Getting Towards Real Sandbox Containers

Sunday, May 1, 2016 ยท 5 min read

Containers are all the rage right now.

At the very core of containers are the same Linux primitives that are also used to create application sandboxes. The most common sandbox you may be familiar with is the Chrome sandbox. You can read in detail about the Chrome sandbox here: The relevant aspect for this article is the fact it uses user namespaces and seccomp. Other deprecated features include AppArmor and SELinux. Sound familiar? That’s because containers, as you’ve come to know them today, share the same features.

Why are containers not currently being considered a “sandbox”?

One of the key differences between how you run Chrome and how you run a container are the privileges used. Chrome runs as your own unprivileged user. Most containers (be it docker, runc, or rkt) run as root.

Yes, we all know that containers run unprivileged processes; but creating and running the containers themselves requires root privileges at some point.

How can we run containers as an unprivileged user?

Easy! With user namespaces, you might say. But it’s not exactly that simple. One of the main differences between the Chrome sandbox and containers is cgroups. Cgroups control what a process can use. Whereas namespaces control what a process can see. Containers have cgroup resource management built in. Creating cgroups from an unprivileged user is a bit difficult, especially device control groups.

If we ignore, for the time being, this huge tire fire that is creating cgroups as an unprivileged user, then unprivileged containers are easy. User namespaces allow us to create all the namespaces without any further privileges. The one key caveat being that the {uid,gid}_map must have the current host user mapped to the container uid that the process will be run as. The size of the {uid,gid}_map can also only be 1. For example if you are running as uid 1000 to spawn the container, your {uid,gid}_map for the process would be 0 1000 1 for uid 0 in the container. The 1 there refers to the size.

How is this different than the user namespace support currently in Docker?

This is quite different, but for very good reason. In Docker, by default, when the remapped user is created, the /etc/subuid and /etc/subgid files are populated with a contiguous 65536 length range of subordinate user and group IDs, starting at an offset based on prior entries in those files. Docker’s implementation has a larger range of users that can exist in the container as well as having a more “anonymous” mapped host user. If you want to read more about the user namespace implementation in Docker I would checkout @estesp’s blog or the the docker docs.


As a proof of concept of unprivileged containers without cgroups I made binctr. Which spawned a mailing list thread for implementing this in runc/libcontainer. Aleksa Sarai has started on a few patches and this might actually be a reality pretty soon!

Update: it took almost a year, but this was added to runc in Mar 2017.

Where does this put us in the “sandbox” landscape?

With this implementation we get:

all created by an unprivileged user!

Sandboxes should be very application-specific, using custom AppArmor profiles, Seccomp profiles and the like. A generic container will never be equivalent to a sandbox because it’s too universal to really lock down the application.

Containers are not going to be the answer to preventing your application from being compromised, but they can limit the damage from a compromise. The world an attacker might see from inside a very strict container with custom AppArmor/Seccomp profiles greatly differs than that without the use of containers. With namespaces we limit the application from seeing various things such as network, mounts, processes, etc. And with cgroups we can further limit what the attacker can use, be it a large amount of memory, cpu, or even a fork bomb.

But what about cgroups?

We can set up cgroups for memory, blkio, cpu, and pids with an unprivileged user as long as the cgroup subsystem has been chowned to the correct user. Devices are a different story though. Considering the fact you cannot mknod in a user namespace it is not the worst thing in the world.

Let’s not completely rule out the devices cgroup. In the future this might be entirely possible. In kernels 4.6+, there is a new cgroup namespace. For now all this does is mask the cgroups path inside the container so it is not entirely useful for unprivileged containers at all. But in the future maybe it could be (if we ask nice enough?).

What is the awesome sauce we all gain from this?

Well judging by the original GitHub issue about unprivileged runc containers, the largest group of commenters is from the scientific community who are restricted to not run certain programs as root.

But there is so much more that this can be used for. One of my most anticipated use cases is the work being done by Alex Larsson on xdg-app to run applications in sandboxes. Definitely checkout bubblewrap if you are interested in this.

Also subgraph, the container based OS which specializes in security and privacy, have this same idea in mind.

I am a huge fan of running desktop applications in containers as well as solving multi-tenancy for running containers. I definitely hope to help evolve containers into real sandboxes in the future.