processor as a part of the security setup is a move in the right direction, security professionals say. IBM also uses this approach to attract security-sensitive customers for its Softlayer cloud.

Haven is "a very intriguing concept," said Wolfgang Kandek, Qualys chief technology officer, via email. Kandek praised Intel for investigating how to add security-related calls to its CPU instructions. Chip-based security will ensure that programs can have additional protections without sacrificing performance, he said.

Microsoft has not said publicly if it will use the still-experimental Haven for its own Azure cloud services.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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