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9/24/2009
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Full Disk Encryption Evolves

The Opal standard paves the way for hardware-based encryption.

Management's A Must

Consider yourself warned: Without an integrated management infrastructure, enterprise deployment and support of Opal-compliant hard drives will be a nightmare. There are a few key features that are essential. For starters, organizations must manage boot passwords and password resets. If an employee leaves, becomes unavailable, or just forgets the password, IT needs a way to access the data on the drive. Conversely, if an IT administrator leaves, the organization must be able to change admin accounts.

Another necessary function is the ability to report on the state of a given laptop or asset. If a device goes missing, can you demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the drive was indeed protected via encryption? This capability will have a major impact on compliance with state breach disclosure laws and limit the fallout from potential data loss.

These use cases require a centralized management platform that can communicate with endpoints. We're aware of only one vendor--Wave Systems--that's shipping a management platform to tie all of this together. Wave uses a "pre-boot" operating system to set up admin and user accounts for unlocking the hard drive's encryption keys before the OS boots, and also has a Windows agent that can sync these accounts with Active Directory.

At A Glance
SELECTED FULL DISK ENCRYPTION PLAYERS
Opal hard-drive manufacturers:
Fujitsu, Hitachi, Samsung, Seagate Technology
Opal management software vendor:
Wave Systems
Laptop vendors shipping Opal drives: Dell, Lenovo
Software-based FDE vendors:
Check Point Software, Guardian Edge, McAfee, Microsoft, PGP
So will software-based FDE products go the way of the dodo? Not likely--organizations with global software FDE deployments aren't about to rip them out. It also will take time for companies to swap in laptops with Opal-compatible drives. Software FDE vendors certainly don't project a sense of urgency, either. McAfee and Check Point say they see the need for managing hardware- and software-based FDE. But neither has announced timelines for Opal support.

In contrast, on the manufacturing side, vendor support for hardware-based FDEs is good. In the last six months, Fujitsu, Hitachi, and Samsung have debuted Opal-compliant drives, and system vendors Dell and Lenovo are shipping laptops with Opal-based drives. In fact, the hardware-based approach is going to come faster than some FDE vendors are envisioning. The technology will find a warm reception among organizations struggling with their FDE strategies, because the advantages are too compelling to ignore.

Greg Shipley is CTO of Neohapsis, an information security and risk management firm.

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