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NSA Winds Down Secure Virtualization Platform Development

The National Security Agency's High Assurance Platform integrates security and virtualization technology into a framework that's been commercialized and adopted elsewhere in government.
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While HAP didn't require much coding, Kittleson said, it wasn't a simple integration. Security authorization was one of the biggest challenges for the HAP team. In addition to time, the federal government and General Dynamics spent 18 months just pushing General Dynamics' Trusted Virtual Environment through the certification and accreditation process, meaning that by the time the integrated system was authorized to be deployed in government, its component parts were already a generation behind. It also was difficult, he said, to develop sufficient confidence that there was zero data leakage across virtual machines.

Lamont said he looks back at how HAP was executed and sees it as "a bridge between where we used to be with [government-specific technology] and where we want to go with commercial off-the-shelf [technology]. For future solutions, there's now a different process."

Among the other challenges were performance and enterprise integration. For example, in early tests, machines took as long as 40 minutes to boot (the time is now down to something more like normal boot time), and HAP required some configuration to ensure Active Directory would work with it.

There have been two releases of HAP thus far. The first release, made available in 2009, used local administration, manual provisioning, and manual key management, and required different wires for each security domain. It also didn't support easily sharing information across domains, and only supported three simultaneous virtual machines (VMs).

The more current version of HAP supports better measurements of system integrity, enterprise administration and remote provisioning, automated key management, VPN tunneling to enable the use of only one wire to connect to multiple networks, data-at-rest encryption, and support for more VMs.

Though new development is winding down, HAP has found a home in the government, where, for example, the military, through the Socrates High Assurance Program, has used HAP workstations for to reduce its PC footprint. According to Kittleson, there are multiple "ongoing pilots" of HAP within the Department of Defense. In addition, a number of federal agencies such as the Defense Intelligence Agency have been able to leverage some of NSA's best practices in their own client virtualization efforts.

For the past few years now, NSA has put on an annual conference that dives into HAP technologies. Last year, the conference had about 500 attendees, with dozens of government organizations represented. An exec from PricewaterhouseCoopers, which is using Trusted Computing Modules internally for strong authentication, was among the speakers. The conference will continue even as HAP's new development is wound down, but more as a trusted computing conference. "Anonymously, we've talked to a lot of companies internally about this," Lamont said.

So what's the future hold for HAP? While last year's budget documents signaled that NSA would begin work on a third generation of HAP that other documents show would have added even more security and virtualization features, this was scrapped as the commercial market began offering similar capabilities in integrated packages. Going forward, Lamont said, NSA will continue keeping a close eye on integrated security, as it always has.

"Our focus remains working on the next generation of commercial technologies that can be leveraged for information assurance purposes," he said. "It's the next generation of trusted computing technologies, and whatever the next generation of technologies are."

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