Confidential Computing in Linux for x86 virtualization

By: Elena Reshetova <> and Carlos Bilbao <>


Kernel developers working on confidential computing for virtualized environments in x86 operate under a set of assumptions regarding the Linux kernel threat model that differ from the traditional view. Historically, the Linux threat model acknowledges attackers residing in userspace, as well as a limited set of external attackers that are able to interact with the kernel through various networking or limited HW-specific exposed interfaces (USB, thunderbolt). The goal of this document is to explain additional attack vectors that arise in the confidential computing space and discuss the proposed protection mechanisms for the Linux kernel.

Overview and terminology

Confidential Computing (CoCo) is a broad term covering a wide range of security technologies that aim to protect the confidentiality and integrity of data in use (vs. data at rest or data in transit). At its core, CoCo solutions provide a Trusted Execution Environment (TEE), where secure data processing can be performed and, as a result, they are typically further classified into different subtypes depending on the SW that is intended to be run in TEE. This document focuses on a subclass of CoCo technologies that are targeting virtualized environments and allow running Virtual Machines (VM) inside TEE. From now on in this document will be referring to this subclass of CoCo as ‘Confidential Computing (CoCo) for the virtualized environments (VE)’.

CoCo, in the virtualization context, refers to a set of HW and/or SW technologies that allow for stronger security guarantees for the SW running inside a CoCo VM. Namely, confidential computing allows its users to confirm the trustworthiness of all SW pieces to include in its reduced Trusted Computing Base (TCB) given its ability to attest the state of these trusted components.

While the concrete implementation details differ between technologies, all available mechanisms aim to provide increased confidentiality and integrity for the VM’s guest memory and execution state (vCPU registers), more tightly controlled guest interrupt injection, as well as some additional mechanisms to control guest-host page mapping. More details on the x86-specific solutions can be found in Intel Trust Domain Extensions (TDX) and AMD Memory Encryption.

The basic CoCo guest layout includes the host, guest, the interfaces that communicate guest and host, a platform capable of supporting CoCo VMs, and a trusted intermediary between the guest VM and the underlying platform that acts as a security manager. The host-side virtual machine monitor (VMM) typically consists of a subset of traditional VMM features and is still in charge of the guest lifecycle, i.e. create or destroy a CoCo VM, manage its access to system resources, etc. However, since it typically stays out of CoCo VM TCB, its access is limited to preserve the security objectives.

In the following diagram, the “<--->” lines represent bi-directional communication channels or interfaces between the CoCo security manager and the rest of the components (data flow for guest, host, hardware)

+-------------------+      +-----------------------+
| CoCo guest VM     |<---->|                       |
+-------------------+      |                       |
  | Interfaces |           | CoCo security manager |
+-------------------+      |                       |
| Host VMM          |<---->|                       |
+-------------------+      |                       |
                           |                       |
+--------------------+     |                       |
| CoCo platform      |<--->|                       |
+--------------------+     +-----------------------+

The specific details of the CoCo security manager vastly diverge between technologies. For example, in some cases, it will be implemented in HW while in others it may be pure SW.

Existing Linux kernel threat model

The overall components of the current Linux kernel threat model are:

+-----------------------+      +-------------------+
|                       |<---->| Userspace         |
|                       |      +-------------------+
|   External attack     |         | Interfaces |
|       vectors         |      +-------------------+
|                       |<---->| Linux Kernel      |
|                       |      +-------------------+
+-----------------------+      +-------------------+
                               | Bootloader/BIOS   |
                               | HW platform       |

There is also communication between the bootloader and the kernel during the boot process, but this diagram does not represent it explicitly. The “Interfaces” box represents the various interfaces that allow communication between kernel and userspace. This includes system calls, kernel APIs, device drivers, etc.

The existing Linux kernel threat model typically assumes execution on a trusted HW platform with all of the firmware and bootloaders included on its TCB. The primary attacker resides in the userspace, and all of the data coming from there is generally considered untrusted, unless userspace is privileged enough to perform trusted actions. In addition, external attackers are typically considered, including those with access to enabled external networks (e.g. Ethernet, Wireless, Bluetooth), exposed hardware interfaces (e.g. USB, Thunderbolt), and the ability to modify the contents of disks offline.

Regarding external attack vectors, it is interesting to note that in most cases external attackers will try to exploit vulnerabilities in userspace first, but that it is possible for an attacker to directly target the kernel; particularly if the host has physical access. Examples of direct kernel attacks include the vulnerabilities CVE-2019-19524, CVE-2022-0435 and CVE-2020-24490.

Confidential Computing threat model and its security objectives

Confidential Computing adds a new type of attacker to the above list: a potentially misbehaving host (which can also include some part of a traditional VMM or all of it), which is typically placed outside of the CoCo VM TCB due to its large SW attack surface. It is important to note that this doesn’t imply that the host or VMM are intentionally malicious, but that there exists a security value in having a small CoCo VM TCB. This new type of adversary may be viewed as a more powerful type of external attacker, as it resides locally on the same physical machine (in contrast to a remote network attacker) and has control over the guest kernel communication with most of the HW:

                              |    CoCo guest VM       |
+-----------------------+     |  +-------------------+ |
|                       |<--->|  | Userspace         | |
|                       |     |  +-------------------+ |
|   External attack     |     |     | Interfaces |     |
|       vectors         |     |  +-------------------+ |
|                       |<--->|  | Linux Kernel      | |
|                       |     |  +-------------------+ |
+-----------------------+     |  +-------------------+ |
                              |  | Bootloader/BIOS   | |
+-----------------------+     |  +-------------------+ |
|                       |<--->+------------------------+
|                       |          | Interfaces |
|                       |     +------------------------+
|     CoCo security     |<--->| Host/Host-side VMM |
|      manager          |     +------------------------+
|                       |     +------------------------+
|                       |<--->|   CoCo platform        |
+-----------------------+     +------------------------+

While traditionally the host has unlimited access to guest data and can leverage this access to attack the guest, the CoCo systems mitigate such attacks by adding security features like guest data confidentiality and integrity protection. This threat model assumes that those features are available and intact.

The Linux kernel CoCo VM security objectives can be summarized as follows:

1. Preserve the confidentiality and integrity of CoCo guest’s private memory and registers.

2. Prevent privileged escalation from a host into a CoCo guest Linux kernel. While it is true that the host (and host-side VMM) requires some level of privilege to create, destroy, or pause the guest, part of the goal of preventing privileged escalation is to ensure that these operations do not provide a pathway for attackers to gain access to the guest’s kernel.

The above security objectives result in two primary Linux kernel CoCo VM assets:

  1. Guest kernel execution context.

  2. Guest kernel private memory.

The host retains full control over the CoCo guest resources, and can deny access to them at any time. Examples of resources include CPU time, memory that the guest can consume, network bandwidth, etc. Because of this, the host Denial of Service (DoS) attacks against CoCo guests are beyond the scope of this threat model.

The Linux CoCo VM attack surface is any interface exposed from a CoCo guest Linux kernel towards an untrusted host that is not covered by the CoCo technology SW/HW protection. This includes any possible side-channels, as well as transient execution side channels. Examples of explicit (not side-channel) interfaces include accesses to port I/O, MMIO and DMA interfaces, access to PCI configuration space, VMM-specific hypercalls (towards Host-side VMM), access to shared memory pages, interrupts allowed to be injected into the guest kernel by the host, as well as CoCo technology-specific hypercalls, if present. Additionally, the host in a CoCo system typically controls the process of creating a CoCo guest: it has a method to load into a guest the firmware and bootloader images, the kernel image together with the kernel command line. All of this data should also be considered untrusted until its integrity and authenticity is established via attestation.

The table below shows a threat matrix for the CoCo guest Linux kernel but does not discuss potential mitigation strategies. The matrix refers to CoCo-specific versions of the guest, host and platform.

CoCo Linux guest kernel threat matrix

Threat name

Threat description

Guest malicious configuration

A misbehaving host modifies one of the following guest’s configuration:

  1. Guest firmware or bootloader

  2. Guest kernel or module binaries

  3. Guest command line parameters

This allows the host to break the integrity of the code running inside a CoCo guest, and violates the CoCo security objectives.

CoCo guest data attacks

A misbehaving host retains full control of the CoCo guest’s data in-transit between the guest and the host-managed physical or virtual devices. This allows any attack against confidentiality, integrity or freshness of such data.

Malformed runtime input

A misbehaving host injects malformed input via any communication interface used by the guest’s kernel code. If the code is not prepared to handle this input correctly, this can result in a host --> guest kernel privilege escalation. This includes traditional side-channel and/or transient execution attack vectors.

Malicious runtime input

A misbehaving host injects a specific input value via any communication interface used by the guest’s kernel code. The difference with the previous attack vector (malformed runtime input) is that this input is not malformed, but its value is crafted to impact the guest’s kernel security. Examples of such inputs include providing a malicious time to the guest or the entropy to the guest random number generator. Additionally, the timing of such events can be an attack vector on its own, if it results in a particular guest kernel action (i.e. processing of a host-injected interrupt). resistant to supplied host input.