Flux Research Group / School of Computing

Lightweight Capability Domains: Towards Decomposing the Linux Kernel

Charles Jacobsen, Muktesh Khole, Sarah Spall, Scotty Bauer, and Anton Burtsev

Programming Languages and Operating Systems (PLOS) 2015.

DOI: 10.1145/2818302.2818307

Operating Systems, Security


Despite a number of radical changes in how computer systems are used, the design principles behind the very core of the systems stack—an operating system kernel—has remained unchanged for decades. We run monolithic kernels developed with a combination of an unsafe programming language, global sharing of data structures, opaque interfaces, and no explicit knowledge of kernel protocols. Today, the monolithic architecture of a kernel is the main factor undermining its security, and even worse, limiting its evolution towards a safer, more secure environment. Lack of isolation across kernel subsystems allows attackers to take control over the entire machine with a single kernel vulnerability. Furthermore, complex, semantically rich monolithic code with globally shared data structures and no explicit interfaces is not amenable to formal analysis and verification tools. Even after decades of work to make monolithic kernels more secure, over a hundred serious kernel vulnerabilities are still reported every year.

Modern kernels need decomposition as a practical means of confining the effects of individual attacks. Historically, decomposed kernels were prohibitively slow. Today, the complexity of a modern kernel prevents a trivial decomposition effort. We argue, however, that despite all odds modern kernels can be decomposed. Careful choice of communication abstractions and execution model, a general approach to decomposition, a path for incremental adoption, and automation through proper language tools can address complexity of decomposition and performance overheads of decomposed kernels. Our work on lightweight capability domains (LCDs) develops principles, mechanisms, and tools that enable incremental, practical decomposition of a modern operating system kernel.