National Semi Throws a Padlock on PCs

National Semiconductor took the wraps off a pair of I/O devices it said could help protect a computer from hackers and viruses.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker said its new SafeKeeper brand PC8374T Desktop device in a PQFP-128 package is ready now and its PC8392T Notebook Trusted I/O device will be available before the end of the year. In discount volumes of 1,000 units, the company said the devices are priced at $5 and $7 respectively.

Both devices are based on National’s embedded 16-bit CompactRISC core technology and meet standards agreed upon by industry consortium Trusted Computing Group’s TPM 1.1b specification. The units are also lead-free and have a low pin-count, which the company said would make them perfect for existing systems because they sit at the intersection of input devices to the PC.

National’s Trusted I/O takes a different approach to security than
Microsoft’s hardware/software partnerships with other chipmakers like Intel, AMD, and Transmeta . That collective looks to prevent buffer overflow problems with the help of silicon-based security and Microsoft’s latest Windows XP service pack.

In contrast, National said its devices integrate a Trusted Platform Module (TPM), Super I/O and embedded firmware to store the computer’s identity in silicon, making it virtually impossible for outsiders to locate key information. TPMs are microcontrollers that securely store passwords, digital certificates and encryption keys for PCs and other systems. These devices, which comply with Trusted Computing Group (TCG) specifications, protect computer software, such as BIOS, operating systems and applications, from unauthorized or malicious attacks.

National also said its use of standard interfaces let it partner with security software developers such as IBM and Wave Systems to offer multiple security options. And working with National’s hardware, the company said system engineers could create a dual-system design that can accept either part. For example, manufacturers could design “TPM-ready” systems without
designing in an additional empty socket.

IBM has used TPMs since 1999 and this time is no exception. The Armonk, N.Y.-based computer giant said it is the first manufacturer to equip selected models of its desktop computers with National Semi’s I/O devices.

“IBM has led the industry in developing secure, manageable systems since pioneering embedded PC security in 1999,” Clain Anderson, program director of wireless and security solutions at IBM, said in a statement.

Anderson said IBM would use National’s Trusted I/O chip for its newly launched desktop IBM ThinkCentre models featuring the IBM Embedded Security Subsystem.

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