Hardware support for compartmentalisation


Compartmentalisation is a technique to reduce the impact of security bugs by enforcing the ‘principle of least privilege’ within applications. Splitting programs into separate components that each operate with minimal access to resources means that a vulnerability in one part is prevented from affecting the whole. However, the performance costs and development effort of doing this have so far prevented widespread deployment of compartmentalisation, despite the increasingly apparent need for better computer security. A major obstacle to deployment is that existing compartmentalisation techniques rely either on virtual memory hardware or pure software to enforce separation, both of which have severe performance implications and complicate the task of developing compartmentalised applications. CHERI (Capability Hardware Enhanced RISC Instructions) is a research project which aims to improve computer security by allowing software to precisely express its memory access requirements using hardware support for bounded, unforgeable pointers known as capabilities. One consequence of this approach is that a single virtual address space can be divided into many independent compartments, with very efficient transitions and data sharing between them. This dissertation analyses the compartmentalisation features of the CHERI Instruction Set Architecture (ISA). It includes: a summary of the CHERI ISA, particularly its compartmentalisation features; a description of a multithreaded CHERI CPU which runs the FreeBSD Operating System; the results of benchmarks that compare the characteristics of hardware supported compartmentalisation with traditional techniques; and an evaluation of proposed optimisations to the CHERI ISA to further improve domain crossing efficiency. I find that the CHERI ISA provides extremely efficient, practical support for compartmentalisation and that there are opportunities for further optimisation if even lower overhead is required in the future.

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@inproceedings{Norton2016HardwareSF, title={Hardware support for compartmentalisation}, author={R. M. Norton}, year={2016} }