Virtual DoS

No, not that DOS. I'm referring to Denial-of-Service.

A team at Clarkson University including a professor and several students recently performed some interesting experiments. They wanted to determine how server virtualization solutions handled a guest VM which performed a denial-of-service attack on the whole system. This knowledge could be useful when virtualizing guests that you don't trust. It gives you a chance to put away the good silver.

They tested VMware Workstation, Xen, OpenVZ, and Solaris Containers. (It's a shame that they didn't test VMware ESX. VMware Workstation and ESX are very different technologies. Therefore, it is not safe to assume that the paper's conclusions regarding VMware Workstation apply to ESX.) After reading the paper, my conclusion for Solaris Containers is "they have non-default resource management controls to contain DoS attacks, and it's important to enable those controls."

Fortunately, with the next update to Solaris 10 (due this summer) those controls are much easier to use. For example, the configuration parameters used in the paper, and shown below, limit a Container's use of physical memory, virtual memory, and amount of physical memory which can be locked so that it doesn't get paged out:

add capped-memory
 set physical=128M 
 set swap=512M 
 set locked=64M 
Further, the following parameters limit the number of execution threads that the Container can use, turn on the fair-share scheduler and assign a quantity of shares for this Container:
set max-lwps=175 
set scheduling-class=FSS 
set cpu-shares=10
All of those parameters are set using the zonecfg(1M) command. One benefit of the centralization of these control parameters is that they move with a Container when it is moved to another system.

I partly disagree with the authors' statement that these controls are complex to configure. The syntax is simple - and a significant improvement over previous versions - and an experienced Unix admin can determine appropriate values for them without too much effort. Also, a GUI is available for those who don't like commands: the Solaris Container Manager. On the other hand, managing these controls does require Solaris administration experience, and there are no default values. It is important to use these features in order to protect well-behaved workloads from misbehaving workloads.

It also is a shame that the hardware used for the tests was a desktop computer with limited physical resources. For example it had only one processor. Because multi-core processors are becoming the norm, it would be valuable to perform the same tests on a multi-core system. The virtualization software would be stressed in ways which were not demonstrated. I suspect that Containers would handle that situation very well, for two reasons:

  1. There is almost no overhead caused by the use of Containers - the workload itself does not execute any extra code just because it is in a Container. Hypervisor-like solutions like Xen and VMware have longer code paths for network and storage I/O than would occur without virtualization. The additional cores would naturally support more guests, but the extra code paths would limit scalability. Containers would not suffer from that limitation.
  2. Solaris has extraordinary scalability - efficiently running workloads that have hundreds or thousands of processes on 144 cores in a Sun Fire E25K. None of the other solutions tested for this paper have been shown to scale beyond 4-8 cores. I booted 1,000 Containers on an 8-socket system.

Also, the test system did not have multiple NICs. The version of Solaris that was used includes a new feature called IP Instances. This feature allows a Container to be given exclusive access to particular NIC. No process outside that Container can access that NIC. Of course, multiple NICs are required to use that feature...

The paper Quantifying the Performance Isolation Properties of Virtualization Systems will be delivered at the ACM's Workshop on Experimental Computer Science.


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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.


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