Demons in the Shared Kernel: Abstract Resource Attacks against OS-level Virtualization

Nanzi Yang, Wenbo Shen, Jinku Li, Yutian Yang, Kangjie Lu, Jietao Xiao, Tianyu Zhou, Chenggang Qin, Wang Yu, Jianfeng Ma, Kui Ren

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

5 Scopus citations


Due to its faster start-up speed and better resource utilization efficiency, OS-level virtualization has been widely adopted and has become a fundamental technology in cloud computing. Compared to hardware virtualization, OS-level virtualization leverages the shared-kernel design to achieve high efficiency and runs multiple user-space instances (a.k.a., containers) on the shared kernel. However, in this paper, we reveal a new attack surface that is intrinsic to OS-level virtualization, affecting Linux, FreeBSD, and Fuchsia. The root cause is that the shared-kernel design in OS-level virtualization results containers in sharing thousands of kernel variables and data structures directly and indirectly. Without exploiting any kernel vulnerabilities, a non-privileged container can easily exhaust the shared kernel variables and data structure instances to cause DoS attacks against other containers. Compared with the physical resources, these kernel variables or data structure instances (termed abstract resources) are more prevalent but under-protected. To show the importance of confining abstract resources, we conduct abstract resource attacks that target different aspects of the OS kernel. The results show that attacking abstract resources is highly practical and critical. We further conduct a systematic analysis to identify vulnerable abstract resources in the Linux kernel, which successfully detects 1,010 abstract resources and 501 of them can be repeatedly consumed dynamically. We also conduct the attacking experiments in the self-deployed shared-kernel container environments on the top 4 cloud vendors. The results show that all environments are vulnerable to abstract resource attacks. We conclude that containing abstract resources is hard and give out multiple strategies for mitigating the risks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCCS 2021 - Proceedings of the 2021 ACM SIGSAC Conference on Computer and Communications Security
PublisherAssociation for Computing Machinery
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781450384544
StatePublished - Nov 12 2021
Event27th ACM Annual Conference on Computer and Communication Security, CCS 2021 - Virtual, Online, Korea, Republic of
Duration: Nov 15 2021Nov 19 2021

Publication series

NameProceedings of the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security
ISSN (Print)1543-7221


Conference27th ACM Annual Conference on Computer and Communication Security, CCS 2021
Country/TerritoryKorea, Republic of
CityVirtual, Online

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors would like to thank all reviewers for the insightful comments. Those comments helped to re-shape this paper. This work is partially supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grants No. 62002317, 62032021, and 61772236), by the National Key R&D Program of China (Grant No. 2020AAA0107700), by the Key R&D Program of Shaanxi Province of China (Grant No. 2019ZDLGY12-06), by the Leading Innovative and Entrepreneur Team Introduction Program of Zhejiang (Grant No. 2018R01005), and by the Ant Group Funds for Security Research.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 ACM.


  • abstract resource attack
  • os-level virtualization
  • shared kernel


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