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SE Linux Policy Loading

One of the most significant tasks performed by a SE Linux system is loading the “policy“. The policy is the set of rules which determine what actions are permitted by each domain.

When I first started using SE Linux (in 2001) the kernel knew where to find the policy file and would just read the data from disk as soon as it had mounted the root filesystem. Doing such things is generally considered to be a bad idea, but it was an acceptable mechanism for an early release.

One issue is that the policy needs to be loaded very early in the system boot process, before anything significant happens. In the early days the design of SE Linux had no support for a process to change it’s security context other than by executing another process (similar to the way a non-root process in the Unix access control system can not change it’s UID, GID, or groups). Although later on support for this was added, it was only available as the request of the application (an external process could not change the context of an application without using ptrace – a concept that is too horrible to contemplate) and I am not aware of anyone actually using it. So it’s almost a requirement that there be no more than one active process in the system at the time that policy is loaded, therefore it must be init or something before init that loads the policy.

When it was decided that a user-space program had to instruct the kernel to load the policy we had to determine which program should do it and when it should be done, with the constraint that it had to be done early. The most obvious solution to this problem was to load the policy in the initramfs (or initrd as it was known at the time). One problem with this is that the initramfs is limited in size by kernel compilation options and may need to be recompiled to fit a bigger policy. As an experiment to work around this limitation I had a small policy (which covered the domains for init and the scripts needed for the early stages for system boot) loaded in the initramfs and then later in the boot process (some time after the root filesystem was mounted read/write) the full policy was loaded.

A more serious problem with including policy in the initramfs was that it required rebuilding the initramfs every time the policy changed in a significant way, of course scripts could not determine when a change was significant (neither could most users) so that required needless rebuilds (which wastes time). Even with a small policy for early booting loaded it was still sometimes necessary to change it and update the initramfs. I believe that as a general rule an initramfs should only be rebuilt when a new kernel is installed or when a radical change is made to the boot process (EG moving from single disk to software RAID, changing between AMD and Intel CPU architecture, changing SCSI controller, or anything else that would make the old initramfs not boot the machine). The initramfs that was used to boot my machine is known to actually work, the same can not be said for any new initramfs that I might generate.

But the deciding factor for me was support of machines that did not use an initramfs or initrd (such as the Cobalt machines [1] I own).

To solve these problems I first experimented with a wrapper for init. The idea was to divert the real init to another file name (or use the init= kernel command-line option) and then have the wrapper load the policy before running the real init. I never intended that to be a real solution, just to demonstrate a point. Once I had proven that it was possible to load the policy from user-space before running the real init program it was a small step to patch init to do this.

One slightly tricky aspect of this was in getting the correct security context for init. The policy has always been written to allow a domain transition from kernel_t to init_t when a file of type init_exec_t is executed. The domain kernel_t is applied to all active processes (including kernel threads) at the time the policy is loaded. So init only has to re-exec itself to get the correct context. Fortunately init is designed to do this in the case of an upgrade so this was easy to manage.

Since that time every implementation of SE Linux apart from some embedded systems has used init to load the policy.

The latest trend in Linux distributions seems to be using upstart [2] as a replacement for the old SysV Init. The Fedora developers decided to make nash (a program that comes from the mkinitrd source tree in Fedora and is a utility program for a Red Hat based initramfs) load the SE Linux policy as it would apparently be painful to patch every init to load the policy.

As far as I am aware there are only three different init programs in common use in Linux, the old SysV Init (which used to be used by everyone), Busybox (for rescuing broken systems and for embedded systems), and now Upstart (used by Ubuntu and Red Hat since Fedora 9). Embedded systems need to work differently to other systems in many ways (having the one Busybox program supply the equivalent to most coreutils in one binary is actually a small difference compared to the other things), and modifying the policy load process for embedded systems is trivial compared to all the other SE Linux work needed to get an embedded system working well. There are at least two commonly used initramfs systems (the Debian and Red Hat ones) and probably others. As one init system (SysV Init) already has SE Linux support it seems that only one needs to be patched to have complete coverage. I’ve just written a patch for Upstart (based on the version in Debian/Experimental) and sent it to an Ubuntu developer who’s interested in such things. I also volunteer to patch any other init system that is included in Debian (I am aware of minit and will patch it as soon as it’s description does not include “this package is experimental and not easy to install and use“).

It seems to me that repeating the work which was done for SysV Init and upstart for any other init system will be little effort, at worst no greater than patching an initramfs systems (and I’ll do it). As the number of initramfs systems that would need to be patched would exceed the number of init systems it seems that less work is involved in patching the init systems.

The amount of RAM required by the initramfs is in some situations a limitation on the use of a system, when I recently did some tests on swap performance by reducing the amount of RAM available to a Xen DomU [3] it was the initramfs that limited how small I could go. So adding extra code to the initramfs is not desired. While this will be a small amount of code in some situations (when I patched /sbin/init from Upstart it took an extra 64 bytes of disk space on AMD64), dragging in the libraries can take a moderate amount of space (the fact that an LVM or encrypted root filesystem causes SE Linux libraries to be included in the initramfs is something that I consider to be a bug and plan to fix).

Finally not all boot loaders support an initrd or initramfs. I believe that any decision which prevents using such sweet hardware as Cobalt Qube and Raq machines from being used with SE Linux is a mistake. I have both Qube and Raq machines running fine with Debian SE Linux and plan to continue making sure that Debian will support SE Linux on such hardware (and anything with similar features and limitations).

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