Startup Twistlock seeks to padlock Docker containers

Security tools for virtual machines are highly evolved, but not so for containers

As interest grows in applications deployed in containers, questions about their security are developing as well.

The open-source platform built by Docker has seen quick uptake by developers. Applications are deployed in so-called containers, which can be easily updated and moved to other machines due to their small footprint.

Many application containers can run on a single physical system and share an operating system's kernel. That commingling of demands on the operating system can, however, have serious consequences for security.

Jay Lyman, research manager with the analyst 451 Group, said the security and management tools for virtual machines are highly evolved, but container technology is relatively immature.

"In the absence of good security measures and practices and tools, there's a risk [companies] run containers that are not secure," Lyman said.

For example, a denial-of-service attack against the OS's kernel could wipe out many applications at the same time, whereas the same kind of attack against a virtual machine running one application may not be as bad.

Containers can also be challenging to monitor, as the resource sharing can make it difficult to isolate exactly where and at what time a security incident occurred.

A startup named Twistlock that is designed to give a better idea of the security profile of containers and make auditing security incidents easier.

"We see that enterprises fear containers because they see them as a black box," CEO Ben Bernstein said.

Twistlock is planning two offerings: an open-source platform for developers to check if their containers are in good shape before deployment, and a paid enterprise product aimed at operations teams.

The open-source platform will focus on so-called "host hardening," or ensuring that a rapidly developed container passes basic security checks. That will include ensuring containers are running a fully patched version of Docker, limiting CPU consumption by containers, making sure SSH is turned off, among others, Bernstein said.

The product for operations teams allows them to do close monitoring and logging of events happening within containers. Containers can move around on machines, making it important that administrators can retrace security events.

The enterprise product includes features such as runtime inspection, logging and auditing, and tools to manage access control. "Today there's no way to actually enforce not only auditing but authorization and authentication," he said.

Twistlock can be used to manage the access of developers to systems as well as log their activity, he said. Twistlock's agent plugs into the control channel of the container for management and access control.

The company, with offices in Tel Aviv and San Francisco, only started in January. Bernstein said it has four customers, including a hedge fund, testing its software.

The market is wide open for Docker-related security tools, Lyman said. The closest competitor to Twistlock might be Red Hat, which is moving fast to make using containers enterprise-ready, he said. Docker is also integrated into the latest version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Twistlock hasn't made a decision on pricing, but it may charge by the maximum number of containers run in parallel or by subscription, Bernstein said.

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