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Container Internals – Deep Dive

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Linux technologies make up the foundations of building/running a container process in your system. Technologies like:

  1. Namespaces
  2. Control groups ( Cgroups )
  3. Seccomp
  4. SELinux


Namespaces provide a layer of isolation for the containers by giving the container a view of what appears to be its own Linux filesystem. This would limit as to what a process can see and therefore restrict the amount of resources available to this process.

There are several namespaces in the Linux kernel that are used by docker while creating a container:

[nivedv@homelab ~]$ docker container run alpine ping
[nivedv@homelab ~]$ sudo lsns -p 29413

4026531835 cgroup    299     1 root /usr/lib/systemd/systemd --switched...
4026531837 user      278     1 root /usr/lib/systemd/systemd --switched...
4026533105 mnt         1 29413 root ping
4026533106 uts         1 29413 root ping
4026533107 ipc         1 29413 root ping
4026533108 pid         1 29413 root ping
4026533110 net         1 29413 root ping
  • USER: This is used to isolate users and groups within a container. This is done by allowing containers to have a different view of UID and GID ranges as compared to the host system. This allows the software to run inside the container as the root user, but if a hacker is able to attack the container and then escape to the host machine, it will only have a non-root identity.
  • MNT: This namespace allows the containers to have their own view of its file system hierarchy on the system. You can find the mount points for each container process in the /proc/<PID>/mounts location in your Linux system. 
  • UTS: This namespace allows containers to have their own unique hostname and domain name. UTS stands for Unix Timesharing System. When you run a container, a random ID is used as the hostname even when you use the “ — name” tag. You can use the unshare command to get an idea of how this works.
[nivedv@homelab ~]$ docker container run -it --name nived alpine sh
/ # hostname 
/ # 
[nivedv@homelab ~]$ sudo unshare -u sh
sh-5.0# hostname isolated.hostname 
sh-5.0# hostname
sh-5.0# exit
[nivedv@homelab ~]$ hostname
  • IPC: Inter-Process Communication namespace makes it possible for different container processes to communicate with each other by giving them access to a shared range of memory or by using a shared message queue.
[root@demo /]# ipcmk -M 10M
Shared memory id: 0
[root@demo /]# ipcmk -M 20M
Shared memory id: 1
[root@demo /]# 
[root@demo /]# ipcs
------ Message Queues --------
key        msqid      owner      perms      used-bytes   messages    
------ Shared Memory Segments --------
key        shmid      owner      perms      bytes      nattch     status      
0xd1df416a 0          root       644        10485760   0                       
0xbd487a9d 1          root       644        20971520   0                       
------ Semaphore Arrays --------
key        semid      owner      perms      nsems
  • PID: The process ID namespace is responsible for ensuring the processes running inside a container are isolated from the external world. When you run a ps command inside a container, you only see the processes running inside the container and not on the host machine because of this namespace.
  • NET: The network namespace allows the container to have its own view of network interface, IP addresses, routing tables, port numbers, etc. How does a container able to communicate to the external world? All containers you create get attached to the master — docker0 interface.
[nivedv@homelab ~]$ docker container run --rm -it alpine sh
/ # ping
PING ( 56 data bytes
64 bytes from seq=0 ttl=119 time=21.643 ms
64 bytes from seq=1 ttl=119 time=20.940 ms
[root@homelab ~]# ip link show veth84ea6fc
veth84ea6fc@if22: <BROADCAST,MULTICAST,UP,LOWER_UP> mtu 1500 qdisc noqueue 
master docker0 state UP mode DEFAULT group default

Control groups ( cgroups ):

Cgroups are fundamental blocks of making a container. It is responsible to allocate and limit the resources, such as CPU, memory, Network I/O, that are used by containers. The Container Engine automatically creates cgroup filesystem of each type.

[root@homelab ~]# lscgroup | grep docker

The Container Runtime sets up the cgroups values for each container when the container is run and all information is stored in /sys/fs/cgroup/*/docker. The following command will ensure that the container can use 50,000 microseconds of CPU time, and set up the soft and hard limits of memory to 500M and 1G respectively.

[root@homelab ~]# docker container run -d --name test-cgroups --cpus 0.5 --memory 1G --memory-reservation 500M httpd
[root@homelab ~]# lscgroup cpu,cpuacct:/docker memory:/docker
[root@homelab c....c84]# cat cpu.cfs_period_us 
[root@homelab c....c84]# cat cpu.cfs_quota_us 
[root@homelab c....c84]# cat memory.soft_limit_in_bytes 
[root@homelab c....c84]# cat memory.limit_in_bytes 


Seccomp basically stands for Secure computing. It is a Linux feature that is used to restrict the set of system calls that an application is allowed to make.  The default seccomp profile of docker disables around 44 syscalls out of the 300+.

The idea here is to provide containers access to only those resources which the container might need. For example, if you don’t need the container to be changing the clock time on your host machine, then probably you have no use of the clock_adjtime & clock_settime syscalls and it makes sense to block them out. Similarly, you wouldn’t want the containers to make changes to the kernel modules so there is no need for them to call create_module, delete_module syscalls.


SELinux stands for security-enhanced Linux. If you are running a Red Hat distribution on your hosts, then SELinux is enabled by default. SELinux lets you limit an application to have access only to its own files and prevent any other processes from being able to access them.  So, if an application is compromised, it would limit the number of files that it can affect or control. It does this by setting up contexts for files and processes and by defining policies that would enforce what a process is able to see and make changes to.

SELinux policies for containers are defined by the container-selinux package. By default, containers are run with the container_t label and are allowed to read & execute under the /usr  directory and read most content from /etc directory. The files under /var/lib/docker and /var/lib/containers have the label container_var_lib_t.

Originally posted @ Medium


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I help businesses solve their IT challenges in Linux Infrastructure such as automation and containerization on hybrid cloud environments by using customized open source solutions.


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