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Technical Perspective: Native Client: A Clever Alternative

Google's Native Client (typically abbreviated "NaCl" and pronounced NAH-cull) is an intriguing new system that allows untrusted x86 binaries to run safely on bare metal. Untrusted code is already essential to the Web, whether shipping JavaScript source code, Java byte code, Flash applications, or ActiveX controls. Java, JavaScript, and Flash all use an intermediate representation that is quite abstracted from the hardware, using increasingly sophisticated analysis and compilation techniques to achieve good performance on modern computers.

ActiveX (or Netscape/Firefox plugins), on the other hand, allows the direct transmission of Windows x86 binary objects, digitally signed and manually approved by the user to run natively.

ActiveX has never been particularly desirable. It is not portable to non-Windows platforms, and every user is one mistaken click away from installing malware. Meanwhile, Flash has become a standard install, largely due to its powerful graphics and video libraries. (When you watch a YouTube video in your browser, you're looking at the Flash plugin.) Indeed, Flash has sufficient access to the local system that it has, itself, been the target of a variety of security attacks. Sure, you can uninstall Flash on your system (and mobile phones don't support it at all), but far too many Web sites assume you've got Flash installed, and will be unusable without it.

Into this gap, NaCl offers a clever alternative. A plugin like Flash, compiled and optimized in native x86 code, could be downloaded, installed, and run by any Web page without bothering the user for permission. If the plugin turned out to have security flaws, those would be contained by the walls that NaCl builds around the code.

Plugins could just run as distinct, unprivileged users in the system, leveraging the multi-user isolation mechanisms already present in any modern operating system, but this ignores several unpleasant realities. First, a substantial portion of the world's computers are running old Windows variants with unacceptable security holes. We must build stronger walls than those platforms' native mechanisms can support. Second, we have to worry about CPU bugs. While possibly the most famous CPU implementation error was Intel's Pentium floating-point division flaw (where arithmetic could yield errors in the low-order bits of the mantissa), other bugs have happened from time to time that result in more serious security ramifications. We need the ability to filter out instructions that might tickle CPU bugs or otherwise have undesirable behavior.

If all the world were running classic RISC machines, where every instruction was 32-bits long, this process would be simple. Variable length x86 instructions, however, allow any given array of bytes to correspond to multiple different instruction streams, depending on the exact byte offset to which you jump. Consequently, NaCl introduces a simple static verifier to ensure that all jump instructions can only target instructions on 32-byte-aligned boundaries, and to ensure that code blocks, starting at those offsets, have no known unsafe instructions.

The NaCl system hides the native system call interface and uses its own inter-process communication mechanism, while also building an "outer sandbox" using more traditional operating system process privilege limits. In principle, NaCl could be built into a browser and ActiveX and Flash could be kicked out. Adobe could recompile Flash to pass NaCl's verifier, and end users would have one less source of security holes to worry about. Also, if Web designers wanted to use different video codecs, they would no longer be limited to whatever Flash supports. Even better, as NaCl doesn't necessarily expose the native operating system's system call interface, we can even imagine NaCl apps running portably across Linux, OS X, and Windows (NaCl is even being extended to support ARM and x86-64).

How secure is the open-source NaCl implementation? I was one of the judges for a contest that Google held earlier this year to find out. In the end, only five teams had entries, together identifying what the Google development team considered to be 24 valid security issues. These can be roughly categorized into bugs in NaCl's support infrastructure (unhandled exceptions, buffer overflow vulnerabilities, and a few "type confusion" attacks that exploit the ability to pass one type where another was expected), and obscure instruction sequences that the static verifier missed (for example, the verifier missed a class of "prefix" bits on jump instructions that change their behavior). One vulnerability relied on NaCl's support for memory-mapping to unmap and remap a code segment, allowing unverified code to be executed. Clever attacks, but all straightforward to remediate.

In summary, the NaCl design as detailed in the following paper is pragmatic and attractive, with its known implementation flaws no worse than what we might see in any fledgling operating system's security boundaries. The NaCl codebase is small and simple enough that these sorts of bugs can and will be fixed if and when NaCl leaves the lab and gains market share in the field.

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Dan Wallach ( is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at Rice University in Houston, TX.

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