A VirtualBox VMs based Linux installation
Tags:  site,  first published on Jan 1, 2016 - last modified on Jan 10, 2016

Security decisions should not be made in isolation but should be taken in response to specific threat scenarios as there is no such thing as a completely secure system that is capable of defending against any possible avenue of attack.

For my specific computing needs I am interested in protecting myself against the following threats:

  • My computer being stolen while offline and the data it contains being accessed
  • A web-based or software-based compromise causing a malware installation leading to botnet behavior or information exfiltration

I am not interested in protection against hardware attacks or attacks that require physical access to my running machine (like a two-pronged malware + theft attack), so it should be possible to create a set-up that fulfills these requirements without it being too cumbersome to use in practice.

I have been very interested in Qubes 1 from the perspective of isolating applications in containers and wanted something similar conceptually, but without having to be tied to a specific distribution, and with a more easily configurable firewall.

Since the security threats I am interested in protecting myself against are a lot less severe than the ones Qubes is targeted at, I have decided to go for an environment based on a fairly minimal Debian installation running VirtualBox, on a fully encrypted disk, and with pfSense 2 in control of the container networking. Although likely not as secure as Xen against a determined attacker, this should be good enough for my needs given the scenarios described above.

I decided to run a Debian-stable-based system for reasons of stability and predictability, as much as I enjoy the Arch Linux 3 philosophy for example, I don’t want to have a rolling-release distribution as the basis of my environment, not wanting to risk a bug or update to give me unexpected downtime.

From a compartmentalization perspective, the VirtualBox host, which I call Dom0 inside this blog, although we are not running Xen, contains very few applications and does not connect to the Internet outside the Debian repositories, so its surface of attack should be minimal, as long as proper software hygiene principles are followed.

All the software I need for my day-to-day computing needs is run inside VirtualBox VMs. Every VM and Dom0 can access the internet only through a pfSense VM, configured with several adapters in order to allow different network access permissions for different VMs and network isolation in-between them.

The idea of having all internet access go through pfSense comes from these two blog posts / series 4 5, and installing LUKS with an encrypted /boot comes from this other post instead 6.

These sites together with investigating Qubes have been the main reason why I have decided to set my system up this way, and I thought it would be worth sharing my set-up with others as it has been working well for me for some time.

As you can see in the other posts on this site I have installed the system without using an installer to have complete control on what packages are actually going to be used, I wanted to keep Dom0 as light as possible and so without a desktop environment or other packages that tend to be part of the base installation nowadays.

As much as this site is written from the perspective of using Debian as a Dom0 distribution, you should be able to replicate this set-up in whatever distribution you use, the main differences among distributions, besides the package manager specifics, will likely be whether or not systemd will be available (if it isn’t, you will have to change the few systemd units to rc.d scripts) and if the distribution can be installed via debootstrap or if you’ll need to do something else to get a minimal system up and running with the partitioning scheme that is advocated here.

Either way the advantage of this way of running Linux is that pretty much all applications live in their own VM, so if some day you decide to change Dom0 to a different distribution, it’d be simply a matter of moving the VMs over once you have VirtualBox up and running. Since the only purpose of Dom0 is really to run VirtualBox and X11, what distribution you use should not impact you much on a day-to-day basis.

The posts on this site that are relevant to setting the system up this way are the following:

Debian installation part 1

Debian installation part 2

pfSense installation part 1

pfSense installation part 2

pfSense installation part 3

pfSense configuration part 1

pfSense configuration part 2

this would give you the minimal setup with pfSense firewalling, you can then continue with

Debian installation part 3

Debian installation part 4

for a few extra bits and pieces if needed. Other Debian/system-related posts are more stand-alone and should not be required for the basic set-up, but might have ways to smooth out its day-to-day operation.

Another series of posts on this site that should be looked at together is the following, related to setting up a Xen / Kubernetes cluster on bare metal.

Kubernetes and Xen part 1

Kubernetes and Xen part 2

Kubernetes and Xen part 3

Kubernetes and Xen part 4

Kubernetes and Xen part 5

Kubernetes and Xen part 6

Kubernetes and Xen final

  • Initial release - 2016-01-01
  • Move links here from About - 2016-01-10
  • Added Xen links - 2018-01-14