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How to use PacketBeat to inspect Docker container traffic

Docker containers can help secure cloud applications, but malicious traffic can still move to and from those containers. Expert Dejan Lukan explains how to use PacketBeat to detect threats in container traffic.

Most cloud applications today are deployed using containers. One of the most widespread examples of this is Docker....

But while containers can bolster cloud application security, there is still the potential for threats lurking in Docker container traffic. In this article, let's look at how to sniff the Docker container traffic off the network interface in order to feed it to ElasticSearch/Kibana, and later analyze it.

Every cloud application works on top of some protocol that allows the clients to communicate with it in a standardized way; otherwise, the clients and servers wouldn't be able to talk to each other. Cloud applications are running on the same protocols as normal applications, so this is nothing new. There are many application-based protocols, but the most common are HTTP, DNS and SMTP.

One tool that can be used to sniff the traffic coming into and going out of the container is Packetbeat, which listens to the traffic on a specific interface and ships it to Amazon Elasticsearch, where the data is stored. Cloud service providers such as AWS are adding support for Docker containers into their environments, which further proves that analyzing Docker container traffic is an important aspect of container and cloud security practices. Traffic should be inspected and researched further to detect possible threats to applications running inside the containers.

The docker0 network interface

Before setting up Packetbeat, it's important to understand the basics of the docker0 network interface, which Packetbeat uses to listen for the container traffic. A single interface has to be specified in the Packetbeat configuration file so it can listen for incoming and outgoing packets, and send them to Elasticsearch for storage. The packets can then be viewed as graphs in the Kibana Web interface.

When a Docker container starts, a new veth* network interface is created for it. This allows the application running inside the container to communicate with the rest of the world through that interface. It's also important to understand that Docker by default creates a docker0 network interface acting like a network bridge to other veth* interfaces. Therefore, if you can directly access the docker0 network interface, you can sniff the traffic from all veth* interfaces automatically, and get the incoming and outgoing traffic of every Docker container.

It's important to keep an open mind and think about possible defense mechanisms as new technologies emerge.

Because all veth* interfaces are joined to the docker0 network bridge, all the containers can communicate with the host and each other. This allows one service to talk to another running in a different container, but still on the same host. Note that all interfaces belonging to the same bridge are in the same collision domain, so when one interface broadcasts a request, it is sent over the bridge to every other network interface, any of which may come back with a packet response.

A new virtual veth* interface is created for new Docker containers and is then bound to docker0 network interface on the host; in the container this network interface has a standard name of eth0, which has a unique IP address from the bridge's range of available network addresses. Every Docker container can accept an optional --net parameter, which allows for specification of the following options:

none: The container will have its own unconfigured network stack, which allows it to build its own network inside the container.

container:name/id: The container will share the network with another container running on the same host, which is identified with NAME/ID. Note that the containers linked this way are able to communicate with each other though loopback interface.

bridge: This is the default option and it connects the container interface veth* to the bridge docker0 interface.

host: This option allows the container to share the network with the Docker host in order to access all of its network interfaces.

In order for Packetbeat to sniff all the incoming and outgoing packets of every network interface belonging to running containers, it has to be configured with the "--net=host" option for it to have access to the docker0 network interface. This allows the Packetbeat to sniff every network packet coming from the Internet to any Docker container.

Setting up the Packetbeat

If Docker is already installed and ready to use, start Packetbeat in its own container. It can also be installed directly on the host, but with access to Docker it's better to install it directly into the Docker container. This also allows you to automate this part of the infrastructure.

The Docker image for Packetbeat is already written, so it's simple to install it with one command:

# docker run --name packetbeat -d --net=host -d proteansec/packetbeat app:start

This will install Packetbeat into the container, which assumes that Elasticsearch is running on the local host and is accessible through on the port 9200. There are customizable options due to many parameters that can be passed to the container it starts. By default, the configuration file sniffs the following network protocols running on specified ports:

DNS: 53

HTTP: 80, 8080, 8000, 5000, 8002

Memcache: 11211

Mysql: 3306

Postgresql: 5432

Redis: 6379

Thrift: 9090

MongoDB: 27017

After that, connect to the Kibana Web interface and start observing the packets flowing into and leaving Docker containers. There are a lot of graphs that present different container traffic characteristics.


This just scratches the surface of how to detect malicious traffic in containerized cloud applications. Since many cloud service providers are integrating Docker into their architecture, detecting threats perpetuated by attackers is imperative. Battle attacks on dockerized applications by using Packetbeat to log traffic data and analyze it through Kibana, and get one step closer to a proper defense.

Packetbeat can also be used to detect what traffic is being sent over a network. Normally, what is being exchanged between clients and an application -- let alone where the application is running -- is unknown, but if an application is running in a Docker container, the Packetbeat counterpart can sniff the packets in order to analyze them. It's also possible to pipe the traffic to IDS/IPS, which could be beneficial because it would detect known threats inside the container traffic that could have been blocked prior to being delivered to the actual application.

It's important to keep an open mind and think about possible defense mechanisms as new technologies emerge. While attackers are continuously discovering new ways to attack an infrastructure, security professionals must continuously look at options to protect their organizations, and Packetbeat is one of the tools to help do so.

Next Steps

Learn more about the rise of cloud application security vulnerabilities

Find out how to perform cloud-based application analysis

Check out how enterprises can ensure a secure cloud migration

This was last published in March 2016

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