Security for your Container Environment

on Jan 26, 2017

As one of the most disruptive technologies in recent years, container-based applications are rapidly gaining traction as a platform on which to launch applications. But as with any new technology, the security of containers in all stages of the software lifecycle must be our highest priority. This post seeks to identify some of the inherent security challenges you’ll encounter with a container environment, and suggests base elements for a security plan to mitigate those vulnerabilities.

Benefits of a Container Environment and the Vulnerabilities They Expose

Before we investigate what aspects of your container infrastructure will need to be covered by your security plan, it would be wise to identify what potential security problems running applications in such an environment will present. The easiest way to do this is to contrast a typical virtual machine (VM) environment with that in use for a typical container-based architecture.

In a traditional VM environment, each instance functions as an isolated unit. One of the downsides to this approach is that each unit needs to have its own operating system installed, and there is a cost both in terms of resources and initiation time that needs to be incurred when starting a new instance. Additionally, resources are dedicated to each VM, and might not be available for use by other VMs running on the same base machine.

Free eBook: Compare architecture, usability, and feature sets for Kubernetes, Mesos/Marathon, and Docker Swarm

In a container-based environment, each container comprises a bare minimum of supporting functionality. There is no need to virtualize an entireoperating system within each container and resource use is shared between all containers on a device. The overwhelming benefit to this approach is that initiation time is minimized, and resource usage is generally more efficient. The downside is a significant loss in isolation between containers, relative to the isolation that exists in a VM environment, and this brings with it a number of security vulnerabilities.

Identifying Vulnerabilities

Let’s identify some of the vulnerabilities that we inherit by virtue of the container environment, and then explore ways to mitigate these, and thus create a more secure environment in which to deploy and maintain your containers.

  • Shared resources on the underlying infrastructure expose the risk of attack if the integrity of the container is compromised.
    • Access to the shared kernel key ring means that the user running the container has the same access within the kernel across all containers.
    • Denial of Service is possible if a container is able to access all resources in the underlying infrastructure.
    • Kernel modules are accessible by all containers and the kernel.
  • Exposing a port on a container opens it to all traffic by default.
  • Docker Hub and other public facing image repositories are “public.”
  • Compromised container secrets

Addressing the Problems of Shared Resources

Earlier versions of the Docker machine, especially those prior to version 1.0, contained a vulnerability that allowed a user breakout of the container and into the kernel of the host machine. Exploiting this vulnerability when the container was running as the root user exposed all kernel functionality to the person exploiting it. While this vulnerability has been patched since version 1.0, it is still inadvisable to run a container with a user who has anything more than the minimum required privileges.

If you are running containers with access to sensitive information, it is also recommended that you segregate different containers onto different virtual machines, with additional security measures applied to the virtual machines as well—although at this point, it may be worth considering whether using containers to serve your application is the best approach.

An additional precaution you may want to consider is to install additional security measure on the virtual machine, such as SecComp or other kernel security features. Finally, tuning the capabilities available to containers using the cap-addand cap-drop flags when the container is created can further protect your host machine from unauthorized access.

Limiting Port Access Through Custom IPTables Rules

When configuring a Docker image, your Dockerfile might include a line similar to “EXPOSE 80”—which opens port 80 for traffic into the container by default. Depending on the access you are expecting or allowing into your container, it may be advantageous to add rules to the iptables on the image to restrict access on this port. The exact commands may vary depending on the base container and rules you would like to enforce, so it would be best to work with operations personnel in implementing these rules.

Avoiding the Dangers Inherent with a Public Image Repository

As a repository for images, Docker Hub is an extremely valuable resource. Docker Hub is also publically accessible, and harnesses the power of the global community in the development and maintenance of images. But it’s also publicly accessible, which introduces additional risks alongside the benefits.

If your container strategy involves usage of images from Docker Hub or another public repository, it’s imperative that you and your developers:

  • Know where the images came from and verify that you’re getting the image you expect.
  • Always specify a tag in your FROM statement; make it specific to a stable version of the image, and not “:latest”
  • Use the official version of an image, which is supported, maintained and verified by a dedicated team, sponsored by Docker, Inc., wherever possible.
  • Secure and harden host machines through a rigorous QA process.
  • Scan container images for vulnerabilities.

When dealing with intellectual property, or applications which handle sensitive information, it may be wise to investigate using a private repository for your images instead of a public repository like Docker Hub, or similar. Amazon Web Services provides information on setting up an Amazon EC2 Container Registry (Amazon ECR) here, and DigitalOcean provides the instructions (albeit a few years old) for creating a private repository on Ubuntu here.

Securing Container Secrets

For the Docker community recently, the subject of securing credentials, such as database passwords, SSH keys, and API tokens has been at the forefront. One solution to the issue is the implementation of a secure store, such as HashiCorp Vault or Square Keywhiz. These stores all provide a virtual file system to the application, which maintain the integrity of secure keys and passwords.

Security Requires an Upfront Plan, and Constant Vigilance

Any security plan worth implementing needs to have two parts. The first involves the comprehensive identification and mitigation of potential threats and vulnerabilities to the system. The second is a commitment to constant evaluation of the environment, including regular testing and vulnerability scans, and monitoring of production systems.

Together with your security plan, you need to identify the methods by which you will monitor your system, including the automation of alerts to be triggered when system resources exceed predetermined limits and when non-standard behavior is being exhibited by the containers and their underlying hosts.


Mike Mackrory is a Global citizen who has settled down in the Pacific Northwest – for now.  By day he works as a Senior Engineer on a Quality Engineering team and by night he writes, consults on several web based projects and runs a marginally successful eBay sticker business.  When he’s not tapping on the keys, he can be found hiking, fishing and exploring both the urban and the rural landscape with his kids.

Free eBook: Deploying and Scaling Kubernetes with Rancher

Get started with containers and Kubernetes

This hands-on guidebook provides a detailed introduction to using Kubernetes. It includes an overview of crucial Kubernetes concepts, guidance on deploying and scaling a multi-service containerized application, and on upgrading and monitoring with Kubernetes and Rancher.

Free eBook: CI/CD Pipelines with Docker and Rancher

Recent Posts

Upcoming Events