Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Security and Functionality in a Commodity Hypervisor
Patrick Colp, Mihir Nanavati, Jun Zhu, William Aiello, George Coker, Tim Deegan, Pete Loscocco, and Andrew Warfield
Proc. 23rd ACM SOSP, October 2011.

Cloud computing uses virtualization to lease small slices of large-scale datacenter facilities to individual paying customers. These multi-tenant environments, on which numerous large and popular web-based applications run today, are founded on the belief that the virtualization platform is sufficiently secure to prevent breaches of isolation between different users who are co-located on the same host. Hypervisors are believed to be trustworthy in this role because of their small size and narrow interfaces.

We observe that despite the modest footprint of the hypervisor itself, these platforms have a large aggregate trusted computing base (TCB) that includes a monolithic control VM with numerous interfaces exposed to VMs. We present Xoar, a modified version of Xen that retrofits the modularity and isolation principles used in microkernels onto a mature virtualization platform. Xoar breaks the control VM into single-purpose components called service VMs. We show that this componentized abstraction brings a number of benefits: sharing of service components by guests is configurable and auditable, making exposure to risk explicit, and access to the hypervisor is restricted to the least privilege required for each component. Microrebooting components at configurable frequencies reduces the temporal attack surface of individual components. Our approach incurs little performance overhead, and does not require functionality to be sacrificed or components to be rewritten from scratch.

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