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What is a Sandbox Environment? What is it used for?
By Tibor Moes / January 2023
Many people hear the term “sandbox environment” and immediately think of vast virtual spaces where they can create and do whatever they like. But although the gaming industry popularized this term, it can have a completely different meaning too. In the development and cybersecurity industries, sandbox environments are among the most valuable tools.
Summary: Sandboxing, or using a sandbox environment, means using a safe space to execute code and test programs, from basic operating system applications to malware. Many antivirus programs use a sanbox environment in the cloud to analyse the bahiviour of potential malware.
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What is a Sandbox Environment?
A sandbox environment is a development and cybersecurity term for something that mimics a user operating environment and enables running, validating, and visualizing various types of code. Due to its isolated nature, a sandbox environment offers security and prevents the code from interacting with the underlying system even when executed.
Think of sandbox environments as safe testing spaces where cybersecurity specialists and programmers can test around different variables and lines of code to figure out how a piece of software might work.
The isolated nature of a sandbox means that no harm can come to the machine that hosts the environment, even if something goes wrong. In a way, it’s a perfect way to inspect untrusted code that could enter a network. It does this by limiting and restricting access to system data and resources.
Sandbox Environment Examples
Windows 10 was the first Microsoft operating system (OS) to feature a built-in sandbox environment. It’s an isolated testing space that acts as an extra layer of defense against untrusted code entering the system via file transfers.
HTML5 also comes with a sandboxing feature that prevents misusing iframes, often preferred to spread suspicious code over the internet.
Another example is the sandbox environment that comes with the Google Sandbox API. This is a safe space for software developers who want to test C++ code before entering it into the production environment.
How a Sandbox Environment Works
A sandbox is often a test or development server that enables safe patch testing, feature development, vulnerability scanning, bug fixing, and more.
In cybersecurity, the sandbox environment can detect malware proactively instead of reactively, like traditional network security tools. The benefit is that malicious code can be executed to determine its nature before allowing the code to interact with the operating system.
A sandbox testing area can mirror anything a production environment can do in real time.
Standard Sandbox Features
Every sandbox environment should contain at least three key features.
Complete system emulation
Target OS emulation
A virtualized environment means that the sandboxing is done on a virtual device that can’t access the physical resources of the host device.
Emulating a complete system implies that the sandboxing environment looks, feels, and operates like a computer or mobile device.
When emulating the target OS, the tested code or application can access the OS through a virtual device. That still shouldn’t give it access to hardware components and resources.
Types of Sandbox Environments
Four sandbox environments stand out in terms of cybersecurity and software development, each having key advantages in various applications.
Virtual Machine (VM) Environments
A virtual machine is capable of creating an OS that can run on the host machine and its existing OS. Sometimes called VM images, these environments can test code, software, resource management, and other dependencies.
Creating a virtual machine isn’t a piece of cake. It requires skill, time, and lots of resources. Therefore, it isn’t a recommended solution for quick testing projects, despite the quality work you can do in one.
Large-scale projects requiring a VM sandbox environment often run in VMware of Microsoft Hyper-V. However, smaller projects run even in light virtualization software like Oracle VirtualBox.
Built-In OS Sandboxes
A built-in sandbox doesn’t need virtualization software to create an isolated testing space. Instead, it’s made with container technology compatible with various OS.
Essentially, built-in OS sandboxes give developers access to a clean copy of the OS. They can run code and test applications before deciding if they should make it into the host machine’s system.
Windows Sandbox is a popular sandboxing space that’s easy to set up and ready for rapid tests. macOS has a similar built-in environment called the Apple Sandbox.
Container technology stores files, settings, and other components of an application so it can be tested in an isolated environment.
Using containers is more difficult, unlike other sandboxing techniques. They’re not as protected against malware escaping into the OS and corrupting the system settings unless expertly configured by developers and security specialists.
Sandbox programs are standalone applications that can recreate the conditions of production software while keeping it isolated from the main OS.
They allow users to run programs in sandbox environments and test their behavior. Popular sandbox programs include SHADE and BitBox.
Main Applications for Sandbox Environments
Sandboxing can be used by anyone interested in testing applications in a safe and isolated space. Two industries utilize sandbox environments to their fullest potential more than others.
Software Development Testing
Coding and building apps is a lengthy, complex process. Developers have to create code, test it, get feedback, and finally wait on build servers to finish the end product.
Sandboxing makes the entire process easier. It enables developers to write and test code on local machines without worrying about all of the moving parts. They can simulate patches and rewrite code without affecting the actual production environment.
In other words, it increases productivity and lowers the number of bugs in the final product.
Testing Malicious Code
Cybersecurity specialists use sandbox environments like developers but with a different endgame. Instead of building apps, researchers and analysts input malicious code to analyze its behavior.
A common use for cybersecurity sandboxing is fixing zero-day exploits. This type of malware attack has unknown effects and exploits secret system vulnerabilities.
It’s among the most dangerous of cybersecurity threats because of its many unknown variables. Firewalls, anti-malware, and antivirus software can’t protect a system when they don’t know it has a weakness.
Sandboxing can run the zero-day exploit in an isolated environment without access to critical system infrastructure. Once the effects and payload are revealed, cybersecurity engineers can begin patching the vulnerabilities.
Security research involving a web service, known and unknown security risks, and everything in between benefits from a virtual environment for testing suspicious programs.
Sandboxing in Quality Assurance
Software optimization is a process of trial and error. The code needs testing and improvements before a program can run better.
Making those changes in isolated environments and quickly testing the effects of new code is the only way to optimize software applications.
Sandboxing in Marketing
Marketing products is always difficult, especially in the proof of concept stage. A lot can go wrong before the final details are ironed out and all the kinks removed.
A sandbox environment can be the perfect place to demonstrate the features and functionality of software products. It can offer sufficient interactivity without risking compromising a device, OS, or the prototype software itself.
Sandboxing allows visualizing unfinished or unrefined features. Developers can present the product with dummy features and create a more convincing sales demo.
Sandboxing in Web Browsers
Sandboxing is more common in web browsers than users may believe. That’s because sandbox environments can run certain browsers. The feature allows users to test browsers in various interactions with websites.
Should they run into suspicious software, the damage will be limited to the sandbox instead of the entire system.
Sandboxing in Software Protection
With so many third-party apps and tools, it’s hard to know what you can and can’t trust to operate on your system. A customized sandbox environment can mimic a complete OS.
Users can try the untrusted app in the OS replica. The software won’t know that it’s not in the actual host OS and should function as instructed. Users can install the app on their primary system if everything is normal.
If not, they can delete it before it can cause any damage. But remember that this won’t always work, particularly with resource-heavy and complex programs.
How a Sandbox Environment Differs From a Production Environment
A development or production environment is necessary to compile code and create software applications. Although a sandbox environment mimics this, the two platforms are quite different.
Most software development activities happen inside the production environment under the direction of developers and engineers. Testing, validating, and code analysis are conducted to identify necessary programming modifications. But a sandbox environment usually works with code taken from offline applications.
Another major difference is in how the two environments operate and what they can do. Production environments don’t do well with testing and deployment applications. Software testing and deploying can compromise an OS, its host device, and hardware resources if something goes wrong.
Sandboxing gives developers a safe environment to play in with testing and validating capabilities. No risk that the code may harm the host system or device.
The higher learning curve of developer environments is another difference. And what some notice is that the ability of sandbox environments to mimic user environments becomes even easier. That’s something that production environments generally can’t do, at least not accurately.
Perfect Testing Virtual Environments
Although sandboxes can contain virtual and physical components, they’re always virtual environments. Users access these isolated systems when testing patches, new features, or want to protect system resources.
Whether used as a security tool or as an environment for software testing, sandboxes protect their host devices. They can detect malicious code, analyze and visualize new functionality, and much more. Sandboxing protects against unexpected behavior and increases development productivity.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does sandbox mean in computer development?
A sandbox is a safe testing space where developers can play with the code and run different variations without damaging the system or breaking the source code.
Is there a difference between the sandbox and test environments?
The term “sandbox” generally refers to an unrestricted playground for developers. Test environments are less cluttered and used mainly by QA teams working on new features.
What is the purpose of a sandbox?
In development, sandboxes help separate production environments and resources from bad code or malicious software.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
Over the years, he has tested most of the best antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.
He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.
This website is hosted on a Digital Ocean server via Cloudways and is built with DIVI on WordPress.
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