Washington, June 12 : Computer engineers at Rice University have come up with a concept of making microchips that can be helpful in granting necessary protection to intellectual property.
Farinaz Koushanfar, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, says that the idea is to make microchips that contain many multiple selves.
She says that such chips will be able to assume one identify or a subset of identities at a time, depending on the user's needs.
According to her, multiple "personalities" in an integrated circuit can be even a more powerful security mechanism that can be used for a variety of digital rights management tasks as well as for circuit optimisation and customisation without sacrificing the related power, delay and area metrics.
Koushanfar thinks that this technology can be used for enhanced device security, content provisioning, application metering, device optimisation and more.
"With 'n-variant' integrated circuits, it is possible to design portable media players that are inherently unique. New methods of digital rights management can be built upon such devices. For example, media files can be made such that they only run on a certain variant and cannot be played by another," said Koushanfar, the principal investigator on the project.
With n-variant chips, she added, content providers could sell metered access to software, music or movies because the chips could be programmed to switch from one variant to another at a particular time, or after a file had been accessed a certain number of times.
The Rice researchers are of the opinion that the availability of multiple triggers for switching between variants may open the door for diverse applications.
"Our polymorphic chips can switch between variants based on both external triggers and automated, self-adaptive triggers," said Rice computer science graduate student Yousra Alkabani.
"An important application is in providing security through diversity. The key here is that a successful adversary has to simultaneously compromise all chip variants with the same input. By switching among the variants -- and by designing each in a security-conscious way -- we can make it impossible for attackers to do this," Alkabani added.
The researchers insist that their idea of providing security through this method may have the edge over the previous strategies because it has low overhead costs, and it is inherently more secure while the devices are all coming from the same mask.
"It's possible to achieve diversity by adding redundant hardware cores, but such an approach would incur a huge overhead and it would be vulnerable to attacks. A key advantage to integrating the heterogeneity into the functional specification of the design is that removal, extractions or deletion of the variants is not viable, regardless of whether they were configured during manufacturing or post-manufacturing," Koushanfar said.
She believes that, together, the combination of low overhead and maximum security may give rise to many applications.
"Our approach will allow integrated circuit designers to build diverse chips with a single mask. They can also make self-adaptive and polymorphic hardware," she said.
Suggesting that some of the most exciting possibilities were in device optimisation, she added: "Because of manufacturing variability, no two silicon chips have the exact same characteristics. When chipmakers produce new chips, they test them to see which ones perform the best. With our approach, integrated circuit designers can use the testing results to select the variant that has the best power/delay characteristics and performance for specific tasks."
Along with Alkabani, she has already tested the possibility of using the n-variant methodology to design a prototype portable MPEG media player, and found that it was possible to implement millions of variants of the player on a single chip with negligible overhead.
A presentation on this technology was made at the Design Automation Conference (DAC) in Anaheim, California, on Wednesday.