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"Seamless MPLS" and Denial of Service


Monday, May 30, 2011

A Denial of Service (DoS) attack is an attack that attempts to render a service temporarily unavailable to legitimate users of the service. DoS attacks are carried out by attackers disrupting the function of any link in the service supply chain. In the context of services provided over telecommunications networks, DoS attacks can be directed at a web or mail server, routers, or at any necessary utility functions such as the DNS system.

There are two main DoS attack strategies :
1. The attacker can send malware to the attacked device, causing its malfunction. In extreme cases (called phlashing) the attacked device may need to be completely replaced.
2. The attacker can flood the attacked device with a large number of seemingly legitimate service requests, thereby consuming its resources and degrading its ability to service other users. In order to more completely overwhelm a device (and camouflaging the source of the attack), Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks simultaneously send service requests from multiple sources. Rate limiting and traffic shaping are not true DoS prevention methods. First, they are ineffectual against the first type of attack. Second, although they may prevent overload of devices under attack, since they do not distinguish between attackers and legitimate users, they themselves reduce service quality. In addition, they become Achilles’ heels providing attackers with new devices to attack.

There are only two true defenses against DoS attacks :
1. discarding illegitimate service requests,
2. allowing only legitimate service requesters.

The first method is typically used against attacks that exploit packets carefully designed to confuse network devices or require greater than average processing resources. It is ineffectual against brute-force attacks by properly formed service requests, such as DDoS attacks. It also usually requires costly Deep Packet Inspection (DPI). The second method is universally effective, but can only be used when there is a way to accurately identify legitimate users of the service.

That way is called source authentication, and it works by verifying that each received packet was authentically sent by the source claiming to have sent it. Thus source identification is limited to packet formats that include a source address, such as Ethernet, IPv4, and IPv6. IPsec uses a Hash-based Message Authentication Code (HMAC) to verify both the integrity and authenticity of an IP packet. MACsec uses a combined algorithm to verify integrity and authenticity, and optionally encrypting the packet.

As is certainly well-known to readers of this blog, MPLS packets contain labels that proxy for destination addresses, but no explicit addresses, and certainly no source address. As stated RFC 5920 - Security Framework for MPLS and GMPLS Networks :

The MPLS data plane, as presently defined, is not amenable to source authentication, as there are no source identifiers in the MPLS packet to authenticate. The MPLS label is only locally meaningful. It may be assigned by a downstream node or upstream node for multicast support.

When the MPLS payload carries identifiers that may be authenticated (e.g., IP packets), authentication may be carried out at the client level, but this does not help the MPLS SP, as these client identifiers belong to an external, untrusted network.

An attacker with physical access to an MPLS network can readily cause mayhem. There are only a million possible MPLS labels, and thus it will not take an attacker long to come across a valid one. Once that is accomplished, nothing can stop packets he injects from traversing the network and appearing at supposedly isolated egress points. The attack is made even simpler because many LSRs are configured to employ platform-wide label spaces, and many LSR label generators produce labels in order from low to high.

Of course if the MPLS is carrying only IP traffic, then that network layer can be protected using well-known IPsec methods. But MPLS can also carry non-IP traffic, e.g. pseudowires. Imagine what would happen if extra TDM-PW traffic were successfully injected - buffer overflows, loss of timing, and complete service shutdown. Imagine what would happen if an attacker injected multicast PAUSE frames into an Ethernet PW – delayed frames, buffer overflow, and complete service denial.

So why haven’t there been widespread devastating attacks on the critical MPLS infrastructure ? Mainly because MPLS networks have, until now, been walled gardens, that is, closed tightly controlled networks, with no access to outside attackers. RFC 5920 calls them trusted zones, which it describes in the following manner :

A trusted zone contains elements and users with similar security properties, such as exposure and risk level. In the MPLS context, an organization is typically considered as one trusted zone.

The boundaries of a trust domain should be carefully defined when analyzing the security properties of each individual network … In principle, the trusted zones should be separate …
A key requirement of MPLS and GMPLS networks is that the security of the trusted zone not be compromised by interconnecting the MPLS/GMPLS core infrastructure with another provider's core (MPLS/GMPLS or non-MPLS/GMPLS), the Internet, or end users.

So, MPLS has been safe since it has been hidden away in the core, with no access to outsiders.

But this is about to change. The IETF MPLS WG recently elevated to working group status a document entitled Seamless MPLS Architecture (draft-leymann-mpls-seamless-mpls). This document proposes extending MPLS from the core into access networks, and seamlessly integrating the access domain into the core MPLS domain. In the words of the draft :

The motivation of Seamless MPLS is to provide an architecture which supports a wide variety of different services on a single MPLS platform fully integrating access, aggregation and core network. The architecture can be used for residential services, mobile backhaul, business services and supports fast reroute, redundancy and load balancing. Seamless MPLS provides the deployment of service creation points which can be virtually everywhere in the network.

With Seamless MPLS there are no technology boundaries and no topology boundaries for the services. Network (or region) boundaries are for scaling and manageability, and do not affect the service layer, since the Transport Pseudowire that carries packets from the AN to the SN doesn't care whether it takes two hops or twenty, nor how many region boundaries it needs to cross.

Seamless MPLS drops the boundaries between access, aggregation, and core networks. This may indeed simplify network management – but how are the security issues handled? The draft’s “Security Considerations” section states the following :

In a typical MPLS deployment the use of MPLS is limited to relatively small network consisting of core and edge nodes. Those nodes are under full control of the services provider and placed at locations where only authorized personal has access (this also includes physical access to the nodes). With the extensions of MPLS towards access and aggregation nodes not all nodes will be "locked away" in secure locations. Small access nodes like DSLAMs will be located in street cabinets, potentially offering access to the "interested researcher".

So far, so good. The draft authors understand the security problem they raise. But now for the punch line …

Nevertheless the unauthorized access to such in device SHOULD NOT impose any security risks to the MPLS infrastructure itself.

The term SHOULD NOT can be understood in two ways. Perhaps it is simply a statement that the authors believe that this placement of nodes in sites where they will be accessible to outsiders simply shouldn’t cause any problems, since no-one would think of attempting to exploit this vulnerability. Or perhaps this is a requirement for implementations, but not a strong MUST requirement, just a SHOULD requirement. In this case the authors are saying that perhaps in some cases it would be a good idea to do something about this, but only if there isn’t some other more important consideration.

But don’t panic - the draft authors add an additional sentence :

Seamless MPLS must be stable regarding attacks against access and aggregation nodes running MPLS.

Note that this requirement carries a non-normative must rather than a MUST. Also, seamless MPLS need not be impregnable to attacks, just stable. Network stability is defined in RFC 2360, the Guide for Internet Standards Writers. It means that the network does not take an infinite time to return to normal operation after some type of change. In this context, it apparently means that after a DoS attack is over, the network should return to normal functioning. Not a very strong requirement !

Can seamless MPLS be made safe (or at least as safe as present networks) ? Of course, but the effort would be substantial, requiring IETF to develop security mechanisms for non-IP traffic, something that has not been attempted to date. As the draft authors requested that the draft be accepted with all the rest of the security section marked “TBD”, fixing this lacuna does not seem to be very high on their list.

 
Yaakov (Jonathan) Stein

For more articles by Yaakov Stein, see his blog "Carrier Grade Communications"