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VMware, AMD, Samsung and RISC-V push for confidential computing standards

VMware has joined AMD, Samsung, and members of the RISC-V community to work on an open and cross-platform framework for the development and operation of applications using confidential computing hardware.

Revealing the effort at the Confidential Computing Summit 2023 in San Francisco, the companies say they aim to bring about an industry transition to practical confidential computing by developing the open source Certifier Framework for Confidential Computing project.

Among other goals, the project aims to standardize on a set of platform-independent developer APIs that can be used to develop or adapt application code to run in a confidential computing environment, with a Certifier Service overseeing them in operation.

VMware claims to have researched, developed and open sourced the Certifier Framework, but with AMD on board, plus Samsung (which develops its own smartphone chips), the group has the x86 and Arm worlds covered. Also on board is the Keystone project, which is developing an enclave framework to support confidential computing on RISC-V processors.

Confidential computing is designed to protect applications and their data from theft or tampering by protecting them inside a secure enclave, or trusted execution environment (TEE). This uses hardware-based security mechanisms to prevent access from everything outside the enclave, including the host operating system and any other application code.

Such security protections are likely to be increasingly important in the context of applications running in multi-cloud environments, VMware reckons.

Another scenario for confidential computing put forward by Microsoft, which believes confidential computing will become the norm – is multi-party computation and analytics. This sees several users each contribute their own private data to an enclave, where it can be analyzed securely to produce results much richer than each would have got purely from their own data set.

This is described as an emerging class of machine learning and “data economy” workloads that are based on sensitive data and models aggregated from multiple sources, which will be enabled by confidential computing.

However, VMware points out that like many useful hardware features, it will not be widely adopted until it becomes easier to develop applications in the new paradigm.

Cutting effort

The cloud and virtualization giant claims that this is the purpose of the Certifier Framework, which provides platform-independent support for specifying and enforcing trust policies to secure workloads across on-premises and third-party infrastructure, including multi-cloud environments, while the companies will work together on a set of developer APIs across the x86, Arm and RISC-V ecosystems.

According to VMware, the Certifier Framework comprises two parts: one is an application development library (the API) that allows a developer to either port an existing “well-written” application, or develop a fresh one with minimal effort.

The API is said to support multiple confidential computing platforms, so there is no need to rewrite an application that uses the Framework when moving to another platform, it is claimed, and porting an app to a confidential computing environment may only require “half a dozen or so calls to the API.

Open source project

The second part of the framework is the Certifier Service, made up of a number of server applications that evaluate policy and manage trust relationships in a security domain. The purpose of this Certifier Service is to provide a scalable means to deploy many confidential computing applications and enforce security policy.

The group says showed off the technology at the Confidential Computing Summit, including demos of “universal” client-cloud trust management across multiple hardware platforms.

Intel is notably absent from the Certifier Framework group, despite being a premier member of the Confidential Computing Consortium and sponsor of the Confidential Computing Summit itself.

However, AMD’s Raghu Nambiar, VP for Data Center Ecosystems and Solutions, said that working with industry players such as VMware is critical for boosting adoption of confidential computing.

“No matter the size or technical sophistication of an organization, or where a workload is deployed, the Certifier Framework will help more customers realize the benefits of confidential computing,” he said in a statement.

Yong Ho Hwang, Samsung Electronics VP and Head of Security and Privacy, also endorsed it, adding: “We are pleased to be a supporter of the Certifier Framework and share the common goal of accelerating the adoption of confidential computing through a developer-friendly API for confidential computing trust management.”

Readers interested in the initiative can have a look at the Certifier Framework for Confidential Computing on Github. ®

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