Containers or virtual machines: ​Which is more secure? The answer will surprise you

Jonathan MathewsPublic

Are virtual machines (VM) more secure than containers? You may think you know the answer, but IBM Research has found containers can be as secure, or more secure, than VMs.

James Bottomley, an IBM Research Distinguished Engineer and top Linux kernel developer, writes: “One of the biggest problems with the current debate about Container vs Hypervisor security is that no-one has actually developed a way of measuring security, so the debate is all in qualitative terms (hypervisors ‘feel’ more secure than containers because of the interface breadth) but no-one actually has done a quantitative comparison.” To meet this need, Bottomley created Horizontal Attack Profile (HAP), designed to describe system security in a way that it can be objectively measured. Bottomley has discovered that “a Docker container with a well crafted seccomp profile (which blocks unexpected system calls) provides roughly equivalent security to a hypervisor.”

Bottomley starts by defining Vertical Attack Profile (VAP). This is all the code, which is traversed to provide a service all the way from input to database update to output. This code, like all programs, contains bugs. The bug density varies, but the more code you traverse the greater your chance of exposure to a security hole. Stack security holes exploits — which can jump into either the physical server host or VMs — are HAPs.

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