The Guardian Council: Parallel Programmable Hardware Security

Session: Security with little performance loss--Fast and furious!

Authors: Sam Ainsworth (University of Cambridge); Timothy Jones (University of Cambridge)

Systems security is becoming more challenging in the face of untrusted programs and system users. Safeguards against attacks currently in use, such as buffer overflows, control-flow integrity, side channels and malware, are limited. Software protection schemes, while flexible, are often too expensive, and hardware schemes, while fast, are too constrained or out-of-date to be practical. We demonstrate the best of both worlds with the Guardian Council, a novel parallel architecture to enforce a wide range of highly customisable and diverse security policies. We leverage heterogeneity and parallelism in the design of our system to perform security enforcement for a large high-performance core on a set of small microcontroller-sized cores. These Guardian Processing Elements (GPEs) are many orders of magnitude more efficient than conventional out-of-order superscalar processors, bringing high-performance security at very low power and area overheads. Alongside these highly parallel cores we provide fixed-function logging and communication units, and a powerful programming model, as part of an architecture designed for security. Evaluation on a range of existing hardware and software protection mechanisms, reimplemented on the Guardian Council, demonstrates the flexibility of our approach with negligible overheads, out-performing prior work in the literature. For instance, 4 GPEs can provide forward control-flow integrity with 0% overhead, while 6 GPEs can provide a full shadow stack at only 2%.