Sandboxing Zola: lightweight isolation of a static website generator


In this post I'll show how to sandbox Zola using Landlock, avoiding to push confidential information (i.e., files and environment variables) to your website.


A while ago I decided to stop using Jekyll. The two main reasons for this change are associated with the management of Ruby Gems and the lack of updates to the Minima theme (e.g., dark mode). I really wanted a single-binary static website generator, and after asking some friends, I decided to use Zola.

Zola is super easy, and after a quick personalization of the template, I was ready to deploy the website on GitHub Pages. The original idea was to rely on Actions, however, I noticed some problems with the scripts that were used by the community. The scripts looked frail, and I was concerned that sooner or later something might break.

I didn't want to overcomplicate something so simple, and I didn't find any practical advantage in using Actions. I thought: I just want a static website, and it should exactly work as it does locally. So, I opted for publishing the content directly from /docs. The dowside is security, of course. Zola's code is open source and can be verified, but what if there were unwanted bugs? What if I were to include confidential resources in some pages and push without noticing? My main concern was related to environment variables and local files, so I decided to implement a little program to restrict the resources available at website generation time.

In the following I'll explain how it works.

Environment variables#

I usually don't store secret tokens in environment variables, and when I really need I use direnv, which permits to edit the environment loading and unloading variables based on the current directory. However, there may be other software running on the workstation while building the website, so it is safer to constrain them. The realization is simple, we only need to drop some variables before the website is generated. For that, we start from the array of all the environment variables (ENV_VARS in the snipped below), then create an array of variables which may be legitimately required by Zola (ENV_VAR_ALLOWLIST). Finally, we unset every variable that belongs to the first array but not to the second. A simple script like the following can be used.


ENV_VARS=( $(env | cut -d= -f1) )


for v in ${ENV_VARS[@]}; do
    for va in ${ENV_VAR_ALLOWLIST[@]}; do
	if [ $v == $va ]; then
    if [ $found == 0 ]; then
	# unset variable v
	unset $v


Files are the biggest concern. The idea is that anything outside of the website folder should not be read by the static generator at build time. To enforce this condition we can use Landlock: an unprivileged, stackable access control LSM available from version 5.13. Landlock is very intuitive, it allows a process to restricts its privileges with a single call from user space. After this operation is performed, the set of privileges can only be further restricted (privileges cannot be reclaimed). Again, the realization is simple, we just need a launcher that restricts its privileges before Zola is executed. The only requirement to obtain is the policy, or rather the list of file-system resources the Zola binary needs to read/write/exec to successfully produce the website. This list can be quickly generated using ldd and strace, here is how it looks like on my workstation.

    "read": [
    "write": [
    "exec": [

What I really appreciate about Zola is that it only needs to access the program interpreter and 3 libraries to work as intended. About the launcher, it is implemented as a minimal Rust application called boxer. It just:

  1. reads the json policy using serde,
  2. configures the appropriate Landlock ruleset,
  3. calls Landlock enforcing the ruleset,
  4. executes Zola with the input argument (i.e., build or serve).

The code is shown below.

use anyhow::{bail, Result};
use clap::Parser;
use landlock::{
    Access, AccessFs, PathBeneath, PathFd, Ruleset, RulesetAttr, RulesetCreatedAttr, RulesetStatus,
use serde::Deserialize;
use std::fs;
use std::process::{Command, Stdio};

#[derive(Deserialize, Debug)]
struct Policy {
    read: Vec<String>,
    write: Vec<String>,
    exec: Vec<String>,

#[derive(Parser, Debug)]
#[clap(author, version, about, long_about = None)]
struct Args {
    #[clap(long = "argument", value_name = "ARG")]
    pub argument: String,

    #[clap(long = "policy", value_name = "FILE")]
    pub policy: String,

fn main() -> Result<()> {
    let args = Args::parse();
    let pol: Policy = serde_json::from_str(&fs::read_to_string(args.policy)?)?;
    let abi = ABI::V2;

    let mut ruleset = Ruleset::new()

    ruleset = ruleset.add_rule(PathBeneath::new(PathFd::new(".")?, Access::from_all(abi)))?;

    for path in & {
        let path_fd = PathFd::new(path)?;
        ruleset = ruleset.add_rule(PathBeneath::new(path_fd, AccessFs::from_read(abi)))?;
    for path in &pol.write {
        let path_fd = PathFd::new(path)?;
        ruleset = ruleset.add_rule(PathBeneath::new(path_fd, Access::from_write(abi)))?;
    for path in &pol.exec {
        let path_fd = PathFd::new(path)?;
        ruleset = ruleset.add_rule(PathBeneath::new(path_fd, AccessFs::Execute))?;

    let status = ruleset.restrict_self()?;

    if status.ruleset == RulesetStatus::NotEnforced {
        bail!("Landlock not supported, upgrade kernel please");



Putting all the pieces together, we just need to add a line to the previous bash script, calling the boxer right after the unwanted variables have been unset.

# spawn the sandboxer
(./boxer/target/debug/boxer --argument $1 --policy $2)

Argument $1 is either build or serve, while argument $2 is the path to the json policy file.

Let's use a new Makefile phony target (build) to build our website!

.PHONY: build

POLICY := boxer/zola.json

	$(info [*] Clean website)
	@rm -rf docs/*

build: _clean_website
	$(info [*] Unset environment variables & rebuild website)
	@./boxer/ $@ $(POLICY)

Just in case you were wondering, we don't need to worry about the execution of other targets potentially contained in the Makefile, as by default, each target recipe line is executed in a new sub-shell (so environment variables and sandboxing only affect the process that executes Zola).


You can check the source of this pages to see how everything works. Here you can find the Makefile, and here the sandboxer. You may also find convenient the make serve option, which allows to write a new blog post without enforcing restrictions.

Thanks for reading.