November 22, 2004

NSF Awards C.U. $1.6 M Grant

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Three Cornell computer scientists were awarded $1.6 million in a government grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of the organization’s $32.2 million “CyberTrust” initiative. The funding will go toward a three-year program, “Integrating Security and Fault Tolerance in Distributed Systems,” led by Prof. Andrew Myers ’72, computer science, Prof. Ken Birman, computer science, and Prof. Fred B. Schneider ’75, computer science and director of Information Assurance Institute. Their goal is to build “trustworthy” computers, which will be more resistant to both malicious attacks and benign faults.

Schneider explained that Cornell was chosen for the grant after a competition where scientists submitted project proposals to the government that were then judged by a team of faculty professors. Based on the quality of the ideas and credentials of the team, the government issued a range of grants to scientists. A total of 33 projects were funded including Cornell’s neighbor, Syracuse University, which received $300,000.

Happy with the recognition, Schneider saw the government grant as “a vote of confidence of our vision and of where solutions could be found.”

According to Birman, Cornell also received the grant because it has been highly visible as a top research institution in the areas of security and fault tolerance for the past 15 years. He stated that Cornell is probably equal to MIT and Berkeley as the top three institutions in the area of cybertrust.

“You can’t trust your own computer right now and that is a terrible thing,” Birman said.

Schneider explained that the team is trying to build a system that allows computer programmers to code information that they want protected, but not specify how they want the information protected. As an example, Schneider said that programmers will be able to tell the computer “do not leak my salary” and the system will automatically know how to keep that information secure.

“We manage the ‘how’ part, which is the hard security question,” Schneider said.

According to Myers, another aspect of building trustworthy computers is to create a program that will keep information safe and not crash the whole system even if one part of the network is failing. To do so, the team is trying to make security and fault tolerance compatible with each other.

Myers said good fault tolerance will keep the entire network from crashing even if one part of the system fails; good security will keep information safe even if that means the whole system has to crash. The two components have clearly opposite objectives.

The research the team will conduct at Cornell attempts to develop underlying technology that will make security and fault tolerance compatible, Myers said. “Hopefully, in 10 to 15 years this will be the way people build secure systems,” Myers said.

Schneider explained that he hopes to see companies like Amazon, Google and any other institution with critical infrastructures eventually use their program. Currently, Birman explained the New York Stock Exchange and the French Air Traffic Control System are using software systems that were developed at Cornell.

According to Birman, the money from the grant will go toward funding graduate students to work on the project, travel expenses for sending researchers to conferences and the development of new materials for computer science courses. Birman hopes to eventually see courses offered at Cornell that address both the ethical and technical sides of computer programming and cybertrust. All three professors said that undergraduate students will be encouraged to participate in the study.

Archived article by Casey Holmes
Sun Staff Writer