All kinds of data from government secrets to credit card numbers are vulnerable to computer hacking, but new defenses could be on the way with the help of a nationwide team of security experts, including a Clemson University assistant professor.
Hongxin Hu from Clemson's School of Computing plays a key role in a research project that brings together computer experts from five universities with $3 million from the National Science Foundation and the company VMware.
The operating system they are creating, S2OS, could fundamentally change how large computer and network systems are built, making the data stored and transmitted in them more secure. It could be transformative for cloud computing, which has become critical to the nation's cyberinfrastructure.
Companies and institutions that manage data-center servers would benefit most directly from the team's research. But the end user with a laptop, smartphone or other computer would also be able to rest easier because the system would better protect their data, ranging from emails to passwords, Hu said.
"Traditionally, many of our critical systems have been developed with security as a reactive add-on, rather than by default design," he said. "As a result, the security mechanisms are often fragmented, hard to configure, and hard to verify, which makes it difficult to defend against various cyber attacks. But the new system would build security directly into computer infrastructure.
"All data goes through networking infrastructure. If you use a website or check emails, the system we are building will check all the data for threats."
The research begins as a growing number of individuals, companies and institutions store information in the "cloud."
The cloud is a network of servers that allow users to store information in off-site data centers rather than on their own hardware. For the average consumer, it could be a photo uploaded to Instagram or a document stored on Google Drive.
Businesses are also using the cloud to share resources and gain competitive advantage, a concept that experts call enterprise cloud computing.
"We expect our project to make transformative contributions to how enterprise, data centers and cloud computing are built and managed securely," Hu said. "The proposed work will lower the total cost of ownership for clouds, further unlocking economic and environmental benefits, as well as improving the security of today's clouds."
The team pulls together a diversity of expertise in security, networking, and computer systems and includes: Guofei Gu of Texas A&M University; Eric Keller of the University of Colorado Boulder; Zhiqiang Lin of the University of Texas at Dallas; and Donald Porter of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The team will be working with software-defined infrastructure, a fast-growing way of controlling data-center servers. It encompasses networking, storage and computing resources.
Eileen Kraemer, the C. Tycho Howle Director of the School of Computing, said Hu is working on the cutting-edge of cybersecurity.
"Dr. Hu's expertise in software-defined networking uniquely positions him to work in the team," she said. "His work is helping mitigate risks associated with cyber-threats as the digital and physical worlds become more intertwined."
Amy Apon, chair of the Division of Computer Science, described the research as novel, transformative and multidisciplinary.
"Hu and his team are conducting research that spans systems, networking, and security," she said. "They are well positioned to create groundbreaking new approaches to security based on the concept of SDI."
The Clemson-involved project was one of two awards distributed as part of the NSF/VMware Partnership on Software Defined Infrastructure as a Foundation for Clean-Slate Computing Security. The other went to a team from Carnegie Mellon University.
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, congratulated Hu on the grant.
"The grant is a testament to the high caliber of research and scholarship that Dr. Hu brings to the college," Gramopadhye said. "His work helps keep Clemson on the cutting-edge of cybersecurity research. The grant is well-deserved."