Assessing Unikernel Security
Unikernels are small, specialized, single-address-space machine images constructed by treating component applications and drivers like libraries and compiling them, along with a kernael and a thin OS layer, into a single binary blob. Proponents of unikernels claim that their smaller codebase and lack of excess services make them more efficient and secure than full-OS virtual machines and containers. We surveyed two major unikernels, Rumprun and IncludeOS, and found that this was decidedly not the case: unikernels, which in many ways resemble embedded systems, appear to have a similarly minimal level of security. Features like ASLR, W^X, stack canaries, heap integrity checks and more are either completely absent or seriously flawed. If an application running on such a system contains a memory corruption vulnerability, it is often possible for attackers to gain code execution, even in cases where the application’s source and binary are unknown. Furthermore, because the application and the kernel run together as a single process, an attacker who compromises a unikernel can immediately exploit functionality that would require privilege escalation on a regular OS, e.g. arbitrary packet I/O. We demonstrate such attacks on both Rumprun and IncludeOS unikernels, and recommend measures to mitigate them.