Trusted Virtual Domains on OpenSolaris: Usable Secure Desktop Environments

This is the title of a paper I wrote together with Hans Löhr, Thomas Pöppelmann, Johannes Rave, and Martin Steegmans (all from Ruhr-University Bochum). I presented the paper at ACM STC 2010 in Chicago last year. I think it's worth to share the main idea here, too. Moreover, below you find the links to the paper and the slides of my talk.

Trusted Virtual Domains (TVDs) are a new framework for the implementation of secure multi-domain / single-infrastructure computer networks like centralized data centers or single organizational LANs that span over different physical places. A Trusted Virtual Domain is a set of virtual hosts that are distributed across multiple physical machines and that share a common security policy. Computational resources from different owners share the same physical infrastructure, while strong isolation is enforced between members of different TVDs by the underlying security framework.

Since most existing TVD implementations are research prototypes, not available for the public, and focus on servers and data centers, there are only few efforts on secure desktop environments. To fill this gap, we present in this paper an open-source implementation of TVDs based on the OpenSolaris operating system. We leverage several of its existing features (e.g., lightweight virtualization, security labels and a secure graphical user interface) and extend OpenSolaris with components for automated management and policy enforcement to create a usable desktop implementation of TVDs. This includes the transparent encryption of external storage and home directories of users, restriction of copy-and-paste according to the TVD policy, efficient deployment of images for user environments, and a central management interface for the administration.

The picture above shows the architecture of our TVD on OpenSolaris implementation. The general idea of our architecture is to use the built-in lightweight virtualization features of OpenSolaris, i.e., the zones, to separate the different TVDs from each other. The global zone executes the necessary management code, and deploys and starts the virtualized environments (zones)
representing a TVD. Our system relies on the OpenSolaris kernel which enforces and provides security features such as mandatory and discretionary access control. For intra-TVD communication, our TVD layer establishes logical links between the virtualized environments on different platforms that belong to the same TVD. This logical network is completely isolated from any network traffic from outside that TVD, thus establishing secure channels between the TVD members. The transmission of policies and keys, as well as management messages, is separated in another logical network which cannot be accessed by any TVD. This management network is also used for accessing the network storage that is provided to every user as persistent storage mechanism.

OpenSolaris offers several interesting features, the most prominent ones we used are the filesystem ZFS for our zone image deployment, and the secure graphical user interface (Secure GUI). The screenshot below shows the graphical desktop environment with the trusted path functionality: The GUI system always shows to which TVD a window or virtual screen belongs to (red TVD or green TVD in this example), and this information cannot be faked as the top-most menu bar, the trusted stripe, is under control of the Secure GUI system. Applications running in the TVD zones cannot modify or fake this information.

In this work, we have shown that it is possible to implement TVDs for end-user desktop systems based on OpenSolaris. Our TVD framework features integrated management and transparent data encryption, an efficient deployment of zone images, and puts a particular focus on the ease of administration. Our implementation adds a TVD layer to the OpenSolaris system without any modification of the existing kernel or core security features. Demo videos and source code will be available on the project website.

Paper | Slides