Sandboxing offers a safe and effective technique to validate your code, analyze how it works, and provide security to your network and data from threats.
It adds a protective layer to test your code confidently without worrying about online risks.
However, you risk exposing your source code and data if you perform all your testing and validation in the developer environment.
And if an attacker finds a vulnerability in the physical system where you are performing the test, they can execute a fully-fledged attack.
As a result, you can lose your critical business information and the users’ trust in using the software.
Sandboxing is a great way to eliminate this risk.
In this article, I’ll talk about sandbox environments and their importance in development, security, and other areas.
What Is a Sandbox Environment?
A Sandbox environment is an isolated, secure environment acting as a replica of the user operating environment to run, validate, and visualize code without impacting the platform or system where it is being executed.
The name “sandbox” is taken from children’s sandboxes, called sandpits, the areas for them to experiment and play. They can build sandcastles in an isolated or contained environment to avoid a mess.
In software development and cybersecurity, “sandbox” signifies an isolated testing space where you can quickly and securely play with multiple variables to see how your program works. It’s securely designed so that nothing can harm your machine or data if something wrong occurs. It can mitigate threats from entering your network and is used to inspect untrusted or untested code.
This testing environment separates untested code from your production environment. Setting a sandbox environment limits access to the entire system resources and data on a given network, thereby keeping it safe.
Software developers and engineers use sandboxing to test their new code, while cybersecurity professionals use it to detect malicious code. In addition, you can also use it to securely run malicious code and prevent the host device from getting harmed. This is how it adds a protective layer against security risks like zero-day attacks, data theft, etc.
Sandbox Environment vs Developer Environment
Here are some points to explain the differences between a sandbox environment and a developer environment:
#1. Software developers and engineers use the development environment. It is where most software development activities take place. It’s used to test, validate, and analyze the actual code of an application or system so that modifications can be made accordingly.
On the other hand, a sandbox environment takes code that doesn’t belong to live applications or systems that the users access.
#2. The developer environment is not designed to test your code or deploy it because it could take down the whole system, host device, or data if anything wrong happens. It risks not only business information but also customers who are already using it.
In contrast, a sandbox environment allows developers to test, visualize, analyze, and validate code that might not be actual. Here, you are testing a new code. Therefore, the host device or data is safe even after technology failure, security threat, or disruption.
#3. The developer environment might not precisely replicate real-life user environments as it’s not designed for this purpose. Also, developer environments can be challenging for non-developers to use while performing a trial deployment or testing the code.
However, a sandbox environment is built to replicate real-life deployment conditions accurately. Hence, you can test your code effortlessly without worries, performance issues, or security risks.
How Does a Sandbox Environment Work?
Many confuse sandboxing in software development with sandboxes in gaming. In application or software development, a sandbox refers to a test server or a development server used for various purposes like testing patches, building new features, detecting vulnerabilities, identifying and removing bugs, and more.
Traditional security methods are reactive and use signature-based detection, which looks for patterns detected in known malware instances. Even if Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Machine Learning (ML) is used, you still need an advanced system to detect unknown threats and complement these solutions since they can identify only known threats.
Sandboxes add a layer of security. They can proactively detect malware and threats by executing code in an isolated, safe environment to analyze its behavior.
The idea with which sandbox environments are designed is that they can test new features and code in user-like operating conditions without affecting the system on which it’s running. Generally, sandbox software’s source code is not tested before isolation to avoid unexpected behavior.
Sandbox environments can precisely mimic real-time production environment conditions to test new functionalities. Hence, third-party software developers can test and validate their programs against a given web service from this sandbox.
It is separated from the actual environment to prevent unsafe programs from harming the system or data. This way, you can quickly and safely analyze your code without compromising the host device or operating system.
Whether you use a sandbox for security or testing your code, it has some standard features such as:
- Virtualized environment: Sandboxing is performed on a virtual device without access to any physical resources saved on the host device. It can only access virtual hardware.
- Emulates an actual system: Sandboxing environment is built to look and feel like an actual mobile device or computer. For this, the software you wish to test and the code you want to analyze should access the same resources, such as storage and memory.
- Emulates the target OS: The application under test must access the operating system using a virtual device. The sandbox is also isolated from its physical hardware but can access the OS installed.
With sandboxing, you can analyze user interaction with the software and if it’s consistent or not in the context of real-world conditions. You can also view system settings to find typical virtual machine configurations. In addition, security professionals create exploits and target the sandbox to analyze its behavior and improve its response.
Furthermore, sandboxing is beneficial for environments with multiple software programs operating simultaneously. For subsequent testing sessions, you can easily reformat a sandbox environment.
Different Sandboxing Techniques
Here are the four primary ways to create a sandbox environment for software development:
#1 Virtual Machine (VM)
A virtual machine can create a complete operating system that can run directly on the host machine’s hardware or over the host’s operating system. This offers a greater isolation level with an environment that looks and feels like a regular OS installed on a device.
You can easily create a VM image containing your application under test with its dependencies. However, VMs consume significant time to start and require lots of system resources and take time to start, which is not ideal for rapid testing environments.
Therefore, large-scale enterprises can use leading virtualization providers like Microsoft Hyper-V, Citrix, VMware, etc. Smaller-scale businesses can use lightweight virtualization software like Solarwinds Virtualization Manager, Oracle VirtualBox, and more.
#2 Sandbox Programs
Using sandboxing programs is one of the easiest and quickest ways to create a sandbox environment. You can use sandbox programs like Sandboxie, SHADE, BitBox, etc. All of them are easy to use and can efficiently run any program in a sandbox environment. In addition, these software programs also enable you to handle multiple sandboxes simultaneously on the same system.
Containers store an application’s components, files, configuration, and other essential things it requires to run in an isolated environment. A container is a sandbox in terms of its purpose. But if you want a purely isolated environment, you must configure it properly. There are many instances of container escapes, allowing access to your OS and other containers.
You can use containers like Docker in software development.
#4 Built-In OS Sandboxes
Some operating systems like Windows 10 have in-built Windows Sandbox – a sandbox environment using the Container technology of Windows. It has a clean OS to install the application that you wish to test. It’s also lightweight in terms of system resources.
Similarly, Apple Sandbox is another in-built OS sandbox based on TrustedBSD API. If you use Linux OS, you can use seccomp-BPF, a kernel extension to isolate Linux processes and from other processes.
Benefits of Using a Sandbox Environment
Using a sandbox environment to validate your code comes with several benefits, such as:
- Security from threats: The most significant advantage sandboxing offers is that it can secure your OS and host devices from potential threats. Testing new applications and software systems becomes evident if you deal with new software vendors or are unsure about a software source. At this time, you can simply test all the new software you want to use for risks before you implement it.
- Eases the process: Creating and deploying a sandbox environment is effortless, even at scale. Thus, you can quickly test specific software versions, deploy new code, and more.
- Advanced networking: With a reputed sandbox provider, you can access advanced networking and complex topology features without re-architecting everything.
- Cost-efficient: Building and maintaining a development lab of your own is a costly affair. You will have to spend significantly at each step, from purchasing and staffing to maintaining the lab. Instead, you can use a cloud sandboxing solution to create your sandbox environments easily while only paying for the exact services you use.
- Improved collaboration: Effective collaboration is essential for teams to thrive and achieve goals faster. Sandboxes can help you quickly collect feedback from different departments within your company since anyone with the proper permission can access them.
Applications of Sandbox Environments
Sandboxes can be applied in different stages of software development, from testing and quality assurance to support and operations. Its purpose goes beyond a mere development testing tool. Some of the applications of sandboxing are:
#1 Software Development
You can attain better productivity for your developers with a faster feedback cycle. But if they spend a lot of time coding locally on their system and wait for a build server for complete product creation in a remote development environment, it becomes a lengthy, time-consuming process.
Instead, you can empower them with a sandbox environment to build and test their code directly on their local device. A local sandbox may have a complete working environment comprising integrated components like databases.
The sandbox technique helps you detect suspicious files and malicious code. With an isolated environment hosted on your network that can simulate real-world conditions, you can analyze the behavior of the software under an attack. This will help you plan for security and keep your other files and data secure from the attack. Nothing will impact the outer resources since you run the code in an isolated space.
#3 Quality Assurance
Software development involves repeated testing and improvements. You can’t expect your application to perform optimally at all times or be free of vulnerabilities always. If your software has these issues, it can potentially be impacted, and the users would feel this ultimately. Hence, you need to introduce new patches and updates to keep it performing at its peak and remain secure.
A sandbox environment can help you do that with ease by allowing you quickly to test and optimize the software.
#4 Virtual POCs and Demos
Virtual Proof of Concepts (POCs) and sales demos may include different types of multimedia, like videos, images, etc. With sandboxing, you can interactively engage your existing customers and potential clients. This way, it becomes easier for them to test the software you are presenting as per their preference and location.
#5 Project Integration
If you are to integrate multiple projects builds or segments, it can become complex. In this case, you can use a sandbox to quickly check software compatibility and check if the software is on the proper development track.
You can use sandboxing in your marketing efforts to demonstrate a product’s features and functionality to your customers and prospects. Instead of using a virtual POC or sales demo, you can use a sandboxed program to allow them to test the product more interactively.
It can also help your clients view dummy features before fully implementing the new functionality, allowing customization based on their requirements.
If you can use a sandbox correctly, it can prove to be a powerful sales tool. A sandbox environment can provide users with a hands-on experience of the product. This way, they can explore its different features and test integrations and capabilities at their preferred time and place.
Some more applications of sandboxing are:
- Web browsers: You can run a reliable web browser in a sandbox environment. So, if it detects a site exploiting a vulnerability in the web browser, you can limit the damage to this sandbox.
- Software protection: Some tools can help you run an application you don’t wholly trust yet in a sandbox. Thus, the software is restricted from harming your device or accessing private data. To the software, a sandbox will appear as a complete system, and it can’t identify that it’s inside an isolated environment.
- Security research: Security professionals widely use sandboxes to identify malicious code and research purposes. For example, an IT security tool can monitor websites to inspect modified files. Users can even use Windows Defender to run their antivirus software inside a sandbox environment.
Creating a sandbox environment is an excellent strategy to test your code in an isolated environment and analyze its behavior. It will help you understand your code performance and how to improve it and secure your host device and data from potential threats.