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Secure containers with a hypervisor DMZ

Buffer Zone

Article from ADMIN 61/2021
Container technology security is not well defined. We look at several approaches to closing this security gap with hypervisors and buffer zones.

Containers have become an almost omnipresent component in modern IT. The associated ecosystem is growing and making both application and integration ever easier. For some, containers are the next evolutionary step in virtual machines: They launch faster, are more flexible, and make better use of available resources.

One question remains unanswered: Are containers as secure as virtual machines? In this article, I first briefly describe the current status quo. Afterward, I provide insight into different approaches of eliminating security concerns. The considerations are limited to Linux as the underlying operating system, but this is not a real restriction, because the container ecosystem on Linux is more diverse than on its competitors.

How Secure?

Only the specifics of container security are investigated here. Exploiting an SQL vulnerability in a database or a vulnerability in a web server is not considered. Classic virtual machines serve as the measure of all things. The question is: Do containers offer the same kind of security? More precisely: Do containers offer comparable or even superior isolation of individual instances from each other? How vulnerable is the host to attack by the services running on it?

A short review of the basic functionality of containers is essential (Figure 1). Control groups and namespaces provided by the operating system kernel serve as fundamental components, along with some processes and access permissions assigned by the kernel. One major security challenge with containers immediately becomes apparent: A user who manages to break out of an instance goes directly to the operating system kernel – or at least dangerously close to it. The villain is thus in an environment that has comprehensive, far-reaching rights. Additionally, one kernel usually serves several container instances. In case of a successful attack, everyone is at risk.

Figure 1: Simplified schematic structure of containers.

The obvious countermeasure is to prevent such an outbreak, but that is easier said than done. The year 2019 alone saw two serious security vulnerabilities [1] [2]. Fortunately, this was not the case in 2020. However, this tranquility might be deceptive: The operating system kernel is a complex construct with many system calls and internal communication channels. Experience shows that undesirable side effects or even errors occur time and again. Sometimes these remain undiscovered for years. Is there no way to improve container security? Is trusting the hard work of the developer community the only way?

New Approach: Buffer Zone

The scenario just described is based on a certain assumption or way of thinking: It is important to prevent breakouts from the container instance, although this is only one possible aspect of container security. Avoiding breakouts protects the underlying operating system kernel. Is there another way to achieve this? Is it possibly okay just to mitigate the damage after such an breakout?

This approach is not at all new in IT. One well-known example comes from the field of networks, when securing a website with an application and database. A buffer zone, known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ) [3], has long been established here. The strategy can also be applied to containers (Figure 2).

Figure 2: A buffer zone secures the containers.

In the three following approaches for this buffer zone, the essential difference is how "thick" or "extensive" it is.

Kata Containers

The first approach borrows heavily from classical virtualization with a hypervisor. One prominent representative is the Kata Containers [4] project, which has been active since 2017. Its sponsor is the Open Infrastructure Foundation, which many probably still know as the OpenStack Foundation [5].

However, the roots of Kata Containers go back further than 2017, and the project brings together efforts from Intel and the Hyper.sh secure container hosting service: Clear Containers [6] or runV [7]. Kata Containers use a type II hypervisor with a lean Linux as the buffer zone (Figure 3). In the first versions, a somewhat leaner version of Qemu [8] was used; newer versions support the Firecracker [9] microhypervisor by AWS.

Figure 3: The schematic structure of Kata Containers.

When this article was written, the Kata Containers project had just released a new version that reduced the number of components needed. In Figure 3, you can see a proxy process, which is completely missing from the current version. Moreover, only a single shim process is now running for all container instances.

The real highlight, however, is not the use of Qemu and the like, but integration with container management tools. In other words: Starting, interacting with, and stopping container instances should work like conventional containers. The Kata approach uses two processes for this purpose.

The first, Kata Shim, is an extension of the standardized shim into the container world. It is the part of the bridge that reaches into the virtual machine. There, process number two, the Kata agent, takes over, running as a normal process within the virtual instance. In the standard installation, this role is handled by a lean operating system by Intel named Clear Linux [10], which gives the kernel of the underlying operating system double protection: through the kernel of the guest operating system and through the virtualization layer.

Another benefit is great compatibility. In principle, any application that can be virtualized should work; the same can be said for existing container images. There were no surprises in the laboratory tests. The use of known technologies also facilitates problem analysis and troubleshooting.

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