Virtualization-based Security (VBS) uses hardware virtualization features to create and isolate a secure region of memory from the normal operating system. Windows can use this “virtual secure mode” (VSM) to host a number of security solutions, providing them with greatly increased protection from vulnerabilities in the operating system, and preventing the use of malicious exploits which attempt to defeat operating systems protections.
The Microsoft hypervisor creates VSM and enforces restrictions which protect vital operating system resources, provides an isolated execution environment for privileged software and can protect secrets such as authenticated user credentials. With the increased protections offered by VBS, even if malware compromises the operating system kernel, the possible exploits can be greatly limited and contained because the hypervisor can prevent the malware from executing code or accessing secrets.
The Microsoft hypervisor has supported VSM since the earliest versions of Windows 10. However, until recently, Virtualization-based Security has been an optional feature that is most commonly enabled by enterprises. This was great, but the hypervisor development team was not satisfied. We believed that all devices running Windows should have Microsoft’s most advanced and most effective security features enabled by default. In addition to bringing significant security benefits to Windows, achieving default enablement status for the Microsoft hypervisor enables seamless integration of numerous other scenarios leveraging virtualization. Examples include WSL2, Windows Defender Application Guard, Windows Sandbox, Windows Hypervisor Platform support for 3rd party virtualization software, and much more.
With that goal in mind, we have been hard at work over the past several Windows releases optimizing every aspect of VSM. We knew that getting to the point where VBS could be enabled by default would require reducing the performance and power impact of running the Microsoft hypervisor on typical consumer-grade hardware like tablets, laptops and desktop PCs. We had to make the incremental cost of running the hypervisor as close to zero as possible and this was going to require close partnership with the Windows kernel team and our closest silicon partners – Intel, AMD, and ARM (Qualcomm).
Through software innovations like HyperClear and by making significant hypervisor and Windows kernel changes to avoid fragmenting large pages in the second-level address translation table, we were able to dramatically reduce the runtime performance and power impact of hypervisor memory management. We also heavily optimized hot hypervisor codepaths responsible for things like interrupt virtualization – taking advantage of hardware virtualization assists where we found that it was helpful to do so. Last but not least, we further reduced the performance and power impact of a key VSM feature called Hypervisor-Enforced Code Integrity (HVCI) by working with silicon partners to design completely new hardware features including Intel’s Mode-based execute control for EPT (MBEC), AMD’s Guest-mode execute trap for NPT (GMET), and ARM’s Translation table stage 2 Unprivileged Execute-never (TTS2UXN).
The Samsung Galaxy Book2 is officially the first Windows PC to have VBS enabled by default. This PC is built around the Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 processor, a 64-bit ARM processor. This is particularly exciting for the Microsoft hypervisor development team because it also marks the first time that enabling our hypervisor is officially supported on any ARM-based device.
Keep an eye on this blog for announcements regarding the default-enablement of VBS on additional hardware and in future versions of Windows 10.