AppArmor vs. SELinux: What’s The Difference?

Mandatory Access Control (MAC) systems such as AppArmor and SELinux are essential tools for system administrators. They provide the ability to manage access to resources and control systems within the Linux kernel. While they share a common goal, how they operate and offer features vary significantly. This article delves into the key differences between AppArmor and SELinux, highlighting their unique features and capabilities.

A Closer Look at AppArmor and SELinux

AppArmor and SELinux are security tools designed to isolate applications and limit the potential damage if a part of the system is compromised.

AppArmor operates on the principle of granting access first, then applying restrictions. On the other hand, SELinux takes a more conservative approach, restricting access to all applications by default and only granting access to users who present the appropriate credentials.

While they share many features, there are notable differences between the two systems:

Access Control MechanismUses security profiles based on pathsUses security policies based on file labels
Distribution CompatibilityAvailable for any distribution, but primarily used on SUSE and UbuntuAvailable for any distribution but mainly used on RHEL/Fedora systems
Ease of Learning and ManagementKnown for its shorter learning curve and ease of setup and administrationKnown for its complexity and less intuitive nature
Independent VerificationAllows for independent verificationDoes not allow for independent verification
Configuration ComplexityDoes not require complex configurationRequires complex configuration
Support for MLS/MCSDoes not support Multi-Level Security (MLS) or Multi-Category Security (MCS)Supports Multi-Level Security (MLS) and Multi-Category Security (MCS)
System Performance ImpactDoes not impact system performance, but increases startup timeDoes not impact system performance
Flexibility of Policy RulesPolicy rules lack flexibilityPolicy rules are flexible
Level of Control Over AccessOffers a medium level of controlProvides a high level of control
Default Mode of OperationOperates on a principle of granting access first, then applying restrictionsOperates on a principle of restricting access by default and only granting access to users who present the appropriate credentials
Main ComponentsServer Analyzer, Profile Generator, OptimizerLabeling, Type Enforcement, Access Vector Cache (AVC)

Delving into AppArmor

AppArmor is a practical Linux security module that has been a default inclusion with Ubuntu since version 7.10. This module allows developers to restrict applications from accessing specific files, thereby protecting potentially vulnerable applications and software that are easy to exploit, such as web servers.

AppArmor uses security profiles to determine the permissions required by an application. These profiles are text files loaded into the kernel, typically during boot. AppArmor enforces two main types of rules in profiles:

  • Path Entries: These determine which files an application can access.
  • Capability Entries: These rules specify the privileges a confined process is allowed to use.

AppArmor operates in two modes:

  • Complain Mode: In this mode, the system reports attempts to violate policy but does not enforce rules.
  • Enforce Mode: In this mode, the system inspects the new profile and stops all violations.

AppArmor is composed of several components:

  • Server Analyzer: This component scans ports and automatically locates applications listening to them. It also identifies applications without profiles and those that AppArmor needs to confine.
  • Profile Generator: This static process analyzes applications and creates a profile template.
  • Optimizer: This component logs and gathers events into the profile of normal behavior.

To check the status of the AppArmor module, you can run the following command:

sudo apparmor_status

This command will show if AppArmor is active on the system, list the installed profiles, and show the active confined processes.

The Strengths of AppArmor

  • Simplicity and short learning curve
  • Less complex than SELinux, making it easier to set up and manage
  • Works directly with profiles (text files) for access control, making file operations more straightforward
  • The path-based implementation allows it to protect any file on the system
  • Adaptable to

changes and enforces preferred application behavior through its learning mode

The Weaknesses of AppArmor

  • More than one path can refer to the same application, leading to multiple profiles for a single app, which can be a security concern.
  • Simplicity, while a strength, is also a weakness as it is considered less secure
  • Lacks Multi-Level Security (MLS) and Multi-Category Security (MCS), making it less effective in environments that require MLS
  • Policy loading takes longer, leading to slower system startup.

An In-Depth Look at SELinux

SELinux, or Security Enhanced Linux, is a robust Linux security module that is integrated into the Linux kernel. It gives system administrators high control over access to system resources.

SELinux operates on the principle of “deny by default.” It initially restricts access to all applications and only grants access to users with appropriate credentials. This conservative approach to access control sets it apart from AppArmor.

One of the key features of SELinux is its use of labels for files, processes, and ports in the system. These labels are crucial for implementing targeted policies. Another important concept in SELinux is type enforcement, which helps determine whether a process with a particular label type can access a file with another label type.

SELinux also utilizes a feature known as the Access Vector Cache (AVC) to speed up the access control process. The AVC caches previous decisions, such as allowing or restricting access. For example, if an application tries to access a file, SELinux checks against the AVC and permits or denies access based on the previous decision.

RHEL, CentOS, and Fedora have SELinux installed or available by default. To find out the current status of SELinux, execute the following command:

sudo sestatus

This command will show if SELinux is active on the system, list the installed profiles, and show the active confined processes.

The Advantages of SELinux

  • Considered a more secure option for Linux security due to its robust policies
  • Labeling and type enforcement allow for more robust and in-depth access control
  • Being MLS-compatible offers better access features
  • Separates files from each other and the host by default and maintains the separation
  • Caches access decisions, improving efficiency

The Drawbacks of SELinux

  • Quite challenging to learn, set up, and manage
  • Not user-friendly, inexperienced admins may face a steep learning curve
  • Often denies an action if files are incorrectly labeled

Wrapping Up

After going through this article, you should clearly understand the strengths and weaknesses of both SELinux and AppArmor. Each system offers a unique approach to Linux security, safeguarding machines against unauthorized access and modification of system resources.

While both systems are designed to enhance security, your choice between the two will depend on your specific needs and the environment in which you’re operating. AppArmor might be the way to go if you’re looking for simplicity and ease of use. However, SELinux could be better if you require a more robust and comprehensive security solution.

Remember, security is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s about finding the right tools and strategies that fit your specific needs and environment. And while tools like AppArmor and SELinux can significantly enhance your security posture, they are just one piece of the puzzle. Other measures, such as implementing immutable backups to combat ransomware or adopting different procedures for database protection, can also play a crucial role in your overall security strategy.