For those unwilling to sacrifice performance for security, there are hardware-based strategies for accelerating encryption and reducing its overhead costs.
Disk encryption for client endpoint computers has long been
recognized as an important safeguard against data exposure, particularly for
notebook computers, which are easily lost or stolen. It's trivial to bypass
typical operating system protection measures by popping out a drive and
accessing its data from a separate machine.
Still, most mobile clients are deployed without disk
encryption, despite the broad range of disk-encryption solutions available. In
a September 2010 report on disk encryption usage
, security vendor Opswat found
that just over 10% of the desktop and notebook endpoints they sampled were
protected with disk encryption.
Among the roadblocks in the path of broader adoption of disk
encryption is the performance hit associated with the technology. Full-volume
encryption involves encrypting and decrypting all data written to and read from
an encrypted disk, with an I/O performance penalty.
In the product information for Microsoft's Bitlocker disk-encryption
feature, the company characterizes the overhead as a single-digit performance
difference, but the hit will vary based on the system and its running
In my own experience with mainstream notebooks and even with
lower-powered netbook systems, the encryption overhead is noticeable but well
worth it for the peace of mind it brings. However, for those loath to sacrifice
performance for security, there are hardware-based strategies for accelerating
encryption and reducing its overhead.
One such method, Intel's AES-NI (Advanced Encryption Standard
New Instructions), works to enhance performance by building specific AES
encryption and decryption instructions into the CPU. According to Intel, AES-NI
can, when teamed with software written to take advantage of it, enable
performance increases on the order of 300 percent to 1,000 percent.
Microsoft's Windows Bitlocker takes advantage of AES-NI
support, as does the Linux kernel, among other applications and libraries. To get
an idea of the sort of performance benefit possible with AES-NI support, I
performed some tests in our lab with a Lenovo W520 notebook powered by an Intel
i7-2920XM quad-core CPU.
I tested with a Linux distribution, the recently released
Fedora 15, because I was able to compile a separate kernel with AES-NI support
disabled. By default, AES-NI support is active in the Fedora 15 kernel. I
installed and tested the system with no disk encryption, and with disk
encryption enabled at install time. I tested the encrypted system with both
AES-NI enabled and AES-NI disabled kernels.
I tested by recording, over repeated test runs, the time to
took to copy a large, 4.3GB ISO (International Organization for
Standardization) image from a USB 3.0 external hard drive to the desktop of my
test system, the time it took to copy out the many smaller files within that
image to a folder on the desktop, and the time it took to copy the image from
the desktop to a separate location on the drive under the tmp directory.
In my tests with the large file, the overhead I recorded
between the encrypted and non-encrypted versions of this system was
significant, and the enhancement I experienced with AES-NI enabled was fairly
modest. On the system without AES-NI enabled, the ISO image took 39 percent longer
to copy over, compared with the unencrypted system. With AES-NI enabled, this
overhead dropped to 32 percent.
In my second test, copying many smaller files from one
location on the drive to another, the differences between encrypted and
unencrypted were smaller, but still significant, at 9.6 percent without AES-NI
enabled, and 9.5 percent with AES-NI.
AES-NI can deliver benefits beyond full-volume disk
encryption; given software support, many different operations that involve AES
encryption can see an enhancement with the instruction set. I ran a separate
test with my pair of kernels to measure the effect of AES-NI on the OpenSSL
library, which, in the version that ships with Fedora 15, supports the
I measured the time it took to encrypt my trusty 4.3GB test
image at the command line using OpenSSL, and recorded a performance bump of 25
percent with my AES-NI-enabled kernel, compared with the kernel with the
instruction set disabled.
AES-NI is one of the elements included in Intel's vPro 2
feature set, and organizations can expect to find the capability in a variety
of mainstream notebook systems. Here's a list of the Intel processors with
I took a look at Dell's enterprise notebook lineup and
drilled down into the configuration tool for the first such system on offer, a
Latitude E6520. All four of the processor options available for the system
For its part, Advanced Micro Devices will ship processors
with support for AES-NI beginning with its "Bulldozer"-based processors.
Self-encrypting drives offer another option for boosting the
performance of disk encryption without the reliance on CPU, software or operating
system support. These drives locate the hardware for carrying out encryption
operations within the drive itself, and promise performance nearing that of
Seagate, Toshiba, Samsung and Hitachi all market self-encrypting
drives that abide by common standards published by the Trusted Computing Group.
While self-encrypting drives have been around for some years,
they have a somewhat lower profile in the market than do AES-NI-enabled
processors. For instance, the Dell Latitude system I cited was available with a
self-encrypting drive option, though this option required an upgrade to a
larger, 320GB drive, and came with a $20 to $40 premium above the standard
320GB drive option.
I have not yet tested self-encrypting drives in our lab. However, Cameron Sturdevant, my colleague at eWEEK
Labs recently reviewed a notebook/encryption-management software bundle from Lenovo and WinMagic
was impressed by its low overhead and ease of use.