UK server-maker SoftIron has stumbled into a fast-growing niche for servers that include verifiably secure firmware and components with known provenance.
The Register last covered SoftIron to consider its boxes that run the open source Ceph software-defined storage package, for its use of interesting accelerators, and as one of not many hardware companies using AMD's Arm64 SoCs.
Some happy accidents have since seen the firm move into manufacturing servers that use components the company is satisfied don't contain risky code from unknown sources and run bespoke firmware.
Co-founder and CEO Phil Straw told The Register that customers told him they worry about the provenance of all the components inside their servers – because even though the big manufacturers like Dell and HPE do their best to guarantee security, they inevitably end up acquiring parts from third parties. Those suppliers, he said, may or may not have actually made the products they on-sell, and may not have written the code they contain.
Holy cow, this exists. We have been looking for this for years
SoftIron customers, Straw said, were particularly concerned with components like Baseboard Management Controllers (BMCs) and the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI). If either is compromised, a server can be an open book to attackers.
As luck would have it, SoftIron struggled to buy BMCs because it just doesn't make that many servers and suppliers weren't keen to do low-volume business. Supply eventually became so tight that the company decided to design its own BMC modules and write its own code to make them work. It does the same for UEFI. Writing that code means SoftIron can satisfy itself, and customers, that the firmware does what's needed – and nothing else.
All the circuitry and PCB assemblies for its servers are now designed and built in-house with auditable supply chains. Straw said the biz also tests other components, such as network adapters, if necessary by x-raying them to observe operations.
"Our employees place every capacitor and resistor," Straw told The Register. The manufacturer has devised a high-quality process that further enhances security.
While it still relies on AMD for EPYC and Arm64 processors, SoftIron is cognisant that the chip designer outsources manufacturing. Accordingly, it has built a very strong relationship in hopes of giving customers assurance that CPUs aren't a weak point. "If somebody wants to talk to the CTO of AMD we can walk them through the door," Straw told The Register.
A senior person in the US Department of Defense learned of SoftIron's approach and, according to Straw, said "Holy cow, this exists. We have been looking for this for years."
SoftIron has since found many other customers that also appreciate its approach.
"We have had a lot of traction in research labs, sensitive government departments," Straw explained. Law firms that need to store sensitive documents also appreciate the company's wares.
Revenue has started to double each quarter.
Australia offers an example of enthusiasm for the company's approach: the nation recently awarded SoftIron an AU$1.5 million ($1.15m) Sovereign Industrial Capability Priority Grant that will see SoftIron establish a server manufacturing facility down under. The grant was awarded so that Australian government and military buyers can get their hands on locally made servers built to SoftIron's unusually secure spec.
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SoftIron has honed its manufacturing process to the point at which it can create a digital twin of its rig and deploy it around the world. The Australian facility will be such a twin, and CEO Phil Straw said several other nations are looking at similar sovereign server assembly capabilities.
Incidentally, the company still sells Ceph boxes – and compute servers, and switches based on servers – to anyone. They're now just rather more secure than the kit The Reg wrote about back in 2019. ®