This post is a continuation of my previous post about Intel TDX. It’s worth a read before reading this post. As before, I’m not going to introduce TDX itself. If you need a refresher, Intel has good overview material available.


While Intel TDX does make some attacks by the cloud vendor harder, you still have to trust the cloud vendor unless you go to extreme lengths. We need to build trustworthy virtualization stacks instead of hoping for the silver bullet from CPU vendors.

Longer Version

Let’s take Intel TDX’s promises at face value. When everything goes well, TDX provides CPU state and memory integrity. This is useful because it prevents trivial attacks on VMs from a compromised hypervisor. The hypervisor cannot read secrets directly from memory or inject code.

The problem is that in the TDX trust model, the virtual machine monitor (think Qemu) is not trusted. Yet it emulates all virtual devices. This means all devices are potential machiavellian devils wanting to screw the kernel in the trusted VM. Having completely untrusted devices opens a large attack surface to driver code written in C, rarely considered security critical.

There is a real-world analogy here. If you are security-minded, you want to limit access to the external ports of your laptop. For example, malicious USB devices can exploit vulnerabilities in the operating system’s USB stack to gain code execution. But at least internal devices without exposed ports are out of the attacker’s reach.

With TDX, the attack surface includes all device drivers 😭. All devices are fair game from the attacker’s perspective. The malicious VMM can craft problematic responses from any device, such as the PCI Configuration Space or VirtIO.

So what does this mean? Running a standard OS in a TDX Trusted Domain (TD) instead of plain VMs gives little additional security if the attacker is the cloud vendor. The attacker will eventually find vulnerable device drivers to exploit because device drivers are not typically written in a way where they consider the device’s responses malicious.

But what is there to do about this? While you can minimize drivers in the VM to the bare minimum or run a custom high-security OS in the VM, this takes away the charm of running a stock OS in the trusted VM. You could rewrite all drivers and formally verify them. But that won’t happen any time soon. In reality, people will just run Ubuntu.

You could also implement device emulation in the TDX module, but there are problems:

  • You can’t do it because it’s not open but “shared” source.
  • Only Intel can sign the module so the CPU accepts it.
  • It would only increase the attack surface of this monolithic blob that you have to trust for the complete security of TDX.

People assume that with TDX, you don’t have to trust the cloud vendor when you run your Ubuntu there. This is clearly false. You cannot deploy a standard application into a TDX VM and expect it to be secure from the cloud vendor.

TDX limits exposure to certain classes of attacks. For example, it is hard for the on-call engineer with access to a VM host to extract secrets from a TDX TD. Yet TDX does not provide protection against an entirely malicious cloud vendor that can arbitrarily deploy device emulation code.

But then there is also the burden on the end user. Suppose you don’t do remote attestation and bind your secrets to the VM’s configuration using Trusted Computing magic. In that case, TDX brings no benefit at all. You can’t tell whether your VM runs inside a TDX TD or some software emulation of it.

Not all is lost, though. Check out my previous blog post, which shows a way that sidesteps these problems by allowing devices to be trustworthy. Ultimately, it comes down to the cloud vendor becoming trustworthy and not only trusted. Confidential computing technologies, such as Intel TDX, are a puzzle piece. Still, there is no trustworthy virtualization without a trustworthy virtualization stack.

Update 2023-08-06

The Linux Guest Hardening documentation indirectly makes the same point as the blog post above. There are multiple fun points in the document, but the main point is this:

Every time a driver performs a port IO or MMIO read, access a pci config space or reads values from MSRs or CPUIDs, there is a possibility for a malicious hypervisor to inject a malformed value.

Don’t expect to get solid security out of TDX any time soon:

While some of the hardening approaches outlined above are still a work in progress or left for the future, it provides a solid foundation for continuing this work by both the industry and the Linux community.