Platform Portability

By Ian Lewis and Michael Pratt on 22 October 2020

Hardware virtualization is often seen as a requirement to provide an additional isolation layer for untrusted applications. However, hardware virtualization requires expensive bare-metal machines or cloud instances to run safely with good performance, increasing cost and complexity for Cloud users. gVisor, however, takes a more flexible approach.

One of the pillars of gVisor’s architecture is portability, allowing it to run anywhere that runs Linux. Modern Cloud-Native applications run in containers in many different places, from bare metal to virtual machines, and can’t always rely on nested virtualization. It is important for gVisor to be able to support the environments where you run containers.

gVisor achieves portability through an abstraction called a Platform. Platforms can have many implementations, and each implementation can cover different environments, making use of available software or hardware features.


Before we can understand how gVisor achieves portability using platforms, we should take a step back and understand how applications interact with their host.

Container sandboxes can provide an isolation layer between the host and application by virtualizing one of the layers below it, including the hardware or operating system. Many sandboxes virtualize the hardware layer by running applications in virtual machines. gVisor takes a different approach by virtualizing the OS layer.

When an application is run in a normal situation the host operating system loads the application into user memory and schedules it for execution. The operating system scheduler eventually schedules the application to a CPU and begins executing it. It then handles the application’s requests, such as for memory and the lifecycle of the application. gVisor virtualizes these interactions, such as system calls, and context switching that happen between an application and OS.

System calls allow applications to ask the OS to perform some task for it. System calls look like a normal function call in most programming languages though works a bit differently under the hood. When an application system call is encountered some special processing takes place to do a context switch into kernel mode and begin executing code in the kernel before returning a result to the application. Context switching may happen in other situations as well. For example, to respond to an interrupt.

The Platform Interface

gVisor provides a sandbox which implements the Linux OS interface, intercepting OS interactions such as system calls and implements them in the sandbox kernel.

It does this to limit interactions with the host, and protect the host from an untrusted application running in the sandbox. The Platform is the bottom layer of gVisor which provides the environment necessary for gVisor to control and manage applications. In general, the Platform must:

  1. Provide the ability to create and manage memory address spaces.
  2. Provide execution contexts for running applications in those memory address spaces.
  3. Provide the ability to change execution context and return control to gVisor at specific times (e.g. system call, page fault)

This interface is conceptually simple, but very powerful. Since the Platform interface only requires these three capabilities, it gives gVisor enough control for it to act as the application’s OS, while still allowing the use of very different isolation technologies under the hood. You can learn more about the Platform interface in the Platform Guide.

Implementations of the Platform Interface

While gVisor can make use of technologies like hardware virtualization, it doesn’t necessarily rely on any one technology to provide a similar level of isolation. The flexibility of the Platform interface allows for implementations that use technologies other than hardware virtualization. This allows gVisor to run in VMs without nested virtualization, for example. By providing an abstraction for the underlying platform, each implementation can make various tradeoffs regarding performance or hardware requirements.

Currently gVisor provides two gVisor Platform implementations; the Ptrace Platform, and the KVM Platform, each using very different methods to implement the Platform interface.

gVisor Platforms

The Ptrace Platform uses PTRACE_SYSEMU to trap syscalls, and uses the host for memory mapping and context switching. This platform can run anywhere that ptrace is available, which includes most Linux systems, VMs or otherwise.

The KVM Platform uses virtualization, but in an unconventional way. gVisor runs in a virtual machine but as both guest OS and VMM, and presents no virtualized hardware layer. This provides a simpler interface that can avoid hardware initialization for fast start up, while taking advantage of hardware virtualization support to improve memory isolation and performance of context switching.

The flexibility of the Platform interface allows for a lot of room to improve the existing KVM and ptrace platforms, as well as the ability to utilize new methods for improving gVisor’s performance or portability in future Platform implementations.


Through the Platform interface, gVisor is able to support bare metal, virtual machines, and Cloud environments while still providing a highly secure sandbox for running untrusted applications. This is especially important for Cloud and Kubernetes users because it allows gVisor to run anywhere that Kubernetes can run and provide similar experiences in multi-region, hybrid, multi-platform environments.

Give gVisor’s open source platforms a try. Using a Platform is as easy as providing the --platform flag to runsc. See the documentation on changing platforms for how to use different platforms with Docker. We would love to hear about your experience so come chat with us in our Gitter channel, or send us an issue on Github if you run into any problems.