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Coming soon: Full-disk encryption for all computer drives

Drive makers settle on a single encryption standard

January 27, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The world's six largest computer drive makers today published the final specifications(download PDF) for a single, full-disk encryption standard that can be used across all hard disk drives, solid state drives (SSD) and encryption key management applications. Once enabled, any disk that uses the specification will be locked without a password -- and the password will be needed even before a computer boots.

The three The Trusted Computing Group (TCG) specifications cover storage devices in consumer laptops and desktop computers as well as enterprise-class drives used in servers and disk storage arrays.

"This represents interoperability commitments from every disk drive maker on the planet," said Robert Thibadeau, chief technologist at Seagate Technology and chairman of the TCG. "We're protecting data at rest. When a USB drive is unplugged, or when a laptop is powered down, or when an administrator pulls a drive from a server, it can't be brought back up and read without first giving a cryptographically-strong password. If you don't have that, it's a brick. You can't even sell it on eBay."

By using a single, full-disk encryption specification, all drive manufacturers can bake security into their products' firmware, lowering the cost of production and increasing the efficiency of the security technology.

For enterprises rolling out security across PCs, laptops and servers, standardized hardware encryption translates into minimum security configuration at installation, along with higher performance with low overhead. The specifications enable support for strong access control and, once set at the management level, the encryption cannot be turned off by end-users.

Whenever an operating system or application writes data to a self-encrypting drive, there is no bottleneck created by software, which would have to interrupt the I/O stream and convert the data "so there's no slowdown," Thibadeau said.

"Also, the encryption machinery uses no power. When it reads data from the drive, it displays it to the user in the clear. It's completely transparent to the user," he said.

The TCG includes Fujitsu, Hitachi GST, Seagate Technology, Samsung, Toshiba, Western Digital, Wave Systems, LSI Corp., ULink Technology and IBM.

"In five years time, you can imagine any drive coming off the production line will be encrypted, and there will be virtually no cost for it," said Jon Oltsik, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group.

Here are the three specifications:

  • The Opal specification, which outlines minimum requirements for storage devices used in PCs and laptops.
  • The Enterprise Security Subsystem Class Specification, which is aimed at drives in data centers and high-volume applications, where typically there is a minimum security configuration at installation.
  • The Storage Interface Interactions Specification, which specifies how the TCG's existing Storage Core Specification and the other specifications interact with other standards for storage interfaces and connections. For example, the specification supports a number of transports, including ATA parallel and serial, SCSI SAS, Fibre Channel and ATAPI.



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