On God, Turtles, Balloons, and Sandboxes

Wikipedia defines a software sandbox as follows[1]:
In computer security, a sandbox is a security mechanism for separating running programs. It is often used to execute untested or untrusted programs or code, possibly from unverified or untrusted third parties, suppliers, users or websites, without risking harm to the host machine or operating system. A sandbox typically provides a tightly controlled set of resources for guest programs to run in, such as scratch space on disk and memory. Network access, the ability to inspect the host system or read from input devices are usually disallowed or heavily restricted.
In the sense of providing a highly controlled environment, sandboxes may be seen as a specific example of virtualization. Sandboxing is frequently used to test unverified programs that may contain a virus or other malicious code, without allowing the software to harm the host device.
In the physical world, in which children play with sand, there are two common styles of sandbox. The first is constructed from four equally sized wooden planks, each stood on its long edge to form a square box, fastened in the corners, and then filled with sand. The second style is typified by a large green plastic turtle, whose “turtle shell” is the removable top that keeps the rain out, and whose “body” is the hollow bowl that keeps the sand in. Both styles hold sand and allow a child to dig tunnels and build sand-castles, but there is one major difference: When a child tunnels too deeply in the wooden-sided sandbox, the tunnel burrows past the sand and into the soil beneath, while the tunnel depth in the turtle sandbox is strictly limited by the plastic bowl.
Software sandboxes tend to mirror these physical types, in that the dirt often lies beneath. In other words, the sandbox attempts to protect the resources of the system, but a determined programmer will eventually be able to find a way through. The only way that a language runtime as a sandbox can ensure the protection of the underlying resources of a system is for the sandbox itself to completely lack the ability to access those resources. Thus, the purpose of the sandbox is to defend against privilege escalation:
Privilege escalation is the act of exploiting a bug, design flaw or configuration oversight in an operating system or software application to gain elevated access to resources that are normally protected from an application or user. The result is that an application with more privileges than intended by the application developer or system administrator can perform unauthorized actions[2].
As a language runtime designer, it is not sufficient to simply distrust the application code itself; one must distrust the entire graph of code that is reachable by the application code, including all third party libraries, including the language's own published runtime libraries, and including any internal libraries that come with the runtime that are accessible. Or, put another way, if there is a possible attack vector that is reachable, it will eventually be exploited. To truly seal the bottom of the sandbox, it is necessary to disallow resource access through the sandbox altogether, and to enforce that limit via transitive closure.
But what good is a language that lacks the ability to work with disks, file systems, networks, and network services? Such a language would be fairly worthless. Ecstasy addresses this requirement by employing dependency injection, which is a form of inversion of control. To comprehend this, it is important to imagine the container functionality not as a sandbox, but as a balloon, and our own universe as the primordial example.
Like an inflated balloon, the universe defines both a boundary and a set of contents. The boundary is defined not so much by a location, but rather by its impermeability – much like the bottom of the green plastic turtle sandbox. In other words, the content of the universe is fixed[3], and nothing from within can escape, and nothing from without can enter. From the point of view of someone within our actual universe, such as you the reader, there is no boundary to the universe, and the universe is seemingly infinite.
However, from outside of the universe, the balloon barrier is quite observable, as is the creation and destruction of the balloon. Religiously speaking, one plays the part of God when inflating a balloon, with complete control over what goes through that one small – and controllable – opening of the balloon.
It is this opening through which dependency injection of resources can occur. When an application needs access to a file system, for example, it supplicates the future creator of its universe by enumerating its requirement as part of its application definition. These requirements are collected by the compiler and stored in the resulting application binary; any attempt to create a container for the application will require a file system resource to be provided.
And there are two ways in which such a resource can be obtained. First of all, the resource is defined by its interface, so any implementation of that interface, such as a mock file system or a fully emulated – yet completely fake! – file system would do. The second way that the resource can be obtained is for the code that is creating the container to have asked for it in the same manner – to declare a dependency on that resource, and in doing so, force its own unknown creator to provide the filing system as an answer to prayer.
As the saying goes, it’s turtles all the way down. In this case, the outermost container to be created is the root of the container hierarchy, which means that if it requires a filing system, then the language runtime must inject something that provides the interface of a filing system, and that resource that is injected might even be a representation of the actual filing system available to the operating system process that is hosting the language runtime.
And here we have a seemingly obvious contradiction: What is the difference between a language that attempts to protect resources by hiding them at the bottom of a sandbox container, versus a language that provides access to those same resources by injecting them into a container? There are several differences, but let’s start with an obvious truth: Perfection in the design of security is difficult to achieve, and even harder to prove the correctness of, so it is important to understand that this design does not itself guarantee security. Rather, this design seeks to guarantee that only one opening in the balloon – and anything that is injected through that opening – needs to be protected, and the reason is self-evident: Transitive closure. By having nothing naturally occurring in the language runtime that represents an external resource, there is simply no surface area within the language runtime – other than the injected dependencies themselves – that is attackable.
Second, the separation of interface and implementation in the XVM means that the implementation of the resource is not visible within the container into which it is injected. While this pre-introduces a number of language and runtime concepts, the container implementation only makes visible the surface area of the resource injection interface – not of the implementation! This holds true even with introspection, and furthermore the injected resources are required to be either fully immutable, or completely independent services.
Third, this design precludes the possibility of native code within an Ecstasy application; native functionality can only exist outside of the outermost container and thus outside of the language runtime itself, and can only be exposed within the language runtime via a resource injected into a container, subject to all of the constraints already discussed.
Lastly, as has been described already, the functionality that is injected is completely within the control of the injector, allowing the requested functionality to be constrained in any arbitrary manner that the injector deems appropriate.
While it is possible to introduce security bugs via injection, the purpose of this design is to minimize the scope of potential security bugs to the design of the relatively small number of interfaces that will be supported for resource injection, and to the various injectable implementations of those interfaces.


  1. This, in combination with your ideas on modules, really made me think. I will steal it in modified form for my Tailspin language and require every top-level process to explicitly inject its chosen or overridden versions of each module, transitively all the way down.

  2. Glad to hear that the ideas are useful!


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