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Security of user switching support in Passenger
Problem description
TIP: It is strongly recommended that you first read our
link:Architectural%20overview.html[Architectural Overview].
A straightforward implementation of Passenger will spawn Rails applications in
the same user context as Apache itself. On server machines which host multiple
websites for multiple users, this may not be desired. All Rails applications
spawned by Passenger will be able to read and write to all directories that the
web server can. So for example, Joe's Rails applications could read Jane's
Rails application's 'database.yml' or delete her application files. This is
also a problem that typically plagues PHP web hosts.
There are multiple ways to solve this problem. The goal of this document is to
inform the reader about the solutions have we have analyzed, so that
Passenger's security may be peer reviewed.
Analysis of possible solutions
It seems that the only way to solve this problem on Unix, is to run each Rails
application server as its owner's user and group. Passenger can make use of
one of the following methods to implement this:
1. Apache (and thus Passenger) must already be running as root.
2. Using Apache's suEXEC.
3. A setuid root wrapper application must exist, to allow non-root processes
to obtain root privileges (or at least, the privilege to switch user).
4. For each user $X that Passenger will need to switch to, there must exist
a setuid $X wrapper application.
5. Using 'su'.
6. Using 'sudo'.
Let us take a look at each method in detail.
Apache must already be running as root
First, let us take a look at the typical Apache setup, in which Apache is bound
to port 80, and uses the prefork MPM. Binding to any port lower than 1024
requires root privileges, so Apache is typically run as root. This poses an
unacceptable security risk, so Apache's prefork MPM will, upon receiving an
HTTP request, spawn a child process with the privileges of a normal user,
typically 'www-data' or 'nobody'.
See[the documentation for the
prefork MPM] - in particular the ``User'' and ``Group'' directives - for details.
The process which is responsible for spawning child processes (also called the
control process) is run as root. This is also true for[the worker MPM].
Since Passenger has access to the control process, in the typical Apache setup,
Passenger can already launch Rails applications as a different user. But now we
have to ask this question:
If Apache is not running as root, are there still any Passenger users who
want to run Rails applications as different users?
If the answer is yes, then we cannot use this method.
The advantage of this method is that setting up Apache to run as root is
incredibly easy, and requires no new framework to be written. However, testing
this method in automated unit tests will require running the unit test suit as
Using Apache's suEXEC
Apache's[suEXEC] allows one to
run CGI processes as different users. But it seems that suEXEC can only be
used for CGI, and is not a general-purpose mechanism. The[PHP-suEXEC] software allows one to run
PHP applications via suEXEC, but it requires patching suEXEC. If Passenger is
to use suEXEC, then it is likely that we'll have to patch suEXEC. The suEXEC
website strongly discourages patching.
Using a setuid root wrapper application
If we use this method, we must be extremely careful. It must not be possible
for arbitrary processes to gain root privileges. We want Passenger, and only
Passenger, to be able to gain root privileges.
There are multiple ways to implement this security. The first one is to use
a password file, which only Apache and the wrapper can read, through
the use of proper file permissions. The password file must never be world
readable or writable.
It works as follows:
1. Passenger runs the wrapper.
2. Passenger passes the content of the password file to the wrapper, via
an anonymous pipe (or some other anonymous channel, that no other
processes can access).
3. The wrapper checks whether the passed content is the same as what is in
the password file. If it is, then it is proven that whatever application
ran the wrapper has read access to the password file, and thus is authorized
to use the wrapper.
An obvious problem that arises is: how does the wrapper locate its own password
file? We obviously do not want to be able to specify the password filename as
an argument to the wrapper: that would defeat the point of the password file.
The solution is that the filename is to be hardcoded into the binary during
compile time.
Another way to implement security is to use a whitelist of users that are
allowed to use the wrapper. The wrapper can then check whether the calling
process's user is in the whitelist.
Writing a wrapper is not too hard. Furthermore, unit tests do not have to be
run as root, in contrast to the run-Apache-as-root method.
Using a setuid $X wrapper application
A setuid $X wrapper will work in a fashion similar to the setuid root wrapper,
i.e. it will use a password file for authorization.
Passenger does not spawn Rails applications itself, but does so via the spawn
server. This spawn server is also responsible for preloading the Rails
framework and the Rails application code, in order to speed up the spawning
of Rails applications. See the design document of the spawn server for details.
The spawn server never calls `exec()`: doing so will make preloading useless.
If Passenger is to use a setuid $X wrapper, then it must start the spawn
server via the wrapper. The spawn server itself cannot use the wrapper.
However, doing so will make preloading less efficient. Passenger will be forced
to run a spawn server for each user. The different spawn servers do not share
memory with each other, so a lot of memory is wasted compared to the other
Implementing this will also take more work. One has to create a different
wrapper for each user, and to install it.
Using 'su'
The standard Unix 'su' tool asks for the root password. It's a bad idea for
Apache to know the root password, so using 'su' is not a viable alternative.
Using 'sudo'
It might be possible to use the 'sudo' utility. sudo can be configured in
such a way that the user Apache runs as can use sudo without having to enter a
However, Passenger uses an anonymous communication channel (an unnamed Unix
socket) to communicate with the spawn server. sudo seems to close all file
descriptors before executing an application, so Passenger will have to
communicate with the spawn server via a non-anonymous channel, such as a named
Unix socket. Because other processes can access this channel, it can introduce
potential security problems. Note that passing information via program arguments
is not secure: it is possible to view that information with tools like 'ps',
or (on Linux) by reading the file `/proc/$PID/cmdline`.
So it seems 'sudo' is not a viable alternative.
Common security issues
Whatever method Passenger will use, the following security principles must be
- Rails applications must never be run as root.
It might also be worthy to look into suEXEC's security model for inspiration.
Also, the following questions remain:
- Is there a need for a user whitelist/blacklist? That is, is there a need for
the ability to restrict the set of users that Passenger can switch to?
Chosen solution
Running Apache as root and writing a setuid root wrapper are the main
contestants. The former is preferred, because it's easier to implement.
We have had some conversations with people on the IRC channel #rubyonrails.
Among those people, nobody has ever run Apache as non-root. Because of this
we have chosen to implement the <<apache_root,Running Apache as root>>
solution, until a significant number of users request us to implement the
<<setuid_root,setuid root wrapper>> solution.
Please read link:rdoc/index.html[the Ruby API documentation] -- in particular
that of the 'ApplicationSpawner' class -- for implementation details. But to
make a long story short: it will switch to the owner of the file
'config/environment.rb'. User whitelisting/blacklisting is currently not
implemented. We rely on the system administrator to set the correct owner
on that file.
We have also not implemented suEXEC's security model. suEXEC's model is quite
paranoid, and although paranoia is good to a certain extend, it can be in the
way of usability while proving little extra security. We are not entirely
convinced that implementing suEXEC's full security model will provide
significant benefits, but if you have good reasons to think otherwise, please
feel free to discuss it with us.
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