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title: TLS computational DoS mitigation
uuid: 508f723b-adbe-4d05-be2d-bc53b4a9cbb5
"": "Various tools related to TLS"
- ssl
Some days ago, a hacker group, THC, released a
[denial of service tool][thc] for TLS web servers. As stated in its
description, the problem is not really new: a complete TLS handshake
implies costly cryptographic computations.
There are two different aspects in the presented attack:
- The computation cost of an handshake is more important for the
server than for the client. The advisory explains that a server
will require 15 times the processing power of a client. This means
a single average workstation could challenge a multi-core high-end
- [TLS renegotiation][rfc5746] allows you to trigger hundreds of
handshakes in the same TCP connection. Even a client behind a DSL
connection can therefore bomb a server with a lot of renegotiation
!!! "Update (2015.02)" While the content of this article is still
technically sound, ensure you understand it was written by the end of
2011 and therefore doesn't take into account many important aspects,
like the fall of RC4 as an appropriate cipher.
# Mitigation techniques
There is no definitive solution to this attack but there exists some
workarounds. Since the DoS tool from THC relies heavily on
renegotiation, the most obvious one is to disable this mechanism on
the server side but we will explore other possibilities.
## Disabling TLS renegotiation
Tackling the second problem seems easy: just disable TLS
renegotiation. It is hardly needed: a server can trigger a
renegotiation to ask a client to present a certificate but a client
usually does not have any reason to trigger one. Because of a
[past vulnerability in TLS renegotiation][cve-2009-3555], recent
versions of _Apache_ and _nginx_ just forbid it, even when the
[non-vulnerable version][rfc5746] is available.
`openssl s_client` can be used to test if TLS renegotiation is really
disabled. Sending `R` on an empty line trigger renegotiation. Here is
an example where renegotiation is disabled (despite being advertised
as supported):
$ openssl s_client -connect -tls1
New, TLSv1/SSLv3, Cipher is DHE-RSA-AES256-SHA
Server public key is 2048 bit
Secure Renegotiation IS supported
Compression: zlib compression
Expansion: zlib compression
140675659794088:error:1409E0E5:SSL routines:SSL3_WRITE_BYTES:ssl handshake failure:s3_pkt.c:591:
Disabling renegotation is not trivial with OpenSSL. As an example, I
have pushed a [patch to disable renegotiation in _stud_][studreneg],
the scalable TLS unwrapping daemon.
## Rate limiting TLS handshakes
Disabling TLS renegotiation on the client side is not always
possible. For example, your web server may be too old to propose such
an option. Since these renegotiations should not happen often, a
workaround is to limit them.
When the flaw was first advertised, [F5 Networks][f5] provided a way
to configure such a limitation with an iRule on their load-balancers.
We can do something similar with Netfilter. We can spot most TCP
packets triggering such a renegotiation by looking for encrypted TLS
handshake record. They may happen in a regular handshake but in this
case, they usually are not at the beginning of the TCP payload. There
is no field saying if a TLS record is encrypted or not (TLS is
stateful for this purpose). Therefore, we have to use some heuristics.
If the handshake type is unknown, we assume that this is an encrypted
record. Moreover, renegotiation requests are usually encapsulated in a
TCP packet flagged with "push."
# Access to TCP payload (if not fragmented)
payload="0 >> 22 & 0x3C @ 12 >> 26 & 0x3C @"
-p tcp --dport 443 \
--tcp-flags SYN,FIN,RST,PSH PSH \
-m u32 \
--u32 "$payload 0 >> 8 = 0x160300:0x160303 && $payload 2 & 0xFF = 3:10,17:19,21:255" \
-m hashlimit \
--hashlimit-above 5/minute --hashlimit-burst 3 \
--hashlimit-mode srcip --hashlimit-name ssl-reneg \
The use of `u32` match is a bit difficult to read. The
[manual page][iptables] gives some insightful examples. `$payload`
allows us to seek for the TCP payload. It only works if there is no
fragmentation. Then, we check if we have a handshake (`0x16`) and if
we recognise TLS version (`0x0300`, `0x0301`, `0x0302` or
`0x0303`). At least, we check if the handshake type is not a known
There is a risk of false positives but since we use `hashlimit`, we
should be safe. This is not a bullet proof solution: TCP fragmentation
would allow an attacker to evade detection. Another equivalent
solution would be to use `CONNMARK` to record the fact the initial
handshake has been done and forbid any subsequent handshakes.[^noo]
[^noo]: Handling TLS state in Netfilter is quite hard. The first
solution is using the fact that renegotiation requests are
encapsulated in a TCP segment flagged with "push." This is not
always the case and it is trivial to workaround. With the
second solution, we assume that the first encrypted handshake
record is packed in the same TCP segment than the client key
exchange. If it comes in its own TCP segment, it would be seen
as a renegociation while it is not. The state machine needs to
be improved to detect the first encrypted handshake at the
beginning of a TLS record or in the middle of it.
If you happen to disable TLS renegociation, you can still use some
Netfilter rule to limit the number of TLS handshakes by limiting the
number of TCP connections from one IP:
iptables -A LIMIT_TLS \
-p tcp --dport 443 \
--syn -m state --state NEW \
-m hashlimit \
--hashlimit-above 120/minute --hashlimit-burst 20 \
--hashlimit-mode srcip --hashlimit-name ssl-conn \
Your servers will still be vulnerable to a large botnet but if there
is only a handful of source IP, this rule will work just fine.[^a]
[^a]: However, since this rule relies on source IP to identify the
attacker, the risk of false positive is real. You can slow down
legitimate proxies, networks NATed behind a single IP, mobile
users sharing an IP address or people behind a CGN.
I have made all these solutions available in a
[single file][netfilter].
## Increasing server-side power processing
TLS can easily be scaled up and out. Since
[TLS performance increases linearly with the number of cores][sslbench1],
scaling up can be done by throwing in more CPU or more cores per
CPU. Adding expensive TLS accelerators would also do the
trick. Scaling out is also relatively easy but you should care about
[TLS session resume][sslresume].
## Putting more work on the client
In their presentation of the [denial of service tool][thc], THC explains:
> Establishing a secure SSL connection requires 15× more processing
> power on the server than on the client.
I don't know where this figure comes from. To check it, I built a
[small tool to measure CPU time of a client and a server doing 1000 handshakes][server-vs-client]
with various parameters (cipher suites and key sizes). The results are
summarized on the following plot:
![Plot to compare computational power required by servers and clients][s1]
[s1]: [[!!images/benchs-ssl/server-vs-client.png]] "Comparison of computational power needed by servers and clients"
!!! "Update (2011.11)" Adam Langley announced [Google HTTPS sites now
support forward secrecy][ecdh] and `ECDHE-RSA-RC4-SHA` is now the
preferred cipher suite thanks to fast, constant-time implementations
of elliptic curves P-224, P-256 and P-521 in OpenSSL. The tests above
did not use these implementations.
For example, with 2048bit RSA certificates and a cipher suite like
`AES256-SHA`, the server needs 6 times more CPU power than the
client. However, if we use `DHE-RSA-AES256-SHA` instead, the server
needs 34% less CPU power. The most efficient cipher suite from the
server point of view seems to be something like `DHE-DSS-AES256-SHA`
where the server needs half the power of the client.
However, you can't really use only these shiny cipher suites:
1. Some browsers do not support them: they are limited to RSA cipher
2. Using them will increase your regular load a lot. Your servers may
collapse with just legitimate traffic.
3. They are expensive for some mobile clients: they need more memory,
more processing power and will drain battery faster.
[^1]: Cipher suites supported by all browsers are `RC4-MD5`, `RC4-SHA`
and `3DES-SHA`. <del>Support for `DHE-DSS-AES256-SHA` requires TLS
1.2</del> <del>(not supported by any browser).</del>
Let's dig a bit more on why the server needs more computational power
in the case of RSA. Here is a TLS handshake when using a cipher suite
like `AES256-SHA`:
![TLS full handshake][s2]
[s2]: [[!!images/benchs-ssl/ssl-handshake.png]] "Full TLS handshake"
When sending the _Client Key Exchange_ message, the client will
**encrypt** TLS version and 46 random bytes with the public key of the
certificate sent by the server in its _Certificate_ message. The
server will have to **decrypt** this message with its private
key. These are the two most expensive operations in the
handshake. Encryption and decryption are done with [RSA][rsa] (because
of the selected cipher suite). To understand why decryption is more
expensive than encryption, let me explain how RSA works.
First, the server needs a public and a private key. Here are the main
steps to generate them:
1. Pick two random distinct [prime numbers][prime] ·p· and ·q·, each
roughly the same size.
2. Compute ·n=pq·. It is the _modulus_.
3. Compute ·\varphi(n)=(p-1)(q-1)·.
4. Choose an integer ·e· such that ·1<e<\varphi(n)· and
·\gcd(\varphi(n),e) = (i.e. ·e· and ·\varphi(n)· are
[coprime][coprime]). It is the _public exponent_.
5. Compute ·d=e^{-1}\mod\varphi(n)·. It is the _private key
The **public key** is ·(n,e)· while the **private key** is ·(n,d)·. A
message to be encrypted is first turned into an integer ·m<n· (with
some appropriate padding). It is then encrypted to a ciphered message
·c· with the public key and should only be decrypted with the private
- ·c=m^e\mod  (encryption)
- ·m=c^d\mod  (decryption)
So, why is decryption more expensive? In fact, the key pair is not
really generated like I said above. Usually, ·e· is a small fixed
prime number with a lot of 0, like 17 (`0x11`) or 65537 (`0x10001`)
and ·p· and ·q· are choosen such that ·\varphi(n)· is coprime with
·e·. This allows encryption to be fast using
[exponentiation by squaring][squaring]. On the other hand, its inverse
·d· is a big number with no special property and therefore,
exponentiation is more costly and slow.
Instead of computing ·d· from ·e·, it is possible to choose ·d· and
compute ·e·. We could choose ·d· to be small and coprime with
·\varphi(n)· and then compute ·e=d^{-1}\mod\varphi(n)· and get
blazingly fast decryption. Unfortunately, there are two problems with
- Most TLS implementations expect ·e· to be a 32-bit integer.
- If ·d· is too small (less than one-quarter as many bits as the
modulus ·n·), it can be
[computed efficiently from the public key][wiener].
Therefore, we cannot use a small private exponent. The best we can do
is to choose the public exponent to be ·e'=4294967291· (the biggest
prime 32-bit number and it contains only one 0). However, there is no
change as you can see on our comparative plot.
To summarize, no real solution here. You need to allow RSA cipher
suites and there is no way to improve the computational ratio between
the server and the client with such a cipher suite.
# Things get worse
Shortly after the release the [denial of service tool][thc], Eric
Rescorla[^0] published a
[good analysis on the impact of such a tool][educated]. He asks
himself about the efficiency to use renegotiation for such an attack:
> What you should be asking at this point is whether a computational DoS
> attack based on renegotiation is any better for the attacker than a
> computational DoS attack based on multiple connections. The way we
> measure this is by the ratio of the work the attacker has to do to the
> work that the server has to do. I've never seen any actual
> measurements here (and the THC guys don't present any), but some back
> of the envelope calculations suggest that the difference is small.
> If I want to mount the old, multiple connection attack, I need to
> incur the following costs:
> 1. Do the TCP handshake (3 packets)
> 2. Send the SSL/TLS _ClientHello_ (1 packet). This can be a canned message.
> 3. Send the SSL/TLS _ClientKeyExchange_, _ChangeCipherSpec_,
> _Finished_ messages (1 packet). These can also be canned.
> Note that I don't need to parse any SSL/TLS messages from the server,
> and I don't need to do any cryptography. I'm just going to send the
> server junk anyway, so I can (for instance) send the same bogus
> _ClientKeyExchange_ and _Finished_ every time. The server can't find
> out that they are bogus until it's done the expensive part. So,
> roughly speaking, this attack consists of sending a bunch of canned
> packets in order to force the server to do one RSA decryption.
[^0]: Eric is one of the author of several RFC related to TLS. He knows his stuff.
I have written a
[quick proof of concept of such a tool][brute-shake]. To avoid any
abuse, it will only work if the server supports `NULL-MD5`
cipher suite. No sane server in the wild will support such a
cipher. You need to configure your web server to support it before
using this tool.
While Eric explains that there is no need to parse any TLS
messages, I have found that if the key exchange message is sent before
the server send the answer, the connection will be aborted. Therefore,
I quickly parse the server's answer to check if I can continue. Eric
also says a bogus key exchange message can be sent since the server
will have to decrypt it before discovering it is bogus. I have choosen
to build a valid key exchange message during the first handshake
(using the certificate presented by the server) and replay it on
subsequent handshakes because I think the server may dismiss the
message before the computation is complete (for example, if the size
does not match the size of the certificate).
!!! "Update (2011.11)" Michał Trojnara has written
[sslsqueeze][sslsqueeze], a similar tool. It uses `libevent2` library
and should display better performances than mine. It does not compute
a valid key exchange message but ensure the length is correct.
With such a tool and 2048bit RSA certificate, a server is using 100
times more processing power than the client. Unfortunately, this means
that most solutions, except rate limiting, exposed on this page
may just be ineffective.
*[DoS]: Denial of service
*[SSL]: Secure Socket Layer
*[TLS]: Transport Layer Security
*[DSL]: Digital Subscriber Line
*[RSA]: Rivest Shamir Adleman
*[THC]: The Hacker's Choice
*[CGN]: Carrier-grade NAT
[sslbench1]: [[en/blog/2011-ssl-benchmark.html]] "First round of TLS benchmarks"
[sslbench2]: [[en/blog/2011-ssl-benchmark-round2.html]] "Second round of TLS benchmarks"
[sslresume]: [[en/blog/2011-ssl-session-reuse-rfc5077.html]] "Speeding up TLS: enabling session reuse"
[rsa]: "Article on Wikipedia for RSA"
[prime]: "Article on Wikipedia for prime numbers"
[coprime]: "Article on Wikipedia for coprime numbers"
[squaring]: "Article on Wikipedia for exponentiation by squaring"
[wiener]: "Article on Wikipedia for Wiener's attack"
[thc]: "THC-SSL-DOS tool"
[rfc5746]: "RFC 5746: TLS Renegotiation Indication Extension"
[studreneg]: "CVE-2009-3555 fix for stud"
[educated]: "Educated Guesswork: SSL/TLS and Computational DoS"
[f5]: "F5 Networks website"
[f5-ssl]: "SSL Renegotiation DOS attack – an iRule Countermeasure"
[f5-bigip]: https://f5.comproducts/hardware/big-ip.html "F5 Big-IP product line"
[cve-2009-3555]: "CVE-2009-3555"
[netfilter]: "Firewall rules to mitigate TLS DoS"
[brute-shake]: "Tool to emit massive parallel TLS handshakes"
[server-vs-client]: "Tool compare processing power needed by client and server"
[iptables]: "Manual page of iptables(8)"
[sslsqueeze]: "sslsqueeze, SSL service load generator"
[ecdh]: "Forward secrecy for Google HTTPS"
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