The New Year period of 2018 delivered unpleasant news for the majority of IT users deploying Intel chips for their Mission Critical workloads. Intel chips manufactured since 1995 have been identified as having a security flaw or bug. This kernel level bug has been identified as leaking memory, allowing hackers access to read sensitive data, including passwords, login keys, et al, from the chip itself. It therefore follows, this vulnerability allows malware inserts. Let’s not overlook that x86 chips don’t just reside in PCs, their use is ubiquitous, including servers, the cloud and even mobile devices and the bug impacts all associated operating systems, Windows, Linux, macOS, et al. Obviously, kernel access just bypasses everything security related…
From a classification viewpoint, Meltdown is a hardware vulnerability affecting a plethora of Intel x86 microprocessors, ten or so IBM POWER processors, and some ARM and Apple based microprocessors, allowing a rogue process to read all memory, even when not authorized. Spectre breaks the isolation between different applications, allowing attackers to trick error free programs, which actually follow best practices, into leaking sensitive data and is more pervasive encompassing nearly all chip manufacturers.
There have been a number of software patches issued, firstly in late January 2018, which inevitably caused other usability issues and the patch reliability has become more stable during the last three-month period. Intel now claim to have redesigned their upcoming 8th Generation Xeon and Core processors to further reduce the risks of attacks via the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities. Of course, these patches, whether at the software or firmware level are impacting chip performance, and as always, the figures vary greatly, but anything from 10-25% seems in the ball-park, with obvious consequences!
From a big picture viewpoint, if a technology is pervasive, it’s a prime target for the hacker community. Windows being the traditional easy target, but an even better target is the CPU chip itself, encompassing all associated Operating Systems. If you never had any security concerns from a public cloud viewpoint, arguably that was a questionable attitude, but now these rapidly growing public cloud providers really need to up their game from an infrastructure (IaaS) provision viewpoint. What other chip technologies exist that haven’t been impacted (to date), by these Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities; IBM Z, perhaps not?
On 20 March 2018 at Think 2018 IBM announced the first cloud services with Mainframe class data protection:
- IBM Cloud Hyper Protect Containers: enable enterprises to deploy container-based applications and microservices, supported through the IBM Cloud Container service, managing sensitive data with a security-rich Service Container Systems environment via the IBM Z LinuxONE platform. This environment is built with IBM LinuxONE Systems, designed for EAL5+ isolation and Secure Services Containers technology designed to prevent privileged access from malicious users and Cloud Admins.
From an IBM and indeed industry viewpoint, security concerns should not be a barrier for enterprises looking to leverage from cloud native architecture to transform their business and drive new revenue from data using higher-value services including Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain. Hyper Protect Crypto Services is the cryptography function used by the that IBM blockchain platform. The Hyper Protect Crypto Services – Lite Plan offers free experimental usage of up to 10 crypto slots and is only deleted after 30 days of inactivity.
In a rapidly changing landscape, where AI, Blockchain and IoT are driving rapid cloud adoption, the ever-increasing cybersecurity threat is a clear and present danger. The manifestation of security vulnerabilities in the processor chip, whether Apple, AMD, Arm, IBM, Intel, Qualcomm, et al, has been yet another wake-up alert and call for action for all. Even from an IBM Z ecosystem viewpoint, there were Meltdown and Spectre patches required, and one must draw one’s own conclusions as to the pervasive nature of these exposures.
By enabling FIPS 140-2 Level 4 security via Cloud Hyper Protect Crypto Services and EAL5+ isolation via Cloud Hyper Protect Containers IBM Z LinuxONE, if only on the IBM Cloud platform, IBM are offering the highest levels of security accreditation to the wider IT community. Noting that it was the Google Project Zero team that identified the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerability threats, hopefully Google might consider integrating these IBM Z Enterprise Class security features in their Public Cloud offering? It therefore follows that all major Public Cloud providers including Amazon, Microsoft, Alibaba, Rackspace, et al, might follow suit?
In conclusion, perhaps the greatest lesson learned from the Meltdown and Spectre issue is that all major CPU chips were impacted and in a rapidly moving landscape of ever increasing public cloud adoption, the need for Enterprise Class security has never been more evident. A dispassionate viewpoint might agree that IBM Z delivers Enterprise Class security and for the benefit of all evolving businesses, considering wider and arguably ground-breaking collaboration with technologies such as blockchain, wouldn’t it be beneficial if the generic Public Cloud offerings incorporated IBM Z security technology…