Sandboxing

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What is Sandboxing?

Sandboxing is the practice of creating a controlled environment that is isolated from a larger environment. In this context, the term sandbox is a metaphor drawn from the concept of a children’s sandbox.

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The concept of sandboxing originated in software development. Today, the concept of sandboxing is often used to describe any situation in which activities are contained within a set of defined boundaries to prevent broader impact.

What is Sandboxing?

Key Takeaways

  • Sandboxing creates a restricted environment with clearly defined boundaries.
  • The restricted environment is called a sandbox.
  • The concept of sandboxing has its roots in software development.
  • Other domains have seen the value of sandboxing and have adopted the concept.
  • Virtual machines, containers, and specific OS-level mechanisms can be used to create sandbox environments.

How Sandboxing Works in Computing

Just as a child’s sandbox provides a restricted space for playing with sand, a sandbox in computing provides a restricted computing environment for:

Essentially, sandbox environments are configured with restricted permissions that limit software code’s ability to access system resources, files, and network connections outside the sandbox.

After the code is executed, the sandbox is either reset or destroyed to ensure that any changes the code may have made will not persist and impact the broader system.

Types of Sandboxing

Sandboxes can be created with virtual machines (VMs), software containers, or specific OS-level mechanisms.

VM sandboxes allow untrusted code to run as if it were on a separate machine. The full sandbox isolation, which is managed by a hypervisor, ensures that activities within one VM do not affect other VMs or the host. This type of sandbox is commonly used for software testing in high-security situations where total isolation is necessary.

Container sandboxes are commonly used for testing and deploying applications in CI/CD development environments. Containers isolate untrusted code and its dependencies in separate environments within the same operating system kernel. This partial sandboxing option is less restrictive than VM sandboxing because containers share the same OS kernel.

Operating systems features like seccomp (Linux) or App Sandbox (macOS) limit the system calls a process can make. This limited sandboxing option is useful for cybersecurity scenarios that need some level of restriction on what the code can do but don’t require as much isolation as containers or VMs provide.

Example of Using Sandboxing

Chromebooks use sandboxing as a core security feature to combat malware. Each app and browser tab runs in its own sandbox to isolate it from the rest of the system.

This doesn’t make Chromebooks completely immune to threats, however, so a layered approach should also include antivirus software that uses sandboxing to isolate and analyze potentially malicious files.

Because not all antivirus programs are compatible with Chrome OS, however, it’s important to research and choose reputable antivirus software designed specifically for Chromebooks.

Other Popular Use Cases for Sandboxing

Other Popular Use Cases for Sandboxing

In recent years, the concept of sandboxing has expanded beyond information technology (IT) to other domains.

For example, in education, virtual sandboxes allow biology and engineering students to learn in a safe environment without fear of making mistakes that would have consequences in the real world.

In finance, regulatory sandboxes allow fintech companies to test innovations in a live market with real customers. This type of sandboxing supports compliance mandates by putting certain restrictions and safeguards in place.

Sandboxing can also allow healthcare professionals to practice procedures and test new treatments in a safe, virtual environment – and in manufacturing sandboxes can be used to explore the potential impact of design changes before committing to retooling.

Even though the specific applications and purposes differ slightly in broader contexts, they all share a common conceptual thread: A sandbox is a controlled and isolated environment where actions can be performed without affecting the wider system.

Cloud-Based Sandboxing vs. Appliance-Based Sandboxing

Cloud-Based Sandboxing vs. Appliance-Based Sandboxing

Cloud-based sandboxing and appliance-based sandboxing are two different approaches to implementing sandbox environments.

Cloud sandboxing isolates customer workloads in multi-tenant environments and ensures that one tenant can’t see another tenant’s data.

Cloud-based sandboxing is best for organizations that are looking for flexibility, scalability, and reduced management overhead.

A sandbox environment in the cloud is hosted on a cloud provider’s IT infrastructure, and users access and interact with the sandbox over the Internet. Sandbox maintenance is the responsibility of the cloud service provider, and additional resources can be purchased as needed in real time through a subscription or consumption-based pricing model.

In contrast, appliance-based sandboxing relies on physical or virtual appliances located on the premises. This approach is well-suited for organizations that have strict data sovereignty and compliance requirements.

Appliance-based sandbox maintenance is the responsibility of the organization’s IT staff and scalability typically involves wait time because it requires purchasing and installing additional appliances.

Sandboxing Pros and Cons

While sandboxing offers significant advantages in a wide variety of domains, in computing it also comes with some challenges related to performance, complexity, and resource requirements.

For example, running code in developer sandboxes can introduce more application performance issues than running code natively. This is especially true for virtual machine sandboxes that emulate an entire operating system and need to consume central processing unit (CPU), memory, and storage resources.

Pros

  • Provides a controlled environment for experimentation and assessment
  • Reduces the risk of system-wide impact
  • Can create sandboxes to replicate different types of environments

Cons

  • Setting up and managing sandbox environments can be complex and time-consuming
  • Restricted access may limit functionality
  • Potential performance issues

The Bottom Line

Sandbox’s meaning has evolved beyond its original use in software development. Today, the restricted environments that traditional sandbox definitions focus on can be applied to a number of other domains, including cybersecurity, education, gaming, and compliance.

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Margaret Rouse
Senior Editor
Margaret Rouse
Senior Editor

Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.