Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The energy cost of SSL

I just finished reading a paper called The Energy Cost of SSL in Deeply Embedded Systems, by Sun Microsystems researchers Vipul Gupta and Michael Wurm. Fascinating stuff.

It turns out that secure communication over SSL shortens battery life by approximately 15% in very small (mote-like) wireless devices that use SSL. The size of such devices (commonly used as sensors in manufacturing, but soon to be all around us, if you believe the sci-fi hype) makes them extraordinarily sensitive to anything that draws electrical current, including computation. In a mote, it's not uncommon for 5% of the available energy from a pair of alkaline batteries to be consumed by SSL handshakes, 10% by polling, 25% by SSL data transfer, and the remaining 60% by the device itself. Those ratios will be different for non-secure (non-SSL) data transfer. If you do the apples-to-apples energy balance, the SSL mote pays an energy penalty of 15%, overall, for security.

The authors of the paper don't discuss things like efficient versus inefficient implementations (in assembly language) of handshake algorithms (such as Elliptic Curve), but obviously a poor implementation could significantly affect performance. An unfriendly chip architecture could affect things too. The authors do mention that the particular chip they used (TI MSP430) "offers a rotate instruction which speeds up SHA1 and MD5 by almost 40%."

Motes aren't ubiquitous yet, but hopefully by the time they are, they'll be powered by something other than batteries (e.g., ambient light), so that we don't have to worry about SSL causing even more zinc and manganese to enter the environment when worn-out mote batteries find their way into landfills. Imagine that: SSL as an environmental threat . . .

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