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Monday, September 17, 2012

Introducing ICPSR's Virtual Data Enclave (VDE)

The ICPSR Virtual Data Enclave (VDE) is a secure, virtual environment in which a researcher can analyze sensitive data, create research products, and then take possession of those products and analysis.  And while he VDE is not a substitute for a physical enclave and the types of security protocols it facilitates, the VDE is very much a potential substitute for the traditional practice of distributing confidential data via removable media, such as CD-ROMs.

The VDE uses much of the same technology that ICPSR uses internally for its Secure Data management Environment (SDE) which we have described a few times.  In brief, we use a virtual desktop environment that is operated by the University of Michigan's central IT shop and connect it to what we call our Private Network Attached Storage (NAS) appliance.  Both the virtual desktop and NAS are behind a firewall, and we use the firewall and Windows group policies to restrict what actions one pay perform.  Download?  Nope.  Cut-and-paste between the virtual desktop and the real desktop? Uh uh.  Capture screenshots by taking a picture of your monitor?  Well, ......

The virtual environment keeps sensitive datasets under lock and key at ICPSR, but makes it available to researchers.  The environment contains the usual array of applications used in the social sciences (but no email!), exactly the same sort of stuff we might set up for a visiting scholar or OR.

The researcher accesses the environment through a small, easy-to-download and -install client based on VMware View Client.  Authentication takes place using standard University of Michigan credentials which we (ICPSR) and others at UMich can issue to "friends."  Access between the real desktop and the virtual desktop is encrypted, and we are in the process of adding IPSEC encryption between the virtual desktop and the NAS.  (This latter traffic passes over UMich's data backbone, and access to those routers is limited to UMich central IT network engineers.)

The virtual machine is completely ephemeral and can be wiped after each use.  Any intermediate research or results are stored on the ICPSR NAS.  Our NAS is backed up weekly, and tapes are cycled off-site quarterly.  Once the research has been completed ICPSR retains a "just in case you need it" snapshot for up to three years.

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