Privilege Separation Daemon

It is difficult to sufficiently describe security policy at the granularity of command lines. Consequently numerous rootwrap entries effectively grant full root access to anyone permitted to run rootwrap.

This spec proposes a replacement (dubbed “privsep”) that is both more expressive and more limited in what it grants.

Problem Description

OpenStack’s privilege mechanism has evolved over time from simple sudoers file to rootwrap. Recent “rootwrap-daemon” work has greatly increased the performance by avoiding the need to re-exec python. Throughout this history, the basic API idiom has remained executing command lines (almost always) as root.

The rootwrap security policy revolves around whitelisting particular command lines via the configuration of various “filters”. Configuring these correctly are hard, because the filters have limited expressiveness, command line tools typically weren’t expected to be the privilege boundary, and the “context” of the original operation has already been lost at this level.

For example, as shipped nova/rootwrap.d/compute.filters contains:

chown: CommandFilter, chown, root

This allows the invoking user to run chown with any arguments, as root - effectively granting root access to the caller (consider chown $user /etc/shadow). The actual requirement is that nova needs to set the owner on various files produced by VMs to it’s own UID, but this is not something that can be expressed through current rootwrap filters.

Repeatedly going through sudo for each invocation (or similar for rootwrap-daemon) limits the ability to use more restricted privilege mechanisms like Linux capabilities or SELinux, since the calls to sudo effectively reset to “full privileges” mid-way through the call stack.

Generating command lines and parsing textual output from tools is slow and susceptible to inconsistencies across tool versions, since typically this output was not designed as a programmatic API. In Neutron in particular, the command lines are often repeated invocations of trivial ip(8) commands and the overhead is significant compared to what should be cheap AF_NETLINK exchanges.

Why have a privilege mechanism at all?

Otherwise known as “Why don’t we just run agents as root?”

Running with the least privileges possible is a common defensive security design. The assumption is that it might be possible to remotely exploit your service via the publicly exposed network protocols so you want to run the bulk of your code with reduced/no privilege and only gain special privileges when absolutely required. If an attacker gains control of the unprivileged code then they achieve no interesting access, and still have to attempt a second exploit against the unprivileged->privileged boundary before gaining useful powers.

Proposed Policy

This spec proposes a new privilege mechanism that is based around python function calls rather than command lines. The intention is to allow slightly more code into the privileged portion - enough that we now have sufficient “context” to make better security decisions. For example move from “run chown” to “take ownership of VM output file”.

Design priorities, in rough order of importance:

  1. Security * Avoid root as much as possible * Security interface should be easy to audit
  2. Easy to use by developers * Just add a new function with a decorator
  3. Performance * Allows library use rather than parsing output of command line tools

In a similar way to rootwrap-daemon, privsep runs two processes - one with and one without privileges. The privileged process is as minimal as possible, and is written to assume it is possibly under attack by the unprivileged process.

To limit the impact of a potential exploit, this spec proposes the privileged process support the use of Linux capabilities to allow the process to drop broad root (uid=0) superpowers but keep a limited subset. See capabilities(7) manpage for an overview. As an example, the neutron agent might be configured to use privsep as a non-root user but with CAP_NET_ADMIN - this allows just about all kernel network options to be changed, but a compromised process could not read /etc/shadow or load an arbitrary kernel module.

A design limitation from using capabilities is that the privileged process is limited to only those capabilities. Eg: most of Neutron just requires CAP_NET_ADMIN and CAP_SYS_ADMIN (for network namespaces), but there are some operations that require additional permissions. Extrapolating this to absurdity, eventually the privileged process accumulates all required capabilities and effectively becomes all-powerful root again. To combat this, privsep allows a particularly diverse service to instantiate multiple privsep daemons, each with their own set of permissions and privileged code.

Unlike rootwrap-daemon, this spec proposes that the privileged process share fate with the main (unprivileged) process. Specifically: the privileged process should exit when the unprivileged process has exited, and once started no attempt should be made to restart the privileged process if it exits. If the privileged process exits for some reason, it is due to a bug and may be currently under attack - restarting the process gives the attacker another opportunity. If the privileged process exits, the unprivileged process will be unable to perform many functions, and will need to be restarted by the admin - this is essentially similar to an uncaught exception destroying a critical worker thread and leaving an inconsistent state.

Privileged run-time environment

After setup, there are two distinct processes joined with a communication channel: The original process with no special privileges, and a privileged process running as root and/or with extra Linux capabilities.

Project-provided python code running in the privileged process is run with:

  • A trusted oslo.config environment.
  • A trusted python module search path.
  • uid/gid set to the configured values (default: root).
  • Linux capabilities are restricted to the configured set (default: project-provided).
  • stdin and stdout are closed and reopened to /dev/null.
  • oslo.log is configured to log to stderr. The unprivileged code is expected to proxy this to the correct final location.
  • A communication channel is open to the unprivileged caller.

The trusted python module path and oslo.config environment are assumed and must be provided by whatever granted the initial elevated privileges and executed the python interpreter (eg: systemd environment, sudoers configuration, etc). Based on the configuration found, the privileged startup code will configure the rest and abort if any step fails.

Communication with privileged process

The communication channel must be secure. In particular, python “pickle” and many other serialisation libraries are unsuitable because they contain convenience features that can allow unexpected code to be executed during deserialisation. For its simplicity, this spec proposes using json and limiting function argument/return values to the basic JSON datatypes (32-bit integer, 32-bit floats, unicode string, boolean, array, dictionary), with the addition of a bytestring type. In the return direction (privileged to unprivileged), there will also be support for catching and re-raising most exception objects (assumes the class can be found on the unprivileged side and the common .args convention).

The underlying communication channel must not be exposed remotely - Unix sockets or pipes are obvious choices.

Note the communication channel is only between the privileged and unprivileged portions of privsep. Specific serialisation and communication choices are implementation details and can be changed over time without compatibility concerns.

The current prototype offers several alternatives that all produce the same end result: Two processes connected over a local communication channel.

The 2nd option (sudo/rootwrap) is used by default if no specific “start” method has been invoked by the first call to a privsep client stub function. We may want to revisit these choices as the recommended OpenStack secure deployment story evolves.

  1. Basic socketpair() and fork()

    This just creates a pair of anonymous connected Unix sockets, and then forks the new privileged process. The assumption is that the original process was started with at least the required privileges (perhaps from something like systemd), and this “start” function is invoked early in the process startup - prior to the regular unprivileged process dropping all privileges.

    This is designed to mirror the “normal” way that Unix daemons work, and does not use sudo at any point. It requires an additional call inserted in main() and changes to the initial process environment, so poses the most difficult migration.

  2. Use sudo or rootwrap and a Unix socket

    This is intended for use with sudo, rootwrap, or rootwrap-daemon. This is complicated by the fact that sudo closes all open file descriptors except stdin/stdout/stderr, and rootwrap-daemon doesn’t allow long-lived commands, nor streaming data over stdin/stdout.

    This approach opens a new Unix socket on the unprivileged side, and executes a helper command via rootwrap (or sudo) with the path to the Unix socket as an argument. The helper command (now running with root privileges) connects back to this socket then forks and exits, allowing rootwrap-daemon (if used) to see a timely process exit. The unprivileged process accepts the first connection to its listening socket[#unpriv_socket], and continues.

    Note that (unlike rootwrap-daemon) the connection is made from the privileged side to the unprivileged side. At no point is the privileged process exposing an access point where other processes can attempt to connect to it. Simply accepting the first connection to the unprivileged socket is safe because the filesystem permissions only allow the same uid, or root - and a process running as the same uid is already entrusted to start its own privileged daemon via sudo/rootwrap, so this would grant no additional privilege.

    This approach is the default since it requires no change to existing OpenStack deployments (other than an updated rootwrap filter).

Regardless of the approach used to create the communication channel, the privileged process continues acting on requests until the communication channel is closed. At this point, the privileged process exits. Since it is a local IPC channel, there should be no “legitimate” reason for the channel to drop and no attempt is made by either side to recreate the connection.

Developer’s Point of View

From the python developer’s point of view, the goal is to be as simple as adding a regular python function. This spec proposes the following API (using Neutron as an example and final function names subject to change):

# In (eg) neutron_privileged/
import os
from neutron_privileged import privsep

def example_task_that_requires_privileges():
    return os.getuid()

To use this function, unprivileged code just needs to call it.

from neutron_privileged import foo

def bar():
    uid = foo.example_task_that_requires_privileges()
    print "privsep is running as %s" % uid

The magic is in neutron_privileged/ This file needs to invoke some oslo.privsep code at import time to create the decorator used on privileged entrypoints:

# In neutron_privileged/ (once per project)
from oslo_privsep import capabilities as c
from oslo_privsep import priv_context

CFG_SECTION = 'privsep'  # important with multiple privsep daemons
privsep = priv_context.PrivContext(
    __name__, cfg_section=CFG_SECTION,

The decorator internally wraps each function like this (pseudo-code):

# Resulting pseudo code, after decorator is applied
def example_function(*args, **kwargs):
    if in_unprivileged_mode:
        privsep_channel.send((CALL, 'example_function', args, kwargs))
        result =
        if result.raised_exception():
            raise result.exc_class(result.exc_args)
        return result.value
        # privileged_mode
        return _real_example_function(*args, **kwargs)

The unprivileged “client stub” function will serialise any arguments, communicate with the privsep process, and deserialise the return value. Note (by choice) only basic “json-ish” python types are accepted in args or return values - no user-defined objects. If the privileged code raises an exception, it will be caught and re-raised on the unprivileged side (using the .args property).

As described earlier, the privileged daemon will be started when the first stub is called unless the daemon has already been started. Once started, the same channel is reused and the privileged daemon persists until the channel is closed (presumably when the main process exits).

Functions that are not marked with the privsep decorator are not available across the privsep channel. The imported module is otherwise available as normal so module-level constants, etc are available as expected. Note that the unprivileged process is a separate process, so modifying an imported global will have no effect on the privileged code.

The decorator can be set to “privileged mode” even within the unprivileged process, in which case it will pass calls through to the real wrapped function. The function will run without any special privileges and presumably fail. This is rarely expected to be useful outside unittests with mocked environments.

Importing involves loading (and hence trusting) foo/ and foo/bar/ Consequently, this spec recommends projects create a new top-level python package within their regular git repository to hold modules intended to be used via privsep (eg: create neutron.git/neutron_privileged/... as in the examples above), although this is not technically required.


Moving to function-based primitives necessarily leads to more complex python code on the privileged side than with rootwrap, and thus being able to easily debug this python code is critical. The prototype code includes sufficient changes to the neutron testsuite to correctly fail tests and capture any stacktraces triggered from privileged code, and display them as expected in unittest output. Incorporating similar changes will be an important part of projects migrating to privsep.

Interactive debugging (via pdb) of the privileged process, and in particular use of pdb.set_trace() within privileged code requires pdb to have a suitable channel available for interaction. Since stdin and stdout are closed in the privileged process, a helper function will be provided to start pdb on a new Unix socket. A debugging side-channel is unsafe in a production deployment for obvious reasons, and will require the developer to patch in an appropriate call before using pdb.

Code coverage has support for collecting coverage statistics across sub-processes[#coverage_subproc]. To do this, the privileged process will need to call coverage.process_startup() as early as possible (eg: from main()), which enables coverage features if the COVERAGE_PROCESS_START environment variable is set. If the privileged process was invoked through sudo, then the sudo policy must be explicitly configured to allow this environment variable to be propagated.

The specific tox environment details to enable this will be worked out in later changes. It looks possible with a little work and needs explicit support from the initial execution environment, so will not affect the security of a regular deployment.

[1]See Measuring subprocess


Python profile and cProfile modules are intended for collecting statistics on specific function calls, and have no support for collecting statistics across process boundaries. Profiling within either the unprivileged or privileged processes will work as expected, but attempting to profile across the privilege boundary will collect statistics for the local side of the communication channel only.

Because each process can be profiled, it is possible to build a unified profile in future. Doing so is considered out of scope of this spec, however.

Operator’s Point of View

Configuration files will require an additional section:

user = novapriv
group = novapriv

This is the uid, gid and capabilities that the privileged process should run with. By default, the privileged process continues to run with whatever uid/gid the process was originally started with (probably root). The default value for capabilities is provided by the instantiating project code, and may need to be overridden to suit the particular config options/modules in use.

A diverse service like nova may use more than one separate privileged daemon, and each will have their own named config section with different default capabilities.

In the most paranoid setup, each privileged process should run as a dedicated non-root user, separate from the unprivileged user (and separate to any other privsep processes). Neither privileged nor unprivileged user should be able to write to the service configuration files nor anywhere in the python load path.

Alternatives & History

The evolution of rootwrap is simple:

  • “We need to run a few commands as root” -> start using sudo
  • “too many commands and sudoers is becoming unwieldy” -> introduce rootwrap
  • “rootwrap is expensive to reinvoke every time” -> rootwrap-daemon

Run the entire python process with required privileges

Provided the unprivileged<->privileged boundary contains any hole that effectively grants root to the caller, then there is little benefit to having the separation and we may as well enjoy the code simplicity/performance benefits of just running everything in a unified process.

A variation of this is to drop “effective” privileges in a way that can be regained in-process while performing privileged operations (eg: seteuid(2)). This protects against “accidental” abuse of privileges, but won’t grant additional security against a malicious attacker with control over the process.

I think there’s a lot to be said for this point of view. However, given the popularity and importance of OpenStack VMs as a security target, I think we need to continue to strive for better in this area. This spec is an attempt to make an effective security boundary and grant a true additional layer of defence, while being almost as easy to work with as an in-process function call.

Use multiprocessing library

The python multiprocessing library already has client processes talking to worker processes over an IPC channel. We could reuse that as the core communication mechanism (and indeed rootwrap-daemon uses multiprocessing just like this).

This is reasonable, and perhaps something we may yet choose to do. I chose not to use multiprocessing initially because it was written to be a convenient single-user worker pool and not a privilege separation boundary. As can be seen in rootwrap-daemon, serialisation and several “magic proxy” choices need to be worked around to provide security, and I felt such workarounds resulted in fragile and difficult to audit code right at the place you want neither.

Thankfully, we only require a narrow set of features and rewriting the core communication code from scratch is straight forward. The result is significantly less ambiguous code at the security entry point.

Leave stdin/stdout untouched

In particular, this would allow pdb.set_trace() to “just work” without any further action (assuming it is only invoked from a single thread). Although there is no specific concern, having stdin available leaves an additional potential attack vector into the privileged context. Since pdb already has reasonable support for using a different channel for interaction, the choice to close these file descriptors (and reopen on /dev/null) seemed an acceptable security/convenience tradeoff.



Primary author:
Other contributors:


  1. Move existing prototype code into oslo.privsep
  2. Introduce privsep alternatives of large bodies of rootwrap code
  3. Update documentation mentioning rootwrap config/filters
  4. Phase out alternative rootwrap code

Work Items

A working prototype already exists in, although the proposed API has evolved with this spec.

Most of the remaining work involves moving the core mechanism to a new oslo.privsep project, and rebasing the prototype Neutron change onto that common core. From the Neutron experience, the largest piece of migrating a new project to this mechanism will be integrating into the unittest mocked environment and will vary by project.

In the current prototype implementation, the communication channel can only have one outstanding operation at a time and the privileged process is single-threaded. These limitations will be addressed as the code is moved into oslo by adding unique message IDs and using a small thread worker pool on the privileged side.

Once the bulk of the code exists in oslo.privsep we should encourage wide review by the OpenStack Security Group and others.


This mechanism may live alongside rootwrap without interference. The expected migration process is to create alternative privsep versions of routines that require privileges and migrate callers across to the new implementation. Remaining “hard” cases that require unusual permissions or true uid=0 may continue to use sudo/rootwrap indefinitely, and this spec makes no suggestion that we should migrate away from rootwrap entirely.


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