SELinux is great for enterprises (but many don't know it yet)


Sven Vermeulen Sat 03 January 2015

Large companies that handle their own IT often have internal support teams for many of the technologies that they use. Most of the time, this is for reusable components like database technologies, web application servers, operating systems, middleware components (like file transfers, messaging infrastructure, ...) and more. All components that are used and deployed multiple times, and thus warrant the expenses of a dedicated engineering team.

Such teams often have (or need to write) secure configuration deployment guides, so that these components are installed in the organization with as little misconfigurations as possible. A wrongly configured component is often worse than a vulnerable component, because vulnerabilities are often fixed with the software upgrades (you do patch your software, right?) whereas misconfigurations survive these updates and remain exploitable for longer periods. Also, misuse of components is harder to detect than exploiting vulnerabilities because they are often seen as regular user behavior.

But next to the redeployable components, most business services are provided by a single application. Most companies don't have the budget and resources to put dedicated engineering teams on each and every application that is deployed in the organization. Even worse, many companies hire external consultants to help in the deployment of the component, and then the consultants hand over the maintenance of that software to internal teams. Some consultants don't fully bother with secure configuration deployment guides, or even feel the need to disable security constraints put forth by the organization (policies and standards) because "it is needed". A deployment is often seen as successful when the software functionally works, which not necessarily means that it is misconfiguration-free.

As a recent example that I came across, consider an application that needs Node.js. A consultancy firm is hired to set up the infrastructure, and given full administrative rights on the operating system to make sure that this particular component is deployed fast (because the company wants to have the infrastructure in production before the end of the week). Security is initially seen as less of a concern, and the consultancy firm informs the customer (without any guarantees though) that it will be set up "according to common best practices". The company itself has no engineering team for Node.js nor wants to invest in the appropriate resources (such as training) for security engineers to review Node.js configurations. Yet the application that is deployed on the Node.js application server is internet-facing, so has a higher risk associated with it than a purely internal deployment.

So, how to ensure that these applications cannot be exploited or, if an exploit is done, how to ensure that the risks involved with the exploit are contained? Well, this is where I believe SELinux has a great potential. And although I'm talking about SELinux here, the same goes for other similar technologies like TOMOYO Linux, grSecurity's RBAC system, RSBAC and more.

SELinux can provide a container, decoupled from the application itself (but of course built for that particular application) which restricts the behavior of that application on the system to those activities that are expected. The application itself is not SELinux-aware (or does not need to be - some applications are, but those that I am focusing on here usually don't), but the SELinux access controls ensure that exploits on the application cannot reach beyond those activities/capabilities that are granted to it.

Consider the Node.js deployment from before. The Node.js application server might need to connect to a MongoDB cluster, so we can configure SELinux to allow just that, but all other connections that originate from the Node.js deployment should be forbidden. Worms (if any) cannot use this deployment then to spread out. Same with access to files - the Node.js application probably only needs access to the application files and not to other system files. Instead of trying to run the application in a chroot (which requires engineering effort from those people implementing Node.js, which could be a consultancy firm that does not know or want to deploy within a chroot) SELinux is configured to disallow any file access beyond the application files.

With SELinux, the application can be deployed relatively safely while ensuring that exploits (or abuse of misconfigurations) cannot spread. All that the company itself has to do is to provide resources for a SELinux engineering team (which can be just a responsibility of the Linux engineering teams, but can be specialized as well). Such a team does not need to be big, as policy development effort is usually only needed during changes (for instance when the application is updated to also send e-mails, in which case the SELinux policy can be adjusted to allow that as well), and given enough experience, the SELinux engineering team can build flexible policies that the administration teams (those that do the maintenance of the servers) can tune the policy as needed (for instance through SELinux booleans) without the need to have the SELinux team work on the policies again.

Using SELinux also has a number of additional advantages which other, sometimes commercial tools (like Symantecs SPE/SCSP - really Symantec, you ask customers to disable SELinux?) severly lack.

  • SELinux is part of a default Linux installation in many cases. RedHat Enterprise Linux ships with SELinux by default, and actively supports SELinux when customers have any problems with it. This also improves the likelihood for SELinux to be accepted, as other, third party solutions might not be supported. Ever tried getting support for a system on which both McAfee AV for Linux and Symantec SCSP are running (if you got it to work together at all)? At least McAfee gives pointers to how to update SELinux settings when they would interfere with McAfee processes.
  • SELinux is widely known and many resources exist for users, administrators and engineers to learn more about it. The resources are freely available, and often kept up2date by a very motivated community. Unlike commercial products, whose support pages are hidden behind paywalls, customers are usually prevented from interacting with each other and tips and tricks for using the product are often not found on the Internet, SELinux information can be found almost everywhere. And if you like books, I have a couple for you to read: SELinux System Administration and SELinux Cookbook, written by yours truly.
  • Using SELinux is widely supported by third party configuration management tools, especially in the free software world. Puppet, Chef, Ansible, SaltStack and others all support SELinux and/or have modules that integrate SELinux support in the management system.
  • Using SELinux incurs no additional licensing costs.

Now, SELinux is definitely not a holy grail. It has its limitations, so security should still be seen as a global approach where SELinux is just playing one specific role in. For instance, SELinux does not prevent application behavior that is allowed by the policy. If a user abuses a configuration and can have an application expose information that the user usually does not have access to, but the application itself does (for instance because other users on that application might) SELinux cannot do anything about it (well, not as long as the application is not made SELinux-aware). Also, vulnerabilities that exploit application internals are not controlled by SELinux access controls. It is the application behavior ("external view") that SELinux controls. To mitigate in-application vulnerabilities, other approaches need to be considered (such as memory protections for free software solutions, which can protect against some kinds of exploits - see grsecurity as one of the solutions that could be used).

Still, I believe that SELinux can definitely provide additional protections for such "one-time deployments" where a company cannot invest in resources to provide engineering services on those deployments. The SELinux security controls do not require engineering on the application side, making investments in SELinux engineering very much reusable.