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Abraham Dahunsi Web Developer 🌐 | Technical Writer ✍️| DevOps Enthusiast👨‍💻 | Python🐍 |

Running Docker Containers as Root

4 min read

Running containers with Root privileges – a contentious topic in the Docker community. By default, Docker containers run with limited privileges to mitigate potential risks and enhance security. Despite this, there are scenarios where running containers as root becomes necessary, especially with system-level configurations and certain application requirements. This article will take a look at the complexities surrounding the decision to run Docker containers as root. We will examine the risks and rewards associated with this practice, exploring the security implications, and best practices. Understanding the subtle differences of running Docker containers with root privileges, you can make informed decisions to correctly balance between security and functionalities in your containerized environments.

Why Running as Root Is a Concern

Running Docker containers as the root user might seem like a convenient choice, especially during development or testing. However, doing so introduces significant security risks that can impact both the container and the host system. Let’s take a look why this practice is concerning:

  1. Security Implications:
    • Isolation Breakdown: Containers are designed to provide isolation from the host system. When a container runs as root, it can potentially break this isolation, allowing it to access sensitive files and directories on the host.
    • Privilege Escalation: If an attacker gains control of a container running as root, they can exploit vulnerabilities to escalate privileges. This could lead to unauthorized access to the host system.
    • Malicious Containers: Running as root increases the risk of deploying malicious containers. An attacker could create a seemingly harmless container that, when executed as root, performs harmful actions.
  2. Root Inside a Container vs. Root on the Host:
    • Container Root: When a process runs as root inside a container, it has root privileges within the container’s isolated environment. However, this root user is not the same as the root user on the host machine.
    • Host Root: The root user on the host system has full control over the entire system. If a container runs as root, it can potentially affect the host’s file system, network, and other resources.
  3. Risks Associated with Being Root Within a Container:
    • File System Manipulation: A container running as root can modify or delete critical files within its filesystem, affecting other containers or even the host.
    • Network Attacks: Malicious containers can launch network attacks, affecting other containers or compromising the host’s network.
    • Kernel Exploits: If a container runs as root, any kernel vulnerabilities exploited by the container can impact the entire system.

Running Docker Containers as Root

To run Docker containers as root you need to override the default user settings within the container. Here is how to achieve this:

Step 1: Create a Dockerfile (if one does not exist already)

This file should define the instructions for building your Docker image.

Step 2: Specify the User

Inside the dockerfile, set the USER to root.

FROM ubuntu 16.04
# Set user to root
USER root

Step 3: Build the Docker Image

Using docker build, build the Docker Image

docker build -t <image_name> .

Step 4: Run the container

Once you have successfully built the image. Run a container from it, use the --user option to run the container as root

docker run --user=root <image_name>

If you do decide to use Docker Compose, specify the user option to run the container as root.

    image: <image_name>
    user: root

It is important to stress that running Docker containers as root can introduce security risks as it can grant you elevated privileges within the container. Take precautions like adjusting file permissions or using capabilities to minimize the security vulnerabilities wherever possible.

Best Practices for Running Containers

When it comes to running Docker containers, following best practices ensures both security and efficiency. Let’s explore some essential practices related to user permissions and access:

  1. Use the USER Directive in Dockerfiles:
    • After installing necessary packages or performing system setup steps, switch to a non-root user within your Dockerfile.
    • This practice limits the container’s privileges, reducing the risk of accidental or malicious actions.
    • Example Dockerfile snippet:
    # Base image
    FROM ubuntu:latest
    # Install packages (as root)
    RUN apt-get update && apt-get install -y curl
    # Create a non-root user
    RUN useradd -m myuser
    # Switch to the non-root user
    USER myuser
    # Set the working directory
    WORKDIR /home/myuser
    # ... continue with other instructions ...

    In this example, we create a user named myuser and switch to that user after installing curl.

  2. Avoid Installing sudo in Production Images:
    • Installing sudo inside a container can be a security risk. It grants elevated privileges to users, potentially compromising the container.
    • Alternatives:
      • Use Non-Root Users: As discussed earlier, prefer non-root users for most operations.
      • Grant Specific Permissions: If specific actions require elevated privileges, grant only those permissions without installing sudo.
  3. Ensure Proper Access Permissions:
    • Set appropriate user IDs (uid) and group IDs (gid) for files and directories within the container.
    • Avoid using the default root user (uid 0) for application processes.
    • Properly configure file permissions to prevent unauthorized access.
    • Consider using tools like gosu or su-exec for switching users within containers.
  4. Importance of Configuring User Access:
    • Properly configuring user access ensures that containers operate securely and efficiently.
    • Incorrect permissions can lead to unexpected behavior, security vulnerabilities, or performance issues.
    • Regularly review and audit user access settings to maintain a robust security posture.
  5. Utilize the docker init
    • The docker init command which was originally released in its beta form with Docker 4.18 is a newer feature that helps in creating Docker assets within a project.
      • It allows you to automatically create Dockerfiles, Compose files and .dockerignore files optimized for the specific requirements of your project, all while using a non-root user.
    # Initialize a new Docker project
    $ docker init
    # Dockerfile generated by docker init
    FROM node:14
    WORKDIR /usr/src/app
    COPY package*.json ./
    RUN npm install
    COPY . .
    EXPOSE 8080
    CMD [ "node", "server.js" ]
    # Add a non-root user
    RUN useradd -m myuser
    # Switch to the non-root user
    USER myuser

    In this example, we initialize a new Docker project and add a user named myuser. We then switch to that user for the rest of the Dockerfile instructions. This practice enhances the security of your Docker containers by limiting the privileges of the container’s processes.


    In summary, running Docker containers as the root user poses significant security risks. Let’s recap these risks:

    1. Isolation Breakdown: Containers, while providing isolation, still share the same host kernel. Running as root within a container can compromise this isolation.
    2. Privilege Escalation: If an attacker gains control of a root container, they can exploit vulnerabilities to escalate privileges, potentially affecting the entire system.
    3. Malicious Containers: Deploying malicious containers with root access can have severe consequences.

    To enhance security, follow these best practices:

    • Use Non-Root Users: Switch to a non-root user within your Dockerfile after installing necessary packages.
    • Avoid sudo: Installing sudo in production images can be risky. Instead, grant specific permissions without using sudo.
    • Configure User Access: Set proper user IDs (uid) and group IDs (gid) for files and directories.

    By using these practices, you can strike a balance between functionality and security, ensuring your containerized applications are safer. Remember: secure containers lead to a more robust and reliable software ecosystem.

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Abraham Dahunsi Web Developer 🌐 | Technical Writer ✍️| DevOps Enthusiast👨‍💻 | Python🐍 |
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