3 min read

Docker, and container technology in general have gotten a buzzing response from developers over the globe. The container technology with some enticing features such as lightweight in nature, being DevOps focussed, etc. has gradually taken over virtual machines much recently. However, most developers and organizations out there still prefer using virtual machines as they fear containers are less secure than the VMs.

Enter IBM’s Nabla containers.

IBM recently launched its brand new container tech with claims of it being more secure than Docker or any other containers in the market. It is a sandbox designed for a strong isolation on a host. This means, these specialized containers would cut down OS system calls to a bare minimum with as little code as possible. This is expected to decrease the surface area available for an attack.

What are the leading causes for security breaches in containers?

IBM Research’s distinguished engineer, James Bottomley, highlights the two fundamental kinds of security problems affecting containers and virtual machines(VM):


  • Vertical Attack Profile (VAP)
  • Horizontal Attack Profile (HAP)

Vertical Attack Profile or VAP includes code which is used for traversing in order to provide services right from input to database update to output, in a stack.

A container-based Virtual infrastructure

Similar to all other programs, this VAP code is prone to bugs. Greater the code one traverses, greater will be the chances of exposure to a security loophole. Hence, the density of these bugs varies. However, this profile is much benign, as the primary actors for the hostile security attacks are the cloud tenants and the Cloud Security Providers(CSPs), which come much more into a picture in the HAP.

Horizontal Attack Profile or HAP are stack security holes exploits that can jump either into the physical server host or VMs.

A HAP attack

These exploits cause, what is called, a failure of containment. Here, one part of the Vertical Attack Profile belongs to the tenants (The guest kernel, guest OS and application) while the other part (the hypervisor and host OS) belongs to the CSPs. However, the CSP vertical part has an additional problem which is, any exploit present in this piece of stack can be used to jump onto either the host itself or any other tenant VMs running on the host.

James also states that any Horizontal security failure or HAP is a potential business destroying event for the CSPs. So one has to take care of preventing such failures. On the other hand, the exploit occuring in the VAP owned by the tenant is seen as a tenant-only-problem. This problem is expected to be located and fixed by tenants only. This tells us that, the larger the profile( for instance CSPs) the greater the probability of being exploited.

HAP breaches, however, are not that common. But, whenever they occur, they ruin the system. James has called HAPs as the “potentially business destroying events.”
IBM Nabla Containers can ease out the HAP attacks for you!!

Nabla containers achieve isolation by reducing the surface for an attack on the host.

Standard containers vs Nabla containers

These containers make use of a library OS also known as unikernel techniques adapted from the Solo5 project. These techniques help Nabla containers to avoid system calls and simultaneously reduce the attack surface. The containers use only 9 system calls; the rest are blocked through a Linux seccomp policy.

Internals of Nabla containers

Per IBM Research, Nabla containers are more secure than the other container technologies including Docker, and Google’s gVisor (a container runtime sandbox), and even Kata Containers (an open-source lightweight VM to secure containers).

Read more about IBM Nabla containers on the official GitHub website.

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