ACES: Automatic Compartments for Embedded Systems


Abraham A Clements, Purdue University and Sandia National Labs; Naif Saleh Almakhdhub, Saurabh Bagchi, and Mathias Payer, Purdue University


Securing the rapidly expanding Internet of Things (IoT) is critical. Many of these “things” are vulnerable bare-metal embedded systems where the application executes directly on hardware without an operating system. Unfortunately, the integrity of current systems may be compromised by a single vulnerability, as recently shown by Google’s P0 team against Broadcom’s WiFi SoC.

We present ACES (Automatic Compartments for Embedded Systems) 1 , an LLVM-based compiler that automatically infers and enforces inter-component isolation on bare-metal systems, thus applying the principle of least privileges. ACES takes a developer-specified compartmentalization policy and then automatically creates an instrumented binary that isolates compartments at runtime, while handling the hardware limitations of bare-metal embedded devices. We demonstrate ACES’ ability to implement arbitrary compartmentalization policies by implementing three policies and comparing the compartment isolation, runtime overhead, and memory overhead. Our results show that ACES’ compartments can have low runtime overheads (13% on our largest test application), while using 59% less Flash, and 84% less RAM than the Mbed μVisor—the current state-of-the-art compartmentalization technique for bare-metal systems. ACES ‘ compartments protect the integrity of privileged data, provide control-flow integrity between compartments, and reduce exposure to ROP attacks by 94.3% compared to μVisor.

Open Access Media

USENIX is committed to Open Access to the research presented at our events. Papers and proceedings are freely available to everyone once the event begins. Any video, audio, and/or slides that are posted after the event are also free and open to everyone. Support USENIX and our commitment to Open Access.

@inproceedings {217545,
author = {Abraham A Clements and Naif Saleh Almakhdhub and Saurabh Bagchi and Mathias Payer},
title = {{ACES}: Automatic Compartments for Embedded Systems},
booktitle = {27th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 18)},
year = {2018},
isbn = {978-1-939133-04-5},
address = {Baltimore, MD},
pages = {65--82},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

Presentation Video 

Presentation Audio