Chrome web sandbox on XenClient

There’s lots of software out there that sets up a “sandbox” to protect your system from untrusted code. The examples that come to mind are Chrome and Adobe for the flash sandbox. The strength of these sandboxes are an interesting point of discussion. Strength is always related to the mechanism and if you’re running on Windows the separation guarantees you get are only as strong as the separation Windows affords to processes. If this is a strong enough guarantee for you then you probably won’t find this post very useful. If you’re interested in using XenClient and the Xen hypervisor to get yourself the strongest separation that I can think of, then read on!

Use Case

XenClient allows you to run any number of operating systems on a single piece of hardware. In my case this is a laptop. I’ve got two VMs: my work desktop (Windows 7) for email and other work stuff and my development system that runs Debian testing (Wheezy as of now).

Long story short, I don’t trust some of the crap that’s out on the web to run on either of these systems. I’d like to confine my web browsing to a separate VM to protect my company’s data and my development system. This article will show you how to build a bare bones Linux VM that runs a web browser (Chromium) and little more.


You’ll need a linux VM to host your web browser. I like Debian Wheezy since the PV xen drivers for network and disk work out of the box on XenClient (2.1). There’s a small bug that required you use LVM for your rootfs but I typically do that anyways so no worries there.

Typically I do an install omitting even the “standard system tools” to keep things as small as possible. This results in a root file system that’s < 1G. All you need to do then is install the web browser (chromium), rungetty, and the xinint package. Next is a bit of scripting and some minor configuration changes.


When this VM boots we want the web browser to launch and run full screen. We don’t want a window manager or anything. Just the browser.

When Linux boots, the init process parses the /etc/inittab file. One of the things specified in inittab are processes that init starts like getty. Typically inittab starts getty‘s on 6 ttys but we want it to start chrome for us. We can do this by having init execute rungetty (read the man page!) which we can then have execute arbitrary commands for us:

# /sbin/getty invocations for the runlevels.
# The "id" field MUST be the same as the last
# characters of the device (after "tty").
# Format:
#  :::
# Note that on most Debian systems tty7 is used by the X Window System,
# so if you want to add more getty's go ahead but skip tty7 if you run X.
1:2345:respawn:/sbin/getty 38400 tty1
2:23:respawn:/sbin/getty 38400 tty2
3:23:respawn:/sbin/getty 38400 tty3
4:23:respawn:/sbin/getty 38400 tty4
5:23:respawn:/sbin/getty 38400 tty5
6:23:respawn:/sbin/rungetty tty6 -u root /usr/sbin/

Another configuration change you’ll have to make is in /etc/X11/Xwrapper.config. The default configuration in this file prevents users from starting X if their controlling TTY isn’t a virtual console. Since we’re kicking off chromium directly we need to relax this restriction:


chromium-restore script

Notice that we have rungetty execute a script for us and it does so as the root user. We don’t want chromium running as root but we need to do some set-up before we kick off chromium as an unprivileged user. Here’s the script:


if [ ! -x "${LAUNCH}" ]; then
	echo " not executable: ${LAUNCH}"
	exit 1

rsync -avh --delete ${HOMESAFE}/ ${HOMEDIR}/ > /dev/null 2>&1
chown -R ${USER}:${USER} ${HOMEDIR}

/bin/su - -- ${USER} -l -c "STARTUP="${CMD}" startx" < /dev/null
shutdown -Ph now

The first part of this script is setting up the home directory for the user (chromium) that will be running chromium. This is the equivalent of us restoring the users home directory to a “known good state”. This means that the directory located at /usr/share/chromium-clean is a “known good” home directory for us to start from. On my system it’s basically an empty directory with chrome’s default config.

The second part of the script, well really the last two lines just runs startx as an unprivileged user. startx kicks off the X server but first we set a variable STARTUP to be the name of another script: When this variable is set, startx runs the command from the variable after the X server is started. This is a convenient way to kick off an X server that runs just a single graphical application.

The last command shuts down the VM. The shutdown command will only be run after the X server terminates which will happen once the chromium process terminates. This means that once the last browser tab is closed the VM will shutdown.

chromium-launch script

The script looks like this:


if [ ! -f "${CONFIG}" ]; then
	echo "cannot locate CONFIG: ${CONFIG}"
	exit 1

LINE=$(xrandr -q 2> /dev/null | grep Screen)
WIDTH=$(echo ${LINE} | awk '{ print $8 }')
HEIGHT=$(echo ${LINE} | awk '{ print $10 }' | tr -d ',')

sed -i -e "s&(s+"bottom":s+)-?[0-9]+&1${HEIGHT}&" ${CONFIG}
sed -i -e "s&(s+"left":s+)-?[0-9]+&10&" ${CONFIG}
sed -i -e "s&(s+"right":s+)-?[0-9]+&1${WIDTH}&" ${CONFIG}
sed -i -e "s&(s+"top":s+)-?[0-9]+&10&" ${CONFIG}
sed -i -e "s&(s+"work_area_bottom":s+)-?[0-9]+&1${HEIGHT}&" ${CONFIG}
sed -i -e "s&(s+"work_area_left":s+)-?[0-9]+&10&" ${CONFIG}
sed -i -e "s&(s+"work_area_right":s+)-?[0-9]+&1${WIDTH}&" ${CONFIG}
sed -i -e "s&(s+"work_area_top":s+)-?[0-9]+&10&" ${CONFIG}


It’s a pretty simple script. It takes one parameter which is the path to the main chromium config file. It query’s the X server through xrandr to get the screen dimensions (WIDTH and HEIGHT) which means it must be run after the X server starts. It then re-writes the relevant values in the config file to the maximum screen width and height so the browser is run “full screen”. Pretty simple stuff … once you figure out the proper order to do things and the format of the Preferences file which was non-trivial.

User Homedir

The other hard part is creating the “known good” home directory for your unprivileged user. What I did was start up chromium once manually. This causes the standard chromium configuration to be generated with default values. I then copied this off to /usr/share to be extracted on each boot.


So hopefully these instructions are enough to get you a Linux system that boots and runs Chromium as an unprivileged user. It should restore that users home directory to a known good state on each boot so that any downloaded data will be wiped clean. When the last browser tab is closed it will power off the system.

I use this on my XenClient XT system for browsing sites that I want to keep separate from my other VMs. It’s not perfect though and as always there is more that can be done to secure it. I’d start by making the root file system read only and adding SELinux would be fun. Also the interface is far too minimal. Finding a way to handle edge cases like making pop-ups manageable and allowing us to do things like control volume levels would also be nice. This may require configuring a minimal window manager which is a pretty daunting task. If you have any other interesting ways to make this VM more usable or lock it down better you should leave them in the comments.

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