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Security and Containers in Cloud Native PostgreSQL

Gabriele Bartolini3/1/2021
Kubernetes

In this blog post, we’ll analyze in more depth some relevant security aspects that EDB’s Cloud Native PostgreSQL implements at the “Container” level, the third layer of the 4C’s security model in Kubernetes—which I covered in my last blog.

Such a layer also includes aspects that concern the security settings of the Kubernetes’ Container Runtime Interface. However, considering that they depend on the actual container runtime implementation (containerd, or CRI-O, for example), we won’t cover them in this post.

Instead, we will be focusing more on aspects such as image building, vulnerability scanning, image distribution as well as required user privileges at runtime and updates/patch management of a system.

The same concepts apply to both the operator and the operand images for Cloud Native PostgreSQL (note: the operand is the application that is managed by the operator, in our case the PostgreSQL or EDB Postgres Advanced instance).

 

From build to distribution of container images

DOCG is a level (the highest) of a classification system for Italian wines. It guarantees, through a sealed cork, that a particular wine comes from a given area, and that the whole process has followed specific rules before it is distributed. In order to get the same DOCG level with container images, there are some good practices that we can follow and that derive from DevOps principles where automation is key.

Take, for example, the way we build container images for PostgreSQL. Thanks to pipelines driven by Github Actions, every day new container images are automatically built for all the community supported versions of PostgreSQL through a Dockerfile. These images are based on RedHat UBI 8—which is signed by RedHat. Additional layers contain RPM packages that are installed from trusted repositories such as the PostgreSQL Community.

At the end of the process, the container images are automatically pushed to the public RedHat Quay.io container registry for PostgreSQL. Here they are automatically scanned for known vulnerabilities by Quay Security Scanner, the results of which are publicly available. Users can therefore download our images from a trusted source like Quay. RedHat periodically releases UBI security updates which are then embedded in our container images by our daily pipelines.

Containers security and build process

The same process applies to the other container images that EDB distributes via Quay for Cloud Native products, including the operator. Such a system of trust for container images, which resembles the DOCG for wine, can be further improved by signing our images - something we are targeting for the next quarter.

 

Principle of least privilege during execution

A container should be designed and built to run an application that can exclusively access the information and the resources that are needed to achieve its goals. In Information Technology, this is known as the principle of least privilege (PoLP) - sometimes also referred to as the principle of least authority (PoLA).

As a result, containers in Kubernetes should run as unprivileged users, unless otherwise required. This is extremely important from a security point of view as it prevents at the source any privilege escalation attempt originating inside the container to gain control of the outer host machine.

We designed and built Cloud Native PostgreSQL to operate in such a way, as both the operator and the operand images are built as Immutable Application Containers - please refer to the Why EDB chose Immutable Application Containers blog post for more details.
Leaving aside, for now, the operator container image, let’s concentrate on the more important container image for the operand/application running PostgreSQL.

The application container paradigm requires that the operand container runs a single process, known as the entry point: specifically, an application called the instance manager - which is responsible for controlling and running the main PostgreSQL server process. The instance manager aligns the PostgreSQL server process status (the instance) with the status of the cluster. To do that, it uses a role that is automatically generated by the operator and that can only work on objects that belong to the same PostgreSQL cluster. This RBAC implementation is another application of the principle of least privilege (PoLP).

The container exists for the sole duration of the PostgreSQL process, which logs directly to the standard output and standard error channels as recommended by the best practices in Kubernetes. The PostgreSQL process does not require root privileges and can run as the “postgres” user inside the container, adhering to PoLP.

Additionally, Cloud Native PostgreSQL supports some Kubernetes Pod Security Policies and Security Contexts (runAsUser, runAsGroup and FSGroup) to enforce those containers run and access the file system as an unprivileged user.
A final note is about system containers, the opposite of application containers: they run other processes and services such as “sshd” or “syslog”. The fact that the OpenSSH daemon is not running prevents remote access to the Postgres containers and is a relief from a security standpoint. Immutability is what makes SSH access superfluous.

 

Why immutability matters

We are used to accessing our machines to perform incremental system and security updates and to operate in a “mutable” and imperative way. That is not necessary in Kubernetes—and actually, it is highly discouraged.

Container images of the application we want to run (PostgreSQL and the operator in our case) are versioned and designed to be immutable, meaning that containers are not updated, they are simply replaced. Kubernetes is designed to support application deployments in a declarative configuration manner, by upgrading one pod at a time without generating any service downtime.

From a security and compliance point of view, immutability and declarative configuration in Kubernetes enable organizations to implement stricter version control and a more effective patch management of their systems. The concept of status in Kubernetes at any time provides a clear snapshot of the whole infrastructure contained in the cluster.

Our operator defines a custom resource called “Cluster” that somehow extends the “Deployment” resource in Kubernetes, introducing the primary/standby architecture logic of the PostgreSQL database and managing rollout deployments and rolling updates.

For example, suppose you have a PostgreSQL 13.1 cluster made up of 3 nodes (1 primary and 2 replicas) defined with the following YAML file:

apiVersion: postgresql.k8s.enterprisedb.io/v1

kind: Cluster

metadata:

  name: website

  namespace: website

spec:

  description: "Backend database for our website application"

  imageName: quay.io/enterprisedb/postgresql:13.1

  instances: 3

 

  storage:

    storageClass: standard

    size: 10Gi

Once created, Kubernetes starts the rollout deployment, by automatically creating the primary first, then the first standby, and finally the third.

You now want to update to PostgreSQL 13.2 as it ships with an important security fix. All you need to do is update the configuration file and change the imageNameto quay.io/enterprisedb/postgresql:13.2”. Then run kubectl apply”.

The operator will initiate a rolling update procedure, by automatically updating the standby servers one at a time and then issuing a switchover of the primary (this can also be manually controlled), with no perceivable downtime for the applications.

So, no more excuse not to perform a minor update of PostgreSQL in production - as through immutability you are 100% sure that what you are running in production is identical to what is running in staging and on your developers’ laptop.

 

Conclusion

In this post, we have covered two main aspects of container images for Cloud Native PostgreSQL from a security perspective:

  • how they are built and distributed
  • how they run, respecting the principle of least authority

We have then shifted our attention to another important aspect of security: keeping systems updated by generating those healthy and neglectable regular downtimes that increase the long-term uptime of a system (and reduce the risk of the business).

Our commitment to security at the container level won’t end here. We will continue to improve our container's security, how they are built, how they are distributed and ultimately deployed. We will keep looking out for emerging best practices and guidelines such as the Container Image Creation and Deployment Guide developed by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) for the Department of Defense of the United States Government.

Feel free to try Cloud Native PostgreSQL and inspect both the container images and the containers for security vulnerabilities and flaws.

In the upcoming blog posts, we will provide insights on some of the decisions we made and the solutions we adopted at the PostgreSQL cluster level.

 

Gabriele Bartolini, a PostgreSQL and Kubernetes enthusiast, is VP, Cloud Native at EDB. He is a co-founder of PostgreSQL Europe, a founding member of Barman, and was previous Head of Global Support and co-founder at 2ndQuadrant—where he consistently contributed to the growth of the organization and ...