Carrier Grade NAT and the DoS Consequences

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Stefan Fouant

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The Internet has a very long history of utilizing mechanisms that may breathe new life into older technologies, stretching it out so that newer technologies may be delayed or obviated altogether. IPv4 addressing, and the well known depletion associated with it, is one such area that has seen a plethora of mechanisms employed in order to give it more shelf life.

In the early 90s, the IETF gave us Classless Inter-Domain Routing (CIDR), which dramatically slowed the growth of global Internet routing tables and delayed the inevitable IPv4 address depletion. Later came DHCP, another protocol which assisted via the use of short term allocation of addresses which would be given back to the provider's pool after use. In 1996, the IETF was back at it again, creating RFC 1918 private addressing, so that networks could utilize private addresses that didn't come from the global pool. Utilizing private address space gave network operators a much larger pool to use internally than would otherwise have been available if utilizing globally assigned address space -- but if they wanted to connect to the global Internet, they needed something to translate those addresses. This is what necessitated the development of Network Address Translation (NAT).

NAT worked very well for many, many years, and slowed the address depletion a great deal. But in order to perform that translation, you still needed to aquire at least one globally addressable IP. As such, this only served to slow down depletion but not prevent it - carriers were still required to provide that globally addressable IP from their own address space. With the explosive growth of the Internet of Things, carriers likewise began to run out of address space to allocate.

NAT came to the rescue again. Carriers took notice of the success of NAT in enterprise environments and wanted to do this within their own networks, after all, if it worked for customers it should likewise work for the carriers. This prompted the IETF to develop Carrier Grade NAT (CGN), also known as Large Scale NAT (LSN). CGN aims to provide a similar solution for carriers by obviating the need for allocating publicly available address space to their customers. By deploying CGN, carriers could oversubscribe their pool of global IPv4 addresses while still providing for seamless connectivity, i.e. no truck-roll.

So while the world is spared from address depletion yet again, the use of CGN technologies opens a new can of worms for carriers. No longer does one globally routable IP represent a single enterprise or customer - due to the huge oversubscription which is afforded through CGN, an IP can service potentially thousands of customers.

This brings us to the cross-roads of the Denial of Service (DoS) problem. In the past, when a single global IP represented only one customer network, there was typically no collateral damage to other customer networks. If the DoS was large enough to impact the carrier's network or if there was collateral damage, they would simply blackhole that customer IP to prevent it from transiting their network. However, with CGN deployments, and potentially thousands of customers being represented by a single IP, blackhole routing is no longer an option.

CGN deployments are vulnerable to DoS in a few different ways. The main issue with CGN is that it must maintain a stateful record of the translations between external addresses and ports with internal addresses and ports. A device which has to maintain these stateful tables is vulnerable to any type of DoS activity that may exhaust the stateful resources. As such, a CGN device may be impacted in both the inbound and the outbound direction. An outbound attack is usually the result of malware on a customers machine, sending a large amount of traffic towards the Internet and consuming the state tables in the CGN. Inbound attacks usually target a particular customer, and take the form of a DoS attack, or a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. Regardless of the direction of the attack, a large amount of resources are consumed in the CGN state table, which reduces overall port availability. Left unregulated, these attacks can easily cause impact not only to the intended victim, but potentially the thousands of other customers being serviced by that CGN.

With the inability to simply blackhole a given IP using edge Access Control Lists (ACLs), carriers must look at other options for protecting their customer base. While some CGN implementations have the ability to limit the amount of ports that are allocated to a single customer, these only work in discrete cases and can be difficult to manage. They also do not protect customers if the CGN device is itself the target of the attack.

The solution to this problem is the use of a purpose-built DDoS mitigation device, or what is more commonly referred to as a "scrubbing" device in IT circles. Dedicated DDoS mitigation devices attempt to enforce that everyone plays nicely, by limiting the maximum number of sessions to or from a given customer. This is done by thorough analysis of the traffic in flight and rate-limiting or filtering traffic through sophisticated mitigation mechanisms to ensure fairness of the public IP and port availability across all customers. Through the use of dedicated DDoS mitigation devices, CGN devices and their associated customers are protected from service disruptions, while still ensuring legitimate traffic is allowed unencumbered. Lastly, another important aspect of DDoS mitigation technology is that they tend to be "bumps in a wire", that is to say, they don't have an IP address assigned to them and as such cannot be the target of an attack.

Cross posted from Corero DDoS Blog.

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