Shrink-Wrap Security


These steps were developed using OpenSolaris build 56 and may require modification to run on other builds of OpenSolaris or its distros, including Solaris 10. As with any security recommendation, these settings may not be appropriate for all sites - assess your situation and risk before implementing these recommendations.


Server virtualization is commonly used to consolidate multiple workloads onto one computer. What else is it good for?

Solaris Containers (aka Zones) is a virtualization tool that has other powerful, but less well known uses. These rely on a unique combination of features:

  • per-zone Solaris Service Manager configuration, allowing a zone to turn off unneeded services like telnet, ftp, even ssh, yet still allow secure access from the platform administrator's environment, called the global zone
  • a strict security boundary, preventing direct inter-zone interaction
  • configurable privileges, enabling a platform administrator to further restrict the abilities of a zone, or to selectively enhance the abilities of a zone
  • resource management controls, allowing the platform admin to limit the amount of resources that the zone can consume
How can this combination provide unique functionality?

By default, Solaris Containers are more secure than general-purpose operating systems in many ways. For example, even the root user of a Container with a default configuration cannot modify the Container's operating system programs. That limitation prevents trojan horse attacks which replace those programs. Also, a process running in a Container cannot directly modify any kernel data, nor can it modify kernel modules like device drivers. Glenn Brunette created an excellent slide deck that describes the multiple layers of security in Solaris 10, of which Containers can be one layer.

Even considering that level of security, the ability to selectively remove Solaris privileges can be used to further tighten a zone's security boundary. In addition, the ability to disable network services prevents almost all network-based attacks. This is very difficult to accomplish in most operating systems without making the system unusable or unmanageable.

The combination of those abilities and the resource controls that are part of Containers' functionality enables you to configure an application environment that can do little more than fulfill the role you choose for it.

This blog entry describes a method that can be used to slightly expand a Container's abilities, and then tighten the security boundary snugly around the Container's intended application.


Imagine that you want to run an application on a Solaris system, but the workload(s) running on this system should not be directly attached to the Internet. Further, imagine that the application needs an accurate sense of time. Today this can be done by properly configuring a firewall to allow the use of an NTP client. But now there's another way... (If this concept sounds familiar, it is because this idea has been mentioned before here and here.)

To achieve the same goal without a firewall, you could use two Solaris "virtual environments" (zones): one that has "normal" behavior, for the application, and one that has the ability to change the system's clock, but has been made extremely secure by meeting the following requirements:

  1. the zone can make outbound network requests and accept responses to those requests
  2. the zone does not allow any inbound network requests (even secure ones like ssh)
  3. the zone can set the system's time clock
  4. the zone has minimal abilities beside the ones it needs to perform its task (the principle of "least privilege")
A Solaris zone can be configured to meet that list of needs.

Any zone can be configured to have access to one or more network ports (NICs). Further, OpenSolaris build 57 and newer builds, and the next update to Solaris 10, enable a zone to have exclusive access to a NIC, further isolating network activity of different zones. This feature is called IP Instances and will be mentioned again a bit later. A zone has its own SSM (Solaris Services Manager). Most of the services managed by SSM can be disabled if you are limiting the abilities of a zone. The zone that will manage the time clock can be configured so that it does not respond to any network connection requests by disabling all non-essential services. Also, Solaris Configurable Privileges enables us to remove unnecessary privileges from the zone, and add the one non-default privilege it needs: sys_time. That privilege is needed in order to use the stime(2) system call.

Basic Steps

Here is an outline of the steps I used to accomplish the goals described above. It can be generalized to harden any service, not just an NTP client.
  1. Configure a sparse-root zone with a zonepath and zonename, but without network access yet (this prevents network attacks while we're hardening the zone)
  2. Install the zone
  3. Add an appropriate /etc/sysidcfg file to the zone
  4. Boot the zone - this automatically configures SSM with default services
  5. Disable unnecessary services
    1. In general, there are two possibilities: we're hardening an existing service managed by SSM, or we're hardening something else. In the former case, we can disable all services with "svcadm disable ..." and then automatically enable the desired service and the ones it needs with:
      svcadm enable -r <service-we-want>
      In the latter case, some experimentation will be necessary to determine the minimum set of services that will be needed to boot the zone and run the application. In the NTP example discussed here it might be possible to disable more services, but there was little advantage to that.
    2. Reboot the zone, check to see if it complains unreasonably
    3. Shut down the zone
  6. Limit the zone's ability to do undesired things:
    1. Discover the set of necessary privileges with 'privdebug' and remove unnecessary privileges with the 'set limitpriv' command in zonecfg(1M). This step must be performed after turning off unnecessary services, because some of the unnecessary services require privileges we don't want the zone to have. The zone may not boot if the services are still enabled and the privileges have already been removed.
    2. Add any non-default privileges to the zone that are needed for the specific purpose of the zone.
    3. Add the network interface(s) that this zone should use to run its application. When possible, this is performed after services and privileges have been removed to prevent someone from attacking the system while it is being hardened.
  7. Boot the zone
  8. Configure the zone to run the application


I won't list the steps to configure and install a zone. They are described here, here, and about a bazillion other places.

Here is the configuration for the zone when I initially created it:

zonecfg -z timelord
zonecfg:timelord> create
zonecfg:timelord> set zonepath=/zones/roots/timelord
zonecfg:timelord> exit

After the zone has been booted and halted once, disabling services in Solaris is easy - the svcadm(1M) command does that. Through experimentation I found that this script disabled all of the network services - and some non-network services, too - but left enough services running that the zone would boot and NTP client software would run. Note that this is less important starting with Solaris 10 11/06: new installations of Solaris 10 will offer the choice to install "Secure By Default" with almost all network services turned off.

To use that script, I booted the zone and logged into it from the global zone - something you can do with zlogin(1) even if the zone does not have access to a NIC. Then I copied the script from the global zone into the non-global zone. A secure method to do this is: as the root user of the global zone, create a directory in <zonepath>/root/tmp, change its permissions to prevent access by any user other than root, and then copy the script into that directory. All of that allowed the script to be run by the root user of the non-global zone. Those steps can be accomplished with these commands:

global# mkdir /zones/roots/timelord/root/tmp/ntpscript
global# chmod 700 /zones/roots/timelord/root/tmp/ntpscript
global# cp ntp-disable-services /zones/roots/timelord/root/tmp/ntpscript
global# zlogin timelord
timelord# chmod 700 /tmp/ntpscript/disable-services
timelord# /tmp/ntpscript/disable-services

Now we have a zone that only starts the services needed to boot the zone and run NTP. Incidentally, many other commands will still work, but they don't need any additional privileges.

The next step is to gather the minimum list of Solaris privileges needed by the reduced set of services. Fortunately, a tool has been developed that helps you determine the minimum necessary set of privileges: privdebug.

Here is a sample use of privdebug, which was started just before booting the zone, and stopped after the zone finished booting:

global# ./ -z timelord
USED sys_mount
USED sys_mount
USED sys_mount
USED sys_mount
USED sys_mount
USED proc_exec
USED proc_fork
USED proc_exec
USED proc_exec
USED proc_fork
USED contract_event
USED contract_event
<many lines deleted>
Running that output through sort(1) and uniq(1) summarizes the list of privileges needed to boot the zone and our minimal Solaris services. Limiting a zone to a small set of privileges requires using the zonecfg command:
global# zonecfg -z timelord
zonecfg:timelord> set limitpriv=file_chown,file_dac_read,file_dac_write,file_owner,prov_exec,proc_fork,proc_info,proc_session,proc_setid,proc_taskid,sys_admin,sys_mount,sys_resource
zonecfg:timelord> exit
At this point the zone is configured without unnecessary privileges and without network services. Next we must discover the privileges needed to run our application. Our first attempt to run the application may succeed. If that happens, there is no need to change the list of privileges that the zone has. If the attempt fails, we can determine the missing privilege(s) with privdebug.

For this example I will use ntpdate(1M) to synchronize the system's time clock with time servers on the Internet. In order for ntpdate to run, it needs network access, which must be enabled with zonecfg. When adding a network port, I increased zone isolation with a new feature in OpenSolaris called IP Instances. Use of this feature is not required, but it does improve network isolation and network configuration flexibility. You can choose to ignore this feature if you are using a version of Solaris 10 which does not offer it, or if you do not want to dedicate a NIC to this purpose.

To use IP Instances, I added the following parameters via zonecfg:

global# zonecfg -z timelord
zonecfg:timelord> set ip-type=exclusive
zonecfg:timelord> add net
zonecfg:timelord:net> set physical=bge1
zonecfg:timelord:net> end
zonecfg:timelord> exit
Setting ip-type=exclusive quietly adds the net_rawaccess privilege and the new sys_ip_config privilege to the zone's limit set. This happens whenever the zone boots. These privileges are required in exclusive-IP zones.

We can assign a static address to the zone with the usual methods of configuring IP addresses on Solaris systems. For example, you could boot the zone, login to it, and enter the following command:

timelord# echo "" > /etc/hostname.bge1
However, because the root user of the global zone can access any of the zone's files, you can do the same thing without booting the zone by using this command instead:
global# echo "" > /zones/roots/timelord/root/etc/hostname.bge1

With network access in place, we can discover the list of privileges necessary to run the NTP client. First boot the zone:

global# zoneadm -z timelord boot
After the zone boots, in one window run the privdebug script, and then in another window run the NTP client in the NTP zone:

global# ./ -z timelord
USED proc_fork
USED proc_exec
USED proc_fork
USED proc_exec
NEED sys_time

    global# zlogin timelord
    timelord# ntpdate -u <list of NTP server IP addresses>
    16 May 13:12:27 ntpdate[24560]: Can't adjust the time of day: Not owner

That output shows us that the privilege 'sys_time' is the only additional one needed to enable the zone to set the system time clock using ntpdate(1M).

Again we use zonecfg to modify the zone's privileges:

global# zonecfg -z timelord
zonecfg:timelord> set limitpriv=file_chown,file_dac_read,file_dac_write,file_owner,prov_exec,proc_fork,proc_info,proc_session,proc_setid,proc_taskid,sys-admin,sys_mount,sys_resource,sys_time
zonecfg:timelord> exit

While isolating the zone, why not also limit the amount of resources that it can consume? If the zone is operating normally the use of resource management features is unnecessary, but they are easy to configure and their use in this situation could be valuable. These limits could reduce or eliminate the effects of a hypothetical bug in ntpdate which might cause a memory leak or other unnecessary use of resources.

Capping the amount of resources which can be consumed by the zone is also another layer of security in this environment. Resource constraints can reduce or eliminate risks associated with a denial of service attack. Note that the use of these features is not necessary. Their use is shown for completeness, to demonstrate what is possible.

A few quick tests with rcapstat(1) showed that the zone needed less than 50MB of memory to do its job. A cap on locked memory further minimized the zone's abilities without causing a problem for NTP. As with IP Instances, these features are available in OpenSolaris and will be in the next update to Solaris 10.

global# zonecfg -z timelord
zonecfg:timelord> add capped-memory
zonecfg:timelord:capped-memory> set physical=50m
zonecfg:timelord:capped-memory> set swap=50m
zonecfg:timelord:capped-memory> set locked=20m
zonecfg:timelord:capped-memory> end
zonecfg:timelord> set scheduling-class=FSS
zonecfg:timelord> set cpu-shares=1
zonecfg:timelord> set max-lwps=200

Assigning one share to the zone prevents the zone from using too much CPU power and impacting other workloads. It also guarantees that other workloads will not prevent this zone from getting access to the CPU. Capping the number of threads (lwps) limits the ability to use up a fixed resource: process table slots. That limit is probably not necessary given the strict memory caps, but it can't hurt.

Now that we have 'shrink-wrapped' the security boundary even more tightly than the default, we're ready to use this zone.

global# zoneadm -z timelord boot
global# zlogin timelord
timelord# ntpdate 
16 May 14:40:35 ntpdate[25070]: adjust time server  offset -0.394755 sec
The output of ntpdate shows that that it was able to contact an NTP server and adjust this system's time clock by almost 0.4 seconds.

Experience with Solaris privileges can allow you to further tighten the security boundary. For example, if you want to prevent the zone from changing its own host name, you could remove the sys_admin privilege from the zone's limit set. Doing so, and then rebooting the zone, would allow you to demonstrate this:

timelord# hostname drwho
hostname: error in setting name: Not owner
What privilege is needed to use the hostname(1M) command?
timelord# ppriv -e -D hostname drwho
hostname[4231]: missing privilege "sys_admin" (euid = 0, syscall = 139) needed at systeminfo+0x139
hostname: error in setting name: Not owner

Security Analysis

Many attacks on computers require the ability to take advantage of a security weakness in software that listens to the network. The ability to turn off all such services greatly decreases the security risk. Disabling network listeners was easy with svcadm(1M).

Before disabling services, I ran "netstat -a" on another zone which had just been created. It showed a list of 13 ports to which services were listening, including ssh and sunrpc services. After hardening the zone 'timelord' by disabling unneeded services, "netstat -a" doesn't show any open ports.

In order to further evaluate the security of the configuration described above, Nessus was used to evaluate the possible attack vectors. It did not find any security weaknesses.

Future Work

This method could be enhanced further by using tools like the Solaris Security Toolkit and by understanding the research done in implementing a secure NTP system. Network security could also be enhanced by using the Solaris IP Filter to prevent the NTP zone from communicating with any other computer except a specific list of IP addresses - the NTP servers which will be used.

What else can be secured using this method? Typical Unix services like sendmail and applications like databases are ideal candidates. What application do you want to secure?


The goal of this exercise was not merely to demonstrate a new method of securing an NTP client, but to describe a method of limiting the abilities of processes in a zone to only those abilities that are needed to provide a single function for the system. Solaris Zones (Containers) can be used to accomplish goals which other server virtualization technologies cannot.

Thanks to Glenn Brunette for assistance with security techniques and to Bob Bownes for providing a test platform and assistance with Nessus.


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Jeff Victor writes this blog to help you understand Oracle's Solaris and virtualization technologies.

The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle.


« August 2016