Why Unikernels Can Improve Internet Security
// Xen Project Blog
This is a reprint of a 3-part unikernel series published on Linux.com. In this post, Xen Project Advisory Board Chairman Lars Kurth explains how unikernels address security and allow for the careful management of particularly critical portions of an organization's data and processing needs. (See part one, 7 Unikernel Projects to Take On Docker in 2015.)
Many industries are rapidly moving toward networked, scale-out designs with new and varying workloads and data types. Yet, pick any industry — retail, banking, health care, social networking or entertainment — and you'll find security risks and vulnerabilities are highly problematic, costly and dangerous.
Adam Wick, creator of the The Haskell Lightweight Virtual Machine (HaLVM) and a research lead at Galois Inc., which counts the U.S. Department of Defense and DARPA as clients, says 2015 is already turning out to be a break-out year for security.
"Cloud computing has been a hot topic for several years now, and we've seen a wealth of projects and technologies that take advantage of the flexibility the cloud offers," said Wick. "At the same time though, we've seen record-breaking security breach after record-breaking security breach."
The names are more evocative and well-known thanks to online news and social media, but low-level bugs have always plagued network services, Wick said. So, why is security more important today than ever before?
The creator of MirageOS, Anil Madhavapeddy, says it's "simply irresponsible to continue to knowingly provision code that is potentially unsafe, and especially so as we head into a year full of promise about smart cities and ubiquitous Internet of Things. We wouldn't build a bridge on top of quicksand, and should treat our online infrastructure with the same level of respect and attention as we give our physical structures."
In the hopes of improving security, performance and scalability, there's a flurry of interesting work taking place around blocking out functionality into containers and lighter-weight unikernel alternatives. Galois, which specializes in R&D for new technologies, says enterprises are increasingly interested in the ability to cleanly separate functionality to limit the effect of a breach to just the component affected, rather than infecting the whole system.
For next-generation clouds and in-house clouds, unikernels make it possible to run thousands of small VMs per host. Galois, for example, uses this capability in their CyberChaff project, which uses minimal VMs to improve intrusion detection on sensitive networks, while others have used similar mechanisms to save considerable cost in hardware, electricity, and cooling; all while reducing the attack surface exposed to malicious hackers. These are welcome developments for anyone concerned with system and network security and help to explain why traditional hypervisors will remain relevant for a wide range of customers well into the future.
Madhavapeddy goes as far to say that certain unikernel architectures would have directly tackled last year's Heartbleed and Shellshock bugs.
"For example, end-to-end memory safety prevents Heartbleed-style attacks in MirageOS and the HaLVM. And an emphasis on compile-time specialization eliminates complex runtime code such as Unix shells from the images that are deployed onto the cloud," he said.
The MirageOS team has also put their stack to the test by releasing a "Bitcoin pinata," which is a unikernel that guards a collection of Bitcoins. The Bitcoins can only be claimed by breaking through the unikernel security (for example, by compromising the SSL/TLS stack) and then moving the coins. If the Bitcoins are indeed transferred away, then the public transaction record will reflect that there is a security hole to be fixed. The contest has been running since February 2015 and the Bitcoins have not yet been taken.
Linux container vs. unikernel security
Linux, as well as Linux containers and Docker images, rely on a fairly heavyweight core OS to provide critical services. Because of this, a vulnerability in the Linux kernel affects every Linux container, Wick said. Instead, using an approach similar to a la carte menus, unikernels only include the minimal functionality and systems needed to run an application or service, all of which makes writing an exploit to attack them much more difficult.
Cloudius Systems, which is running a private beta of OSv, which it tags as the operating system for the cloud, recognizes that progress is being made on this front.
"Rocket is indeed an improvement over Docker, but containers aren't a multi-tenant solution by design," said CEO Dor Laor. "No matter how many SELinux Linux policies you throw on containers, the attack surface will still span all aspects of the kernel."
Martin Lucina, who is working on the Rump Kernel software stack, which enables running existing unmodified POSIX software without an operating system on various platforms, including bare metal embedded systems and unikernels on Xen, explains that unikernels running on the Xen Project hypervisor benefit from the strong isolation guarantees of hardware virtualization and a trusted computing base that is orders of magnitude smaller than that of container technologies.
"There is no shell, you cannot exec() a new process, and in some cases you don't even need to include a full TCP stack. So there is very little exploit code can do to gain a permanent foothold in the system," Lucina said.
The key takeaway for organizations worried about security is that they should treat their infrastructure in a less monolithic way. Unikernels allow for the careful management of particularly critical portions of an organization's data and processing needs. While it does take some extra work, it's getting easier every day as more developers work on solving challenges with orchestration, logging and monitoring. This means unikernels are coming of age just as many developers are getting serious about security as they begin to build scale-out, distributed systems.
For those interested in learning more about unikernels, the entire series is available as a white paper titled "The Next Generation Cloud: The Rise of the Unikernel."
Read part 1: 7 Unikernel Projects to Take On Docker in 2015
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