Why visibility and control are critical for container security

Reacting to the steady flow of reported security breaches in open source components such as Heartbleed, Shellshock and Poodle is making organisations focus increasingly on making the software they build more secure, improving application delivery, agility and security. As organisations increasingly turn to containers to improve application delivery and agility, the security ramifications of the containers and their contents are coming under increased scrutiny.

An overview of today’s container security initiatives 

Container providers such as Docker and Red Hat, are aggressively moving towards reassuring the marketplace about container security. Ultimately, they are focusing on the use of encryption to secure the code and software versions running in Docker users’ software infrastructure to protect users from malicious backdoors included in shared application images and other potential security threats.

However, this method is slowly being put under scrutiny as it covers only one aspect of container security, excluding whether software stacks and application portfolios are free of known, exploitable versions of open source code.

Without open source hygiene, Docker Content Trust will only ever ensure that Docker images contain the exact same bits that developers originally put there, including any vulnerabilities present in the open source components. Therefore, they only amount to a partial solution.

A more holistic approach to container security

Knowing that the container is free of vulnerabilities at the time of initial build and deployment is necessary, but far from sufficient. New vulnerabilities are being constantly discovered and these can often impact older versions of open source components. Therefore, what’s needed is an informed open source technology that provides selection and vigilance opportunities to users.

Moreover, the security risk posed by a container also depends on the sensitivity of the data accessed via it, as well as the location of where the container is deployed. For example, whether the container is deployed on the internal network behind a firewall or if it’s internet-facing will affect the level of risk.

In this context, a publicly available attack makes containers subject to a range of threats, including cross-scripting, SQL injection and denial-of-services which containers deployed on an internal network behind a firewall wouldn’t be exposed to.

For this reason, having visibility into the code inside containers is a critical element of container security, even aside from the issue of security of the containers themselves.

It’s critical to develop robust processes for determining; what open source software resides in or is deployed along with an application, where this open source software is located in build trees and system architectures, whether the code exhibits security vulnerabilities and whether an accurate open source risk profile exists.

Will security concerns slow container adoption? – The industry analysts’ perspective

Enterprise organisations today are embracing containers because of their proven benefits; improved application scalability, fewer deployment errors, faster time to market and simplified application management. However, just as organisations have moved over the years from viewing open source as a curiosity to understanding its business necessity, containers seem to have reached a similar tipping point. The question now seems to be shifting towards whether security concerns about containers will inhibit further adoption. Industry analysts differ in their assessment of this.

By drawing a parallel to the rapid adoption of virtualisation technologies even before the establishment of security requirements Dave Bartoletti, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, believes security concerns won’t significantly slow container adoption. “With virtualization, people deployed anyway, even when security and compliance hadn’t caught up yet, and I think we’ll see a lot of the same with Docker,” according to Bartoletti.

Meanwhile, Adrian Sanabria Senior Security Analyst at 451 Research believes enterprises will give containers a wide berth until security standards are identified and established. “The reality is that security is still a barrier today, and some companies won’t go near containers until there are certain standards in place”, he explains.

To overcome these concerns, organisations are best served to take advantage of the automated tools available to gain control over all the elements of their software infrastructure, including containers.

Hence, the presence of vulnerabilities in all types of software is inevitable, and open source is no exception. Detection and remediation of vulnerabilities, are increasingly seen as a security imperative and a key part of a strong application security strategy.


Bill_LedinghamWritten by Bill Ledingham, EVP of Engineering and Chief Technology Officer, Black Duck Software.