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Containers / Kubernetes / Operations / Security

How to Protect Containerized Workloads at Runtime

When done right, holistic approaches to runtime security can bolster the security posture of the entire environment and organization.
May 30th, 2023 4:00am by
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Security is (finally) getting its due in the enterprise. Witness trends such as DevSecOps and the “shift left” approach — meaning to move security as early as possible into development pipelines. But the work is never finished.

Shift left and similar strategies are generally good things. They begin to address a long-overdue problem of treating security as a checkbox or a final step before deployment. But in many cases is still not quite enough for the realities of running modern software applications. The shift left approach might only cover the build and deploy phases, for example, but not apply enough security focus to another critical phase for today’s workloads: runtime.

Runtime security “is about securing the environment in which an application is running and the application itself when the code is being executed,” said Yugal Joshi, partner at the technology research firm Everest Group.

The emerging class of tools and practices for security aim to address three essential security challenges in the age of containerized workloads, Kubernetes, and heavily automated CI/CD pipelines, according to Utpal Bhatt, CMO at Tigera, a security platform company.

First, the speed and automation intrinsic to modern software development pipelines create more threat vectors and opportunities for vulnerabilities to enter a codebase.

Second, the orchestration layer itself, like Kubernetes, also heavily automates the deployment of container images and introduces new risks.

Third, the dynamic nature of running container-based workloads, especially when those workloads are decomposed into hundreds or thousands of microservices that might be talking to one another, creates a very large and ever-changing attack surface.

“The threat vectors increase with these types of applications,” Bhatt told The New Stack. “It’s virtually impossible to eliminate these threats when focusing on just one part of your supply chain.”

Runtime Security: Prevention First

Runtime security might sound like a super-specific requirement or approach, but Bhatt and other experts note that, done right, holistic approaches to runtime security can bolster the security posture of the entire environment and organization.

The overarching need for strong runtime security is to shift from a defensive or detection-focused approach to a prevention-focused approach.

“Given the large attack surface of containerized workloads, it’s impossible to scale a detection-centric approach to security,” said Mikheil Kardenakhishvili, CEO and co-founder of Techseed, one of Tigera’s partners. “Instead, focusing on prevention will help to reduce attacks and subsequently the burden on security teams.”

Instead of a purely detection-based approach, one that often burns out security teams and puts them in the position of being seen as bottlenecks or inhibitors by the rest of the business, the best runtime security tools and practices, according to Bhatt, implement a prevention-first approach backed by traditional detection response.

“Runtime security done right means you’re blocking known attacks rather than waiting for them to happen,” Bhatt said.

Runtime security can provide common services as a platform offering that any application can use for secure execution, noted Joshi, the Everest Group analyst.

“Therefore, things like identity, monitoring, logging, permissions, and control will fall under this runtime security remit,” he said. “In general, it should also provide an incident-response mechanism through prioritization of vulnerability based on criticality and frequency. Runtime security should also ideally secure the environment, storage, network and related libraries that the application needs to use to run.”

A SaaS Solution for Runtime Security

Put in more colloquial terms: Runtime security means securing all of the things commonly found in modern software applications and environments.

The prevention-first, holistic approach is part of the DNA of Calico Open Source, an open source networking and network security project for containers, virtual machines, and native host-based workloads, as well as Calico Cloud and Calico Enterprise, the latter of which is Tigera’s commercial platform built on the open source project it created.

Calico Cloud, a Software as a service (SaaS) solution focused on cloud native apps running in containers with Kubernetes, offers security posture management, robust runtime security for identifying known threats, and threat-hunting capabilities for discovering Zero Day attacks and other previously unknown threats.

These four components of Calico — securing your posture in a Kubernetes-centric way, protecting your environment from known attackers, detecting Zero Day attacks, and incident response/risk mitigation — also speak to four fundamentals for any high-performing runtime security program, according to Bhatt.

Following are the four principles to follow for protecting your runtime.

4 Keys to Doing Runtime Security Right

1. Protect your applications from known threats. This is core to the prevention-first mindset, and focuses on ingesting reliable threat feeds that your tool(s) continuously check against — not just during build and deploy but during runtime as well.
Examples of popular, industry-standards feeds include network addresses of known malicious servers, process file hashes of known malware, and the OWASP Top 10 project.

2. Protect your workloads from vulnerabilities in the containers. In addition to checking against known, active attack methods, runtime security to proactively protect against vulnerabilities in the container itself — and everything that the container needs to run, including the environment.

This isn’t a “check once” type of test, but a virtuous feedback loop that should include enabling security policies that protect workloads from any vulnerabilities, including limiting communication or traffic between services that aren’t known/trusted or when a risk is detected.

3. Detect and protect against container and network anomalous behaviors. This is “the glamorous part” of runtime security, according to Bhatt, because it enables security teams to find and mitigate suspicious behavior in the environment even when it’s not associated with a known threat, such as with Zero Day attacks.

Runtime security tools should be able to detect anomalous behavior in container or network activity and alert security operations teams (via integration with security information and event management, or SIEM, tools) to investigate and mitigate as needed.

4. Assume breaches have occurred; be ready with incident response and risk mitigation. Lastly, even while shifting to a prevention-first, detection-second approach, Bhatt said runtime security done right requires a fundamental assumption that your runtime has already been compromised (and will occur again). This means your organization is ready to act quickly in the event of an incident and minimize the potential fallout in the process.

Zero trust is also considered a best strategy for runtime security tools and policies, according to Bhatt.

The bottom line: The perimeter-centric, detect-and-defend mindset is no longer enough, even if some of its practices are still plenty valid. As Bhatt told The New Stack: “The world of containers and Kubernetes requires a different kind of security posture.”

Runtime security tools and practices exist to address the much larger and more dynamic threat surface created by containerized environments. Bhatt loosely compared today’s software environments to large houses with lots of doors and windows. Legacy security approaches might only focus on the front and back door. Runtime security attempts to protect the whole house.

Bhatt finished the metaphor: “Would you rather have 10 locks on one door, or one lock on every door?”

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TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in: Pragma, The New Stack, Tigera.
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