15/Independent Minister of Privilege for Flux: The Security IMP

This specification describes Flux Security IMP, a privileged service used by multi-user Flux instances to launch, monitor, and control processes running as users other than the instance owner.




Mark A. Grondona <mgrondona@llnl.gov>




The key words “MUST”, “MUST NOT”, “REQUIRED”, “SHALL”, “SHALL NOT”, “SHOULD”, “SHOULD NOT”, “RECOMMENDED”, “MAY”, and “OPTIONAL” in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119.


In the traditional resource management model, a monolithic resource manager runs with the credentials of a privileged user, typically using long-running daemons with elevated privileges on compute resources. These daemons allow the resource manager to complete necessary privileged work, such as modification of containers, system preparation (such as prolog/epilog scripts), and most importantly allow the transition of credentials to that of the requesting user, so that jobs may be successfully executed in a multi-user environment.

Drawbacks to this monolithic approach include:

  • Total amount of code running with privilege is increased above what is strictly necessary

  • Testing of privileged code is more difficult

  • Security patches and updates require a new release of entire project

In the Flux model, however, an instance runs at most with the credentials of the instance owner (a normal, unprivileged user), including all processes running on computational resources of the instance. This design works well for single-user instances of Flux, but multi-user capable instances require some mechanism to perform privileged operations, most notably when executing work on behalf of a non instance owner (a guest).

In the Flux system, this privilege - along with all related operations - is contained within a single service, the Independent Minister of Privilege (IMP), which is responsible for allowing instance owners to run work on behalf of a guest when the guest user has authorized the instance to do so.

By placing all code running with elevated privilege into a single service, the following benefits are realized:

  • Code running under privilege is reduced to the logical minimum

  • The privileged service can be tested separately from other Flux components

  • The privileged software release cycle is decoupled from core Flux code, allowing updates to be applied out of band.

  • The privileged service is completely under sysadmin control, while still allowing users to run test or private versions of Flux even in multi-user mode.

  • More fine grained administrative control of privilege. For example, simple filesystem access controls may be used to limit which users are allowed to run multi-user without preventing these users from launching Flux instances altogether.

  • Arbitrary users can run multi-user instances of Flux, thus allowing users to share their jobs

User Roles

For the purposes of this RFC there are four main user roles:

owner, instance owner, or resource owner

The user under which a Flux instance is running, not privileged. This user is considered the owner of all resources to which the Flux instance is running.

system owner

The user under which the system instance of Flux is running. The default owner of all resources on the system.

guest user, or guest

A user wishing to use services or run work in a Flux instance when they are not the instance owner.

superuser, or root

A user with access to perform required privileged operations during multi-user execution, such as gaining credentials of other users, system setup or initialization, container manipulation, etc. Typically the root user.

Implementation Requirements

The Flux Security IMP SHALL be implemented with the following overall design

  • The IMP SHALL be an independent Flux Framework project, with the ability to be tested standalone

  • The IMP SHALL be implemented as an executable, flux-imp, which MAY be installed with setuid permissions in cases where multi-user Flux is required.

  • The IMP SHALL accept and process data using stdin, to avoid putting sensitive data on the command line or environment.

Implementation of the IMP as a separately installed, setuid executable allows sysadmin control over where and how the IMP is enabled. If the flux-imp executable is not installed, or installed without setuid bits enabled, then multi-user Flux is simply not available, though single user instances of Flux will still operate. The file permissions, access controls, or SELinux policy of flux-imp may also be manipulated to restrict access to a user or group of users. For instance, a site may configure permissions such that only a flux user has execute permissions, thus allowing a multi-user system instance running as flux, but disallowing sub-instance jobs access to multi-user capabilities.

Overall Design

When a guest makes a request for a job to a multi-user instance of Flux, the guest will create a message with information such as the job specification, a time-to-live, a uid, and an authorized resource owner, and then uses IMP client API to sign all fields of the message. The signed message becomes the user request token J which authorizes the resource owner to execute the request at some point on behalf of the guest.

This signed request then becomes part of the user’s job. When the job is scheduled by the instance, the owner assigns a resource set R to the job, and writes that information to the job record, marking the job as runnable.

The execution system within the instance then determines the set of resources on which an invocation of the IMP is required and creates a local resource set Rlocal, which is necessarily disjoint for each IMP, and acts as a representation of the local resources to which the IMP should grant access to the guest user.

Rlocal and J, along with other optional fields, are then concatenated and become input to the Flux IMP executable. The IMP verifies through local configuration and state that the instance owner has authority to grant access to resources in the local resource set, and verifies via J that the guest has authorized the resources owner to execute specific work on their behalf.

The IMP verifies the integrity and authenticity of J using cryptographic methods provided by plugins. Once the verification step is complete, the privileged IMP will invoke system configured plugins for setup and containment, then change credentials to the guest user, and finally execute the processes of the job as specified in J.

In most cases, the IMP will execute a job shell on behalf of the user, passing the verified J as input to the shell. The shell itself is specified either by the user in J or by IMP configuration, but should not be provided or modified by the instance owner. The shell re-verifies integrity and authenticity of J before proceeding, then interprets the jobspec contained in J to determine the set of tasks to invoke on the current resource set.


It may be noted that the user’s request J is verified twice when a job shell is invoked, and this is by design. The IMP verifies J to avoid passing tainted input to the job shell, which runs as the guest user. The shell re-verifies J because it has no guarantee that the caller has already done this verification, or that J has not been changed since any past verification.

Figure 1 below summarizes the overall role of the IMP in a multi-user Flux instance.

Depiction of multi-user Flux IMP overall design. Here user ``bob`` is the instance owner, and ``alice`` is a guest.

Depiction of multi-user Flux IMP overall design. Here user bob is the instance owner, and alice is a guest.

Input to the IMP

The input to the IMP includes the following fields

  • Local assigned resource set (Rlocal)

  • Options supplied by resource owner

  • User Request (J) (described below)

Where J is the User Request or reference to such a request, which SHALL contain

  • Jobspec as per 14/Canonical Job Specification

  • Options supplied by guest user

  • Guest user uid or username

  • Job shell path

  • UUID

  • Timestamp and TTL

  • Intended recipient (instance owner)

  • Allowed resource set

  • User signature (of above fields)

Where above fields have the following specific meanings and requirements

  • Local assigned resource set is the list of local resources assigned to this job by the resource owner. It will be used by IMP plugins to implement containment.

  • Timestamp and TTL signifies that the request in question SHALL only be valid between Timestamp and Timestamp+TTL. This puts a time horizon on usage of J

  • UUID is a globally unique identifier

  • Intended recipient is set to the instance owner that is the target of the request. This ensures that the user’s request cannot be used by another arbitrary user.

  • The user signature signs all fields of J

  • The job shell path is an absolute path to a job shell which will act as interpreter of the Jobspec in J. If missing, a default will be supplied by IMP configuration.

IMP Internal Operation

Privilege Separation

When the IMP is invoked and has setuid privileges, the process MAY use privilege separation to limit the impact of programming errors or bugs in libraries. For more information on privilege separation, see the paper on privilege separated OpenSSH: “Preventing Privilege Escalation” [1].

Request Verification

Once the privileged IMP process has read its input it SHALL perform the following verification steps:

  1. Verify integrity and authenticity of J

  2. Verify recipient field in J matches current real UID of the IMP (i.e. the resource owner)

  3. Verify TTL on J

The IMP process MAY also perform the following OPTIONAL verification steps:

  • Verify that the current real UID of the IMP process is the “owner” of the current container.

  • Verify that the intersection of the assigned resource set and the current container is not empty.

Container ownership verification is considered optional because all non-system-owner processes in Flux MUST be started by the IMP and thus will be placed in inescapable containers. It thus follows that a user running the IMP has ownership of the resources on which the IMP has been invoked. This strategy is described further in the “Resource ownership verification” section below.

Determining the intersection of the assigned resource with the current resource set is considered optional because this check will be a side effect of sub-container creation. If, after all container creation plugins have been run, the container for the job is empty, the IMP will abort with an error. Therefore an initial verification check may be redundant.

Resource ownership verification

Resources in Flux are initially owned by the system owner, i.e. the user which runs the system instance. Typically, this would be some special system user, e.g. flux. The system owner is the only trusted user and resource ownership of requests from this user SHALL NOT require verification.

In order to verify resource ownership for non-system users, the following requirements should be met:

  • The IMP SHALL support some sort of containment strategy, implemented via plugins for maximum flexibility.

  • The IMP’s container mechanism MUST support, at a minimum, process tracking functionality capable of creating inescapable process groups.

  • The IMP’s container strategy MUST be hierarchical, such that containers for jobs within an instance are created as sub-containers of container of the parent.

With the following requirements met, the IMP may verify resource ownership by ensuring that the current container includes the resources in the assigned resource set, and that the invoking user is owner of the current container.

Revoking resource ownership

Resource ownership MUST be revokable. The result of a revocation SHALL include termination of all processes currently running in the container associated with the revoked resource grant. A revocation is recursive, and removes the container and all child containers, including ancillary data.

IMP post-verification execution

After verification of input is complete, the flux-imp executable invokes required job setup code as the superuser. This setup code SHALL be implemented as system-installed and verified plugins, and MAY include such things as

  • Execution of some sort of job prolog

  • modification of system settings

  • creation of directories

  • state cleanup

  • optional behavior

Once privileged setup is complete, the security IMP SHALL generate a log message or other audit trail for the individual request. The IMP then SHALL proceed to obtain credentials of the guest user and finally exec(2) the job shell path specified in J, or a IMP configuration default. After the call to exec(2) the security IMP is replaced by the guest user process, and is no longer active.

Other IMP operational requirements

A multi-user instance of Flux not only requires the ability to execute work as a guest user, but it must also have privilege to monitor and kill these processes as part of normal resource manager operation.

Signaling and terminating jobs in a multi-user instance

For terminating and signaling processes the IMP SHALL include a kill subcommand which, using the process tracking functionality, SHALL allow an instance owner to signal or terminate any guest processes including ancestors thereof that were started by the owner’s instance.

IMP configuration

On execution, flux-imp SHALL read a site configuration file which MAY contain site-specific information such as paths to trusted executables, plugin locations, certificate authority information etc. The IMP SHALL check for correct permissions on all configuration files to reduce the risk of tampering.

Specific Defenses

This section describes some attacks and their specific defenses. It is still a work in progress.

  • Executing arbitrary process as another user: The entirety of a user job request, including executables, arguments, working directory, environment variables, etc, has an integrity guarantee, therefore a request cannot be forged, even by the instance owner.

  • Replay attacks, where a user’s job request is run again without their express permission, or a request is taken to another system and executed without authority. The intended recipient field of the user request protects against users other than the instance owner using the guest request, and a fixed time-to-live prevents the request from being used indefinitely. Finally, flux-imp logs all invocations, thereby allowing replays to be detected and audited.