Lightweight isolation for software build and test

About two years ago, I decided that it’s not a good idea to constantly download unreviewed software written by untrusted individuals and to run that software with full privileges on my laptop. If I was telling a child how to avoid getting viruses on their Windows machine, this would be obvious and normal. But because I am talking about developing open source software on Linux, I find myself some distance from the beaten track.

I like things to be fast and cheap, and so I like the idea of a local build system. But my laptop is used for all sorts of things that should not necessarily be shared with the developers of the software I am patching. I want bare metal performance, but I want to restrict access to sensitive files, such as:

  • The SSH agent socket
  • The X display, which allows keyboard logging and a variety of other attacks
  • Password manager databases
  • Emails (such as password reset emails)
  • Write access to /tmp, which allows race attacks on various services
  • The application’s own source tree…

At first, I used a Debian package called schroot, which automates a lot of the work involved in setting up a permanent chroot. And in the last few weeks, I have been trialling LXC, a very similar technology which has recently matured substantially.

At first, I used a read-only source directory, but I kept encountering cases where build systems want to write to their own source trees. MediaWiki now uses Composer extensively, Parsoid uses npm, and HHVM’s build system subtly depends on the build directory being the same as the source directory. So in all these cases, it’s convenient to give the build system its own writeable source tree. It’s possible to do this without giving the application the ability to write to the copy of the source tree which is destined for a git commit.

The solution I’ve settled on for this is aufs, which is a kind of union filesystem. It is really a joy to use. I can edit source files in my GUI editor, and as soon as I hit “save”, the changes are visible in the build environment. The build system can edit or delete its own source files, but those modifications are not visible in the host environment. And if the build system screws up its own source tree beyond easy rectification (which happens surprisingly often), I can just wipe the whole overlay, instantly reverting the build tree to the state seen in the host environment. It is like git clean except that you can put unversioned files into the host source tree without any risk of accidental deletion.

If I need to generate a source file with the build system and then transfer it to the host system for commit, it is just a simple file move:

mv /srv/chroot/build-overlay/mw/core/autoload.php .

Comparison of LXC and schroot

schroot LXC
localhost Shared Isolated
Comprehensible error messages Yes No
Automatic mount point setup Yes No
Automatic user ID sharing Yes (setup.nssdatabases) No
Unprivileged start and login Yes (schroot.conf “users”) No (lxc-start, lxc-attach must run as root)
systemd inside container? No Yes
SysV init scripts inside container? Yes Yes
Root filesystem storage options Diverse Limited

The lack of network isolation in schroot could be a problem if you have sensitive services bound to TCP on localhost. It’s possible to bring up network services inside the container — even ones that are duplicated in the host, as long as you use a different port number or IP address. It’s a little-known fact that is only one IP address in a subnet of 16.8 million — you can bind local services in the container to say

schroot is generally less buggy and easier to use than LXC. That’s partly maturity and partly the greater level of difficulty involved in the implementation of LXC. For example, schroot is able to process fstab files by just running mount(8), whereas LXC is forced to reimplement significant amounts of code from mount(8). It parses fstab-like syntax itself and has special-case support for many different filesystems.

In LXC it’s normal to run the whole system as a daemon, starting with /bin/init — this is the default behaviour of lxc-start. There are lots of components that make this work, each with its own log file. Often, when I made a configuration error, lxc-start would print no error but the container would fail to start, then you had to hunt around in the logs, and turn on logs where necessary, to figure out what went wrong.

In schroot, by contrast, a persistent session is simply a collection of mounts, there does not need to be any process running inside the container for it to exist. So session start is synchronous and error propagation is trivial. Session termination is implemented as a shell script that iterates through /proc/*/root, killing all processes that appear to be running under the session in question.

schroot has some great options for root filesystem storage. For example, you can store the whole root filesystem in a .tar.gz file. When schroot starts a session, it will unpack the archive for you, which only takes a couple of seconds for a base system. By default such a root filesystem operates as a snapshot, but it can optionally update the tar file for you on session shutdown.

How to do it

I previously wrote some notes about how to set up MediaWiki under schroot.

The procedure to set up an AUFS-based build system is almost identical in schroot and LXC. Let’s say we’re making a container called “parsoid” with a union mount for the parsoid source tree. My host source tree is in ~tstarling/src/wmf/mediawiki/services/parsoid , and I create an empty overlay directory writeable by tstarling in /srv/chroot/build-overlay/parsoid.

For schroot, you would have /etc/schroot/chroot.d/parsoid containing:

description=Parsoid build and test

And in /etc/schroot/parsoid/fstab:

none /srv/parsoid aufs br=/srv/chroot/build-overlay/parsoid=rw:/home/tstarling/src/wmf/mediawiki/services/parsoid=ro

The container root (/srv/chroot/parsoid) is created by directly invoking debootstrap.

For LXC, you create the container with lxc-create, and then add the mount to /var/lib/lxc/parsoid/config:

lxc.mount.entry = none srv/parsoid aufs br=/srv/chroot/build-overlay/parsoid=rw:/home/tstarling/src/wmf/mediawiki/services/parsoid=ro

X11 isolation

Updated June 6: When using schroot, you need to configure your X server to not use “abstract sockets”, which have a global namespace (within each netns) independent of the current root filesystem. If you are using lightdm, create a file called /etc/lightdm/lightdm.conf.d/50-no-abstract.conf with contents:

 xserver-command=X -nolisten local

If your Linux distribution runs xinit directly, you would need a /etc/X11/xinit/xserverrc file containing something like:

exec /usr/bin/X -nolisten tcp -nolisten local "$@"

For more information on X isolation, see my followup blog post.

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