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Armor-plated Linux gets backup

A duo of companies releases an updated version of SE Linux that adds muscle to the operating system's beefed-up security features, researched by the National Security Agency.

Two companies announced Friday a new version of Security-Enhanced Linux, in a bid to build business from additions to the bare-bones operating system.

The Open Source Development Group (OSDgroup), a Linux training firm, and Houston-based network consultancy Westcam have teamed up to release a package that adds a graphical installer and new security settings to the OS released by the National Security Agency almost two years ago.

The changes are designed to make the armored operating system more user-friendly for companies that are considering employing the software, said Mark Westerman, founder and managing partner of Westcam.

"This is the first release of the beta," he said. Beta, or test, software may still have bugs and is released to garner feedback from testers. While Westerman plans to sell copies of the final distribution--a collection of software including the core operating system--he believes that the company can also build a business around support and consulting for the package.

Oxford, Miss.-based OSDgroup, Westcam's partner, plans to create courses to train companies in how to take full advantage of the new security features in their version of SE Linux.

The refined software is among the first developments to arise from the modifications to Linux released by NSA as SE Linux to the open-source community in early 2001. The Cyberspace Policy Institute, a group of academic researchers based at George Washington University, has called for the formation of a group to develop a full-fledged distribution based on SE Linux. However, no group has been formed yet.

SE Linux is the result of research work done at the NSA, a secretive U.S. government group responsible for protecting the country's communications and information systems and for breaking the communications systems of other countries.

"The NSA basically threw it over the wall and said, 'Take it and do great things with it,'" said Richard Kuebler, vice president of sales and marketing for OSDgroup.

The support for the security-conscious open-source software is surprising because for decades, the NSA stymied researchers' and companies' efforts to make another security technology broadly available: strong encryption.

SE Linux adds military-strength architectural improvements to Linux--the most obvious security improvement being mandatory access controls, or MACs, based on technology developed by Secure Computing Corp. Such controls limit a program's ability to access other applications and data, based on those applications' level of authority. Military systems frequently require such features to ensure that classified data remains protected.

However, the NSA didn't offer further support for the features it added, leaving a gap for companies like his, said Westcam's Westerman. The firm intends to keep the source code for all additions to the operating system open.

"We are not trying to put any proprietary hooks into it at all," said Westerman. "We are trying to make the entire distribution open source."