Setting Sail on Secret Seas with Trireme


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Container networking is a tough challenge to solve. The evolving needs of creating virtual networks to allow inter-container communications is difficult. But ensuring security at the same time is enough to make you pull your hair out. Lots of companies are taking a crack at it as has been demonstrated recently by microsegmentation offerings from Cisco, VMware NSX, and many others. But a new development on this front set sail today. And the captain is an old friend.

Sailing the Security Sea

Dimitri Stiladis did some great things in his time at Nuage Networks. He created a great overlay network solution that not only worked well for software defined systems but also extended into the container world as more and more people started investigating containers as the new way to provide application services. He saw many people rushing into this area with their existing solutions as well as building new solutions. However, those solutions were all based on existing technology and methods that didn’t work well in the container world. If you ever heard someone say, “Oh, containers are just lightweight VMs…” you know what kind of thinking I’m talking about.

Late last year, Dimitri got together with some of his friends to build a new security solution for containers. He founded Aporeto, which is from the Greek for “confidential”. And that really informs the whole idea of what they are trying to build. Container communications should be something easy to secure. All the right pieces are in place. But what’s missing is the way to do it easily and scale it up quickly. This is where existing solutions are missing the point by using existing ideas and constructs.

Enter Trireme. This project is an open source version of the technology Aporeto is working on was released yesterday to help container admins understand why securing communications between containers is critical and yet simple to do. I got a special briefing from Dimitri yesterday about it and once he helped me understand it I immediately saw the power of what they’ve done.

In The Same Boat

Trireme works by doing something very simple. All containers have a certificate that is generated at creation. This allows them to be verified for consistency and other things. What Trireme is doing is using a TCP Authorization Proxy to grab the digital identity of the container and insert it into the TCP SYN setup messages. Now, the receiving container will know who the sender is because the confirmed identity of the sender is encoded in the setup message. If the sender is authorized to talk to the receiver the communications can be setup. Otherwise the connection is dropped.

This is one of the “so simple I can’t believe I missed it” moments. If there is already a secure identity setup for the container it should be used. And adding that information to the TCP setup ensures that we don’t just take for granted that containers with similar attributes are allowed to talk to each other just because they are on the same network. This truly is microsegmentation with the addition of identity protection. Even if you spin up a new container with identical attributes, it won’t have the same digital identity as the previous container, which means it will need to be authorized all over again.

Right now the security model is simple. If the attributes of the containers match, they are allowed to talk. You can setup some different labels and try it yourself. But with the power behind using Kubernetes as the management platform, you can extend this metaphor quite a bit. Imagine being able to create a policy setup that allows containers with the “dev” label to communication if and only if they have the “shared” label as well. Or making sure that “dev” containers can never talk to “prod” containers for any reason, even if they are on the same network. It’s an extension of a lot of things already being looked at in the container world but it has the benefit of built in identity confirmation as well as scalability.

How does Trireme scale? Well, it’s not running a central controller or database of any kind. Instead, the heavy lifting is done by a local process on the container. That’s how Trireme can scale. No dependency on a central process or device failing and leaving everyone stranded. No need to communicate with anything other than the local container host. Kubernetes has the infrastructure to push down the policy changes to processes in the container which are then checked by the Trireme process. That means that Trireme never has to leave the local container to make decisions. Everything that is needed is right on deck.


Tom’s Take

It took me a bit to understand what Dimitri and his group are trying to do with Trireme and later with their Aporeto solution. Creating digital signatures and signing communications between containers is going to be a huge leap forward for security. If all communications are secured by default then security becomes the kind of afterthought that we need.

The other thing that Aporeto illustrates to me is the need for containers to be isolated processes, not heavy VMs. By creating a process boundary per container, Trireme and other solutions can help keep things as close to completely secure as possible. Lowering the attack surface of a construct down to the process level is making it a tiny target in a big ocean.

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