Improving Data Security

Why hardware encryption is so important for embedded storage.


For industrial, military and a multitude of modern business applications, data security is of course incredibly important. While software based encryption often works well for consumer and some enterprise environments, in the context of the embedded systems used in industrial and military applications, something that is of a simpler nature and is intrinsically more robust is usually going to be needed.

Self encrypting drives utilize on-board cryptographic processors to secure data at the drive level. This not only increases drive security automatically, but does so transparently to the user and host operating system. By automatically encrypting data in the background, they thus provide the simple to use, resilient data security that is required by embedded systems.

Embedded vs. enterprise data security
Both embedded and enterprise storage often require strong data security. Depending on the industry sectors involved this is often related to the securing of customer (or possibly patient) privacy, military data or business data. However that is where the similarities end. Embedded storage is often used in completely different ways from enterprise storage, thereby leading to distinctly different approaches to how data security is addressed.

Enterprise storage usually consists of racks of networked disk arrays in a data center, while embedded storage is often simply a solid state drive (SSD) installed into an embedded computer or device. The physical security of the data center can be controlled by the enterprise, and software access control to enterprise networks (or applications) is also usually implemented. Embedded devices, on the other hand – such as tablets, industrial computers, smartphones, or medical devices – are often used in the field, in what are comparatively unsecure environments. Data security in this context has no choice but to be implemented down at the device level.

Hardware-based full disk encryption
For embedded applications where access control is far from guaranteed, it is all about securing the data as automatically and transparently as possible. Full disk, hardware based encryption has shown itself to be the best way of achieving this goal.

Full disk encryption (FDE) achieves high degrees of both security and transparency by encrypting everything on a drive automatically. Whereas file based encryption requires users to choose files or folders to encrypt, and also calls for them to provide passwords or keys to decrypt them, FDE works completely transparently. All data written to the drive is encrypted, yet, once authenticated, a user can access the drive as easily as an unencrypted one. This not only makes FDE much easier to use, but also means that it is a more reliable method of encryption, as all data is automatically secured. Files that the user forgets to encrypt or doesn’t have access to (such as hidden files, temporary files and swap space) are all nonetheless automatically secured.

While FDE can be achieved through software techniques, hardware based FDE performs better, and is inherently more secure. Hardware based FDE is implemented at the drive level, in the form of a self encrypting SSD. The SSD controller contains a hardware cryptographic engine, and also stores private keys on the drive itself.

Because software based FDE relies on the host processor to perform encryption, it is usually slower – whereas hardware based FDE has much lower overhead as it can take advantage of the drive’s integrated crypto-processor. Hardware based FDE is also able to encrypt the master boot record of the drive, which conversely software based encryption is unable to do.

Hardware centric FDEs are transparent to not only the user, but also the host operating system. They work transparently in the background and no special software is needed to run them. Besides helping to maximize ease of use, this also means sensitive encryption keys are kept separate from the host operating system and memory, as all private keys are stored on the drive itself.

Improving data security
Besides providing the transparent, easy to use encryption that is now being sought, hardware- based FDE also has specific benefits for data security in modern SSDs. NAND cells have a finite service life and modern SSDs use advanced wear leveling algorithms to extend this as much as possible. Instead of overwriting the NAND cells as data is updated, write operations are constantly moved around a drive, often resulting in multiple copies of a piece of data being spread across an SSD as a file is updated. This wear leveling technique is extremely effective, but it makes file based encryption and data erasure much more difficult to accomplish, as there are now multiple copies of data to encrypt or erase.

FDE solves both these encryption and erasure issues for SSDs. Since all data is encrypted, there are not any concerns about the presence of unencrypted data remnants. In addition, since the encryption method used (which is generally 256-bit AES) is extremely secure, erasing the drive is as simple to do as erasing the private keys.

Solving embedded data security
Embedded devices often present considerable security challenges to IT departments, as these devices are often used in uncontrolled environments, possibly by unauthorized personnel. Whereas enterprise IT has the authority to implement enterprise wide data security policies and access control, it is usually much harder to implement these techniques for embedded devices situated in industrial environments or used out in the field.

The simple solution for data security in embedded applications of this kind is hardware based FDE. Self encrypting drives with hardware crypto-processors have minimal processing overhead and operate completely in the background, transparent to both users and host operating systems. Their ease of use also translates into improved security, as administrators do not need to rely on users to implement security policies, and private keys are never exposed to software or operating systems.