Many people ask how does Qubes OS differ from other approaches to desktop security. Today I'm trying to answer the most popular questions.
  • Why bother with Qubes OS, if any Linux/BSD already allows to setup different user accounts, or some form of light-weight containers or sandboxes, such as chroot, LXC, SELinux?
First, if you use Xorg or similar X-based server as your GUI server, and this is what nearly all Linux, and most of the other non-Windows OSes use, then you don't have any form of GUI-level isolation, which is essential for a desktop system. I wrote more about this surprising problem some time ago. Proper GUI-level isolation was one of the main goals for Qubes.

Second, all mainstream desktop OSes, such as Windows, Linux, BSD, even OSX, are all based on a monolithic kernels, which present a significant security problem. This is because a typical monolithic kernel of a contemporary desktop OS contains tens of millions of lines of code, and to make it worse, most of this code is reachable from (untrusted) applications via all sorts of APIs, making the attack surface on the kernel huge. And it requires just one successful kernel exploit to own the whole system, bypassing any security mechanisms that might have been built on top of it, such as SELinux, LXC, etc.

Additionally, all the various drivers, networking and USB stacks, are also hosted in the kernel, making attacks via buggy networking (e.g. via buggy 802.11 stacksor buggy firmware) or USB stacks a practical possibility. And there is essentially nothing one can do about it, when using an OS based on a monolithic kernel.

In Qubes, on the other hand, we use Xen hypervisor to provide security isolation between domains, and Xen is just a few hundred of thousands lines of code. It also doesn't need to provide all sorts of APIs to applications, because the Xen hypervisor is essentially only interested in CPU scheduling, memory management and power management, and very few things beyond that. Most notably, the Xen hypervisor knows nothing about networking, disk storage, filesystems, USB stacks, etc, as all those tasks are delegated to (often untrusted) service VMs.
  • How is Qubes better than just running a bunch of VMs in VMWare or Virtual Box?

First, products such as VMWare Workstation or Fusion, or Virtual Box, are all examples of type II hypervisors (sometimes called “hosted VMMs”), which means that they run inside a normal OS, such as Windows, as ordinary processes and/or kernel modules. This means that they use the OS-provided services for all sorts of things, from networking, USB stacks, to graphics output and keyboard and mouse input, which in turn implies they can be only as secure as the hosting OS is. If the hosting OS got compromised, perhaps via a bug in its DHCP client, or USB driver, then it is a game over, also for all your VMs.

Second, those popular consumer type II VMM systems have not been designed with security as a primary goal. Instead, their main focus has been on easy of use, performance, and providing seamless integration of the guest OS(es) with the host OS. Especially the latter, which involves lack of good method to identify which domain a given application belongs to (so, lack of trusted Window Manager), support for shared clipboards which every other VM can steal, insecure file sharing methods, and others, all make it not a very desirable solution when strong domain isolation is important. (This is not to imply that Qubes doesn't support clipboard or file sharing between domains, it does – it's just that we do it in a secure way, at least so we believe). On the other hand, there are many usability improvements in Qubes that are specific to multi-domain system, and which you won't find in the above mentioned products, such as trusted Window Manager that, while maintaining great seamless integration of all the applications onto a common desktop, still allows the user to always know which domain owns which window, support for advanced networking setups, per-domain policies, the just mentioned secure mechanisms for clipboard and filesystem sharing, and many other. Qubes also focuses on making the VMs light-weight so that it was possible to run really a lot of them at the same time, and also on mechanism to allow for secure filesystem sharing between domains (templates).

Finally, the commercial hosted VMMs are really bloated pieces of code. They support everything and the kitchen sink (e.g. Open GL exposed to VMs, and various additional interfaces to allow e.g. drag and drop of files to/from the VM), and so, the attack surface on such a VMM system is orders of magnitude bigger than in case of Qubes OS.
  • How does Qubes compare to [your favourite academic microkernel]? 
While the Xen hypervisor can indeed be considered a microkernel if you're not a strict terminology freak, Qubes itself is much more than just the hypervisor. Qubes is everything that is needed to build a reasonably secure desktop OS on top ofa baremetal hypervisor (or microkernel). Theoretically, with just a few cosmetic changes (at least architecture-wise), Qubes could perhaps swap the Xen hypervisor for some other hypervisor or microkernel, such as perhaps Hyper-V, KVM, or some more exotic one. Thus, it makes little sense to compare Qubes with a hypervisor or microkernel project. What makes sense is to compare the Xen hypervisor, as used in Qubes, with some other hypervisor or microkernel.

Ok, so how does Xen compare with other hypervisors or microkernels out there? We think Xen is unique because it combines an elegant architecture (type I, baremetal, hypervisor) with a number of practical features, such as power management, support for Intel VT-d and driver domains, support for both para-virtualizaed, and fully-virtualized VMs, and many more, not found in e.g. academic microkernels/hypervisor projects, that otherwise seem attractive from the architecture point of view.
  • How is Qubes better than Google Chrome OS?
 First, Chrome OS is not a general purpose OS. Second, it's based on Linux with all its security limitation that are a result of using a monolithic kernel described above (e.g. all the networking and USB stacks in the kernel without a possibility to deprivilige them). Not being a traditional general purpose OS, Chrome is able to avoid many of the challenges of desktop computing, such as the need to define security domains, inter-domain file exchange (as there is essentially no filesystem visible to the user), and others, which is good, of course. But then again, Chrome OS is essentially just an environment to run the Chrome Browser, so the comparison to Qubes is a bit of a misunderstanding.

Technical aspects aside, there is always the privacy concern associated with running everything in a browser – why would all my private data be managed and accessible to some 3rd party organizations and their administrators?
  • How is Qubes better than [your favorite commercial military-grade certified secure OS]?
You must have heard about the super secure military-grade, formally verified, 100% certified, and generally “unbreakable” operating systems made by companies such as Green Hills, Lynx Works, and others. How do they compare to Qubes OS?

Really, I have no idea. For a mere mortal like myself (and perhaps not a US citizen), it seems impossible to get any more technical documentation of those systems (anything beyond the marketing pseudo-technical gibberish), not to mention a trial copy to play with...

Thus, from my point of view, those systems are just a vaporware. If you, my dear reader, are privileged enough to have access to such system, then good for you, but don't expect me to treat seriously a security product that is not available for a wider audience to touch and play with... (And the Chineese surely have the copies already to play with ;)
  • How is Qubes different than Bromium's “micro virtualization” solution?
Many people asked recently about the Bromium's upcoming product and how it differs from Qubes OS. Unfortunately there are few public information available on this product – essentially there is one not-very-technical whitepaperand there are Ian Pratt's presentation slides from the recent XenSummit about u-Xen, apparently a hypervisor that is to be ultimately used in their upcoming product.

The whitepaper suggests that Bromium is based on a hosted (type II) hypervisor running within a normal Window OS, and that this hypervisor is used to spawn a new “micro VM” for each new “task”, where apparently the task might be something as granular as opening a new tab in a Web browser, which makes it somehow similar to Google Chrome's approach. Clearly, the Bromium's main goal seem to be to automate the process of creating separation domains, which is in contrast with what we do on Qubes OS, where the user is required to define the domains explicitly.

The Pratt's slides provide also some technical insight into how Bromium intends to secure their hypervisor. As just discussed above, a hosted hypervisor must normally trust the hosting OS, in this case Windows, which, for obvious reasons, is not a good idea from the security standpoint. Pratt, however, clearly states that “host (...) can not interfere with the privacy or integrity of the hypervisor or other guests” (slide #8). This is a strong statement, so let's take a closer look at their approach to this problem.

The Bromium's idea of how to make their hypervisor (and the VMs) protected from a potentially malicious host OS is not really breakthrough: the slides suggest to “deprivilege the host into a VT-container” (I think the verb to bluepillis now an accepted term for such action ;), and to remove the host's access to the hypervisor pages (via EPT), as well as protect DMA access from devices via VT-d, plus to make this all sensible, use DRTM scheme such as Intel TXT, to load such a hypervisor from within a potentially untrusted OS.

So, what's wrong with the idea of a load-on-the-fly-secure-VMM-system? Isn't Ian Pratt correct that one could protect its memory and execution from the interference of the host? Actually that is possible – Intel TXT, VT-x, VT-d, and EPT give us means to achieve that (although there are a number of catches here). But he's missing one important point: it's the untrusted OS that still owns and manages the input devices (e.g. via USB stacks and drivers) and, most importantly, the output (via the GUI subsystem and drivers). Ensuring that the host OS cannot interfere (e.g. sniff the screen of trusted applications) might be very difficult, or even impossible, in practice.

If I ever was to break the security of such a system, I would just follow the simple way:
1) Infect the host e.g. via one of the many USB attacks (remember they cannot have sandboxed USB driver domain, as they have only a type II hosted hypervisor),
2) Hook somewhere into the GUI subsystem and keep recoding all the interesting data from the screen...
... or something like that ;)

There are also many other things that needs to be answered and which the publicly available documents are silent about, such as e.g. how does the system handle installation of new applications? How is clipboard and file exchange between (micro)VMs handled? How large are the interfaces exposed to each (micro)VM? For now, without a solid documentation available, and without any code to play with, it is just another vaporware for me. (Interestingly there seem to be Bromium's Beta program, which however doesn't seem to be working, at least not for me -- I tried to signup twice, but never got any confirmation or response...?)
  • How is Qubes different from Xen Client?
In many aspects, Xen Clientmight be the most similar product to Qubes OS. Like Qubes, it is based on the Xen hypervisor and so it is also a standalone OS, that one must install instead of one's favorite system, and also, like Qubes, it is targeted for desktop systems, and also offers a possibility to run a few VMs at a time.

However, XenClient has been designed with a different goal in mind, namely as a “Virtual Desktops To Go” solution, while Qubes has been designed to provide seamless experience for secure multi-domain desktop system. As a result, lots of focus in Qubes has been put on creating trusted GUI subsystem, support for advanced networking configurations, secure inter-VM clipboard and file sharing, secure method to reuse the same filesystem as a basis for the AppVMs, and also to optimize the AppVMs so they start almost instantly and take little memory, so that one could easily run many of them at the same time. All those things seem to be missing from Xen Client (as well as solid technical documentation about its design).

I surely have missed a few other products or approaches -- feel free to point them out in the comments, and I might write a continuation post one day.