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Normalization Tradeoffs

When designing a traffic normalizer, we are faced with a set of tradeoffs, which can be arranged along several axes: Generally speaking, as we increase the degree of normalization and protection, we need to hold more state; performance decreases both for the normalizer and for end-to-end flows; and we impact end-to-end semantics more. Our goal is not to determine a single ``sweet spot,'' but to understand the character of the tradeoffs, and, ideally, design a system that a site can tune to match their local requirements.

Normalization vs. protection. As a normalizer is a ``bump in the wire,'' the same box performing normalization can also perform firewall functionality. For example, a normalizer can prevent known attacks, or shut down access to internal machines from an external host when the NIDS detects a probe or an attack. In this paper we concentrate mainly on normalization functionality, but will occasionally discuss protective functionality for which a normalizer is well suited.

End-to-end semantics. As much as possible, we would like a normalizer to preserve the end-to-end semantics of well-behaved network protocols, whilst cleaning up misbehaving traffic. Some packets arriving at the normalizer simply cannot be correct according to the protocol specification, and for these there often is a clear normalization to apply. For example, if two copies of an IP fragment arrive with the same fragment offset, but containing different data, then dropping either of the fragments or dropping the whole packet won't undermine the correct operation of the particular connection. Clearly the operation was already incorrect.

However, there are other packets that, while perfectly legal according to the protocol specifications, may still cause ambiguities for the NIDS. For example, it is perfectly legitimate for a packet to arrive at the normalizer with a low TTL. However, per the discussion in the Introduction, the NIDS cannot be sure whether the packet will reach the destination. A possible normalization for such packets is to increase its TTL to a large value.1 For most traffic, this will have no adverse effect, but it will break diagnostics such as traceroute, which rely on the semantics of the TTL field for their correct operation.

Normalizations like these, which erode but do not brutally violate the end-to-end protocol semantics, present a basic tradeoff that each site must weigh as an individual policy decision, depending on its user community, performance needs, and threat model. In our analysis of different normalizations, we place particular emphasis on this tradeoff, because we believe the long-term utility of preserving end-to-end semantics is often underappreciated and at risk of being sacrificed for short-term expediency.

Impact on end-to-end performance. Some normalizations are performed by modifying packets in a way that removes ambiguities, but also adversely affects the performance of the protocol being normalized. There is no clear answer as to how much impact on performance might be acceptable, as this clearly depends on the protocol, local network environment, and threat model.

Stateholding. A NIDS system must hold state in order to understand the context of incoming information. One form of attack on a NIDS is a stateholding attack, whereby the attacker creates traffic that will cause the NIDS to instantiate state (see § 4.2 below). If this state exceeds the NIDS's ability to cope, the attacker may well be able to launch an attack that passes undetected. This is possible in part because a NIDS generally operates passively, and so ``fails open.''

A normalizer also needs to hold state to correct ambiguities in the data flows. Such state might involve keeping track of unacknowledged TCP segments, or holding IP fragments for reassembly in the normalizer. However, unlike the NIDS, the normalizer is in the forwarding path, and so has the capability to ``fail closed'' in the presence of stateholding attacks. Similarly, the normalizer can perform ``triage'' amongst incoming flows: if the normalizer is near state exhaustion, it can shut down and discard state for flows that do not appear to be making progress, whilst passing and normalizing those that do make progress. The assumption here is that without complicity from internal hosts (see below), it is difficult for an attacker to fake a large number of active connections and stress the normalizer's stateholding.

But even given the ability to perform triage, if a normalizer operates fail-closed then we must take care to assess the degree to which an attacker can exploit stateholding to launch a denial-of-service attack against a site, by forcing the normalizer to terminate some of the site's legitimate connections.

Inbound vs. outbound traffic. The design of the Bro network intrusion detection system assumes that it is monitoring a bi-directional stream of traffic, and that either the source or the destination of the traffic can be trusted [12]. However it is equally effective at detecting inbound or outbound attacks.

The addition of a normalizer to the scenario potentially introduces an asymmetry due to its location--the normalizer protects the NIDS against ambiguities by processing the traffic before it reaches the NIDS (Figure 2). Thus, an internal host attempting to attack an external host might be able to exploit such ambiguities to evade the local NIDS. If the site's threat model includes such attacks, either two normalizers may be used, one on either side of the NIDS, or a NIDS integrated into a single normalizer. Finally, we note that if both internal and external hosts in a connection are compromised, there is little any NIDS or normalizer can do to prevent the use of encrypted or otherwise covert channels between the two hosts.

Whilst a normalizer will typically make most of its modifications to incoming packets, there may also be a number of normalizations it applies to outgoing packets. These normalizations are to ensure that the internal and external hosts' protocol state machines stay in step despite the normalization of the incoming traffic. It is also possible to normalize outgoing traffic to prevent unintended information about the internal hosts from escaping ([17], and see § 5.1 below).

Protection vs. offloading work. Although the primary purpose of a normalizer is to prevent ambiguous traffic from reaching the NIDS where it would either contribute to a state explosion or allow evasion, a normalizer can also serve to offload work from the NIDS. For example, if the normalizer discards packets with bad checksums, then the NIDS needn't spend cycles verifying checksums.

next up previous
Next: Real-world Considerations Up: Network Intrusion Detection: Evasion, Previous: Other approaches
Vern Paxson