What Is Sandbox Security?

An image of a toy truck in a sandbox.
With sandbox security, cybercriminals think they’re attacking the real thing when they’re only playing with a decoy.
Source: Markus Spiske via UnSplash.com

Sandbox security is a virtualization-based security (VBS) solution to protect systems from intrusions. You can use a sandbox to test security and solutions, including catastrophic attacks. The sandbox allows these tests without endangering the original system. 

A sandbox effectively determines which attack vectors your system is vulnerable to. You can then patch them before anything becomes available to the public.

I’ll first go into the details of what sandboxing is and how it works. Later, we’ll consider a few scenarios which show you what to focus on if you want to use sandbox security.

3 Types of Sandbox Security

Sandbox security is an approach to testing and developing cybersecurity systems. It creates a model on the on-site or cloud server and attacks it with Advanced Persistent Threats (APT). It’s also a way to test unknown threats that might enter the system from the outside.

You can choose from three sandbox types. The one you select depends on what systems you believe malware would attack. These choices also use different amounts of system resources. So, in the end, it’s a calculation of what is most useful for your needs.

1. Full System Emulation

With full system emulation, you copy everything, including the hardware you use. At completion, you have two identical systems. The only difference is that the sandbox has its software dependent on and backed up by the master system.

Because these systems are alike, malware can’t detect a sandbox unless it’s instructed not to act for unreasonable lengths of time. Even through side-channel attacks, malware can’t determine that it’s attacking a trap instead of the real thing.

But, these systems are also expensive, as they need double the hardware and maintenance. The expense is worth it for large companies with remote workers sending information through the system.

The minimal increase in security won’t be worth the added overhead for smaller companies.

2. Operating System Emulation

Operating system (OS) emulation offers very good protection without needing a whole new hardware setup. Also, it works with cloud servers such as Microsoft Azure and AWS.

For on-premise servers, the added resource expenditure can be significant. But, the virtual device requires no hardware maintenance or added purchasing costs.

This setup is ideal for service industries with customers sending in information. People working in a field that would otherwise create a weak security point will benefit too.

3. Single Instance Virtualization

In these cases, the only thing emulated is the access point, which can be the entire app, drop box, or inbox. It’s also possible to set up a sandbox instance for emails. It emulates the person receiving it and clicks on the link. It can check if the link or document sent is legitimate or phishing and respond.

Using sandbox security for email can be useful for any enterprise. But the most common use is to test apps and web-based programs where customers import data. For this purpose, it’s cheap, effective, and scalable.

Although different in scope, these sandboxing options share many benefits in different capacities. I’ll now list those benefits and discuss how they apply to different businesses.

Approach ScopeApplicable System EntitiesUse CasesBusiness Applications
Full System EmulationCreating a duplicate hardware and software systemSoftware and HardwareSide-channel attacks targeting hardwareCompanies enabling remote work
Operating System EmulationCreating a copy of the operating system and assisting programsSoftwareFirmware attacks; OS attacksService industry companies
Single Instance VirtualizationForming only the instance of the software visible to the outsideSingle AppApp attacks; phishingApp and software developers
Making the right sandbox security choice comes down to your needs and resources.

In the next section, I’ll go through how to create a sandbox and how they work

Image of a child throwing sand on a wooden fence.
Sandbox security is simple to establish and relatively effective, but it will require more hardware.
Source: Markus Spiske via UnSplash.com

How to Create a Sandbox

You’ve got two main methods to create a sandbox. 

The first method uses one set of hardware. It usually has a higher capacity to run both the main and sandbox “mirror” systems.

The second method has separate hardware, and the main system controls both systems. This method performs better but increases component, maintenance, and power costs. This option is better for demanding businesses.

For many businesses, this cost increase isn’t worth it. It’s optimal to use the same system and lower the requirements for both the main OS and the sandbox.

I’ll now go through the operational process. Whether using full system emulation or mimicking one instance, the rundown looks similar.

Sandbox Operating Process

It’s possible to make a sandbox more intricate depending on the requirements. But, in most situations, the process of building the sandbox, detecting malware, trapping it, and restarting looks like this:

1. Forming a New Sandbox

The same server that copies the important parts to a sandbox on a functional system makes a new instance. It then creates a new virtual environment.

2. Emulating the Original System

For anyone inside this new environment, it seems as if they’re in the main system. With full system emulation, businesses can see hardware, power consumption, and OS information.

3. Moment of Intrusion

Regardless if it’s a part of a test or an actual attack attempt, a sandbox is made to be attacked and taken down. The system records the attack, quarantines the malware, shuts down, and restarts.

4. Giving the All-Green

A good sandbox destroys malware and knows when the data is safe or beneficial. The tested files are copied to the main server while the sandbox is refreshed for other data.

Now I’ll go through some use cases where sandboxing is often used. If you recognize your business in the examples, you likely need to consider it.

Sandbox Security Use Cases 

Situations where sandboxing, including sandbox development and security, can be useful are plentiful. In almost every security situation you can think of, you want to have a decoy to use.

Here, I’ll list four of the most frequent use cases. While your business might not fit these exactly, explore sandboxing options if you recognize the situation.

1. Web Browsers

Because websites are almost always cloud-based through professional hosting, virtualization is often integrated. When using sandbox security, the interactive pages would run as a sandbox.

If the sandbox finds malware someone is trying to upload, the anti-malware software will start. It records the attack and flushes the entire web browser environment. The pages are still available for everyone else, but no malware can find its way into the website’s back end.

2. Software Protection

Software protection works like web protection. The main difference is that, rather than a third party, the business runs the server, even if cloud-based.

The first step for protection is determining which components interact with the outside. Then, you must predict possible attack vectors to determine which sandbox you need to emulate. These include side-channel attacks.

Once you have the preparations and predictions, you can set up a sandbox system. It serves as the front end for communication with the outside. Here, you can allow people to send files and other types of code, including executable code.

The virtual machine runs internal and external anti-malware software. This software makes it hard for common threats to hide. If it finds anything malicious, it deletes the virtual machine and the threats.

Image of a man in a lab coat looking at a chemistry vial with a red liquid inside.
Cybersecurity testing, like biosecurity testing, is best done in a controlled environment.
Source: Photo by Benjamin Lehman via UnSplash.com

3. Security Research

Developing a security system isn’t easy. You can’t know how the features will work together unless you use proven solutions. Rather have a virtual machine to test malware attacks before malicious attacks occur.

Sandboxes certainly work more like containerization than virtualization in this regard. But, as you have full control, test it with more risks, attacks, and resource consumption. 

In cybersecurity, it’s much better to be a pessimist proven wrong than an optimist proven wrong.

4. Virtualization Instances

Virtual instances encompass the scenarios where many sandboxes run the same thing repeatedly. The primary resource consumption is on malware detection software and not the sandbox.

You can only set up the communication point for mobile and browser apps without OS information or dedicated hardware. For apps, it’s usually only the inbox page, shared folder, or similar access points.

On the outside, it seems identical to the main system — because it is. But, if anyone tries to send malware, it’s detected, recorded, and the sandbox gets deleted. Plus, this virtualization solution works seamlessly on the cloud as it isn’t resource-intensive.

The main difference between cases is the resources needed for optimal results. In most cases, creating a sandbox is rather inexpensive and quick. But you’ll find that investing more in this security offers excellent benefits for the money. 

Now, let’s summarize what we have covered about sandbox security.

Final Words

Sandbox security is a solution using virtual machines. It creates a mock system that takes on the risk of interacting with external information. Sandboxing has three options: full system emulation, operating system emulation, and single instance virtualization.

For many companies, sandboxing reduces intrusions and allows for easier testing and innovation. While it can be resource-intensive, careful gauging can make it more than worth the added cost.

Sandboxing can prevent attacks, especially against Advanced Persistent Threats and cybercrime cases.

Additionally, complex systems can use sandboxing for software protection and security research. It’s also used with web browsers and online apps where it can protect only one instance inside the system.

Do you have more questions about sandboxing? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below!


How secure is a sandbox?

It depends. Above all, a sandbox isn’t safer than any other system for stopping malware. Virtualization security allows the malware to attack, then traps it inside so it can’t cause damage.

Can malware circumvent sandbox security?

Yes. If the malware recognizes it’s in a sandbox or stays dormant for a long time, it can circumvent sandbox protections. Also, it’s possible to miss malware if there’s a new attack vector.

Are sandboxes virtual machines?

Yes, sandboxes are virtual machines. You can set up a sandbox security system if you know how to boot up your virtual machine. Unlike regular virtual machines, sandboxes with full system emulation can have dedicated hardware.

Does Microsoft Azure offer sandbox security?

Microsoft Azure offers several native options for virtual machines. You can turn these into sandbox security systems. While it doesn’t offer direct service, the increase for new instances is affordable and easy to set up.

Does Amazon Web Services (AWS) have sandbox security options?

Yes, AWS offers EC2 virtual machines. With dedicated servers, they’re indistinguishable from regular on-premise servers. These servers allow sandboxing and QA instances in the AWS Management Console. Through Amazon Connect, it creates a new instance, which you then dedicate to a sandbox.


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