On Front Line of Computer Security

Simha Sethumadhavan
Simha Sethumadhavan hopes to change the way people think about computer security, raising it from an afterthought to a priority.
An assistant professor of computer science, Sethumadhavan is leading a project with three other Columbia Engineering professors and a team from Princeton University. The project, titled "SPARCHS: Symbiotic, Polymorphic, Autotomic, Resilient, Clean-slate, Host Security," just picked up a federal grant for more than $6 million. Columbia's share is $5,246,907 of the funding, provided by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Sethumadhavan says a lack of security, erosion of privacy, and energy inefficiency are three major concerns that need to be addressed to continue the computing advances of the last four decades that have been so vital to science and society.
“This project will provide energy-efficient primitives that will make security cheap and effective on a wide variety of computing platforms, such as ubiquitous mobile phones or high-value installations in military and financial sectors.”
The project will investigate new approaches for designing secure systems, Sethumadhavan says. While most security research takes a top-down approach, where the most exposed layers – the network/application layers – are first secured, and the lower layers are secured as and when threats appear.
“We are instead taking a clean-slate, ground-up approach to designing secure systems,” he says. “The idea is to create a set of robust hardware and software security primitives that can be used to proactively prevent security attacks.”
“The primitives we propose to investigate are heavily inspired by biological phenomenon that provide us immunity against constant attacks from biological vectors.”
The project has broad implications, Sethumadhavan says, likely leading to the development of new methods and tools for computer systems research.
“Large multi-year efforts such as this one are crucial to the development of scientific human capital and future technical leaders. This award will fund Columbia Ph.D. students to carry out cutting-edge research at the intersection of three areas of computer science: computer architecture, software systems and security.”
This four year, DARPA funded project will support research of 9 graduate research assistants, three postdoctoral researchers, and four professors from the School’s Department of Computer Science: Sethumadhavan, Sal Stolfo, Angelos Keromytis and Junfeng Yang. These Columbia researchers will be collaborating with Professor David August and three graduate students from Princeton.
Sethumadhavan also received another recent honor, being invited to deliver a keynote address at the biannual meeting of the High-Performance and Embedded Architectures and Compiler researchers from Europe. His address will be on a new hybrid discrete-continuous computing model for improving energy-efficiency and programmability of computer systems in the Post-Moore’s-law Era.


500 W. 120th St., Mudd 510, New York, NY 10027    212-854-2993