Industry Consortium Rivalry over Crypto Standards

Feb 20, 2009

The idea of an industry-wide common cryptography standard is certainly welcome. But self-interest usually precedes usability, so two industry consortiums are now vying over which standards to adopt, one on the side of Sun and the other leaning toward IBM/HP. Then there is an additional player in the Trusted Computing Group.

System admins deploying cryptography are generally annoyed by the multiplicity of formats with which applications employ keys, security provisions, certificates and other encryption methods. The format mess makes it hard to exchange encrypted material among applications in a heterogeneous landscape. Thus it can be easily comprehended that a group of vendors that include HP, IBM, Brocade, EMC, LSI, Seagate and Thales would want to recommend the KMIP standard to the OASIS standards body for the open global information market.

The Key Management Interoperability Protocol (KMIP) is designed to standardise cryptography among laptops and storage devices by use of a key management server. The HP/IBM-centric consortium put quite a bit of work into this protocol over the last 14 months and has issued an over 100-page KMIP draft document. According to Mark Schiller, director of HP's security office, "More than 20 experienced collaborators from the partner companies have worked on a proof-of-concept of the standard." Questioned further on this point by Linux Magazine Online, Schiller wasn't specific about whether the partners will publish the reference implementations, libraries or applications. The consortium apparently chose OASIS as a standards body because it would allow their development work to be shared free with other companies. For Schiller, OASIS serves to "increase the trust in security issues." Asked why the group didn't engage the IETF in the process, he evaded the question.

In the spirit of the Tanenbaum bromide that the good thing about standards is that there are so many of them, Sun Microsystems has now offered direct access to its own cryptology recommendation. Naturally Sun is also promoting a vendor-independent, generic and open source approach. Its answer is the Crypto KMS Agent Toolkit under a BSD license that, unfortunately, can only be compiled with Sun Studio 12. According to Jason Schaffer, senior director of storage product management at Sun, "Open Storage solutions allows customers to break free from the chains of proprietary hardware... [in this] highly fragmented encryption market." The Sun solution involves "a number of additional partners" such as EMC's RSA Security division proposing a unified standard to the IEEE 1619.3 Working Group.

But the two competing standards groups are still not cooperating. In fact, a ChannelWeb article says that they're unprepared to do so. Both entities say alternately that each is welcome to participate in each other's work.

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