Security in Apptainer
If you suspect you have found a vulnerability in Apptainer we want to work with you so that it can be investigated, fixed, and disclosed in a responsible manner. Please follow the steps in our published Security Policy, which begins with contacting us privately via firstname.lastname@example.org
We disclose vulnerabilities found in Apptainer through public CVE reports, and notifications on our community channels. We encourage all users to monitor new releases of Apptainer for security information. Security patches are applied to the latest open-source release.
Apptainer grew out of the need to implement a container platform that was suitable for use on shared systems, such as HPC clusters. In these environments multiple people access a shared resource. User accounts, groups, and standard file permissions limit their access to data, devices, and prevent them from disrupting or accessing others’ work.
To provide security in these environments a container needs to run as the user who starts it on the system. Before the widespread adoption of the Linux user namespace, only a privileged user could perform the operations which are needed to run a container. A default Docker installation uses a root-owned daemon to start containers. Users can request that the daemon starts a container on their behalf. However, coordinating a daemon with other schedulers is difficult and, since the daemon is privileged, users can ask it to carry out actions that they wouldn’t normally have permission to do.
When a user runs a container with Apptainer, it is started as a normal process running under the user’s account. Standard file permissions and other security controls based on user accounts, groups, and processes apply. In a default installation Apptainer uses a setuid starter binary to perform only the specific tasks needed to setup the container.
Setuid & User Namespaces
Using a setuid binary to run container setup operations is essential to support containers on older Linux distributions, such as CentOS 6, that were previously common in HPC and enterprise. Newer distributions have support for ‘unprivileged user namespace creation’. This means a normal user can create a user namespace, in which most setup operations needed to run a container can be run, unprivileged.
Apptainer supports running containers without setuid, using user
namespaces. It can be compiled with the
--without-suid option, or
allow setuid = no can be set in
apptainer.conf to enable this.
In this mode all operations run as the user who starts the
apptainer program. However, there are some disadvantages:
SIF and other single file container images cannot be mounted directly. The container image must be extracted to a directory on disk to run. This impact the speed of execution. Workloads accessing large numbers of small files (such as python application startup) do not benefit from the reduced metadata load on the filesystem an image file provides.
Replacing direct kernel mounts with a FUSE approach is likely to cause a significant reduction in performance.
The effectiveness of signing and verifying container images is reduced as, when extracted to a directory, modification is possible and verification of the image’s original signature cannot be performed.
Encryption is not supported. Apptainer leverages kernel LUKS2 mounts to run encrypted containers without decrypting their content to disk.
Some sites hold the opinion that vulnerabilities in kernel user namespace code could have greater impact than vulnerabilities confined to a single piece of setuid software. Therefore they are reluctant to enable unprivileged user namespace creation.
Because of the points above, the default mode of operation of Apptainer uses a setuid binary. We aim to reduce the circumstances that require this as new functionality is developed and reaches commonly deployed Linux distributions.
Runtime & User Privilege Model
While other runtimes have aimed to safely sandbox containers executing
root user, so that they cannot affect the host system,
Apptainer has adopted an alternative security model:
Containers should be run as an unprivileged user.
The user should never be able to elevate their privileges inside the container to gain control over the host.
All permission restrictions on the user outside of a container should apply inside the container.
Favor integration over isolation. Allow a user to use host resources such as GPUs, network filesystems, high speed interconnects easily. The process ID space, network etc. are not isolated in separate namespaces by default.
To accomplish this, Apptainer uses a number of Linux kernel
features. The container file system is mounted using the
option, and processes are started with the
PR_NO_NEW_PRIVS flag set.
This means that even if you run
sudo inside your container, you
won’t be able to change to another user, or gain root privileges by
If you do require the additional isolation of the network, devices, PIDs etc. provided by other runtimes, Apptainer can make use of additional namespaces and functionality such as seccomp and cgroups.
Singularity Image Format (SIF)
Apptainer uses SIF as its default container format. A SIF container is a single file, which makes it easy to manage and distribute. Inside the SIF file, the container filesystem is held in a SquashFS object. By default, we mount the container filesystem directly using SquashFS. On a network filesystem this means that reads from the container are data-only. Metadata operations happen locally, speeding up workloads with many small files.
Holding the container image in a single file also enable unique security features. The container filesystem is immutable, and can be signed. The signature travels in the SIF image itself so that it is always possible to verify that the image has not been tampered with or corrupted.
We use private PGP keys to create a container signature, and the corresponding
public key in order to verify the container signature. Verification of signed
containers can be done at any time by a user and happens automatically in
apptainer pull commands against the Library API registries. The prevalence
of PGP key servers, (like https://keys.openpgp.org/), make sharing and obtaining
public keys for container verification relatively simple.
A container may be signed once, by a trusted individual who approves its use. It could also be signed with multiple keys to signify it has passed each step in a CI/CD QA & Security process. Apptainer can be configured with an execution control list (ECL), which requires the presence of one or more valid signatures, to limit execution to approved containers.
With Apptainer, the root filesystem of a container (stored in the squashFS partition of SIF) can be encrypted. As a result, everything inside the container becomes inaccessible without the correct key or passphrase. The content of the container is private, even if the SIF file is shared in public.
Encryption and decryption are performed using the Linux kernel’s LUKS2 feature. This is the same technology routinely used for full disk encryption. The encrypted container is mounted directly through the kernel. Unlike other container formats, an encrypted container is not decrypted to disk in order to run it.
Configuration & Runtime Options
System administrators who manage Apptainer can use configuration files to set security restrictions, grant or revoke a user’s capabilities, manage resources and authorize containers etc.
For example, the ecl.toml file allows blacklisting and whitelisting of containers.
Configuration files and their parameters are documented for administrators documented here.
When running a container as root, Apptainer can apply hardening rules using cgroups, seccomp, apparmor. See details of these options here.