Monthly Archives: January 2014

LXC 1.0: Unprivileged containers [7/10]

This is post 7 out of 10 in the LXC 1.0 blog post series.

Introduction to unprivileged containers

The support of unprivileged containers is in my opinion one of the most important new features of LXC 1.0.

You may remember from previous posts that I mentioned that LXC should be considered unsafe because while running in a separate namespace, uid 0 in your container is still equal to uid 0 outside of the container, meaning that if you somehow get access to any host resource through proc, sys or some random syscalls, you can potentially escape the container and then you’ll be root on the host.

That’s what user namespaces were designed for and implemented. It was a multi-year effort to think them through and slowly push the hundreds of patches required into the upstream kernel, but finally with 3.12 we got to a point where we can start a full system container entirely as a user.

So how do those user namespaces work? Well, simply put, each user that’s allowed to use them on the system gets assigned a range of unused uids and gids, ideally a whole 65536 of them. You can then use those uids and gids with two standard tools called newuidmap and newgidmap which will let you map any of those uids and gids to virtual uids and gids in a user namespace.

That means you can create a container with the following configuration:

lxc.id_map = u 0 100000 65536
lxc.id_map = g 0 100000 65536

The above means that I have one uid map and one gid map defined for my container which will map uids and gids 0 through 65536 in the container to uids and gids 100000 through 165536 on the host.

For this to be allowed, I need to have those ranges assigned to my user at the system level with:

stgraber@castiana:~$ grep stgraber /etc/sub* 2>/dev/null

LXC has now been updated so that all the tools are aware of those unprivileged containers. The standard paths also have their unprivileged equivalents:

  • /etc/lxc/lxc.conf => ~/.config/lxc/lxc.conf
  • /etc/lxc/default.conf => ~/.config/lxc/default.conf
  • /var/lib/lxc => ~/.local/share/lxc
  • /var/lib/lxcsnaps => ~/.local/share/lxcsnaps
  • /var/cache/lxc => ~/.cache/lxc

Your user, while it can create new user namespaces in which it’ll be uid 0 and will have some of root’s privileges against resources tied to that namespace will obviously not be granted any extra privilege on the host.

One such thing is creating new network devices on the host or changing bridge configuration. To workaround that, we wrote a tool called “lxc-user-nic” which is the only SETUID binary part of LXC 1.0 and which performs one simple task.
It parses a configuration file and based on its content will create network devices for the user and bridge them. To prevent abuse, you can restrict the number of devices a user can request and to what bridge they may be added.

An example is my own /etc/lxc/lxc-usernet file:

stgraber veth lxcbr0 10

This declares that the user “stgraber” is allowed up to 10 veth type devices to be created and added to the bridge called lxcbr0.

Between what’s offered by the user namespace in the kernel and that setuid tool, we’ve got all that’s needed to run most distributions unprivileged.


All examples and instructions I’ll be giving below are expecting that you are running a perfectly up to date version of Ubuntu 14.04 (codename trusty). That’s a pre-release of Ubuntu so you may want to run it in a VM or on a spare machine rather than upgrading your production computer.

The reason to want something that recent is because the rough requirements for well working unprivileged containers are:

  • Kernel: 3.13 + a couple of staging patches (which Ubuntu has in its kernel)
  • User namespaces enabled in the kernel
  • A very recent version of shadow that supports subuid/subgid
  • Per-user cgroups on all controllers (which I turned on a couple of weeks ago)
  • LXC 1.0 beta2 or higher (released two days ago)
  • A version of PAM with a loginuid patch that’s yet to be in any released version

Those requirements happen to all be true of the current development release of Ubuntu as of two days ago.

LXC pre-built containers

User namespaces come with quite a few obvious limitations. For example in a user namespace you won’t be allowed to use mknod to create a block or character device as being allowed to do so would let you access anything on the host. Same thing goes with some filesystems, you won’t for example be allowed to do loop mounts or mount an ext partition, even if you can access the block device.

Those limitations while not necessarily world ending in day to day use are a big problem during the initial bootstrap of a container as tools like debootstrap, yum, … usually try to do some of those restricted actions and will fail pretty badly.

Some templates may be tweaked to work and workaround such as a modified fakeroot could be used to bypass some of those limitations but the goal of the LXC project isn’t to require all of our users to be distro engineers, so we came up with a much simpler solution.

I wrote a new template called “download” which instead of assembling the rootfs and configuration locally will instead contact a server which contains daily pre-built rootfs and configuration for most common templates.

Those images are built from our Jenkins server using a few machines I have on my home network (a set of powerful x86 builders and a quadcore ARM board). The actual build process is pretty straightforward, a basic chroot is assembled, then the current git master is downloaded, built and the standard templates are run with the right release and architecture, the resulting rootfs is compressed, a basic config and metadata (expiry, files to template, …) is saved, the result is pulled by our main server, signed with a dedicated GPG key and published on the public web server.

The client side is a simple template which contacts the server over https (the domain is also DNSSEC enabled and available over IPv6), grabs signed indexes of all the available images, checks if the requested combination of distribution, release and architecture is supported and if it is, grabs the rootfs and metadata tarballs, validates their signature and stores them in a local cache. Any container creation after that point is done using that cache until the time the cache entries expires at which point it’ll grab a new copy from the server.

The current list of images is (as can be requested by passing –list):

debian    wheezy    amd64   default    20140116_22:43
debian    wheezy    armel   default    20140116_22:43
debian    wheezy    armhf   default    20140116_22:43
debian    wheezy    i386    default    20140116_22:43
debian    jessie    amd64   default    20140116_22:43
debian    jessie    armel   default    20140116_22:43
debian    jessie    armhf   default    20140116_22:43
debian    jessie    i386    default    20140116_22:43
debian    sid       amd64   default    20140116_22:43
debian    sid       armel   default    20140116_22:43
debian    sid       armhf   default    20140116_22:43
debian    sid       i386    default    20140116_22:43
oracle    6.5       amd64   default    20140117_11:41
oracle    6.5       i386    default    20140117_11:41
plamo     5.x       amd64   default    20140116_21:37
plamo     5.x       i386    default    20140116_21:37
ubuntu    lucid     amd64   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    lucid     i386    default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    precise   amd64   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    precise   armel   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    precise   armhf   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    precise   i386    default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    quantal   amd64   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    quantal   armel   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    quantal   armhf   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    quantal   i386    default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    raring    amd64   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    raring    armhf   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    raring    i386    default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    saucy     amd64   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    saucy     armhf   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    saucy     i386    default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    trusty    amd64   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    trusty    armhf   default    20140117_03:50
ubuntu    trusty    i386    default    20140117_03:50

The template has been carefully written to work on any system that has a POSIX compliant shell with wget. gpg is recommended but can be disabled if your host doesn’t have it (at your own risks).

The same template can be used against your own server, which I hope will be very useful for enterprise deployments to build templates in a central location and have them pulled by all the hosts automatically using our expiry mechanism to keep them fresh.

While the template was designed to workaround limitations of unprivileged containers, it works just as well with system containers, so even on a system that doesn’t support unprivileged containers you can do:

lxc-create -t download -n p1 -- -d ubuntu -r trusty -a amd64

And you’ll get a new container running the latest build of Ubuntu 14.04 amd64.

Using unprivileged LXC

Right, so let’s get you started, as I already mentioned, all the instructions below have only been tested on a very recent Ubuntu 14.04 (trusty) installation.
You may want to grab a daily build and run it in a VM.

Install the required packages:

  • sudo apt-get update
  • sudo apt-get dist-upgrade
  • sudo apt-get install lxc systemd-services uidmap

Then, assign yourself a set of uids and gids with:

  • sudo usermod --add-subuids 100000-165536 $USER
  • sudo usermod --add-subgids 100000-165536 $USER
  • sudo chmod +x $HOME

That last one is required because LXC needs it to access ~/.local/share/lxc/ after it switched to the mapped UIDs. If you’re using ACLs, you may instead use “u:100000:x” as a more specific ACL.

Now create ~/.config/lxc/default.conf with the following content: = veth = lxcbr0 = up = 00:16:3e:xx:xx:xx
lxc.id_map = u 0 100000 65536
lxc.id_map = g 0 100000 65536

And /etc/lxc/lxc-usernet with:

<your username> veth lxcbr0 10

And that’s all you need. Now let’s create our first unprivileged container with:

lxc-create -t download -n p1 -- -d ubuntu -r trusty -a amd64

You should see the following output from the download template:

Setting up the GPG keyring
Downloading the image index
Downloading the rootfs
Downloading the metadata
The image cache is now ready
Unpacking the rootfs

You just created an Ubuntu container (release=trusty, arch=amd64).
The default username/password is: ubuntu / ubuntu
To gain root privileges, please use sudo.

So looks like your first container was created successfully, now let’s see if it starts:

ubuntu@trusty-daily:~$ lxc-start -n p1 -d
ubuntu@trusty-daily:~$ lxc-ls --fancy

It’s running! At this point, you can get a console using lxc-console or can SSH to it by looking for its IP in the ARP table (arp -n).

One thing you probably noticed above is that the IP addresses for the container aren’t listed, that’s because unfortunately LXC currently can’t attach to an unprivileged container’s namespaces. That also means that some fields of lxc-info will be empty and that you can’t use lxc-attach. However we’re looking into ways to get that sorted in the near future.

There are also a few problems with job control in the kernel and with PAM, so doing a non-detached lxc-start will probably result in a rather weird console where things like sudo will most likely fail. SSH may also fail on some distros. A patch has been sent upstream for this, but I just noticed that it doesn’t actually cover all cases and even if it did, it’s not in any released version yet.

Quite a few more improvements to unprivileged containers are to come until the final 1.0 release next month and while we certainly don’t expect all workloads to be possible with unprivileged containers, it’s still a huge improvement on what we had before and a very good building block for a lot more interesting use cases.

Posted in Canonical voices, LXC, Planet Ubuntu | Tagged | 100 Comments

LXC 1.0: Security features [6/10]

This is post 6 out of 10 in the LXC 1.0 blog post series.

When talking about container security most people either consider containers as inherently insecure or inherently secure. The reality isn’t so black and white and LXC supports a variety of technologies to mitigate most security concerns.

One thing to clarify right from the start is that you won’t hear any of the LXC maintainers tell you that LXC is secure so long as you use privileged containers. However, at least in Ubuntu, our default containers ship with what we think is a pretty good configuration of both the cgroup access and an extensive apparmor profile which prevents all attacks that we are aware of.

Below I’ll be covering the various technologies LXC supports to let you restrict what a container may do. Just keep in mind that unless you are using unprivileged containers, you shouldn’t give root access to a container to someone whom you’d mind having root access to your host.


The first security feature which was added to LXC was Linux capabilities support. With that feature you can set a list of capabilities that you want LXC to drop before starting the container or a full list of capabilities to retain (all others will be dropped).

The two relevant configurations options are:

  • lxc.cap.drop
  • lxc.cap.keep

Both are lists of capability names as listed in capabilities(7).

This may sound like a great way to make containers safe and for very specific cases it may be, however if running a system container, you’ll soon notice that dropping sys_admin and net_admin isn’t very practical and short of dropping those, you won’t make your container much safer (as root in the container will be able to re-grant itself any dropped capability).

In Ubuntu we use lxc.cap.drop to drop sys_module, mac_admin, mac_override, sys_time which prevent some known problems at container boot time.

Control groups

Control groups are interesting because they achieve multiple things which while interconnected are still pretty different:

  • Resource bean counting
  • Resource quotas
  • Access restrictions

The first two aren’t really security related, though resource quotas will let you avoid some obvious DoS of the host (by setting memory, cpu and I/O limits).

The last is mostly about the devices cgroup which lets you define which character and block devices a container may access and what it can do with them (you can restrict creation, read access and write access for each major/minor combination).

In LXC, configuring cgroups is done with the “lxc.cgroup.*” options which can roughly be defined as: lxc.cgroup.<controller>.<key> = <value>

For example to set a memory limit on p1 you’d add the following to its configuration:

lxc.cgroup.memory.limit_in_bytes = 134217728

This will set a memory limit of 128MB (the value is in bytes) and will be the equivalent to writing that same value to /sys/fs/cgroup/memory/lxc/p1/memory.limit_in_bytes

Most LXC templates only set a few devices controller entries by default:

# Default cgroup limits
lxc.cgroup.devices.deny = a
## Allow any mknod (but not using the node)
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c *:* m
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = b *:* m
## /dev/null and zero
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 1:3 rwm
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 1:5 rwm
## consoles
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 5:0 rwm
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 5:1 rwm
## /dev/{,u}random
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 1:8 rwm
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 1:9 rwm
## /dev/pts/*
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 5:2 rwm
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 136:* rwm
## rtc
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 254:0 rm
## fuse
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 10:229 rwm
## tun
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 10:200 rwm
## full
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 1:7 rwm
## hpet
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 10:228 rwm
## kvm
lxc.cgroup.devices.allow = c 10:232 rwm

This configuration allows the container (usually udev) to create any device it wishes (that’s the wildcard “m” above) but block everything else (the “a” deny entry) unless it’s listed in one of the allow entries below. This covers everything a container will typically need to function.

You will find reasonably up to date documentation about the available controllers, control files and supported values at:


A little while back we added Apparmor profiles support to LXC.
The Apparmor support is rather simple, there’s one configuration option “lxc.aa_profile” which sets what apparmor profile to use for the container.

LXC will then setup the container and ask apparmor to switch it to that profile right before starting the container. Ubuntu’s LXC profile is rather complex as it aims to prevent any of the known ways of escaping a container or cause harm to the host.

As things are today, Ubuntu ships with 3 apparmor profiles meaning that the supported values for lxc.aa_profile are:

  • lxc-container-default (default value if lxc.aa_profile isn’t set)
  • lxc-container-default-with-nesting (same as default but allows some needed bits for nested containers)
  • lxc-container-default-with-mounting (same as default but allows mounting ext*, xfs and btrfs file systems).
  • unconfined (a special value which will disable apparmor support for the container)

You can also define your own by copying one of the ones in /etc/apparmor.d/lxc/, adding the bits you want, giving it a unique name, then reloading apparmor with “sudo /etc/init.d/apparmor reload” and finally setting lxc.aa_profile to the new profile’s name.


The SELinux support is very similar to Apparmor’s. An SELinux context can be set using “lxc.se_context”.

An example would be:

lxc.se_context = unconfined_u:unconfined_r:lxc_t:s0-s0:c0.c1023

Similarly to Apparmor, LXC will switch to the new SELinux context right before starting init in the container. As far as I know, no distributions are setting a default SELinux context at this time, however most distributions build LXC with SELinux support (including Ubuntu, should someone choose to boot their host with SELinux rather than Apparmor).


Seccomp is a fairly recent kernel mechanism which allows for filtering of system calls.
As a user you can write a seccomp policy file and set it using “lxc.seccomp” in the container’s configuration. As always, this policy will only be applied to the running container and will allow or reject syscalls with a pre-defined return value.

An example (though limited and useless) of a seccomp policy file would be:


Which would only allow syscall #103 (syslog) in the container and reject everything else.

Note that seccomp is a rather low level feature and only useful for some very specific use cases. All syscalls have to be referred by their ID instead of their name and those may change between architectures. Also, as things are today, if your host is 64bit and you load a seccomp policy file, all 32bit syscalls will be rejected. We’d need per-personality seccomp profiles to solve that but it’s not been a high priority so far.

User namespace

And last but not least, what’s probably the only way of making a container actually safe. LXC now has support for user namespaces. I’ll go into more details on how to use that feature in a later blog post but simply put, LXC is no longer running as root so even if an attacker manages to escape the container, he’d find himself having the privileges of a regular user on the host.

All this is achieved by assigning ranges of uids and gids to existing users. Those users on the host will then be allowed to clone a new user namespace in which all uids/gids are mapped to uids/gids that are part of the user’s range.

This obviously means that you need to allocate a rather silly amount of uids and gids to each user who’ll be using LXC in that way. In a perfect world, you’d allocate 65536 uids and gids per container and per user. As this would likely exhaust the whole uid/gid range rather quickly on some systems, I tend to go with “just” 65536 uids and gids per user that’ll use LXC and then have the same range shared by all containers.

Anyway, that’s enough details about user namespaces for now. I’ll cover how to actually set that up and use those unprivileged containers in the next post.

Posted in Canonical voices, LXC, Planet Ubuntu | Tagged | 10 Comments