DOKK Library

Securing Linux Containers

Authors Major Hayden

License CC-BY-SA-4.0

                                                     Securing Linux Containers 1

                       Securing Linux Containers
                           GIAC (GCUX) Gold Certification

                        Author: Major Hayden,

                                Advisor: Richard Carbone

                                 Accepted: July 26, 2015

                           This paper is licensed under a
          Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


The components that make Linux containers possible have been available for several
years, but recent projects, such as LXC and Docker, have made the technology much
more accessible to users. Containers allow for even more efficient utilization of server
resources through greater density and faster provisioning. However, securing containers
is much more challenging than traditional virtualization methods, including KVM. The
isolation layer between the container and the kernel, as well as between each container, is
extremely thin. Weaknesses in the kernel or the container configuration can lead to
compromises of containers or the entire system. The responsibility of managing the
operating system within the container can also become blurry with time, and that can also
lead to compromises of the container. Fortunately, Linux security modules, such as
SELinux and AppArmor, along with careful configuration and container operating system
management, can strengthen the thin walls around each container. Organizations that use
mature Dev/Ops practices can also improve security within each container by automating
the creation and deployment of container images. This paper will discuss the best
strategies for securing a system running containers and the trade-offs that come with

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1. Introduction
       Linux containers provide a virtualized environment for processes on Linux
servers with less overhead than virtual machines. System administrators can deploy
containers quickly while using fewer server resources.

       Multiple technologies come together to make containers possible on Linux, but
the majority of the work is centered on a concept called namespace isolation. Namespace
isolation allows a server to isolate a process so that it cannot see certain portions of the
overall system. For example, process ID (PID) isolation can be used to make a process
think that it is the only process running on the server. It would have no access to know
that other processes exist, and it would not have the ability to send signals to any of those
processes. In addition, a container could run its own init process as PID 1 while the host
system sees that process as an entirely different PID. (Kerrisk, 2013)

       While namespaces provide some security for containers, many people argue that
namespaces do not do enough to truly contain a container. Namespaces do not cover all
aspects of a Linux system the way a KVM virtual machine does. In addition, processes
within a container still have some level of access to certain kernel-based filesystems, such
as procfs and sysfs. Kernel capabilities reduce the amount of things that can be done
within a container, even by the root user. Combining namespaces and kernel capabilities
definitely improves container security, but it is still not enough. (Walsh, 2015)

       Mandatory Access Control (MAC) is a key technology for securing containers.
The most commonly used MAC technologies for Linux are SELinux and AppArmor.
Both are implemented using the kernel’s Linux Security Modules (LSM) framework.
SELinux provides policy-based security controls that define what processes are able to do
on a system regardless of any discretionary access controls (DAC) in use. For example, a
directory may be configured with the correct permissions for a particular daemon to
create files within it, but a SELinux policy can specify that the daemon not be permitted
to write files there. The MAC policy would override the DAC filesystem permissions
and the writes would be denied. (Wikipedia)

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       Control groups, more commonly known as cgroups, provide system
administrators with tools that limit resource usage for processes. These limits apply to
containers as well since the kernel sees them as processes. Limiters are available for
various resources, including CPU usage, disk I/O, network throughput, and memory
consumption. A control group contains multiple resource limits, and then multiple
processes can be added to the control group. All of those processes will share the
resources allocated to the control group. (Menage, n.d.)

       Tying all these technologies together to deploy containers involves a new way of
thinking about infrastructure. Many software projects, including LXC and Docker, make
container deployment easier through simple command line tools and integrations with
existing virtualization management platforms. Other projects that assist with deploying
large container environments are Kubernetes and Mesos.

       Deploying containers also requires a new way of thinking about security. The
isolation layer between containers and the host system is extremely thin. This requires
careful thought about people, process, and technology. The efficiency gains from running
containers can disappear quickly without appropriate security controls and processes.

2. About Linux containers
       A container is a way to isolate Linux applications with very little overhead. All
containers share the same host kernel, but they have their own virtualized network
adapters and filesystems. Containers allow for efficient application deployment and
management, but they are not preferred for all workloads. Depending on the application,
there are various compatibility, performance, and security limitations that come with

2.1 Server management strategies

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       System administrators have several methods for hosting applications on a server.
Selecting the best one depends on what is best for the application and the business. For
example, a business operating in a high-risk environment might choose a hosting strategy
that favors security or isolation over performance. Another business might place a higher
value on performance and scalability.

2.1.1 Multiple servers with one application on each server

       The simplest method for hosting applications is to host one application per server.
A simple deployment may have a physical database server connected to a physical
application server that resides in a network DMZ. This solution has the best security

       If an attacker compromises the application server, they must find a way to break
into the database server through the limited access provided through the firewall.
SELinux can be used to enforce MAC policies and help reduce the impact of any
potential vulnerability on the server.

       Hosting one application on each server also provides the best performance since
applications would not be in conflict with one another for resources.

       Unfortunately, the management costs for this type of deployment can be higher
than the other strategies. A large capital expenditure is required, and system
administrators must maintain multiple separate servers along with network devices.
Highly available solutions will require additional servers and network devices since
replacing a device involves downtime and physical intervention.

2.1.2 Multiple servers with multiple applications on each server

       Hosting multiple applications on a single server reduces cost but leads to greater
security challenges. An example of this deployment type is running Linux, Apache,
MySQL, and PHP (LAMP) on a single server. This is often the case for various PHP
blogging and content management-based system projects, such as WordPress or Drupal.

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       If this server is compromised, there is a good chance that the attacker will have
access to many parts of the system if not the entire system. Using SELinux is strongly
advised since it provides a level of isolation between sensitive processes, including
Apache and MySQL, and could limit the extent of a compromise. However, if an
attacker finds a usable kernel vulnerability, they can gain access to the entire system.

       An example of a SELinux policy mitigating a vulnerability on a single system
with multiple applications running is referenced in CVE-2007-3304. The vulnerability
allows an attacker to modify some internal arrays in Apache that could cause the daemon
to send kill signals to other processes on the system. SELinux policies denied access to
those processes, and the vulnerability could not be exploited on systems with SELinux in
“enforcing” mode with the most recent targeted security policy updates. (RHSA-
2007:0556-2, 2007)

       Performance can vary when multiple applications run on a single server. The
“noisy neighbor” effect of additional processes on the system makes it more difficult for
system administrators to hunt down performance bottlenecks, but there are tools1
available to help with this. It also creates unpredictable response times for latency-
sensitive applications. Real-time kernels can alleviate some of the problems with jitter
and latency, but using them involves some large, system-wide changes. (Williams, 2008)

2.1.3 Multiple servers with virtual machines, one application per VM

       Deploying with virtual machines provides greater isolation between applications
without significantly raising costs. Replacing a virtual machine is much easier than
replacing physical machines, and it takes much less time. In one phase of a virtualization
implementation at Southwestern Illinois College, the cost of ownership dropped 50%
over three years. Additional savings came from reduced datacenter space usage, utility
expenses, and hardware administration. (Leja, 2010)

1 The simplest tools, such as htop and top, will show applications consuming a
significant amount of CPU time or memory. Network congestion is easily diagnosed
with aggregate tools, including bwm-ng and iptraf-ng, and can be further refined
with iftop and tcpdump. The sysstat scripts record fine-grained resource usage
statistics over time and allow administrators to tackle performance problems before
they become a serious issue.

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       KVM provides strong isolation between virtual machines mainly through its
default use of MAC policies. All KVM virtual machines run as a process and those
processes are confined using SELinux policies. In addition, KVM has an API for sVirt
that allows for an even more granular application of policies. sVirt ensures that all
processes related to a single virtual machine can only manipulate files and devices
associated with that virtual machine. If an attacker breaks out of a KVM virtual machine,
they can only change files that the virtual machine has access to change via SELinux
policies. (IBM, 2011)

       VENOM (CVE-2015-3456) was the codename for a serious vulnerability that
appeared in 2015 on systems running KVM with Qemu. A vulnerability in the floppy
disk controller allowed attackers to write to memory that would cause a guest crash in the
best case and execution of arbitrary code on the host in the worst case. The floppy disk
controller is rarely used in modern systems but it is enabled by default in most Qemu
implementations. Since the vulnerability affected a virtualized floppy disk controller, it
did not matter if the physical system had an actually floppy disk drive or controller.
SELinux and sVirt prevented attackers from gaining access to other parts of the system
by restricting what the Qemu process was able to do on the host. (Walsh, 2015)

       Server hardware also provides additional security through technologies in the
CPU. Intel’s VMX and AMD’s SVM are examples of hardware-assisted virtualization
technologies that are found in desktop and server CPU’s. VMX allows a system to
execute root and non-root operations in the CPU. Typical root operations would come
from within the host system while non-root operations come from the guest. This allows
KVM to avoid switching between rings2 constantly in software that increases
performance and security. The CPU limits which operations can be called in non-root
mode. These restrictions keep root users in a virtual machine from running as root on the
host system itself. (Intel, 2011)

2 Kernel rings are arranged from most privileged to least. As an example, the kernel
typically runs in ring zero while most applications run in ring three. If an
application in ring three wants to perform an operation with escalated privileges, it
must pass through special “gates.” Special applications, like init, can run in both
rings at the same time.

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        Virtual machines also support complex network configurations. System
administrators can attach virtual machines to different VLANs or apply bridge filtering
controls so that virtual machines can only communicate with certain hosts. Stateful
firewall rules can be placed between virtual machines and the external network or
between individual virtual machines themselves. (IBM, 2011)

2.1.4 Multiple servers with containers, one application per container

        Containers provide a lighter-weight alternative to virtual machines. Processes
within containers run within a namespace and control group. This ensures isolation from
the rest of the system and places limits on resource usage with less overhead than virtual
machines. However, containers utilize the existing Linux kernel on the host system, and
they boot directly into an init system, such as systemd. This allows system administrators
to fully bring functional containers online, often in less than a few seconds.

        Security isolation for containers relies upon namespaces, control groups, and
MAC policies. This differs from KVM in that there is no hardware assistance involved
and processes within containers can talk directly with the host system kernel. This
thinner layer of isolation provides additional performance and lower resource usage since
there is no need for an entire operating system to be running in each container. (Walsh,

        Properly configured containers have a security profile that is slightly more secure
than multiple applications on a single server and slightly less secure than KVM virtual
machines. As with multiple applications on one server, a compromise of one container
could lead to compromise of the entire system. For that attack to be successful, the
attacker would need to subvert SELinux policies (with MCS separation3) and exploit an
existing kernel vulnerability to subvert namespace isolation. (Walsh, 2013)

        Containers also support the complex networking configurations found in KVM,
including bridge filtering, stateful firewalling, and VLANs. Network namespaces ensure
that each container has the exclusive use of a virtual network device.

3 Multi-category separation, or MCS, provides a way to make more specific sub-policies
or categories that apply tighter restrictions to what a process can do with certain files and
objects. This is explained in detail in Section 3.4.

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2.2 Container frameworks
       Assembling all of the virtualization building blocks for virtual machines and
containers is challenging. Many container frameworks are available as open source
projects, and that makes it much easier to manage the various namespaces, cgroups and
security controls. These frameworks include LXC, Docker, systemd-nspawn, and Rocket.

       One of the first projects created for managing containers is LXC. It contains
libraries and command line tools that help system administrators quickly create
containers without needing to be experts in the underlying technology. LXC’s command
line tools can create containers with all available namespaces, cgroups, and SELinux
policies set. Users can easily add and remove certain kernel capabilities or adjust
cgroups depending on the needs of the application. Libvirt can also manage containers
using an LXC library, and it will use MCS separation via the sVirt API for additional
security. (Graber, 2014)

       Docker is another container management project, and it aims to make container
deployment more automated. It provides an API for remote management, and it
automatically configures networks when containers are built. Docker utilizes a layered
image format that allows users to add their application and its dependencies onto an
existing trusted image. As with LXC, Docker configures namespaces, cgroups, and
SELinux by default.

       Servers running systemd can use built-in functionality to launch containers with
very little configuration. The systemd-nspawn tool will start a container with a single
daemon or a full init system. It will also configure all of the underlying container
isolation technologies by default. (Edge, 2013)

       Rocket was introduced in late 2014 as a competitor to Docker. It utilizes systemd
for launching containers and it has an image management mechanism. The developers of
Rocket are also working to standardize a container specification with a goal of providing
greater security and compatibility. (Polvi, 2014)

2.3 Container infrastructure management

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       The container management frameworks from the previous section are helpful for
managing smaller container deployments, but many businesses are eager to manage large
fleets of container-based infrastructures. As the number of containers per server
increases, additional strain is placed on the network and the system administrators that
manage all of it.

       Google conceived the idea of Kubernetes after managing its own large container
infrastructure for many years. It has three main concepts: pods, replication controllers,
and services. Pods may consist of a single container or multiple containers. Replication
controllers ensure that a certain number of containers are running within pods. Finally,
services help make the link between a “service,” which could be a website, and the pods
that are running containers that contain the website content. Networking with Kubernetes
can become quite complex, and another project, Flannel, is under active development to
make this process easier. (Paris, n.d.)

3. Securing the container host system
       Creating separation and isolation is the key to securing any system since it limits
the impact caused by a compromise. Working with a container system is no different.
Since processes in containers are just processes on the host, a defense in depth strategy is
       For example, if a user is root (UID 0) in a container, they are root on the host. If
they find a way to escape the confines of the container, they will have full root access to
the underlying host. This can quickly lead to compromise of other containers on the host
and other physical systems on the same network segment.

3.1 Discretionary and Mandatory Access Control
       Securing containers requires a deep understanding of Discretionary Access
Control (DAC) and Mandatory Access Control (MAC).

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       As the name implies, DAC policies can be overridden depending on the user
running a process. The kernel can use its discretion to determine if access should be
allowed. Filesystem permissions are a good example of DAC. If a user owns a particular
file and they set the mode of the file to 0600, then no other users can read or write to that
file. However, the root user could venture into that directory and manipulate the file at
any time. The kernel used its discretion to say that another user could not access the file
(based on filesystem ownership and permissions), but the root user could access the file
because of its superuser privileges. There is an exception: if a user marks a file as
immutable, even root cannot manipulate the file until the immutable attribute is removed.

       DAC provides good security, and it is very easy to use. Users can list files in a
directory and quickly understand which ones they are able to access. In situations where
a process may be controlled by an attacker, DAC simply is not enough.

       Filesystem access control lists, or ACLs, are helpful as they allow administrators
to set more specific DAC policies for accessing files. Once the filesystem is mounted
with ACL support, administrators can apply ACL policies to directories and files. For
example, a file might be owned by one user with filesystem permissions that only allow
that user to edit the file. An administrator could set an ACL that allowed a second user to
edit the file without changing the filesystem permissions. This helps avoid using wide-
open Linux permissions, such as 0777, in situations where an administrator wants to
allow access for one additional user.

       In contrast, MAC policies are called mandatory because they cannot be
overridden unless the policies are changed or disabled completely. These policies are not
as visible on the system and can be difficult to troubleshoot. As an example, an Apache
server may have the correct filesystem permissions (DAC) to write to a particular
directory but the access is denied due to a MAC policy. This creates a frustrating
situation for many system administrators because the reason for the denial is not entirely
obvious. Fortunately, all of the denied access is logged in the kernel audit logs.
Administrators can install setroubleshoot to see simpler explanations of the denials and
multiple options on how to allow the access.

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           SELinux and AppArmor are the two most common implementations of MAC for
   the Linux kernel. Both have policies that define what a particular process can do on a
   Linux system but they differ greatly in their implementation. One common element they
   have is that they work well with libvirt’s sVirt API and provide strong levels of separation
   for containers. They also feed their information about denials into auditd for collection
   and review. Both of them have “learning” modes that log potential denials without
   actually blocking access.

           SELinux is a labeling system where everything receives a label, including
   processes, files, directories, and other objects. It comes with various policy sets that
   define how a process with one label can interact with something else that has another
   label. The kernel enforces those policies. The configuration is extremely granular and
   can be a challenge to adjust. Fortunately, many common adjustments are done via
   Booleans that can be quickly toggled on and off. For example, if an Apache server needs
   to talk to a remote database server, toggling a single Boolean enables that access. (Walsh,

           AppArmor does not apply labels but instead relies on policy files that specify file
   paths to protect. Policy files contain a reference to a particular executable and what that
   executable is allowed to do. For example, an application could be limited to certain
   kernel capabilities or gain permissions to send raw network packets across the network.
   The configuration and policies are less granular but easier to integrate into existing
   systems. This is similar to Trusted Solaris. (Wikipedia)

           Systems running Red Hat-based distributions, including CentOS and Fedora, will
   have SELinux available and in its enforcing state by default. Debian-based systems,
   including Ubuntu, will have AppArmor available but the default enforcement setting
   differs between versions.

3.2 Kernel updates

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       One of the biggest weaknesses of any container system is a kernel vulnerability.
Since processes in containers are really just isolated processes on the host, any kernel
vulnerabilities that allow an attacker to break out of the namespace isolation can be
disastrous. Container systems should receive regular kernel updates whenever they are
made available by the upstream Linux project or by the Linux distribution currently in

       Updating a kernel is a two-phase process. The first step is to update the kernel
code itself and the second step is a reboot. A new project, Ksplice, has recently been
merged into upstream Linux, and its goal is to enable kernel updates without requiring a
reboot. This involves carefully compiling a patch and using client tools to load the
patched kernel code into the running kernel. (Poimboeuf & Jennings, 2014)

       Some system administrators may want to custom compile their kernel to remove
certain unneeded features or add experimental functionality. These users may want to
consider some of the advanced functionality included in the Grsecurity and PaX kernel
patch sets. They can add additional protection for containers as well as other processes
on the system that run outside of containers. However, as with MAC, it can become
difficult to troubleshoot why a particular application is denied access certain elements of
the system.

3.3 Kernel capabilities
       The first set of Linux capabilities appeared in the kernel in the late days of kernel
2.14, and their goal was to split up root privileges into multiple pieces. At the time, some
applications were run with setuid root -- which allows a regular user to run an application
with root-level privileges. This was required for some applications, such as ping, that
required raw access to the network. (Bacarella, 2002)

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       These capabilities allowed normal users to run certain applications with restricted
root privileges. In the ping example, the executable receives the CAP_NET_RAW
capability. That allows it to use raw network sockets without gaining any additional
privileges. This is extremely helpful for executables with a vulnerability such as a buffer
overflow. In the old model, where executables similar to ping were setuid root, a
vulnerability in ping could allow a normal user to execute arbitrary code as root on the
system. (Bacarella, 2002)

       Containers also have capabilities applied to them when they start. Frameworks,
such as LXC and Docker, choose a minimal set of capabilities to start with and system
administrators can choose to add or remove capabilities from the default setting if
needed. If a container needs to create a special file with mknod, a system administrator
might add the CAP_MKNOD capability to the container. That capability remains with
the container as long as it is running. (Bacarella, 2002)

3.4 sVirt and MCS separation
       sVirt adds powerful separation to a virtualized system in conjunction with MAC
implementations such as SELinux and AppArmor.

       In the case of SELinux, custom policies are generated per container. This is
called Multi-Category Security (MCS). SELinux policies already exist that define what a
container’s processes can do on a system, but MCS takes it a step further and
dynamically creates an additional sub-policy (called a category) that is specific to one
container. MCS applies sub-policies, called categories that limit the access from a
specific container to specific files or objects. (Walsh, 2009)

       This is challenging to understand without a simpler example, and the SELinux
coloring book provides a great, if not humorous example. Consider a dog and a cat as
well as their respective bowls of food. The dog should eat the dog food and the cat
should eat the cat food. If the dog tries to eat the cat food, the dog must be denied access.
This is how SELinux policies work.

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       However, what if there are two dogs: a Dachshund and a Great Dane? They will
both have dog food in their bowls but they will likely receive different quantities or types
of dog food. How do we deny them access to the wrong food when both dogs are labeled
as dogs and all of the food is dog food? This is where MCS separation comes into play.
We can label the Dachshund and its food as dog:dachshund and dog_food:dachshund. If
the Great Dane is labeled as dog:great_dane, it would be denied access to
dog_food:dachshund because the sub-policy, or category, does not match even though it
is still dog food. (Duffy & Walsh, n.d.)

       MCS separation ensures that a particular container is only allowed to access the
resources that are assigned to it. The sVirt functionality within libvirt ensures that the
appropriate labels and categories are applied to the container, its processes, and its system
resources as soon as it starts. If container A is compromised, it cannot manipulate the
host’s resources due to standard SELinux policies. It also cannot manipulate container
B’s resources due to MCS separation.

3.5 User namespacing
       The newest namespace in the Linux kernel deals with the isolation of UIDs. The
goal is to ensure that a root user in the container is not actually equivalent to root on the
host. This is done through a UID mapping and administrators can choose which UIDs in
the container map to a particular UID on the host. As an example, a root user within a
container might see themselves as UID 0 while on the host a system administrator sees
that root user as UID 31337. These mappings should be done carefully to avoid overlaps
and management headaches on highly dense systems.

       In the case of a container compromise, this would deny root access on the host to
the root user within the container. The attacker would need to find a new method for
gaining escalated privileges on the host system. (Kerrisk, 2013)

3.6 Secure Computing Mode (seccomp)

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       Another option to provide additional security on container systems is to limit the
syscalls, or system calls, that processes inside a container can make. The seccomp
project allows limits to be placed on which syscalls can be made by those processes.
When a process makes a call that is not allowed, the default action is to kill the process.
There are user-configurable options that send more friendly signals to the process instead.

       Creating a set of allowed syscalls for an application is challenging for two
reasons: there are a large set of syscalls available, and it can be difficult to determine
which syscalls an application will make when it runs. As of Linux 4.1, the Linux kernel
has 378 syscalls, and the list continues to grow. If system administrators do not have an
accurate list of the syscalls a particular application might make, they may cause the
application to throw errors or crash.

       System administrators can use strace or ptrace to profile an application and get a
list of syscalls that are made during normal operation. The accuracy of the list largely
depends on the workloads being handled by the application. Users should profile their
applications while they are handling regular workloads to get the most complete list of
required syscalls. (Edge, 2012)

4. Security within Linux containers
       Securing the container host is critical but is only half the battle. The data inside
the container, including the application, configuration files, and the operating system, is
just as critical to the overall security of the environment.

4.1 Trusted images
       All containers start with software that needs to run inside the container. Some
containers, such as the ones started with systemd-nspawn, can simply re-purpose an
existing executable from the host system and launch it in a container. Other containers
are built using trusted packages from the host system’s distribution with package
management tools including debootstrap, yum, or dnf. This allows administrators to
install the base OS from trusted sources and cryptographically verify each package.

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       Docker takes a different approach. Users can simply download an existing image
from Docker’s public facing index using the docker pull command and apply
customization on top of it. It is as simple as pulling a CentOS 7 image, writing a short
file of customization instructions (called a Dockerfile), and telling Docker to build the
container. Docker stores the results of customizations, such as adding new packages or
configuration files, as layers and applies those layers onto the original base image.

       This simplicity leads to security issues for administrators. Docker has
implemented some initial checks for images when they are downloaded to ensure they
were not altered during transit, but they do not vouch for the actual content found within
the images themselves. It is up to the user to determine which images are trustworthy for
their environment. A recent automated study of images available in the public Docker
showed that 30% of images contained serious security vulnerabilities. (Gummaraju,
Desikan & Turner, 2015)

       It is possible for a determined attacker to place an intentional vulnerability or
backdoor into in image, and it could go undetected. If the image is used widely in
container deployments, it could lead to serious compromises in user data or denial of
service. Anyone who builds a container must be able to verify its source or they must
build their own containers using trusted tools and packages.

4.2 Container operating system updates
       Unlike virtual machines, containers do not provide simple methods for applying
operating system updates. Containers are generally considered immutable once they are
built, and any updates to the container are often done by building a new container.
Docker makes this process easier since the user can simply rebuild the container image
with the same Dockerfile and get the latest operating system updates, so long as the
Dockerfile contains commands for updating the operating system.

       Deploying the new container with the updated images to replace the old container
can occur via a number of methods. For one-off or small container deployments, the old
container could be stopped and the new container could be started in its place. Downtime
is minimal due to the short time required to stop and start containers.

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       A more automated approach would be to start a new container, or group of new
containers, alongside the old containers. Monitoring systems would check the new
containers to verify that they are responding properly, and then a quick load balancer
change would shift traffic over to the new containers. Kubernetes has features that allow
new pods to start alongside old ones, and then the service can be adjusted to point to the
new containers.

4.3 Communication between containers
       Host protections, such as namespaces and MAC policies, provide strong
protection between containers on the host, but it is important to consider how containers
can communicate with each other and with the host outside of those protections.

       Containers with unfiltered network access can communicate with each other and
the host if they are on the same network segment. Since containers have their own virtual
network interface (thanks to network namespaces), users can attach the network interface
to a variety of network devices.

       The simplest solution could be to use a Linux bridge and place all of the
containers on the bridge. Communication is simple and fast, but not secure. A stronger
solution would be to place containers on bridges with filtering applied or use VLANs to
carve up new network segments. Modern systems may be able to use virtual network
switching via OpenvSwitch on the host and achieve greater network separation.

       It is also important to consider other objects that may be shared between
containers, including sockets or shared storage devices. System administrators should
carefully consider the consequences of sharing objects between containers to limit the
spread of a compromise.

4.4 Security responsibility
       Developers appreciate containers because they can package their application, test
it alongside its libraries, and verify that it will work in production. Operations teams
appreciate containers because they get the applications in a cohesive package along with
their dependencies and configurations. However, who owns the security of the container
operating system, configuration files, and the application in this new world of containers?

Major Hayden,
                                                       Securing Linux Containers 18

       The responsibility of securing the operating system normally falls onto the
operations team. However, if developers are writing applications and building a
container with their application in it, how do operations teams ensure that the base
operating system is secure?

       This is where frameworks with layered images, including Docker, can help.
Operations teams can carefully maintain a base image with appropriate security controls,
configurations, and package updates. As part of that configuration, they can specify
where the package manager will receive trusted packages. Development teams can use
that base image as the foundation for their containers and then add packages from those
trusted repositories. If a serious vulnerability appears, the operations team would quickly
update the base image and let the development team know that a container rebuild and
redeployment is needed. (Walsh, 2015)

5. Guide: Implementing a secure container
       There are many different methods for implementing secure containers, and they
vary according to the complexity and size of the deployment. This guide takes a simple
approach and uses only free and open source software. At the end of the guide, the reader
will have built a secured container running on a Linux host using libvirt’s LXC driver.

5.1 Requirements
       This example will use a CentOS 7 system with a small package set. The reader
will also need a system on which to run the CentOS operating system. Any compatible
hardware, virtual machine, or remotely hosted cloud instance will be sufficient so long as
it has 10GB of disk space and at least 512MB of RAM.

5.2 Installation
       Install CentOS with a minimal package set. There is no need for a graphical
interface for this guide. Once the system is installed, verify that SELinux is in the default
“enforcing”mode. Run the getenforce command to verify the SELinux status. If the
command returns Permissive, run setenforce 1 to change to “enforcing” mode.

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                                                       Securing Linux Containers 19

       Update all packages and then install the packages needed for container
       # yum -y upgrade
       # yum -y install libvirt virt-install

       In addition, ensure that the libvirt daemon is running:
       # systemctl start libvirtd

5.3 Bootstrapping the container
       The container needs an operating system, and it should be installed using the
trusted package manager and packages. This command will install a small CentOS 7
distribution into a directory where libvirt can manage it:
       # yum -y installroot=/var/lib/libvirt/filesystems/centos7 \
               --releasever=7 install systemd passwd yum \
               centos-release vim-minimal procps-ng iproute \
               net-tools dhclient policycoreutils

       Our container operating system is now installed and ready to be configured. A
password must be set for the root user:
       # chroot /var/lib/libvirt/filesystems/centos7/bin/passwd root

       Also, console access must be allowed:
       # echo “pts/0” >> \


5.4 Launching the container
       Before launching the container, libvirt needs to know that it exists:
       # virt-install --connect lxc:// \
               --name centos7 --ram 256 \
               --filesystem /var/lib/libvirt/filesystems/centos7,/

       In a few seconds, the container should fully boot and stop at a login prompt:
       CentOS Linux 7 (Core)
       Kernel 3.10.0-229.4.2.el7.x86_64 on an x86_64

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                                                      Securing Linux Containers 20

       containers login:

       The root password set in the earlier section should work at the prompt.

5.5 Inspecting the container
       After logging in, running getenforce should show Disabled. However,
SELinux is running on the host and is protecting the container. To verify, hold the CTRL
key and press “]” to escape the container’s console. The container will still be running,
but the current console will switch back to the host system.

       Review the process list to verify the SELinux labels:
       # ps efxZ | grep libvirt_lxc | awk ‘{print $1}’

       The context applied to each process of the container is virtd_lxc_t. SELinux
has policies that determine what a process running with this context on the system can do.
However, the additional information in the process listing is the category and is used for
MCS. The s0-s0:c0.c1023 string is the category label applied to the process. If
additional containers are running on the host, different MCS labels would be used for
each container.

       A virtual network device should also appear on the host:
       # ip link show vnet0

       This virtual network device was created automatically by libvirt when the
container was instantiated with virt-install.

       In addition, PID namespacing can be verified by inspecting the container’s init
process from the host’s perspective:
       # ps aufx | grep init
       root         1638    0.0   0.3   53584    3432 ?            Ss     03:53
0:00   \_ /sbin/init

       The container thinks that /sbin/init is running as PID 1, but the host sees it
as PID 1638.

Major Hayden,
                                                        Securing Linux Containers 21

6. Conclusion
       Containers give businesses the opportunity to reduce resource usage, manual
deployment work, and downtime. They also force businesses to be more nimble and
make their actions more repeatable. Containers have changed the game of how
development and operations teams work together by creating a deployment mechanism
that pulls together the strengths of both teams. Developers have the opportunity to see
their applications in production running as they intended, and operations teams gain the
redundancy and reliability they need.
       Businesses must evaluate if their applications are currently compatible with
container technology and if the application is built to scale out to multiple containers.
Monolithic applications that require local state are probably not good candidates for
containers, but many other applications are. Business processes must also be mature and
nimble enough to make containers a reality. The technology is growing stronger every
day, and each business must consider if their people and processes have grown in equal
       However, as with any new technology, containers present challenges to our
existing security strategy. Traditional defense in depth strategies still work at a high
level, but the low-level touch points must be revised. Upstream work in the Linux kernel
and various container frameworks continues to push the boundaries of performance and
security. As more standardization and automation evolves, securing containers will
become a more straightforward process.
       Some security technology in container environments is non-negotiable. Using
Mandatory Access Control implementations, such as SELinux or AppArmor, must be a
first step for securing all systems running containers. Users must carefully consider all
available avenues for communication between the containers and their host, as well as
between the containers themselves.
       Security within the containers is often forgotten, but it is just as critical as
securing the host. Users must know and trust the source of their container images, their
application, and its dependencies. Operations and development teams must communicate
about security responsibility, and every piece of the container should have an owner from
the time it is built to the time when it is finally decommissioned.

Major Hayden,
                                                      Securing Linux Containers 22

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                                                     Securing Linux Containers 23

Paris, E. (n.d.). Kubernetes: What's it do? Retrieved from
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Major Hayden,