Designing More Efficient and Secure Computers

Guru Venkataramani
October 12, 2017

By Lujain Al-Khawi

A microprocessor is the brain behind every processor, one that executes instructions programmed by its developer. Computer architecture is a specialized area of research within computer engineering that studies how to make these microprocessors more efficient and secure.

Professor Guru Venkataramani and his research group work in this field to address critical issues in microprocessor design such as performance and power bottlenecks removal whilst preventing malicious information leakage from these processors. This line of work is critical because we all depend on computers for our everyday needs, and less-efficient, more prone to cyber attacks microprocessors can become a major threat to U.S. national security and the global economy.

Dr. Venkataramani and his research team conduct this cutting-edge research to solve these pressing, security problems pertaining to various professional fields, and their research is supported through grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR).

An example of a major study of research they worked on recently was reducing the dangers of covert timing channels. Such timing channels can leak the user’s sensitive information and private data when a malicious processor, known as a Trojan after the Ancient Greek story of the deceptive wooden horse , intentionally subverts the system’s security procedure to gain elevated access to sensitive information. This malware then modulates the timing of shared microarchitecture resources to transmit secrets covertly to an exterior spy processor, one that otherwise would not have these privileges to sensitive information.

During the 47th Annual IEEE/ACM International Symposium on Microarchitecture (MICRO) conference in 2014, Professor Venkataramani’s research team presented the CC-Hunter , a new microarchitecture framework that detects the possible presence of covert timing channels on shared processor hardware. This well-cited research paper became a model in designing more reliable, next-generation processors, capable of defending themselves against malicious timing channels.

Besides security research, his team also focuses on improving power efficiency in multi-core computing systems. In each computer chip, there are several “brains” at work, called cores. In one of their research projects, Venkataramani’s research team asked “How do you keep all of the cores busy simultaneously while ensuring that optimal power is spent executing all of the computer applications?” This work was supported by the prestigious NSF CAREER award that is usually given to junior faculty members from across the U.S. with promising research careers.

Professor Venkataramani currently has active research grants with several ECE faculty: several joint NSF awards with Professors Milos Doroslovacki and Suresh Subramaniam and an ONR award with Professor Tian Lan. He has produced several joint publications with all aforementioned colleagues.

When he is not exploring computer algorithms, he, his wife, and two children like to explore national parks across the country, most notably Shenandoah National Park.