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Using runc to explore the OCI Runtime Specification

In recent posts I explored how to use user namespaces and cgroups v2 on OpenShift. My main objective is to run systemd-based workloads in user namespaces that map to unprivileged users on the host. This is a prerequisite to running FreeIPA securely in OpenShift, and supporting multitenancy.

Independently, user namespaces and cgroups v2 already work well in OpenShift. But for systemd support there is a critical gap: the pod’s cgroup directory (mounted as /sys/fs/cgroup/ in the container) is owned by root—the host’s UID 0, which is unmapped in the pod’s user namespace. As a consequence, the container’s main process (/sbin/init, which is systemd) cannot manage cgroups, and terminates.

To understand how to close this gap, I needed to become familiar with the low-level container runtime behaviour. This post discusses the relationship between various container runtime components and demonstrates how to use runc directly to create and run containers. I also outline some possible approaches to solving the cgroup ownership issue.

Podman, Kubernetes, CRI, CRI-O, runc, oh my! §

What actually happens when you “run a container”. Abstractly, a container runtime sets up a sandbox and runs a process in it. The sandbox consists of a set of namespaces (PID, UTS, mount, cgroup, user, network, etc), and a restricted view of a filesystem (via chroot(2) or similar mechanism).

There are several different container runtimes in widespread use. In fact, there are several different layers of container runtime with different purposes:

Running a container usually involves a higher-level runtime and a low-level runtime. For example, Podman uses an OCI runtime; crun by default on Fedora but runc works fine too. OpenShift (which is built on Kubernetes) uses CRI-O, which in turn uses runc (CRI-O itself can use any OCI runtime).

Division of responsibilities §

So, what are responsibilities of the higher-level runtime compared to the OCI (or other low-level) runtime? In general the high-level runtime is responsible for:

The steps performed by the low-level runtime include:

I mentioned several features specific to Linux in the list above. The OCI Runtime Specification also specifies Windows, Solaris and VM-based workloads. This post assumes a Linux workload, so many details are Linux-specific.

The above list is just a rough guide and not absolute. Depending on use case the high-level runtime might perform some of the low-level steps. For example, if container networking is required, Podman might create the network namespace, setting up devices and routing. Then, instead of asking the OCI runtime to create a network namespace, it tells the runtime to enter the existing namespace.

Running containers via runc §

Because our effort is targeting OpenShift, the rest of this post mainly deals with runc.

The functions demonstrated in this post were performed using runc version 1.0.0-rc95+dev, which I built from source (commit 19d75e1c). The Fedora 33 and 34 repositories offer runc version 1.0.0-rc93, which does not work.

Clone and build §

Install the Go compiler and libseccomp development headers:

% sudo dnf -y --quiet install libseccomp-devel


Clone the runc source code and build the program:

% mkdir -p ~/go/src/github.com/opencontainers
% cd ~/go/src/github.com/opencontainers
% git clone --quiet https://github.com/opencontainers/runc
% cd runc
% make --quiet
% ./runc --version
runc version 1.0.0-rc95+dev
commit: v1.0.0-rc95-31-g19d75e1c
spec: 1.0.2-dev
go: go1.16.3
libseccomp: 2.5.0

Prepare root filesystem §

I want to create a filesystem from my systemd based test-nginx container image. To avoid configuring overlay filesystems myself, I used Podman to create a container, then exported the whole container filesystem, via tar(1), to a local directory:

% podman create --quiet quay.io/ftweedal/test-nginx
% mkdir rootfs
% podman export e97930b3 | tar -xC rootfs
% ls rootfs
bin  dev home lib64      media opt  root sbin sys usr
boot etc lib  lost+found mnt   proc run  srv  tmp var

Create config.json §

OCI runtimes read the container configuration from config.json in the bundle directory. (runc uses the current directory as the default bundle directory). The runc spec command generates a sample config.json which can serve as a starting point:

% ./runc spec --rootless
% file config.json
config.json: JSON data
% jq -c .process.args < config.json

We can see that runc created the sample config. The command to execute is sh(1). Let’s change that to /sbin/init:

% mv config.json config.json.orig
% jq '.process.args=["/sbin/init"]' config.json.orig \
    > config.json

jq(1) cannot operate on JSON files in situ, so you first have to copy or move the input file. The sponge(1) command, provided by the moreutils package, offers an alternative approach.

Run container §

Now we can try and run the container:

% ./runc --systemd-cgroup run test
Mount failed for selinuxfs on /sys/fs/selinux:  No such file or directory
Another IMA custom policy has already been loaded, ignoring: Permission denied
Failed to mount tmpfs at /run: Operation not permitted
[!!!!!!] Failed to mount API filesystems.
Freezing execution.

That didn’t work. systemd failed to mount a tmpfs (temporary, memory-based filesystem) at /tmp, and halted. The container itself was still running (but frozen). I was able to kill it from another terminal:

% ./runc list --quiet
% ./runc kill test KILL
% ./runc list --quiet

It turned out that in addition to the process to run, the config requires several changes to successfully run a systemd-based container. I will not repeat the whole process here, but I achieved a working config through a combination of trial-and-error, and comparison against OCI configurations produced by Podman. The following jq(1) program performs the required modifications:

.process.args = ["/sbin/init"]
| .process.env |= . + ["container=oci"]
| [{"containerID":1,"hostID":100000,"size":65536}] as $idmap
| .linux.uidMappings |= . + $idmap
| .linux.gidMappings |= . + $idmap
| .linux.cgroupsPath = "user.slice:runc:test"
| .linux.namespaces |= . + [{"type":"network"}]
| .process.capabilities[] =
| {"type": "tmpfs",
   "source": "tmpfs",
   "options": ["rw","rprivate","nosuid","nodev","tmpcopyup"]
  } as $tmpfs
| .mounts |= [{"destination":"/var/log"} + $tmpfs] + .
| .mounts |= [{"destination":"/tmp"} + $tmpfs] + .
| .mounts |= [{"destination":"/run"} + $tmpfs] + .

This program performs the following actions:

I ran the program to modify the config, then started the container:

% jq --from-file filter.jq config.json.orig > config.json
% ./runc --systemd-cgroup run test
systemd v246.10-1.fc33 running in system mode. (+PAM …
Detected virtualization container-other.
Detected architecture x86-64.

Welcome to Fedora 33 (Container Image)!


[  OK  ] Started The nginx HTTP and reverse proxy server.
[  OK  ] Reached target Multi-User System.
[  OK  ] Reached target Graphical Interface.
         Starting Update UTMP about System Runlevel Changes.
[  OK  ] Finished Update UTMP about System Runlevel Changes.

Fedora 33 (Container Image)
Kernel 5.11.17-300.fc34.x86_64 on an x86_64 (console)

runc login:

OK! systemd initialised the system properly and started nginx. We can confirm nginx is running properly by running curl in the container:

% ./runc exec test curl --silent --head localhost:80
HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Server: nginx/1.18.0
Date: Thu, 27 May 2021 02:29:58 GMT
Content-Type: text/html
Content-Length: 5564
Last-Modified: Mon, 27 Jul 2020 22:20:49 GMT
Connection: keep-alive
ETag: "5f1f5341-15bc"
Accept-Ranges: bytes

At this point we cannot access nginx from outside the container. That’s fine; I don’t need to work out how to do that. Not today, anyhow.

How runc creates cgroups §

runc manages container cgroups via the host’s systemd service. Specifically, it communicates with systemd over DBus to create a transient scope for the container. Then it binds the container cgroup namespace to this new scope.

Observe that the inode of /sys/fs/cgroup/ in the container is the same as the scope created for the container by systemd on the host:

% ./runc exec test ls -aldi /sys/fs/cgroup
64977 drwxr-xr-x. 5 root root 0 May 27 02:26 /sys/fs/cgroup

% ls -aldi /sys/fs/cgroup/user.slice/user-1000.slice/user@1000.service/user.slice/runc-test.scope 
64977 drwxr-xr-x. 5 ftweedal ftweedal 0 May 27 12:26 /sys/fs/cgroup/user.slice/user-1000.slice/user@1000.service/user.slice/runc-test.scope

The mapping of root in the container’s user namespace to ftweedal is confirmed by the UID map of the container process:

% id --user ftweedal
% ./runc list -f json | jq '.[]|select(.id="test").pid'
% cat /proc/186718/uid_map
         0       1000          1
         1     100000      65536

Next steps §

systemd is running properly in the container, but root in the container is mapped to my main user account. The container is not as isolated as I would like it to be. A partial sandbox escape could lead to the containerised process(es) messing with local files, or other processes owned by my user (including other containers).

User-namespaced containers in OpenShift (via CRI-O annotations) are allocated non-overlapping host ID ranges. All the host IDs are essentially anonymous. I confirmed this in a previous blog post. That is good! But the container’s cgroup is owned by the host’s UID 0, which is unmapped in the container. systemd-based workloads cannot run because the container cannot write to its cgroupfs.

Therefore, the next steps in my investigation are:

  1. Alter the ID mappings to use a single mapping of only “anonymous” users. This is a simple change to the OCI config. The host IDs still have to come from the user’s allocated sub-ID range.

  2. Find (or implement) a way to change the ownership of the container’s cgroup scope to the container’s UID 0.

When using the systemd cgroup manager, runc uses the transient unit API to ask systemd to create a new scope for the container. I am still learning about this API. Perhaps there is a way to specify a different ownership for the new scope or service. If so, we should be able to avoid changes to higher-level container runtimes like CRI-O. That would be the best outcome.

Otherwise, I will investigate whether we could use the OCI createRuntime hook to chown(2) the container’s cgroup scope. Unfortunately, the semantics of createRuntime is currently underspecified. The specification is ambiguous about whether the containers cgroup scope exists when this hook is executed. If this approach is valid, we will have to update CRI-O to add the relevant hook command to the OCI config.

Another possible approach is for the high-level runtime to perform the ownership change itself. This would be done after it invokes the OCI runtime’s create command, but before it invokes start. (See also the OCI container lifecycle description). However, on OpenShift CRI-O runs as user containers and the container’s cgroup scope is owned by root. So I have doubts about the viability of this approach, as well as the OCI hook approach.

Whatever the outcome, there will certainly be more blog posts as I continue this long-running investigation. I still have much to learn as I struggle towards the goal of systemd-based workloads running securely on OpenShift.

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