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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/V000292/1
Title: CHERI for Hypervisors and Operating Systems (CHaOS)
Principal Investigator: Watson, Dr R N M
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
ARM Ltd Google Hewlett Packard Inc
Department: Computer Science and Technology
Organisation: University of Cambridge
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 01 October 2020 Ends: 31 July 2024 Value (£): 875,939
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Fundamentals of Computing Software Engineering
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Aerospace, Defence and Marine
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
06 Apr 2020 ISCF Digital Security by Design Research Projects Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
Software compartmentalisation is the decomposition of larger software packages - such as web browser or OS kernels - into isolated components. Each is granted limited rights to utilize system services or communicate with other isolated components. Intuitively, vulnerability mitigation from compartmentalisation is grounded in the principle of least privilege, which argues that security is improved by minimising the set of privileges available to those required. Compromised software will yield fewer rights and limit further attack surfaces to a successful attacker.

In prior work, we have developed CHERI, a set of architectural extensions to RISC instruction-set architectures to support efficient, fine-grained memory protection and scalable software compartmentalisation. Supported by the UK Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), Arm is creating the Morello CPU, SoC, and board, a high-end, industrial-quality demonstrator of the CHERI principles embodied within a commercial hardware design. This platform has the potential to support far more granular and more easily integrated compartmentalization support than convention hardware designs. However, the current research software stacks for CHERI have been almost entirely focused on memory protection rather than compartmentalisation -- in part because the software operational models associated with CHERI-based compartmentalisation have not yet been established.

We propose to design, prototype, and evaluate new CHERI-based compartmentalisation techniques usable to support fine-grained, scalable software compartmentalisation of real-world software on the Morello board, building a deep understanding (as well as practical prototypes) spanning a rich range of use cases and operational models. CHaOS will enable extensive adoption of software compartmentalisation in systems software stacks, offering strong mitigation for many known (and also still-to-be-discovered) vulnerability classes and exploit techniques affecting server, desktop, mobile, and embedded systems.

CHaOS will investigate the hypotheses that: (1) CHERI can support multiple effective operational models for compartmentalisation; (2) approaches to CHERI compartmentalisation must cater to substantial differences up and down the systems stack; (3) detailed elaboration of compartmentalisation will turn up critical practical considerations (e.g., as relates to debugging); and (4) further refinement of the CHERI (and Morello) architectures may be required as a result of lessons learned in this work.

We will explore these hypotheses across the systems software stack: the hypervisor, general-purpose OS kernel, and user applications. Our existing open-source corpus adapted for CHERI memory safety will be our starting point: the FreeBSD kernel and userspace, the PostgreSQL database, and Apple's WebKit. With our industrial partners on this proposal (Arm, Google, HPI, and Microsoft), we will extend our investigation to include Arm's Morello Android, Google's Hafnium hypervisor, HPI's printer software stack, and Microsoft's Verona language runtime.

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Organisation Website: http://www.cam.ac.uk