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Community Blog A Deep Understanding of Cloud Container Technology

A Deep Understanding of Cloud Container Technology

Alibaba Cloud provides Kumu with a SDK video which is easy-to-use, scalable and cost-effective, for developing their live-streaming entertainment platform.

As you probably all know, containers, microservices, and cloud-native technologies are the current big trends in IT. According to a 2019 report from Portworx and Aqua Security, most companies surveyed are either using containers or considering using them.

Early this morning, I talked with Chris, from the US, who delivered a speech just before us. He said that San Diego is expecting the turnout at KubeCon at the end of this year to reach 12,000 people! He also mentioned that cloud-native technology has not only changed the architecture of existing applications, but also promoted the development of a wider variety of services, accelerating the application of IT systems.

But, even if container technology being all the hype these days, challenges still do exist. According to a report from Tripwire, about half of the companies surveyed, especially those that run a deployment of more than 100 containers, believe that their containers have security vulnerabilities. On the other hand, an even larger number of companies are not sure whether their containers are vulnerable or not. As we see things, security is not only a question of technology, but it also involves issues of confidence-something that shouldn't be underestimated in its importance. As is shown in pink in their survey, 42% of respondents cannot fully embrace the container ecosystem due to security concerns. Therefore, security is definitely an important matter.

To put things another way, concerns about security is a step forward. Because, it's only when you are ready to use a technology in the production environment, are you willing to take a hard look at it from a security perspective, right? Interestingly when it comes to containers, security is a rather complex subject, involving several aspects. Container security is an end-to-end technology, therefore its security thus involves the security and integrity of container images themselves, the security of the software and hardware infrastructure on which containers run, and the security of container engines.

The Development of Secure Container Technology

Container security has a long history of development. Take the namespace and cgroup features of the Linux kernel for example. This set of container technology extends kernel features from the perspective of process scheduling. With benefits such as an interface for user-friendly operation and low overhead, this set can be used outside the existing applications to serve as an isolated environment. As a pure software solution, it is compatible with both physical and virtual machines at various layers. However, the problem is that it is one part of the Linux kernel, so certain Linux isolation problems in it cannot be eradicated and may worsen due to some newly added features. At LinuxCon 2015 in Seattle, Linux Creator Linus Torvalds said in an interview, "the only real solution is to admit that a) bugs happen, and b) try to mitigate them by having multiple layers of security."

An isolation layer is about allowing application containers to run in their own kernels. The simplest way to do this is to deploy containers in virtual machines, as shown in the leftmost section in the preceding figure. This solution does not require you to change the software stack but allows your containers to run in your own virtual machines. However, this will result in more overhead and increase your overall maintenance complexity as there will now be two layers.

Another well-established solution for dedicated kernels is unikernel, as shown in the rightmost section in the preceding figure. This solution allows applications to run with their own kernels. The benefit of this solution lies in a minimal, cut-down version of Library OS (LibOS), which has a lower overhead and a smaller attack surface. However, as of now at least it is not widely used because applications often have to be modified to work with it. Of course, compatibility is always the biggest obstacle to the adoption of platform technology. Therefore, we think, then, more suitable secure container solutions for unmodified applications would be either one of the two solutions in the middle -microVM and process virtualization. The former uses a lightweight virtual machine and a tailored Linux kernel to reduce O&M overhead while maintaining compatibility. The latter uses a specific kernel to provide Linux ABI and directly virtualizes the process runtime, maximizing compatibility for Linux applications.

Kata Containers is a microVM–based secure container solution. From an application perspective, it is a runC-compatible container runtime engine that can be called by Kubernetes through containerd or CRI-O and can directly run Docker images or OCI images. But unlike runC, Kata Containers uses hardware virtualization. In this way, your applications no longer run directly in the host kernel, but in a dedicated kernel installed in a virtual machine. Even if the dedicated kernel is attacked due to an unknown security vulnerability, the virtual sandbox cannot be easily cracked. The Kata Containers project became open-sourced in 2017. And then, in April 2018, it became the first open infrastructure project in the seven years to be under the OpenStack Foundation umbrella. As a community project, it also involved many developers outside of Alibaba Cloud and Ant Financial. Currently, the development roadmap for Kata Containers version 2.0 is under discussion. And, of course, with it being open-source, you're welcome to contribute your code and requirements for the project.

Technically, in the Kubernetes ecosystem, Kata Containers can integrate with CRI daemons such as containerd and CRI-O like runC. We recommend that you call the containerd shim API v2, which was first introduced in the containerd community last summer. This API is also supported by CRI-O. Kata Containers is the first container engine that officially supports this new interface. This interface allows only one additional Kata worker process per pod regardless of the number of containers in the pod, which helps to alleviate pressure off of the host scheduler. Shim manages OCI containers in the pod by controlling agents in microVMs through VSOCK. VMMs supported by the community version of Kata Containers includes QEMU and the open-source Firecracker from AWS. The former has richer features and better compatibility while the latter is more compact. Based on the Alibaba spirit of "bringing you the best of everything", you do not have to give up anything. With Kubernetes RuntimeClass, you can specify the VMMs to be used for each pod. For more information, you can refer to our documentation on the GitHub or join the discussion in our Slack channel. Do not forget to submit the issues that you encounter. This is also a huge support for the community and a contribution to open source in addition to writing code.

There are quite a few similar container solutions based on the microVM technology,and you can refer to Thoughts on the Development of Secure Container Technology.

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