What is a Container Image Quarantine Flag and How to Use it?
In my last post, Implementing Quarantine Pattern for Container Images, I wrote about how to implement a quarantine pattern for container images and how to use policies to prevent the deployment of an image that doesn’t meet certain criteria. In that post, I also mentioned that the quarantine flag (not to be confused with the quarantine pattern 🙂) has certain disadvantages. Since then, Steve Lasker has convinced me that the quarantine flag could be useful in certain scenarios. Many of those scenarios are new and will play a role in the containers’ secure supply chain improvements. Before we look at the scenarios, let’s revisit how the quarantine flag works.
What is the Container Image Quarantine Flag?
As you remember from the previous post, the quarantine flag is set on an image at the time the image is pushed to the registry. The expected workflow is shown in the flow diagram below.
The quarantine flag is set on the image for as long as the Quarantine Processor completes the actions and removes the image from quarantine. We will go into detail about what those actions can be later on in the post. The important thing to remember is that, while in quarantine, the image can be pulled only by the Quarantine Processor. Neither the Publisher nor the Consumer or other actor should be able to pull the image from the registry while in quarantine. The way this is achieved is through special permissions that are assigned to the Quarantine Processor that the other actors do not have. Such permissions can be quarantine pull, and quarantine push, and should allow pulling artifacts from and pushing artifacts to the registry while the image is in quarantine.
Inside the registry, you will have a mix of images that are in quarantine and images that are not. The quarantined ones can only be pulled by the Quarantine Processor, while others can be pulled by anybody who has access to the registry.
Quarantining images is a capability that needs to be implemented in the container registry. Though this is not a standard capability, very few, if any, container registries implement it. Azure Container Registry (ACR) has a quarantine feature that is in preview. As explained in the previous post, the quarantine flag’s limitations are still valid. Mainly, those are:
- If you need to have more than one Quarantine Processor, you need to figure out a way to synchronize their operations. The Quarantine Processor who completes the last action should remove the quarantine flag.
- Using asynchronous processing is hard to manage. The Quarantine Processor manages all the actions and changes the flag. If you have an action that requires asynchronous processing, the Quarantine Processor needs to wait for the action to complete to evaluate the result and change the flag.
- Last, you should not set the quarantine flag once you remove it. If you do that, you may break a lot of functionality and bring down your workloads. The problem is that you do not have the granularity of control over who can and cannot pull the image except for giving them the Quarantine Processor role.
With all that said, though, if you have a single Quarantine Processor, the quarantine flag can be used to prepare the image for use. This can be very helpful in the secure supply chain scenarios for containers, where the CI/CD pipelines do not only push the images to the registries but also produce additional artifacts related to the images. Let’s look at a new build scenario for container images that you may want to implement.
Quarantining Images in the CI/CD Pipeline
The one place where the quarantine flag can prove useful is in the CI/CD pipeline used to produce a compliant image. Let’s assume that for an enterprise, a compliant image is one that is signed, has an SBOM that is also signed, and passed a vulnerability scan with no CRITICAL or HIGH severity vulnerabilities. Here is the example pipeline that you may want to implement.
In this case, the CI/CD agent is the one that plays the Quarantine Processor role and manages the quarantine flag. As you can see, the quarantine flag is automatically set in step 4 when the image is pushed. Steps 5, 6, 7, and 8 are the different actions performed on the image while it is in quarantine. While those actions are not complete, the image should not be pullable by any consumer. For example, some of those actions, like the vulnerability scan, may take a long time to complete. You don’t want a developer to accidentally pull the image before the vulnerability scan is done. If one of those actions fails for any reason, the image should stay in quarantine as non-compliant.
Protecting developers from pulling non-compliant images is just one of the scenarios that a quarantine flag can help with. Another one is avoiding triggers for workflows that are known to fail if the image is not compliant.
Using Events to Trigger Image Workflows
Almost every container registry has an eventing mechanism that allows you to trigger workflows based on events in the registry. Typically, you would use the image push event to trigger the deployment of your image for testing or production. In the above case, if your enterprise has a policy for only deploying images with signatures, SBOMs, and vulnerability reports, your deployment will fail if the deployment is triggered right after step 4. The deployment should be triggered after step 9, which will ensure that all the required actions on the image are performed before the deployment starts.
To avoid the triggering of the deployment, the image push event should be delayed till after step 9. A separate event quarantine push can be emitted in step 4 that can be used to trigger actions related to the quarantine of the image. Note of caution here, though! As we mentioned previously, synchronizing multiple actors who can act on the quarantine flag can be tricky. If the CI/CD pipeline is your Quarantine Processor, you may feel tempted to use the quarantine push event to trigger some other workflow or long-running action. An example of such action can be an asynchronous malware scanning and detonation action, which cannot be run as part of the CI/CD pipeline. The things to be aware of are:
- To be able to pull the image, the malware scanner must also have the Quarantine Processor role assigned. This means that you will have more than one concurrent Quarantine Processor acting on the image.
- The Quarantine Processor that finishes first will remove the quarantine flag or needs to wait for all other Quarantine Processors to complete. This, of course, adds complexity to managing the concurrency and various race conditions.
I would strongly suggest that you have only one Quarantine Processor and use it to manage all activities from it. Else, you can end up with inconsistent states of the images that do not meet your compliance criteria.
When Should Events be Fired?
We already mentioned in the previous section the various events you may need to implement in the registry:
- A quarantine push event is used to trigger workflows that are related to images in quarantine.
- An image push event is the standard event triggered when an image is pushed to the registry.
Here is a flow diagram of how those events should be fired.
This flow offers a logical sequence of events that can be used to trigger relevant workflows. The quarantine workflow should be trigerred by the quarantine push event, while all other workflows should be triggered by the image push event.
If you look at the current implementation of the quarantine feature in ACR, you will notice that both events are fired if the registry quarantine is not enabled (note that the feature is in preview, and functionality may change in the future). I find this behavior confusing. The reason, albeit philosophical, is simple – if the registry doesn’t support quarantine, then it should not send quarantine push events. The behavior should be consistent with any other registry that doesn’t have quarantine capability, and only the image push event should be fired.
What Data Should the Events Contain?
The consumers of the events should be able to make a decision on how to proceed based on the information in the event. The minimum information that needs to be provided in the event should be:
- Event Type: quarantine or push
- Image Tag
- Image SHA
This information will allow the event consumers to subscribe to registry events and properly handle them.
Audit Logging for Quarantined Images
Because we are discussing a secure supply chain for containers, we should also think about traceability. For quarantine-enabled registries, a log message should be added at every point the status of the image is changed. Once again, this is something that needs to be implemented by the registry, and it is not standard behavior. At a minimum, you should log the following information:
- When the image is put into quarantine (initial push)
- Image Tag
- Image SHA
- When the image is removed from quarantine (quarantine flag is removed)
Note: if the image is removed from quarantine, the assumption is that is passed all the quarantine checks.
- Image Tag
- Image SHA
- Actor/Quarantine Processor
Details can be free-form or semi-structured data that can be used by other tools in the enterprise.
One question that remains is whether a message should be logged if the quarantine does not pass after all actions are completed by the Quarantine Processor. It would be good to get the complete picture from the registry log and understand why certain images stay in quarantine forever. On the other side, though, the image doesn’t change its state (it is in quarantine anyway), and the registry needs to provide an API just to log the message. Because the API to remove the quarantine is not a standard OCI registry API, a single API can be provided to both remove the quarantine flag and log the audit message if the quarantine doesn’t pass. ACR quarantine feature uses the custom ACR API to do both.
To summarize, if implemented by a registry, the quarantine flag can be useful in preparing the image before allowing its wider use. The quarantine activities on the image should be done by a single Quarantine Processor to avoid concurrency and inconsistencies in the registry. The quarantine flag should be used only during the initial setup of the image before it is released for wider use. Reverting to a quarantine state after the image is published for wider use can be dangerous due to the lack of granularity for actor permissions. Customized policies should continue to be used for images that are published for wider use.