SAN MATEO, Calif. IBM Corp. said the ThinkPad T30 high-end notebook computer it rolled out Wednesday (April 24) is the first system to use a new class of hardware security chips defined by an ad hoc industry consortium. Some models of the T30 will include an Atmel Corp. processor that complies with the Trusted Computing Platform Alliance (TCPA) specification version 1.1, IBM said.
Several other companies are expected to launch systems over the next few months that use TCPA 1.1 chips, which are also being made by Infineon, National Semiconductor and STMicroelectronics. Even so, IBM and other industry sources said the move is a very small step in an enormous effort needed to make the PC a more secure platform.
The chips, known as Trusted Platform Modules, generally include a 16-bit microprocessor, a random number generator, hashing capabilities and a significant amount of non-volatile memory. Among the security features TPMs provide are an ability to generate and securely store digital certificates and private keys on-chip, hardware support for multiple authentication schemes and the encryption/decryption of files on demand.
IBM has used proprietary silicon to provide similar features on some of its computers since 1999, but the T30 marks the first system to comply with the TCPA spec, announced in January 2001. IBM has so far shipped about three million systems using its proprietary security module, said Robert Enochs, product manager for IBM's T-series notebooks. "We'll see an evolution to make this more common across the line," he said.
Small and gradual
Some semiconductor makers have expressed frustration with the slow pace of TCPA 1.1-compliant systems' trek to market. The TCPA was formed in the fall of 1999 and its spec was issued 15 months ago. Even now, few will predict the size of the ramp for compliant products, though most expect it will be small and gradual.
The TCPA spec has significant limits. It does not provide network and software support to let separate systems query each other to set up a secure connection. That will have to wait for version 1.2 of the spec, which is still under discussion at the TCPA. It will also have to wait for operating system support from Microsoft Corp., something most observers don't expect until Longhorn, the next major version of Windows due in 2004.
"There are substantial enhancements to 1.2 that require integration into the OS," said Stacy Cannady, product manager for the embedded security subsystems at IBM. "My expectation is the open-source community will have an implementation, probably on SE Linux, that will be the first [to support that]."
Today's modules can be used to ensure at boot-up that a system has not been corrupted by rogue software, but "once the OS is loaded, anyone can do anything," said Jean-Jacques Simon, R&D technology program manager for business desktops at Hewlett-Packard Co. "What's lacking is something in the OS that takes advantage of this. Windows XP doesn't do this."
Nevertheless, Simon and some chip makers said they expect many motherboards will begin to include TPMs this year.
At the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference last Friday (April 19), Microsoft said it is developing "software primitives" to authenticate and secure hard-disk drives. However, company representatives said the software giant is still working through many the many thorny issues of PC security and may not have more substantial efforts to announce for at least two months.
"This is just the beginning of a very long road," said Stephen Heil, a technology evangelist for Microsoft's Windows hardware group, who is involved with the TCPA.