Best Practices: Bind Mounts and chroots


Not overly recently, I was asked to configure a chroot jail by setting up bind mounts instead of copying over the involved binaries. The incident caused a really interesting system failure, a wake-up call to myself, and an ambitious project to create an autochroot command.

The Stage

Setting up a chroot jail requires that all binaries and referenced items will need to be inside the jail location. This creates quite a complicated configuration for something even as simple as creating a chroot jail for bash itself. Not only do we need to create a clean directory structure and duplicate our file system hierarchy including bash and all of its dependencies. The dependencies for bash can be found out with ldd:

ldd /bin/bash (0x00007ffffbdd9000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fdf9fa02000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fdf9f7ae000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fdf9f5aa000) => /lib64/ (0x00007fdf9f202000)
        /lib64/ (0x00007fdf9fc49000)

Once all of the dependencies (and their dependencies) are in place, the proper items to do work in this minimal shell environment also need to be installed. This may include device nodes or system environment files (e.g. /etc/passwd, /etc/shadow). This can make some utilities a pain to install in a chroot by hand (e.g. /usr/bin/ssh, /usr/bin/scp, &c).

Creating a chroot

So, it's hard; that's not a big deal. There are ways to make creating chroot's easier; like bind mounts </sarcasm>:

mount -o bind

This handy feature allows one to take any directory on the system and mount it in another location (like a mountpoint alias). These become extremely useful when setting up a chroot environment for system recovery via a live environment but can be a ticking time bomb if used incorrectly.

Setting up a chroot with bind mounts is incredibly easy. We simply mount all of the required sections from the external filesystem inside the chroot location:

mount -o bind /dev /chroot/dev
mount -o bind /lib /chroot/lib
mount -o bind /usr/lib /chroot/usr/lib

That was extremely simple; far simpler than finding the dependencies and copying them into the chroot environment by hand.

The Problem

Our chroot environment has been setup and running for a while with the bind mounts and everything has continued working thus far. What happens when we no longer need this chroot environment and the person removing it doesn't realise how we've setup this environment? Most likely they'll simply rm -rf /chroot and leave it at that. Since we've used bind mounts and a recursive rm starts at leaves we're going to be in for a pleasant surprise when things in /dev, /lib, and /usr/lib start to go missing.

The Lesson

Don't use bind mounts as a quick solution for setting up chroot environments. Even when everything goes smoothly there may be consequences of particular actions that are not intended.

One potential workaround that comes to mind is setting the bind mounts to read only with the ro mount option. This might not behave quite as expected; in fact the following is what happens when attempting this:

mkdir -p /mnt/bind
mount -o bind,ro /proc /mnt/bind
mount: warning: /mnt/bind seems to be mounted read-write.
/proc on /mnt/bind type none (rw,bind)

Mounting a bind mount does not respect the read only mount option we passed (at least in this particular case).


In general, bind mounts should not be used for chroot environments that are intended to be persistent. It is more work to determine dependencies and copy the chroot components by hand but the result is far more resilient to potential issues that may crop up.

One solution that I've not seen but would be nice is a script that can programmatically do the dependency resolution and copying of the items to be placed in a chroot environment. I've started a GitHub project, autochroot but no work has been started on this yet.


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