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Don't Wait to be Breached! Creating Asymmetric Uncertainty of Cloud Applications via Moving Target Defenses


Abstract and Figures

Cloud applications expose besides service endpoints also potential or actual vulnerabilities. Therefore, cloud security engineering efforts focus on hardening the fortress walls but seldom assume that attacks may be successful. At least against zero-day exploits, this approach is often toothless. Other than most security approaches and comparable to biological systems, we accept that defensive "walls" can be breached at several layers. Instead of hardening the "fortress" walls, we propose to make use of an (additional) active and adaptive defense system to attack potential intruders. This immune system is inspired by the concept of a moving target defense. This "immune system" works on two layers. On the infrastructure layer, virtual machines are continuously regenerated (cell regeneration) to wipeout even undetected intruders. On the application level, the vertical and horizontal attack surface is continually modified to circumvent successful replays of formerly scripted attacks. Our evaluations with two common cloud-native reference applications in popular cloud service infrastructures (Amazon Web Services, Google Compute Engine, Azure and OpenStack) show that itis technically possible to limit the time of attackers acting detected down to minutes. Further, more than 98% of an attack surface can be changed automatically and minimized, which makes it hard for intruders to replay formerly successful scripted attacks. So, even if intruders get a foothold in the system, it is hard for them to maintain it. Therefore, our proposals are robust and dynamically change due in response to security threats similar to biological immune systems.
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Don’t Wait to be Breached!
Creating Asymmetric Uncertainty of Cloud Applications via Moving Target Defenses
Kennedy A. Torkura
Hasso Plattner Institute
University of Potsdam, Germany
Christoph Meinel
Hasso Plattner Institute
University of Potsdam, Germany
Nane Kratzke
ubeck University of Applied Sciences
ubeck, Germany
Abstract—Cloud applications expose besides service endpoints
also potential or actual vulnerabilities. Therefore, cloud security
engineering efforts focus on hardening the fortress walls but
seldom assume that attacks may be successful. At least against
zero-day exploits, this approach is often toothless. Other than
most security approaches and comparable to biological systems
we accept that defensive “walls” can be breached at several
layers. Instead of hardening the “fortress” walls we propose
to make use of an (additional) active and adaptive defense
system to attack potential intruders - an immune system that is
inspired by the concept of a moving target defense. This “immune
system” works on two layers. On the infrastructure layer, virtual
machines are continuously regenerated (cell regeneration) to wipe
out even undetected intruders. On the application level, the
vertical and horizontal attack surface is continuously modified to
circumvent successful replays of formerly scripted attacks. Our
evaluations with two common cloud-native reference applications
in popular cloud service infrastructures (Amazon Web Services,
Google Compute Engine, Azure and OpenStack) show that it
is technically possible to limit the time of attackers acting
undetected down to minutes. Further, more than 98% of an
attack surface can be changed automatically and minimized,
which makes it hard for intruders to replay formerly successful
scripted attacks. So, even if intruders get a foothold in the system,
it is hard for them to maintain it. Therefore, our proposals are
robust and dynamically change due in response to security threats
similar to biological immune systems.
Keywordszero-day; exploit; moving target defense; microser-
vice; cloud-native; application; security; asymmetric
This paper extends ideas presented in [1] to improve
cloud application security in the context of unknown zero-
day exploits and reports on ongoing research in this field.
Cloud computing enables a variety of innovative IT-enabled
business and service models, and many research studies and
programs focus on responsibly developing systems to ensure
the security and privacy of users. But compliance with stan-
dards, audits, and checklists, does not automatically equal
TABLE I. Some popular open source elastic platforms
Platform Contributors URL
Kubernetes Cloud Native Found.
Swarm Docker
Mesos Apache
Nomad Hashicorp
security [2] and there is a fundamental issue remaining. Zero-
day vulnerabilities are computer-software vulnerabilities that
are unknown to those who would be interested in mitigating
the vulnerability (including the entity responsible for operating
a cloud application). Until a vulnerability is mitigated, hackers
can exploit it to adversely affect computer programs, data,
additional computers or a network. For zero-day exploits,
the probability that vulnerabilities are patched is zero, so the
exploit should always succeed. Therefore, zero-day attacks are
a severe threat, and we have to draw a scary conclusion: In
principle, attackers can establish footholds in our systems
whenever they want.
This contribution deals with the question how to build “un-
fair” cloud systems that permanently jangle attackers nerves.
We present the latest results from our ongoing research that
applies Moving Target Defense (MTD) principles on cloud
runtime environment and cloud application layer.
Recent research [3], [4] made successfully use of elastic
container platforms (see Table I) and their “designed for fail-
ure” capabilities to realize transferability of cloud-native appli-
cations at runtime. By transferability, the conducted research
means that a cloud-native application can be moved from one
IaaS provider infrastructure to another without any downtime.
These platforms are more and more used as distributed and
elastic runtime environments for cloud-native applications [5]
and can be understood as a kind of cloud infrastructure
unifying middleware [6]. It should be possible to make use of
the same features to immunize cloud applications simply by
moving an application within the same provider infrastructure.
To move anything from A to A makes no sense at first
glance. However, let us be paranoid and aware that with some
probability and at a given time, an attacker will be successful
and compromise at least one virtual machine [7]. A transfer
from A to A would be an effective countermeasure – because
the intruder immediately loses any hijacked machine that is
moved. To understand that, the reader must know that our
approach does not effectively move a machine, it regenerates it.
To move a machine means to launch a compensating machine
unknown to the intruder and to terminate the former (hi-
jacked) machine. Whenever an application is moved its virtual
machines are regenerated. Moreover, this would effectively
eliminate undetected hi-jacked machines.
However, attackers can run automated attacks against re-
generated machines that will incorporate the same set of
vulnerabilities. Therefore, this extended paper shows how
we further can improve the regenerating security measure
Figure 1. The cyber attack life cycle model. Adapted from the cyber attack lifecycle used by the M-Trends reports, see Table II.
by employing MTD at the application layer to change the
attack surface of the application itself to let even automated
and formerly successful attack scripts fail (at least partly).
Primarily, this is achieved by diversifying the application in a
way that its containerized components are dynamically trans-
formed at runtime. The two abstraction layers that compose
microservice applications (application layer and the container
image layers) are dynamically changed by changing the pro-
gramming languages of the applications, and consequently, the
container images are built to conform to the requirements
of the corresponding applications. This combined approach
is enforced at runtime to transform the attack surface of
cloud-native applications, thereby reducing the possibility of
successful attacks.
The remaining of this paper is outlined as follows: Section
II presents a cyber-attack lifecycle model to show where our
approach intends to break the continuous workflow of security
breaches. Section III presents an approach on how MTD can be
applied on cloud runtime environment (infrastructure) level to
regenerate the ”infrastructure cells” of a system continuously,
leveraging the inherent ”designed-for-failure” capabilities of
modern container platforms like Kubernetes, Swarm, or Mesos.
This continuing regeneration will wipe out even undetected
attackers in a system. However, attackers might recognize that
they periodically loose foothold in a hi-jacked system and
might try to automatize their breaches. To overcome this,
Section IV will present how even the attack surface of an
application can be continuously changed and therefore extends
our ideas shown in [1]. We have to consider that our approach
has some limitations. We will discuss these limitations in
Section V and present corresponding related work in Section
VI. We conclude our findings in Section VII.
Figure 1 shows the cyber attack life cycle model, which
is used by the M-Trends reports [8] to report developments
in cyber attacks over the years. According to this model, an
attacker passes through different stages to complete a cyber
attack mission. It starts with initial reconnaissance and com-
promising of access means. Social engineering methodologies
[9] and phishing attacks [10] very often supports these steps.
Intruders aim to establish a foothold near the target. All these
steps are not covered by this paper, because technical solutions
are not able to harden the weakest point in security – the human
being. The following steps of this model are more important
for this paper. According to the life cycle model, the attacker’s
goal is to escalate privileges to get access to the target system.
Because this leaves trails on the system, which could reveal a
security breach, the attacker is motivated to compromise this
forensic trail. According to security reports, attackers make
more and more use of counter-forensic measures to hide their
presence and impair investigations. These reports refer to batch
scripts used to clear event logs and securely delete arbitrary
files. The technique is simple, but the intruders’ knowledge
of forensic artifacts demonstrate increased sophistication, as
well as their intent to persist in the environment. With a
barely detectable foothold, the internal reconnaissance of the
victim’s network is carried out to allow the lateral movement
to the target system. This process is a complex and lengthy
process and may even take weeks. So, infiltrated machines and
application components have worth for attackers and tend to be
used for as long as possible. Table II shows how astonishingly
many days on average an intruder has access to a victim
system. So, basically there is the requirement, that (1) an
undetected attacker should lose access to compromised
nodes of a system as fast as possible. Furthermore there
is the requirement that it (2) must be hard for an attacker
to regain foothold in a system by automating successful
attacks. However, how?
Section III will deal with the (1) requirement showing that
it is possible to regenerate possibly compromised infrastructure
TABLE II. Undetected days on victim systems reported by M-Trends.
External and internal discovery data is reported since 2015. No data could
be found for 2011.
Year External notification Internal discovery Median
2010 - - 416
2011 - - ?
2012 - - 243
2013 - - 229
2014 - - 205
2015 320 56 146
2016 107 80 99
continuously even to get rid of undetected attackers. Section
IV will deal with the (2) requirement and demonstrate that it
is possible to change attack surfaces of applications in a way
that successful attacks cannot be repeated 1:1.
Our recent research dealt [11] mainly with vendor lock-in
and the question how to design cloud-native applications that
are transferable between different cloud service providers. One
aspect that can be learned from this is that there is no common
understanding of what a cloud-native application is. A kind of
software that is “intentionally designed for the cloud” is an
often heard but empty phrase. However, noteworthy similarities
exist between various viewpoints on cloud-native applications
(CNA) [5]. A common approach is to define maturity levels
in order to categorize different kinds of cloud applications
(see Table III). [12] proposed the IDEAL model for CNAs.
A CNA should strive for an isolated state, is distributed,
provides elasticity in a horizontal scaling way, and should be
operated on automated deployment machinery. Finally, its
components should be loosely coupled.
[13] stressed that these properties are addressed by
cloud-specific architecture and infrastructure approaches like
Microservices [14], API-based collaboration, adaption of
cloud-focused patterns [12], and self-service elastic plat-
forms that are used to deploy and operate these microservices
via self-contained deployment units (containers). Table I lists
some of these platforms that provide additional operational
capabilities on top of IaaS infrastructures like automated and
on-demand scaling of application instances, application health
management, dynamic routing and load balancing as well as
aggregation of logs and metrics [5].
A. Regenerating cloud application runtime environments con-
If the reader understands and accepts the commonality that
cloud-native applications are operated (more and more often)
on elastic – often container-based – platforms, it is an obvious
idea to delegate the responsibility to immunize cloud appli-
cations to these platforms. Recent research showed that the
operation of these elastic container platforms and the design of
applications running on top of them should be handled as two
different engineering problems. This point of view often solves
several issues in modern cloud-native application engineering
[4]. Also, that is not just true for the transferability problem
but might be an option to tackle zero-day exploits. These kinds
of platforms could be an essential part of the immune system
of modern cloud-native applications.
Furthermore, self-service elastic platforms are really “bul-
letproofed” [16]. Apache Mesos [17] has been successfully
operated for years by companies like Twitter or Netflix to
consolidate hundreds of thousands of compute nodes. Elastic
container platforms are designed for failure and provide
self-healing capabilities via auto-placement, auto-restart, auto-
replication, and auto-scaling features. They will identify lost
containers (for whatever reasons, e.g., process failure or node
unavailability) and will restart containers and place them on
remaining nodes. These features are necessary to operate
large-scale distributed systems resiliently. However, the same
features can be used intentionally to purge “compromised
[3] demonstrated a software prototype that provides the
control process shown in Figure 2 and Figure 3. This process
relies on an intended state ρand a current state σof a container
cluster. If the intended state differs from the current state
(ρ6=σ), necessary adaption actions are deduced (creation and
attachment/detachment of nodes, creation and termination of
security groups) and processed by an execution pipeline fully
automatically (see Figure 3) to reach the intended state ρ. With
this kind of control process, a cluster can be simply resized by
changing the intended amount of nodes in the cluster. If the
cluster is shrinking and nodes have to be terminated, affected
containers of running applications will be rescheduled to other
available nodes.
The downside of this approach is that this will only
work for Level 2 (cloud resilient) or Level 3 (cloud-native)
applications, (see Table III) which by design, can tolerate
dependent service failures (due to node failures and container
rescheduling). However, for that kind of Level 2 or Level 3
application, we can use the same control process to regenerate
nodes of the container cluster. The reader shall consider a
cluster with σ=Nnodes. If we want to regenerate one node,
we change the intended state to ρ=N+ 1 nodes, which will
add one new node to the cluster (σ0=N+ 1). Moreover,
in a second step, we will decrease the predetermined size of
the cluster to ρ0=Nagain, which affects that one node of
the cluster is terminated (σ00 =N). So, a node is regenerated
simply by adding one node and deleting one node. We could
even regenerate the complete cluster by changing the cluster
size in the following way: σ=N7→ σ0= 2N7→ σ00 =N.
However, this would consume much more resources because
the cluster would double its size for a limited amount of time.
TABLE III. Cloud Application Maturity Model, adapted from OPEN
DATA CENTER ALLIANCE Best Practices [15]
Level Maturity Criteria
3 Cloud - Transferable across infrastructure providers at
native runtime and without interruption of service.
- Automatically scale out/in based on stimuli.
2 Cloud - State is isolated in a minimum of services.
resilient - Unaffected by dependent service failures.
- Infrastructure agnostic.
1 Cloud - Composed of loosely coupled services.
friendly - Services are discoverable by name.
- Components are designed to cloud patterns.
- Compute and storage are separated.
0 Cloud - Operated on virtualized infrastructure.
ready - Instantiateable from image or script.
Figure 2. The control theory inspired execution control loop compares the intended state ρof an elastic container platform with the current state σand
derives necessary scaling actions. These actions are processed by the execution pipeline explained in Figure 3. So, platforms can be operated elastically in a
set of synchronized IaaS infrastructures. Explained in details by [3].
A more resource efficient way would be to regenerate the
cluster in Nsteps: σ=N7→ σ0=N+ 1 7→ σ00 =N7→
... 7→ σ2N1=N+ 1 7→ σ2N=N. The reader is referred
to [4] for more details, especially if the reader is interested in
the multi-cloud capabilities that are not covered by this paper
due to page limitations.
Whenever such regeneration is triggered, all – even unde-
tected – hijacked machines would be terminated and replaced
by other machines, but the applications would be unaffected.
For an attacker, this means losing their foothold in the system
entirely. Imagine this would be done once a day or even more
B. Evaluation
The execution pipeline presented in Figure 3 was evaluated
by operating and transferring two elastic platforms (Swarm
Mode of Docker 17.06 and Kubernetes 1.7). The platforms
operated a reference “sock-shop” application being one of
the most complete reference applications for microservices
architecture research [18]. Table IV lists the machine types
that show a high similarity across different providers [19].
The evaluation of [4] demonstrated that most time is spent
on the IaaS level (creation and termination of nodes and
security groups) and not on the elastic platform level (joining,
TABLE IV. Used machine types and regions for evaluation
Provider Region Master type Worker type
AWS eu-west-1 m4.xlarge m4.large
GCE europe-west1 n1-standard-4 n1-standard-2
Azure europewest Standard A3 Standard A2
OS own datacenter m1.large m1.medium
TABLE V. Durations to regenerate a node (median values)
Provider Creation Secgroup Joining Term. Total
AWS 70 s 1 s 7 s 2 s 81 s
GCE 100 s 8 s 9 s 50 s 175 s
Azure 380 s 17 s 7 s 180 s 600 s
OS 110 s 2 s 7 s 5 s 126 s
draining nodes). The measured differences on infrastructures
provided by different providers are shown in Figure 4. For the
current use case, the reader can ignore the times to create and
delete a security group (because that is a one time action).
However, there will be many node creations and terminations.
According to our execution pipeline shown in Figure 3, a node
creation (σ=N7→ σ0=N+ 1) involves the durations to
create a node (request of the virtual machine including all
installation and configuration steps), to adjust security groups
the cluster is operated in and to join the new node into the
cluster. The shutdown of a node (σ=N7→ σ0=N1)
involves the termination of the node (this includes the plat-
form draining and deregistering of the node and the request to
terminate the virtual machine) and the necessary adjustment
of the security group. So, for a complete regeneration of a
node (σ=N7→ σ0=N+ 1 7→ σ00 =N) we have to add
these runtimes. Table V lists these values per infrastructure.
Even on the “slowest” infrastructure, a node can be regen-
erated in about 10 minutes. In other words, one can regenerate
six nodes every hour or up to 144 nodes a day or a cluster of
432 nodes every 72h (which is the reporting time requested
by the EU General Data Protection Regulation). If the reader
compares a 72h regeneration time of a more than 400 node
cluster (most systems are not so large) with the median value
of 99 days that attackers were present on a victim system in
2016 (see Table II) the benefit of the proposed approach should
become apparent.
MTD techniques introduce methods for improving the
security of protected assets by applying security-by-diversity
tactics and security diversification concepts. While most MTD
techniques do not have formal requirements for diversifying,
i.e., when, how and why to diversify, we employ a cyber risk-
based technique as the primary diversification decision making
factor on the application level. Our motivation for this is to
overcome the high number of vulnerability infection among
container images as shown by several recent researchers[20],
[21]. Therefore, our MTD techniques are designed to improve
this state of insecurity by reducing the window of vulnerability
Figure 3. The execution pipeline processes necessary actions to transfer the current state σinto the intended state ρ. See [4] for more details.
Figure 4. Infrastructure specific runtimes of IaaS operations see [4].
exposure via diversification and commensurate attack surface
A. Cyber Risk Analysis for Microservice Diversification
Larsen et al. [22] assert that a common challenge when
employing diversification strategies is deciding on when,how
and where to diversify. We present a cyber risk procedure to
support decision making or satisfy the above afore-mentioned
requirements. We leverage security metrics to design a cyber
risk-based mechanism, and security metrics are useful tools
for risk assessment. These metrics are computed by deriv-
ing security risks per microservice and after that employing
vulnerability prioritization such that diversification is a func-
tion of microservice risk assessment, i.e., microservices are
diversified in order risk severity. We introduce the notion of
Diversification Index - Dias an expression of the depth of
diversification to be implemented. Didefines if microservices
are to be globally or selectively diversified. Diversifying 2 out
of 4 microservices can be expressed as 2:4.Diis formally
defined as:
md= number of microservices to be diversified,
m= total number of microservices in the application. For
this, we adopt two approaches:
1) Risk Analysis Using CVSS: The Common Vulnerability
Scoring System CVSS [23] is a widely adopted vulnerability
metrics standard. It provides vulnerability base scores, which
express the severity of damage the referred vulnerability might
impact upon a system if exploited. In order to derive the
microservice security state (Security Risk - SR), base scores
of all the vulnerabilities detected can be summed and averaged
as expressed below:
SR =1
where SR is the Security Risk, Viis the CVSS base score
of vulnerability i, and Nis the total number of vulnerabilities
detected in microservice m. However, averaging vulnerabilities
to obtain a single metric to signify a system’s security state is
not optimal. Derived values are not sufficiently representative
of other factors such as the public availability of exploits.
Therefore, we employ another scoring technique called shrink-
age estimator, an approach, which has been popularly used for
online rating systems, e.g., IMDB. The shrinkage estimator
considers the average rating and the number of votes. Hence,
it provides a more precise value for SR, than mere averaging
(Equation 2). Therefore, leveraging the shrinkage estimator,
Figure 5. Typical Microservice Attack Surfaces illustrated with the PetClinic
Application [25]
we can derive a more precise SR as follows:
SR =v
v= the total number of vulnerabilities detected in a
a= minimum number of vulnerabilities to be detected in
a microservice assessment before it added in the risk analysis,
C= the mean severity score of vulnerabilities detected in
a microservice
R= the average severity score of all vulnerabilities infect-
ing a microservice-based application
The Pearson’s correlation coefficient is derived to deter-
mine the dependence relationship between the microservices.
2) Risk Analysis Using OWASP Risk Rating Methodology:
The risk assessment method described in the previous sub-
section is limited to vulnerabilities contained in the Common
Vulnerability Enumeration (CVE) dictionary. CVE is a public
dictionary for publishing known vulnerabilities. These vul-
nerabilities are analyzed and assigned vulnerability security
metrics using the CVSS. However, the CVE contains only a
handful of web application vulnerabilities. Thus we need to
derive another risk assessment methodology for application
layer vulnerabilities. This additional step is necessary since
microservices are essentially web/REST-based applications.
We opt for the OWASP Risk Rating Methodology (ORRM),
which is specifically designed for web applications [24]. This
methodology is based on two core risk components: Likelihood
and Impact formally expressed as:
Risk =Likelihood I mpact (4)
In order to derive these metrics, risk assessors are required to
consider the threat vector, attacks to be used and the impacts
of successful attacks.
B. Dissecting Microservice Attack Surfaces
An important aspect of our security-by-diversity tactics is
to manipulate microservice attack surfaces against possible
attackers through random architectural transformations. There-
fore, the attack surfaces are altered by randomizing the entry
and exit points, which are commonly used for identifying
attack surfaces [26], [27]. A detailed understanding of these
attack surfaces is imperative. Therefore, we categorize mi-
croservice attack surface into: horizontal and vertical attack
surfaces and thereafter employ vulnerability correlation to
identify vulnerability similarities.
1) Horizontal Vulnerability Correlation: The objective of
correlating vulnerabilities horizontally is to analyze the rela-
tionship of vulnerabilities along the horizontal attack surface,
i.e., the parts of the applications users directly interact with.
Figure 5 illustrates the multi-layered attack surface of the
PetClinic application [25]. The application layer horizontal
attack surface consists of the interactions and exit/entry points
from the API gateway to the Vets, Visits and Customer services
application layers. Requests and responses are transversed
along this layer, providing attack opportunities for attackers.
The vulnerability correlation process is similar to security
event correlation techniques [28], though rather than clustering
similar attributes, e.g., malicious IP addresses, we focus on
Common Weakness Enumeration (CWE) Ids. The CWE is a
standardized classification system for application weaknesses
[29]. For example, CWE 89 categorizes all vulnerabilities
related to Improper Neutralization of Special Elements used
in an SQL Command (SQL Injection)[30] and can be mapped
to several CVEs e.g., CVE-2016-6652[31], a SQL injection
vulnerability in Spring Data JPA. If this vulnerability exists in
all PetClinic’s microservices, an attacker could easily conduct
a correlated attack (Attack Paths 2, 4, 5, and 6 of Figure 5)
resulting to correlated failures and eventual application failure
since each microservice works ultimately to the successful
functioning of the PetClinic application.
2) Vertical Vulnerability Correlation: The vertical correla-
tion technique is similar to the horizontal correlation. However,
the interactions across application-image layers are analyzed.
This analysis, therefore, employs security-by-design tactics
across the vertical attack surface. Attack Path 1 illustrates the
exploitation of vulnerability across the vertical attack surface,
and the attacker initiated an attack against the API Gateway
of the PetClinic application, from the application layer to the
image layer. From there, another attack is launched to the
Customers service application layer, across the image layer
and finally, the database is compromised. The same attack
can be repeated against the other microservices if affected
by the vulnerabilities. Hence we need to express such casual
relationships in vulnerability correlation matrices.
V1V2. . . Vn
M11 1 · · · . . .
M21 0 · · · . . .
Mn1 1 · · · . . .
Figure 6. Microservice Vulnerability Correlation Matrix
TABLE VI. Vulnerabilities Detected in PetClinic App-Layer
CWE-16 31 4 2 2
CWE-524 48 17 6 11
CWE-79 0 3 0 1
CWE-425 0 0 20 0
CWE-200 14 6 0 0
CWE-22 0 1 0 0
CWE-933 1 0 0 0
TOTAL 94 31 28 14
Figure 7. Vulnerability scanning results of the Homogeneous PetClinic
Correlated vulnerabilities can be represented with correla-
tion matrices, more specifically referred to as microservices
vulnerability correlation matrix. Therefore, we are influenced
by [32] to define the microservices vulnerability correlation
matrix as a mapping of vulnerabilities to microservice in-
stances in a microservice-based application. The microservices
vulnerability correlation matrix presents a view of vulner-
abilities that concurrently affect multiple microservices. An
example of the microservice correlation matrix is Figure 6,
where the microservices M1and M2will have a correlated
failure under an attack that exploits vulnerability V1since they
share the same vulnerability. However, an attack that exploits
V2can only affect M1, while M2remains unaffected.
C. Evaluation
The PetClinic application was used for our evaluation.
PetClinic is part of the Spring Cloud demo applications and
an established cloud-native reference application used for
demonstration purposes in plenty of industrial and academic
microservice-related use cases [18]. It is, therefore, an excel-
lent reference. However, we were forced to modify the original
PetClinic by adding OpenAPI support. Two experiments have
been conducted: (1) Security risk comparison to verify the
efficiency of our security-by-diversity tactics (2) Attack surface
analysis to evaluate the improvement in the horizontal and
vertical attack surfaces.
In order to perform Security Risk analysis, we leveraged
the Cloud Aware Vulnerability Assessment System (CAVAS)
[33]. The vulnerability scanners integrated into CAVAS (An-
chore and OWASP ZAP), are used for launching vulnerability
scans against PetClinic images and microservice instances
respectively. The detected vulnerabilities were persisted in the
Security Reports and CMDB. First, the diversification index
is derived by computing risks per PetClinic microservices to
TABLE VII. Risk Scores By CWE
CWE-ID OWASP T10 Risk Category Risk Score
CWE-16 A6 - Security Misconfiguration 6.0
CWE-524 Not Listed 3.0
CWE-79 A6 - Security Misconfiguration 6.0
CWE-425 Not Listed 3.0
CWE-200 A3 - Sensitive Data Exposure 7.0
CWE-22 A5 - Broken Access Control 6.0
CWE-933 Not Listed 3.0
obtain the Security Risk -SR. Hence, we inspect the results for
the image vulnerability scan and notice that the vulnerabilities
are too similar (Figure 7). Therefore, SR will be too similar for
meaningful vulnerability prioritization. Since the prioritization
step is imperative for ordering microservices in order of risk
severity, we compute SR using the ORRM (Section IV-A2).
The application layer scan results are retrieved from the
database and analyzed. Scores are assigned to the detected
vulnerabilities based on the risk scores for OWASP Top-10
2017 web vulnerabilities [34]. This is a reasonable approach
given OWASP uses ORRM for deriving the Top-10 web
application vulnerability scores. Also, this affords objective
assignment of scores [35], which are publicly verifiable. Table
VI is the distribution of detected vulnerabilities, while a subset
of the mapping between CWE-Ids and OWASP Top-10 is on
Table VII. From Table VII, it is obvious that the API-Gateway
has the most severe risks followed by the Customer, Vets,
and Visits microservices. Therefore, we apply diversification
based on this result using a diversification index of 3:4, i.e.,
three out of four microservices. The diversified PetClinic is
retested and the results are shown in Figure 8. We observe that
the diversified PetClinic application layer vulnerabilities are
reduced with about 53.3 %. However, the image vulnerabilities
increased especially for the Customer and Vets service, which
are transformed to NodeJS and Ruby respectively. Impor-
tantly, the microservices are no longer homogeneous, and
the possibilities for correlated attacks have been eliminated.
Also, the vulnerabilities in the API Gateway’s image are
drastically reduced from 696 to 6, while the application layer
vulnerabilities reduced from 94 to 24. The reduction is due
to reduced code base size, a distinct characteristic of Python
programming model. The API Gateway is the most important
microservice since it presents the most vulnerable and sensi-
tive attack surface of the application, therefore consider the
security of PetClinic improved, our results mean that out of
94 opportunities for attacking the API Gateway, only 24 were
D. Attack Surface Analysis
Here we analyze the attack surfaces of the homogeneous
and diversified PetClinic versions. We consider direct and
indirect attack surfaces, i.e., vulnerabilities that directly/ in-
directly lead to attacks respectively. From the vulnerability
scan reports, each detected vulnerability is counted as an
attack surface unit (attack opportunities concept [36], [37]).
Figure 9 compares the horizontal app layer attack surface
for both PetClinic apps. Notice a reduced attack surface in
the diversified version, showing better security. Essentially,
the attackability of PetClinic has been reduced. However,
the results for the vertical attack surface are different. This
attack surface portrays attacks transversing the app-image layer
(Figure 5). While there are fewer correlated vulnerabilities in
Figure 8. Vulnerabilities detected in the Diversified PetClinic Application
Figure 9. Horizontal Attack Surface Analysis
the diversified API-Gateway, correlated vulnerabilities in the
Customers and Vets Services have increased. This increment
is due to the corresponding increase of image vulnerabilities.
However, the attackability due to homogeneity is reduced.
We want to emphasize that intruders would observe this
approach as permanently changing attack surfaces increasing
dramatically the effort to breach the system.
The idea presented in Section III of an immune system like
approach to remove undetected intruders in virtual machines
seems to a lot of experts intriguing. Nevertheless, according to
the state of the art, this is currently not done. There might be
reasons for that and open questions the reader should consider.
It is often remarked that the proposal can be compared with
the approach to restart periodically virtual machines that have
memory leak issues and has apparently nothing to do with
security concerns, and could be applied to traditional (non-
cloud) systems as well. So, the approach may have even a
broader focus than presented (which is not a bad thing).
Another question is how to detect “infected” nodes? The
presented approach selects nodes simply at random and will
hit every node at some time. The same could be done using
a round-robin approach, but a round-robin strategy would be
better predictable for an attacker. However, both strategies will
create a lot of additional regenerations, and that leaves room
for improvements. It seems obvious to search for solutions like
presented by [38], [39] to provide some “intelligence” for the
identification of “suspicious” nodes. Such a kind of intelli-
gence would limit regenerations to likely “infected” nodes. In
all cases, it is essential for anomaly detection approaches to
secure the forensic trail [40], [41].
Furthermore, to regenerate nodes periodically or even ran-
domly is likely nontrivial in practice and depends on the state
management requirements for the affected nodes. Therefore,
this paper proposes the approach only as a promising solution
for Level 2 or 3 cloud applications (see Table III) that
are operated on elastic container platforms. These kinds of
applications have desirable state management characteristics.
However, this is a limitation to applications following the
microservice architecture approach.
One could be further concerned about exploits that are
adaptable to bio-inspired systems. Stealthy resident worms
dating back to the old PC era would be an example. This
concern might be especially valid for the often encountered
case of not entirely stateless services when data-as-code de-
pendencies or code-injection vulnerabilities exist. Furthermore,
attackers could shift their focus to the platform itself in order
to disable the regeneration mechanism as a first step. On
the other hand, this could be easily detected – but there
could exist more sophisticated attacks. In order to efficiently
employ these strategy, efficient real-time security monitoring
is required. This could be achieved via two major approaches,
the first requires log aggregation and analysis using either
machine learning practices or other anomaly detection tech-
niques. Otherwise, it is also possible to de]ploy run-time
security monitoring agents in the cloud as recommended by
the NIST Application Container Security Guide [42]. For
example, Falco [43] is an open-source behavioral activity
monitor for detecting anomalous activities in containers. When
deployed, it can trigger the regeneration of new cells when
malicious activities are discovered, however the system has to
automate the management of traffic in a manner that there is
no disruption of activities.
These “immunization” results on the infrastructure level
(see Section III) are impressive but should be combined with
secure coding practices in development pipelines, i.e., employ-
ing with continuous security assessments. We presented how
to automate security in CNA development environments [33].
In these cases, detected web vulnerabilities, e.g., X-Content-
Type-Options Header Missing, can be resolved by appending
appropriate headers, as described and advised in CAVAS
reports. Furthermore, image vulnerabilities can be reduced
by using more secure container images. For example, Alpine
Linux images can replace Ubuntu images as base images due
to smaller footprint, which equals smaller attack surfaces [44].
Of course, this is in line with the current trend of moving
security of microservices leftwards i.e., integrating security
in the development pipelines [45]. Similarly, it is imperative
to implement continuous security monitoring techniques for
deployed containers to detect vulnerabilities discovered after
the deployment of containers in production environments.
This approach provides an efficient possibility of patching
vulnerable images and redeploying the appropriate containers.
However, it adds an overhead for the development pipelines
since it requires additional deployment, management and in-
volvement of security teams/architects.
Our MTD approach presented in Section IV leverages
automatic code generation techniques on the application level
via Swagger CodeGen library. We discovered that over 150
companies/projects use Swagger CodeGen in production [46],
hence the library is mature and capable of transforming large
microservice applications. Nevertheless, in this work a basic
application has been used to introduce the concepts, more com-
plex applications will be tested in the future. There are however
several obstacles to the realization of the proposed MTD, our
techniques can be applied only to OpenAPI compatible mi-
croservices, in reality this implies that the target microservices
have to be developed with compatibility with the OpenAPI
using appropriate frameworks. Also, Swagger Codegen cur-
rently supports about 30 programming languages/frameworks
and this might be a limitation in terms for possible combi-
nations (entropy), although more languages can be added via
customization. There might be a need for manual efforts to
check if the transformation output is functionally compatible
especially for complex applications. A possible challenge for
real deployments might be the need to have development teams
that are proficient in multiple programming languages.
An event-based technique might interestingly enhance our
MTD technique by detecting attacks and triggering commensu-
rate diversification. Conventionally, Web Application Firewalls
(WAF) are deployed in front of web applications to detect and
stop malicious traffic (which might also indicate an ongoing
attack). Hence WAF can be deployed at the API Gateway
and configured with attack thresholds. Once a threshold is
breached, the WAF would trigger the diversification of the
entire microservice application or the endangered microser-
vice. A scheduled diversification routine might support this
methodology. These techniques can comfortably be applied
across cloud platforms using orchestration technologies, e.g.,
To the best of the authors’ knowledge, there are currently
no approaches making intentional use of virtual machine
regeneration for security purposes neither on the infrastructure
nor on the application level. However, the proposed approach is
derived from multi-cloud scenarios and their increased require-
ments on security. Moreover, several promising approaches
are dealing with multi-cloud scenarios. So, all of them could
show equal opportunities. However, often, these approaches
come along with much inherent complexity. A container-based
approach seems to handle this kind of complexity better. There
are some good survey papers on this [47], [48], [49], [50].
MTD via software diversity was first introduced by Forest
et al. [51], since then the concept has been applied at different
abstraction levels. Baudry et al. [52] introduced sosiefication,
a diversification method, which transforms software programs
by generating corresponding replicas through statement dele-
tion, addition or replacement operators. These variants still
exhibit the same functionality but are computationally diverse.
Williams et al. [53] presented Genesis, a VM-based dynamic
diversification system. Genesis employed the Strata VM to
distribute software components such that every version became
unique, hence difficult to attack. A detailed comparison of
automated diversification techniques was presented in [22].
The authors have not found a prior work that applied MTD
concepts to microservices.
There is still no such thing as an impenetrable system.
Once attackers successfully breach a system, there is little to
prevent them from doing arbitrary harm but we can reduce the
available time for the intruder to do this. Moreover, we can
make it harder to replay a successful attack. The presented
approach evolved mainly from transferability research ques-
tions for cloud-native applications. Therefore, it is limited to
microservice-based application architectures but provides some
unusual characteristics for thinking about security in general.
Basically we proposed an “immune system” inspired ap-
proach to tackle zero-day exploits. The founding cells are
continuously regenerated. The primary intent is to reduce the
time for an attacker acting undetected massively. Therefore,
this paper proposed to regenerate virtual machines (the cells
of an IT-system) with a much higher frequency than usual to
purge even undetected intruders. Evaluations on infrastructures
provided by AWS, GCE, Azure, and OpenStack showed that
a virtual machine could be regenerated between two minutes
(AWS) and 10 minutes (Azure). The reader should compare
these times with recent cybersecurity reports. In 2016 an
attacker was undetected on a victim system for about 100
days. The presented approach means for intruders that their
undetected time on victim systems is not measured in months
or days any-more, it would be measured in minutes.
However, regenerated virtual machines will incorporate
the same set of application vulnerabilities. So, a reasonable
approach for intruders would be to script their attacks and
rerun it merely. Although they might lose their foothold within
minutes in a system, they can regain it automatically within
seconds. Therefore, we propose to alter the attack surface of
applications by randomizing the entry and exit points, which
are commonly used for identifying attack surfaces [26], [27].
Based on horizontal and vertical microservice attack surfaces
we demonstrated how to employ a vulnerability correlation
to identify vulnerability similarities on the application layer
and how to adapt the attack surface accordingly. This attack
surface modification would let even automated and formerly
successful attack scripts fail (at least partly). We propose and
demonstrate the feasibility to diversify the application via
dynamic transformations of its containerized components at
runtime. In our presented use cases, we could show that it is
possible to change the attack surface of a reference application
incorporating over 600 container image vulnerabilities and
approximately 80 application vulnerabilities to a surface with
no image vulnerabilities and only 24 application vulnerabilities
anymore. That is a reduction of almost 98%. What is more,
the surface of the application can be changed continuously
resulting that scripted attacks fail with each surface change.
That is a nightmare from an intruders point of view.
The critical discussion in Section V showed that there is a
need for additional evaluation and room for more in-depth re-
search on both levels: continuously infrastructure regeneration
and application surface modifying. However, several reviewers
remarked independently that the basic idea is so “intriguing”,
that it should be considered more consequently.
This research is partly funded by the Cloud TRANSIT
project (13FH021PX4, German Federal Ministry of Education
and Research). The authors would like to thank Bob Duncan
from the University of Aberdeen for his inspiring thoughts on
cloud security challenges.
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Technical Report
Full-text available
The project CloudTRANSIT dealt with the question of how to transfer cloud applications and services at runtime without downtime across cloud infrastructures from different public and private cloud service providers. This technical report summarizes the outcomes of approximately 20 research papers that have been published throughout the project. This report intends to provide an integrated birds-eye view on these-so far-isolated papers. The report references the original papers where ever possible. This project also systematically investigated practitioner initiated cloud application engineering trends of the last three years that provide several promising technical opportunities to avoid cloud vendor lock-in pragmatically. Especially European cloud service providers should track such kind of research because of the technical opportunities to bring cloud application workloads back home to Europe. Such workloads are currently often deployed and inherently bound to U.S. providers. Intensified EU General Data Protection (GDPR) policies, European Cloud Initiatives, or "America First" policies might even make this imperative. So, technical solutions needed for these scenarios that are manageable not only by large but also by small and medium-sized enterprises. Therefore, this project systematically analyzed commonalities of cloud infrastructures and cloud applications. Latest evolutions of cloud standards and cloud engineering trends (like containerization) were used to derive a cloud-native reference model (ClouNS) that guided the development of a pragmatic cloud-transferability solution. This solution intentionally separated the infrastructure-agnostic operation of elastic container platforms (like Swarm, Kubernetes, Mesos/Marathon, etc.) via a multi-cloud-scaler and the platform-agnostic definition of cloud-native applications and services via an unified cloud application modeling language. Both components are independent but complementary. Because of their independence, they can even contribute (although not intended) to other fields like moving target based cloud security-but also distributed ledger technologies (block-chains) made provide options here. The report summarizes the main outcomes and insights of a proof-of-concept solution to realize transferability for cloud applications and services at runtime without downtime.
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