By Julie Chickillo

With 96% of organizations actively using containers and Kubernetes1, containers have swiftly emerged as the standard method for deploying compute workloads in the cloud-native environment. This proliferation makes understanding the nuances of runtime security and containerization crucial. Runtime security delves deeper than traditional scanning, actively searching for and mitigating threats during operation, identifying unusual behaviors that only manifest while software is running. This preventative measure is critical because containers, by their nature, can be quickly deployed and scaled, potentially spreading any malware or exploits across an entire system if not properly monitored. 


Why Containers Matter

Imagine a traditional IT environment as a vast ocean of code—a monolith that, when something goes awry, might require fixing half the ocean. Now, think of containers as buckets that compartmentalize this ocean into manageable volumes. These containers allow for quicker fixes and patches, significantly reducing downtime and enhancing the agility of deployments. However, like any system, they come with their vulnerabilities, notably container contamination. 

What is Container Contamination?

Container contamination is akin to having a hole in one of your buckets. Initially secure, these containers can become compromised over time due to configuration drifts, misconfigurations, or the emergence of zero-day vulnerabilities. This contamination can undermine the integrity of the container, allowing threats to permeate and potentially spread to other containers, much like water escaping a bucket and threatening to fill others nearby.  

Addressing the Risks of Contamination

Recent cyber incidents, like ransomware attacks in healthcare, highlight the critical need for runtime security. These threats demonstrate that protecting infrastructure from the perimeter is no longer sufficient; security must begin from within. Runtime security offers this ‘inside-out’ protection, ensuring that even if the outer defenses are breached, the core—our crown jewels—remains secure. 

The immediate risks of container contamination include compromised data integrity, privilege escalation, and the potential for widespread system impacts, which could lead to significant operational disruptions. Long-term, the reputational damage from a breach can be devastating, and the longer a vulnerability goes unnoticed, the greater the damage. 

To mitigate these risks, proactive measures are essential. Organizations must adopt Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP) technologies that not only monitor behaviors within containers, but also respond in real-time to any detected threats. This approach is key in environments where containers are frequently spun up and dismantled, making traditional log-based monitoring strategies insufficient. 


Final Thoughts

As we look to the future, innovations in this field need to deliver rapid, on-demand security solutions that do not hinder the agility and performance benefits that containers offer. Through real-time threat detection and automated response mechanisms, runtime security tools can identify any unusual activities that could indicate security risk. This includes employing the principle of least privilege for access management, network segmentation to limit lateral movement, and regular updates and patch management. By embracing these strategies, organizations strengthen their defenses against the unique challenges posed by containerized environments. Overall, runtime security is necessary to maintain the integrity and reliability of containerized applications today. 


1 CNCF Sees Record Kubernetes and Container Adoption in 2021 Cloud Native Survey | CNCF 


2 UnitedHealth: Change Healthcare cyberattack caused $872 million loss (