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Application-Layer Security Protocols
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Both S/MIME and SET have been incorporated in various applications. For secure e-mail, many companies and individuals have chosen to use S/MIME instead of a proprietary system such as PGP. In fact, many users have S/MIME-enabled mailers that they have not taken advantage of. S/MIME is incorporated in Microsoft s Outlook and Outlook Express email applications as well as Netscape s Messenger software. SET has also gained widespread use. Many of the vendors that visitors shop with daily across the Internet are SET-enabled. Currently, the merchants worldwide who use SET number in the hundreds. SET products are available not only for consumers but also for merchants, payment gateways, and SET certificate authorities. For a list of current SETenabled products as well as the merchants that use them, visit http://www.setco.org/. For both of these protocols, many security vendors also provide cryptographic APIs (application programming interfaces, or toolkits), which developers can use to produce secured applications. RSA Security, Inc., is one such company.
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CHAPTER
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The performance of cryptosystems varies, and some of them come with a significant computational expense to computer systems. One way to address this problem is to apply cryptographic hardware. Cryptographic accelerators, for example, offer performance enhancements (as well as possible pitfalls). Cryptographic hardware, including various kinds of tokens, also plays a role in authentication, as does the old technology of biometrics, now being applied in new ways.
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Cryptographic accelerators provide a means of performing the computationally expensive workload that usually accompanies various algorithms and protocols. Cryptographic accelerators work like math coprocessors: They implement in hardware a set of functions usually handled by software. Encoding these functions in silicon allows hardware to perform these tasks much faster. Cryptographic accelerators provide usefulness on two fronts. First and most noticeable is increased speed, which is particularly important to
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e-commerce companies that interact with a considerable number of customers daily. The second benefit is a spin-off of the first one: By reducing the workload on the system s CPU, accelerators allow the system to be used more efficiently for other tasks. Figure 9-1 shows a typical Secure Socket Layer (SSL) accelerator card.
Figure 9-1 A typical SSL accelerator card
Another reason for the popularity of cryptographic accelerators is the certifications associated with them. NIST, for example, has certified many of them. The certification of each device depends on the safeguards that were implemented in it during manufacture.
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NOTE:
Cryptographic accelerators often serve to slow down cryptographic operations because accelerators are I/O-bound. For example, a Web server that has farmed out private-key operations to a cryptographic accelerator often performs slower in SSL handshakes when the load is high. The reason for this is simple. I/O-bound operations are an order of magnitude slower than CPU-bound operations because getting the data to the hardware bus consumes an enormous amount of operating system and context-switching resources. An operating system with poor multitasking capabilities will likely be brought to its knees if it has to deal with a high number of SSL handshakes farmed out to an accelerator. Each thread must block and wait, and the CPU must manage all the blocked threads. This leads to a great deal of thread thrashing and, simply put, kills performance. For this reason, installing a cryptographic accelerator does not necessarily give you an across-the-board increase in speed. Where and how the accelerator is applied are of prime importance.
Authentication Tokens
In the realm of computer security, another important set of hardware devices is authentication tokens. Authentication tokens provide a means of authenticating and identifying an end user. Instead of memorizing passwords, end users protect their identity using a physical object that is unique to each user. An everyday analogy is the use of a driver s license to prove a person s identity. Many tokens are designed for use with automated authentication systems. To verify the identity of the token s owner, the host system performs its authentication protocol using information encoded on the token. Because the uniqueness of the information is responsible for proving the identity of its bearer, the information must be protected against duplication or theft. Advanced tokens usually contain a microprocessor and semiconductor memory, and they support sophisticated authentication protocols that provide a high level of security.
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