Secure Your Containers

Maintaining the integrity of cloud containers is critical

Development and deployment of container-based software has become a popular movement in technology. Docker, and container technology in general, is redefining cloud computing and offers significant benefits to developers and companies, including efficiency, cost savings, consistency, reliability and scalability for the entire DevOps processes. However, for enterprises running sensitive applications at scale using Docker, securing and maintaining the integrity of cloud containers is a critical aspect of DevOps.

A new approach proving effective is to run the cloud containers in a trusted environment, also known as a secure enclave, protected by hardware such as Intel SGX or AMD SEV. The secure enclave technology removes the risk associated with trusting the infrastructure or a user. Even if the infrastructure is comprised or the root user is hacked, the application remains secure.

Here is an illustration to better understand why this is important. An employee, Bill has decided to roll out a hotel reservation website using Kubernetes to scale and handle peak loads. Since the website will also collect guests’ personal information, security is a prime concern for Bill. Bill reaches out to Lori, the CISO, with a plan for security that includes database encryption and TLS.

Lori offers the tough question: “What about data in use?” She knows that even if data is carefully safeguarded while at rest and when exchanged over secure channels such TLS, data gets decrypted for use in memory, making software containers a good attack target for hackers in the cloud.

Bill does his homework and decides that running securitycritical services in Intel SGX secure enclaves is the only way to satisfy Lori’s security requirements. However, this also introduces various challenges to system administrators and developers:

  • Since running in Intel SGX involves making OCALLS (a new set of hardware instructions), instead of standard system calls, the applications need to be heavily refactored. This is almost impossible if applications are written in popular programming languages such as Java or Python.
  • Simply running an application (or its sensitive parts) within an enclave is not entirely sufficient. To fully utilize the security guarantees of Intel SGX, the user must also verify the integrity of the application, including whether it is running unmodified inside a secure enclave. Intel provides a way for users to achieve this using remote attestation. The remote attestation flow is complex, depends on the external Intel Attestation Service (IAS), and requires modifications to the application setup.
  • When running applications at scale, it becomes difficult to track the attestation status of every instance and apply software patches.

The security guarantees delivered by Intel SGX secure enclaves are promising, but by themselves introduce a level of cost and complexity. A new technology called runtime encryption is proving to be a successful approach to addressing these challenges, runtime encryption platform, which when combined with Intel SGX secure enclaves enables containers to be securely executed inside Intel SGX secure enclaves without the cost and complexity of using Intel SGX alone.

Runtime encryption’s approach is to decrypt and analyze data only when it is within a secure enclave protected by hardware technologies such as Intel SGX or AMD SEV. This new technology enables software to safely run in a secure enclave, creates keys to decrypt data, runs the analysis, and encrypts the result.

Other than runtime encryption, there are practically no solutions available which let organizations run containers in the cloud securely, while adhering to regulations and privacy. Runtime encryption can help organizations meet compliance requirements for regulations such as GDPR, California Consumer Privacy Act, and other similar regulations.

Runtime encryption also provides fine-grained access controls for the datasets in use in containers. With this new approach, the aggregate data is never exposed outside the secure enclave. Private analytics with runtime encryption are an easy to use, efficient, and offer a scalable approach which is critical for deploying containers.

Also, with runtime encryption, organizations can monitor the lifecycle of secure enclaves that run the container applications. Runtime encryption provides features such remote attestation, geolocation enforcement, DRM and secret injections. The platform seamlessly integrates with existing container orchestration technologies, including Kubernetes, Docker Swarm and OpenShift.

Containerization offers significant advantages to organizations, but only if they can keep their cloud data safe. Secure enclaves now combined with runtime encryption technology offer an effective, easy-to-use and low-cost solution to what was previously an unaddressed issue of migrating to the cloud.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Security Today.

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