Protecting Cloud Virtual Machines from Hypervisor and Host Operating System Exploits


Shih-Wei Li, John S. Koh, and Jason Nieh, Columbia University


Hypervisors are widely deployed by cloud computing providers to support virtual machines, but their growing complexity poses a security risk as large codebases contain many vulnerabilities. We have created HypSec, a new hypervisor design for retrofitting an existing commodity hypervisor using microkernel principles to reduce its trusted computing base while protecting the confidentiality and integrity of virtual machines. HypSec partitions the hypervisor into an untrusted host that performs most complex hypervisor functionality without access to virtual machine data, and a trusted core that provides access control to virtual machine data and performs basic CPU and memory virtualization. Hardware virtualization support is used to isolate and protect the trusted core and execute it at a higher privilege level so it can mediate virtual machine exceptions and protect VM data in CPU and memory. HypSec takes an end-to-end approach to securing I/O to simplify its design, with applications increasingly using secure network connections in the cloud. We have used HypSec to retrofit KVM, showing how our approach can support a widely-used full-featured hypervisor integrated with a commodity operating system. The implementation has a trusted computing base of only a few thousand lines of code, many orders of magnitude less than KVM. We show that HypSec protects the confidentiality and integrity of virtual machines running unmodified guest operating systems while only incurring modest performance overhead for real application workloads.

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@inproceedings {236276,
author = {Shih-Wei Li and John S. Koh and Jason Nieh},
title = {Protecting Cloud Virtual Machines from Hypervisor and Host Operating System Exploits},
booktitle = {28th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 19)},
year = {2019},
isbn = {978-1-939133-06-9},
address = {Santa Clara, CA},
pages = {1357--1374},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

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