The jail mechanism is an implementation of FreeBSD's OS-level virtualisation that allows system administrators to partition a FreeBSD-derived computer system into several independent mini-systems called jails, all sharing the same kernel, with very little overhead. It is implemented through a system call, jail(2), as well as a userland utility, jail(8), plus, depending on the system, a number of other utilities. The functionality was committed into FreeBSD in 1999 by Poul-Henning Kamp after some period of production use by a hosting provider, and was first released with FreeBSD 4.0, thus being supported on a number of FreeBSD descendants, including DragonFly BSD, to this day.
The need for the FreeBSD jails came from a small shared-environment hosting provider's (R&D Associates, Inc.'s owner, Derrick T. Woolworth) desire to establish a clean, clear-cut separation between their own services and those of their customers, mainly for security and ease of administration (jail(8)). Instead of adding a new layer of fine-grained configuration options, the solution adopted by Poul-Henning Kamp was to compartmentalize the system – both its files and its resources – in such a way that only the right people are given access to the right compartments.
Jails were first introduced in FreeBSD version 4.0, that was released on March 14, 2000. Most of the original functionality is supported on DragonFly, and several of the new features have been ported as well.
FreeBSD jails mainly aim at three goals:
Unlike chroot jail, which only restricts processes to a particular view of the filesystem, the FreeBSD jail mechanism restricts the activities of a process in a jail with respect to the rest of the system. In effect, jailed processes are sandboxed. They are bound to specific IP addresses, and a jailed process cannot access divert or routing sockets. Raw sockets are also disabled by default, but may be enabled by setting the
security.jail.allow_raw_sockets sysctl option. Additionally, interaction between processes that are not running in the same jail is restricted.
The jail(8) utility and jail(2) system call first appeared in FreeBSD 4.0. New utilities (for example jls(8) to list jails) and system calls (for example jail_attach(2) to attach a new process to a jail) that render jail management much easier were added in FreeBSD 5.1. The jail subsystem received further significant updates with FreeBSD 7.2, including support for multiple IPv4 and IPv6 addresses per jail and support for binding jails to specific CPUs.
With jail it is possible to create various virtual machines, each having its own set of utilities installed and its own configuration. This makes it a safe way to try out software. For example, it is possible to run different versions or try different configurations of a web server package in different jails. And since the jail is limited to a narrow scope, the effects of a misconfiguration or mistake (even if done by the in-jail superuser) does not jeopardize the rest of the system's integrity. Since nothing has actually been modified outside of the jail, "changes" can be discarded by deleting the jail's copy of the directory tree.
Virtualization is valuable to service providers wishing to offer their users the ability to have custom configurations and yet keep the overall system easy to maintain. For example, two different customers could need different versions of the same software. Without jails, configuring multiple software versions in different directories and ensuring they do not encroach on each other isn't always possible or easy to maintain (e.g. XFree86 is notoriously hard to move around). Jails on the other hand permit software packages to view the system egoistically, as if each package had the machine to itself. Jails can also have their own, independent, jailed superusers.
The FreeBSD jail does not however achieve true virtualization; it does not allow the virtual machines to run different kernel versions than that of the base system. All virtual servers share the same kernel and hence expose the same bugs and potential security holes. There is no support for clustering or process migration, so the host kernel and host computer is still a single point of failure for all virtual servers. It is possible to use jails to safely test new software, but not new kernels.
FreeBSD jails are an effective way to increase the security of a server because of the separation between the jailed environment and the rest of the system (the other jails and the base system).
For example, in a non-jailed system, a web server running as user www that introduces a PHP-include vulnerability would compromise the entire system: the attacker would have the rights of the user www which can typically modify files on the web server, wander about in the directory tree and gather information, such as the full user list, shell and home directory from /etc/passwd.
But if the web server is jailed, the scope of user www is limited to the jail, which in turn can be minimalistic enough not to give away very much. Even if the attacker gained access to the jail's superuser account, they could only modify that jail, and not the whole system.
FreeBSD jails are limited in the following ways: