Isolationism – not a 4 letter word (in the cloud)

Things are looking up if you’re interested in protecting your workloads.

In the world of international relations, economics and fiscal policy, isolationism doesn’t have a great reputation. I could go on, I suppose, if I did some research, but this is a security blog[1], and international relations, fascinating are of study though it is, isn’t my area of expertise: what I’d like to do is borrow the world and apply it to a different field: computing, and specifically cloud computing.

In computing, isolation is a set of techniques to protect a process, application or component from another (or a set of the former from a set of the latter). This is pretty much always a good thing – you don’t want another process interfering with the correct workings of your one, whether that’s by design (it’s malicious) or in error (because it’s badly designed or implemented). Isolationism, therefore, however unpopular it may be on the world stage, is a policy that you generally want to adopt for your applications, wherever they’re running.

This is particularly important in the “cloud”. Cloud computing is where you run your applications or processes on shared infrastructure. If you own that infrastructure, then you might call that a “private cloud”, and infrastructure owned by other people a “public cloud”, but when people say “cloud” on its own, they generally mean public clouds, such as those operated by Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Alibaba or others.

There’s a useful adage around cloud computing: “Remember that the cloud is just somebody else’s computer”. In other words, it’s still just hardware and software running somewhere, it’s just not being run by you. Another important thing to remember about cloud computing is that when you run your applications – let’s call them “workloads” from here on in – on somebody else’s cloud (computer), they’re unlikely to be running on their own. They’re likely to be running on the same physical hardware as workloads from other users (or “tenants”) of that provider’s services. These two realisations – that your workload is on somebody else’s computer, and that it’s sharing that computer with workloads from other people – is where isolation comes into the picture.

Workload from workload isolation

Let’s start with the sharing problem. You want to ensure that your workloads run as you expect them to do, which means that you don’t want other workloads impacting on how yours run. You want them to be protected from interference, and that’s where isolation comes in. A workload running in a Linux container or a Virtual Machine (VM) is isolated from other workloads by hardware and/or software controls, which try to ensure (generally very successfully!) that your workload receives the amount of computing time it should have, that it can send and receive network packets, write to storage and the rest without interruption from another workload. Equally important, the confidentiality and integrity of its resources should be protected, so that another workload can’t look into its memory and/or change it.

The means to do this are well known and fairly mature, and the building blocks of containers and VMs, for instance, are augmented by software like KVM or Xen (both open source hypervisors) or like SELinux (an open source capabilities management framework). The cloud service providers are definitely keen to ensure that you get a fair allocation of resources and that they are protected from the workloads of other tenants, so providing workload from workload isolation is in their best interests.

Host from workload isolation

Next is isolating the host from the workload. Cloud service providers absolutely do not want workloads “breaking out” of their isolation and doing bad things – again, whether by accident or design. If one of a cloud service provider’s host machines is compromised by a workload, not only can that workload possibly impact other workloads on that host, but also the host itself, other hosts and the more general infrastructure that allows the cloud service provider to run workloads for their tenants and, in the final analysis, make money.

Luckily, again, there are well-known and mature ways to provide host from workload isolation using many of the same tools noted above. As with workload from workload isolation, cloud service providers absolutely do not want their own infrastructure compromised, so they are, of course, going to make sure that this is well implemented.

Workload from host isolation

Workload from host isolation is more tricky. A lot more tricky. This is protecting your workload from the cloud service provider, who controls the computer – the host – on which your workload is running. The way that workloads run – execute – is such that such isolation is almost impossible with standard techniques (containers, VMs, etc.) on their own, so providing ways to ensure and prove that the cloud service provider – or their sysadmins, or any compromised hosts on their network – cannot interfere with your workload is difficult.

You might expect me to say that providing this sort of isolation is something that cloud service providers don’t care about, as they feel that their tenants should trust them to run their workloads and just get on with it. Until sometime last year, that might have been my view, but it turns out to be wrong. Cloud service providers care about protecting your workloads from the host because it allows them to make more money. Currently, there are lots of workloads which are considered too sensitive to be run on public clouds – think financial, health, government, legal, … – often due to industry regulation. If cloud service providers could provide sufficient isolation of workloads from the host to convince tenants – and industry regulators – that such workloads can be safely run in the public cloud, then they get more business. And they can probably charge more for these protections as well! That doesn’t mean that isolating your workloads from their hosts is easy, though.

There is good news, however, for both cloud service providers and their teants, which is that there’s a new set of hardware techniques called TEEs – Trusted Execution Environments – which can provide exactly this sort of protection[2]. This is rapidly maturing technology, and TEEs are not easy to use – in that it can not only be difficult to run your workload in a TEE, but also to ensure that it’s running in a TEE – but when done right, they do provide the sorts of isolation from the host that a workload wants in order to maintain its integrity and confidentiality[3].

There are a number of projects looking to make using TEEs easier – I’d point to Enarx in particular – and even an industry consortium to promote open TEE adoption, the Confidential Computing Consortium. Things are looking up if you’re interested in protecting your workloads, and the cloud service providers are on board, too.


1 – sorry if you came here expecting something different, but do stick around and have a read: hopefully there’s something of interest.

2 – the best known are Intel’s SGX and AMD’s SEV.

3 – availability – ensuring that it runs fairly – is more difficult, but as this is a property that is also generally in the cloud service provider’s best interest, and something that can can control, it’s not generally too much of a concern[4].

4 – yes, there are definitely times when it is, but that’s a story for another article.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat. マイク・バーゼル: オープンソースとLinuxに長く従事。他にも分散セキュリティシステムなども手がける。現在Red Hatのチーフセキュリティアーキテクト

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