Monthly Archives: March 2007

SELinux and Solaris Trusted Extensions

Recently, Glenn Faden of Sun posted a comparison of SELinux and Solaris Trusted Extensions from an MLS point of view.

Karl MacMillan has now published a response, starting with a discussion of classic “trusted operating systems” and their manifest inadequacies. Then, he outlines the role of SELinux in providing a more general and flexible approach to security in mainstream OSs, meeting a wider range of requirements in a more comprehensive manner, and to do this not as a stale fork of an OS, but as a first class component, available by default. Karl also addresses some of the pervasive technical errors in the Sun article, which need rebuttal, even though they sidetrack more essential issues.

On trusted systems:

The worst of it, though, is that these systems were only useful for a small set of customers. Namely, government customers that maintain classified data (you know, “Top Secret”, “Secret”, etc.). The systems weren’t super secure versions of their general purpose counterparts as many people mistakenly assume. Instead, they were only secure in terms of a very narrow set of requirements.

Indeed, these old MLS models are full of problems, although generally mitigated with subsequent band-aids, people may be surprised to know, for example, that one of the foundational MLS policies, BLP, provides no integrity at all and can be trivially subverted.

Frederick Cohen, in his now fascinatingly dated A Short Course on Computer Viruses describes with great simplicity a virus which would allow the least trusted user on a BLP system to infect software run by the most trusted user. This was not exploiting an implementation flaw; merely an inherent limitation of the narrowly focused security policy. Another feature of classic MLS or trusted systems is that a trusted application can be defined as one that violates the security policy. That is, the policy is so inflexible that you must break it with a privileged application to make the system work.

This is not to get into a critique of MLS, but to highlight the role of SELinux in providing a flexible security framework with integrity built in from the ground up, and that thinking in these areas has advanced significantly since the 1970s and 1980s.

There are still some cases where MLS is indicated, particularly where there are very large numbers of distinct compartments, and for these cases, SELinux provides an integrated MLS capability. Typically, however, users who claim to need MLS quite often don’t—it’s all they’ve ever known—and they’re better off with a more flexible security policy which meets their specific requirements and does not need to be subverted by trusted applications to work.

Framing a comparison of SELinux and Solaris Trusted Extensions in terms of how each meets classic MLS requirements ignores the essential issue of SELinux as a fundamental paradigm shift in security. With SELinux, mandatory access control is available for virtually any class of user.

The case for generalized MAC is compelling, and I would invite the OpenSolaris project to consider integrating the Flask model (of which SELinux is an implementation) into their OS.

The SE-BSD and SE-Darwin efforts prove that SELinux components can be integrated into other OSs (where licensing allows), or otherwise re-implemented. I believe this would further improve and refine the technology due to greater diversity of implementations, with the potential to standardize flexible mandatory access control, similarly to the rough consensus of DAC. We’d then have greater interoperability and normalization of strong security mechanisms, which would be greatly beneficial to general users and thus computer security in general.

SELinux Developer Summit 2007

The SELinux Symposium proper finished yesterday, with another WIP session, then some interesting applications of SELinux talks, and finally, talks on MLS. It’s interesting to see the conference evolve from being mostly about research and theory, to having an increasing orientation toward case studies and similarly practical topic areas.

Daniel Frye, an IBM VP, gave the second keynote and highlighted the growth of Linux as an enterprise OS from a security point of view, and the persistent challenge to make security compelling outside of the public sector.

Something which should help general users is setroubleshoot, which is now shipping in the RHEL5 and Fedora distros. It was developed by John Dennis, who gave a talk at the symposium. setroubleshoot detects when SELinux encounters a problem and tries to explain it to the user and provide a course of action to follow. It does this by popping an alert up in the system tray and optionally sending an email notification:


The symposium concluded with the usual drawing of prizes, this time including iPods, SELinux books, RHEL5, a Mac Mini and a HP laptop. Guess which one everyone wanted.

Today is the Developer Summit: a focused discussion on current and future directions by around twenty of the core developers.

SELinux Developer Summit

In the photo, Karl MacMillan (2nd from the left) is talking, which is not unusual.

SELinux Symposium 2007

I’m in Baltimore for the 2007 SELinux Symposium. The past two days have been for tutorials, with two days now for the conference, and then a final developer summit day.

SELinux Symposium 2007

This morning’s keynote featured a talk by Richard Schaeffer, Director of Information Assurance at the NSA. Richard has been in this business for a very long time, and he provided some very interesting perspectives on computer security (I think the slides will eventually go up on the web site). We then had two sessions of solid technical talks, and are currently in the first of two WIP sessions. There’s a lot of interesting work happening now extending SELinux out past the base OS, with increasingly mature analysis and development tools, as well as continued refinements to the core technology.

Chris Vance’s SEDarwin talk was particularly interesting: apparently the next version of OSX will ship with the TrustedBSD MAC framework. This won’t initially include the SE Darwin work, but hopefully it’ll be possible to get it running without too much trouble.

There’s also good progress being made on extending SELinux to the desktop, as described in NSA talks on GConf integration and integration. Xinwen Zhang of Samsung gave an interesting talk on extending SELinux to mobile platforms (such as cell phones), and related research into platform integrity.

The SELinux community is growing and looking very healthy, although I think we can still do a lot more to encourage wider participation.


Steve Rostedt and Glauber de Oliveira Costa have just posted initial patches for a 64-bit (x86-64) version of lguest. Looks like the next steps will be to consolidate the code into common and per-arch components. Initial feedback from Rusty seems good.

I’ve been working on converting lguest over to the new clockevent and dyntick frameworks. (Thomas Gleixner’s OLS paper, Hrtimers and Beyond: Transforming the Linux Time Subsystems, is also a great reference on the topic).

Tickless operation is particularly useful for virtual machines, allowing clock events (for timers etc.) to be programmed on demand, with events only being delivered to VMs as required, rather than say, generating a synthetic tick stream for each VM. (Or in the case of lguest, switching out of each guest on each host clock tick). It’ll be interesting to re-run the networking benchmarks again with tickless & high-resolution timer support.

There may be some scope to consolidate common clock code between several HV projects (Xen & lguest have nearly identical clockevent code in progress), although it’s not entirely clear yet how much can be usefully gained, as the new clock APIs make the client code fairly simple.

Máirín Duffy has created a new logo for lguest (also now known as the puppyvisor):

new lguest logo

Via Val Henson: some hilarious slides from a talk on network protocols by Radia Perlman. I’m sad to say I haven’t seen Radia give a talk as yet.

The SELinux Symposium is on next week!