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This article describes the concepts of confidential computing and service meshes which are key to the MarbleRun approach.

Confidential computing

Confidential computing protects data in use by performing computations in hardware-based secure enclaves. The most prominent enclave to date is probably Intel SGX. Enclaves prevent unauthorized access or modification of applications and data while in use, thereby increasing the security assurances for organizations that manage sensitive and regulated data. For information about confidential computing, see the Confidential Computing Consortium white paper.

Service meshes

A service mesh is an infrastructure layer for managing, observing, and securing communications in a container-based cluster. In the Kubernetes world, Istio, HashiCorp Consul, and Linkerd are the most popular general-purpose service meshes.

When we started looking into the concept of confidential microservices, we realized that there are additional challenges and requirements for service meshes in the context of confidential computing.

  • How to make an entire cluster or distributed app verifiable in a meaningful way from the outside?
  • How to establish secure connections to a distributed app based on this?
  • How to establish secure connections between services within a cluster based on remote attestation?
  • How to securely and safely restart and migrate services between nodes?

MarbleRun approach

Most general-purpose service meshes are implemented using so-called sidecars. The most prevalent sidecar is probably Envoy. In essence, sidecars are network proxies that are injected into pods running application containers. Sidecars observe, control, and often encrypt the network communication between application containers. Sidecars are often referred to as the data plane, in relation to the so-called control plane. The control plane manages and configures the sidecars to route traffic, enforce policies, and collect stats.

Security-wise, conventional service meshes focus on protecting data in transit between application containers. In contrast, distributed confidential apps require a more comprehensive approach and careful consideration of security implications.

In summary, MarbleRun takes the following approach.

  • Instead of relying on separate sidecars, MarbleRun injects the data-plane logic directly into the application logic running inside secure enclaves. Through this tight coupling, secure connections always terminate inside secure enclaves. We refer to containers running such enclaves as Marbles.
  • Before bootstrapping Marbles, MarbleRun verifies their integrity using Intel SGX remote attestation primitives. This way, MarbleRun is able to guarantee that the topology of a distributed confidential app adheres to the cluster's effective manifest.
  • MarbleRun acts as a certificate authority for all Marble-based services and issues one concise remote attestation statement for the entire cluster. This can be used by anyone to verify the integrity of a distributed confidential app.