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18th Large Installation System Administration Conference — Abstract

Pp. 195–202 of the Proceedings

Securing the PlanetLab Distributed Testbed: How to Manage Security in an Environment with No Firewalls, with All Users Having Root, and No Direct Physical Control of Any System

Paul Brett, Mic Bowman, Jeff Sedayao, Robert Adams, Rob Knauerhase, and Aaron Klingaman, Intel Corporation


PlanetLab is a globally distributed network of hosts designed to support the deployment and evaluation of planetary scale applications. Support for planetary applications development poses several security challenges to the team maintaining PlanetLab. The planetary nature of PlanetLab mandates nodes distributed across the globe, far from the physical control of the team. The application development requirements force every user to have access to the equivalent of root on each machine, and use of firewalls is discouraged. If an account is compromised, PlanetLab administrators needed a way to track the actions of users on the nodes. If an entire node is compromised, then the administrators need a way to regain control despite the lack of physical access. Encryption was built into PlanetLab to ensure confidentiality and integrity of system downloads. A special reset packet, combined with keeping a boot CD in the machine, enables PlanetLab system administrators to remotely regain control of machines if they are compromised and return to the nodes into a safe known state. The Linux VServer implementation is used to provide root access to PlanetLab users for development purposes while isolating users from each other. A network abstraction layer provides accounting of traffic and allows safe access to raw sockets. These mechanisms have proven very useful in managing PlanetLab. After a compromise of large numbers of PlanetLab hosts, control of the PlanetLab network was regained in 10 minutes. The compromise spawned a review of PlanetLab security, which pointed out a number of flaws. The need for a central site for maintaining PlanetLab was cited as a key weakness. Future work includes distributing the functions of PlanetLab's central administrative database and improving integrity checks.

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