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Versions: 00 01 02 03 04 05 rfc4732                                     
Internet Engineering Task Force                                      IAB
INTERNET-DRAFT                                         Mark Handley (ed)
draft-iab-dos-01.txt                                         10 May 2004
                                                  Expires: November 2004

               Internet Denial of Service Considerations

This document is an Internet-Draft and is subject to all provisions of
Section 10 of RFC2026.

Internet-Drafts are working documents of the Internet Engineering Task
Force (IETF), its areas, and its working groups.  Note that other groups
may also distribute working documents as Internet-Drafts.

Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum of six months
and may be updated, replaced, or obsoleted by other documents at any
time.  It is inappropriate to use Internet- Drafts as reference material
or to cite them other than as "work in progress."

The list of current Internet-Drafts can be accessed at

The list of Internet-Draft Shadow Directories can be accessed at


This document provides an overview of possible avenues for denial-of-
service attack on Internet systems.  The aim is to encourage protocol
designers and network engineers towards designs that are more robust.
We discuss partial solutions that reduce the effectiveness of attacks,
and how some solutions might inadvertently open up alternative

1.  Introduction

A Denial-of-Service (DoS) attack is an attack in which one or more
machines target a victim and attempt to prevent the victim from doing
useful work.  The victim can be a network server, client or router, a
network link or an entire network, an individual Internet user or a
company doing business using the Internet, an Internet Service Provider

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(ISP), country, or any combination of or variant on these.  Denial of
service attacks may involve gaining unauthorized access to network or
computing resources, but for the most part in this document we focus on
the cases where the denial-of-service attack itself does not involve a
compromise of the victim's computing facilities.

Because of the closed context of the original ARPAnet and NSFnet, no
consideration was given to denial-of-service attacks in the original
Internet Architecture.  As a result, almost all Internet services are
vulnerable to denial-of-service attacks of sufficient scale.  In most
cases, sufficient scale can be achieved by compromising enough end-hosts
(typically using a virus, worm, or remotely controlled "bots") or
routers, and using those compromised hosts to perpetrate the attack.
Such an attack is known as a Distributed Denial of Service attack
(DDoS).  However, there are also many cases where a single well-
connected end-system can perpetrate a successful DoS attack.

This document is intended to serve several purposes:

o   To highlight possible avenues for attack, and by so doing encourage
    protocol designers and network engineers towards designs that are
    more robust.

o   To discuss partial solutions that reduce the effectiveness of

o   To highlight how some partial solutions can be taken advantage of by
    attackers to perpetrate alternative attacks.

This last point appears to be a recurrent theme in DoS, and highlights
the lack of proper architectural solutions.  It is our hope that this
document will help initiate informed debate about future architectural
solutions that might be feasible and cost-effective for deployment.

In addition it is our hope that this document will spur discussion
leading to architectural solutions that reduce the succeptibility of all
Internet systems to denial-of-service attacks.

We note that in principle it is not possible to distinguish between a
sufficiently subtle DoS attack and a flash-crowd, where unexpected heavy
but non-malicious traffic has the same effect as a DoS attack.  Whilst
this is true, such malicious attacks are usually more expensive to
launch than many of the crude attacks that have been seen to date.  Thus
defending against DoS is not about preventing all possible attacks, but
rather is largely a question of raising the bar sufficiently high for
malicious traffic.

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However, it is also important to note that not all DoS problems are
malicious.  Failed links, flash crowds, misconfigured bots, and numerous
other causes can result in resource exhaustion problems, and so the
overall goal should be to be robust to all forms of overload.

2.  An Overview of Denial-of-Service Threats

In this section we will discuss a wide range of possible DoS attacks.
This list cannot be exhaustive, but the intent is to provide a good
overview of the spectrum of possibilities that need to be defended

We do not provide descriptions of any attacks that are not already
publicly well documented.

2.1.  DoS Attacks on End-systems

We first discuss attacks on end-systems.  An end-system in this context
is typically a PC or network server, but it can also include any
communication endpoint.  For example, a router also is an end-system
from the point of view of terminating TCP connections for BGP [32] or

2.1.1.  Exploiting Poor Software Quality

The simplest DoS attacks on end-systems exploit poor software quality on
the end-systems themselves, and cause that software to simply crash.
For example, buffer-overflow attacks might be used to compromise the
end-system, but even if the buffer-overflow cannot be used to gain
access, it will usually be possible to overwrite memory and cause the
software to crash.  Such vulnerabilities can in principle affect any
software that uses data supplied from the network.  Thus not only might
a web server be potentially vulnerable, but it might also be possible to
crash the back-end software (such as a database) to which a web server
provides data.

Software crashes due to poor coding not only affect application
software, but also the operating system kernel itself.  A classic
example is the so-called "Ping of Death", which became widely known in
1996 [10]. This exploit caused many popular operating systems to crash
when sent a single fragmented ICMP echo request packet whose fragments
totaled more than the 65535 bytes allowed in an IPv4 packet.

While DoS attacks such as the ping-of-death are a significant problem,
they are not a significant architectural problem.  Once such an attack

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is discovered, the relevant code can easily be patched, and the problem
goes away.  We should note though that as more and more software becomes
embedded, it is important not to lose the possibility of upgrading the
software in such systems.

2.1.2.  Application Resource Exhaustion

Network applications exist in a context that has finite resources.  In
processing network traffic, such an application uses these resources to
do its intended task.  However, an attacker may be able to prevent the
application from performing its intended task by causing the application
to exhaust the finite supply of a specific resource.

The obvious resources that might be exhausted include:

o   Available memory.

o   The CPU cycles available.

o   The disk space available to the application.

o   The number of processes or threads or both that the application is
    permitted to use.

o   The configured maximum number of simultaneous connections the
    application is permitted.

This list is clearly not exhaustive, but it illustrates a number of

Some resources are self-renewing: CPU cycles fall in this category - if
the attack ceases, more CPU cycles become available.

Some resources such as disk space require an explicit action to free up
- if the application cannot do this automatically then the effects of
the attack may be persistent after the attack has ceased.

This problem has been understood for many years, and it is common
practice for logs and incoming email to be stored in a separate disk
partition (/var) on Unix systems.

Some resources are constrained by configuration: the maximum number of
processes and the maximum number of simultaneous connections are not
normally hard limits, but rather are configured limits.  The purpose of
such limits is clearly to allow the machine to perform other tasks in
the event the application misbehaves.  However, great care needs to be
taken to choose such limits appropriately.  For example, if a machine's

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sole task is to be an ftp server, then setting the maximum number of
simultaneous connections to be significantly less than the machine can
service makes the attackers job easier.  But setting the limit too high
may permit the attacker to cause the machine to crash (due to poor OS
design in handling resource exhaustion) or permit livelock (see below),
which are generally even less desirable failure modes.

2.1.3.  Operating System Resource Exhaustion

Conceptually OS resource exhaustion and application resource exhaustion
are very similar.  However, in the case of application resource
exhaustion, the operating system may be able to protect other tasks from
being affected by the DoS attack.  In the case of the operating system
itself running out of resources, the problem may be more catastrophic.

Perhaps the best-known DoS attack on an operating system is the TCP SYN-
flood [8], which is essentially a memory-exhaustion attack.  The
attacker sends a flood of TCP SYN packets to the victim, requesting
connection setup, but then does not complete the connection setup.  The
victim instantiates state to handle the incoming connections.  If the
attacker can instantiate state faster than the victim times it out, then
the victim will run out of memory that it can use to hold TCP state, and
so it cannot service legitimate TCP connection setup attempts.  This
issue was exacerbated in some implementations by the use of a small
dedicated storage space for half-open connections, which made the attack
easier than it might otherwise have been.  In the case of a poorly coded
operating system, running out of resources may also cause a system

An alternative TCP DoS attack is the Ack-flood [12], which is
essentially a CPU exhaustion attack on the victim.  The attacker floods
the victim with TCP packets pretending to be from connections that have
never been established.  A busy server that has a large number of
outstanding connections needs to check which connection the packet
corresponds to.  Some TCP implementations implemented this search rather
inefficiently, and so the attacker could use all the victim's CPU
resources servicing these packets rather than servicing legitimate

We note that strong authentication mechanisms do not mitigate against
such CPU exhaustion attacks.  In fact poorly designed authentication
mechanisms using cryptographic methods can exacerbate the problem.  If
such an authentication mechanism allows an attacker to present a packet
to the victim that requires relatively expensive cryptographic
authentication before the packet can be discarded, then this makes the
attacker's CPU exhaustion attack easier.

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CPU exhaustion attacks can be also be exacerbated by poor OS handling of
incoming network traffic.  In the absence of malicious traffic, an ideal
OS should behave as follows:

o   As incoming traffic increases, the useful work done by the OS should
    increase until some resource (such as the CPU) is saturated.

o   From this point on, as incoming traffic continues to increase the
    useful work done should be constant.

However, this is often not the case.  Many systems suffer from livelock
[29] where, after saturation, increasing the load causes a decrease in
the useful work done.  One cause of this is that the system spends an
increasing amount of time processing network interrupts for packets that
will never be processed, and hence a decreasing amount of time is
available for the application for which these packets were intended.

2.1.4.  Attacks on Ongoing Communications

Instead of attacking the end-system itself, it is also possible for an
attacker to disrupt ongoing communications.  If an attacker can observe
a TCP connection, then it is relatively easy for them to spoof packets
to either reset that connection or to de-synchronize it so that no
further progress can be made [25]. Such attacks are not prevented by
transport or application-level security mechanisms such as TLS [20] or
ssh, because the authentication takes place after TCP has finished
processing the packets.

If an attacker cannot observe a TCP connection, but can infer that such
a connection exists, it is theoretically possible to reset or
desynchronize that connection by spoofing packets into the connection.
However, this might require an excessively large number of spoofed
packets to guess both the port of the active end of the TCP connection
(in most cases the port of the passive end is predictable) and the
currently valid TCP sequence numbers.  However, as some operating
systems have poorly implemented predictable algorithms for selecting
either the dynamically selected port or the TCP initial sequence number
[40] [9], then such attacks have been found to be feasible [30]. Advice
as to how to reduce the vulnerability in the specific case of TCP is
available in [34].

An attacker might be able to significantly reduce the throughput of a
connection by sending spoofed ICMP source quench packets, although most
modern operating systems should ignore such packets.  However, care
should be taken in the design of future transport and signaling
protocols to avoid the introduction of similar mechanisms that could be

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2.1.5.  Attacks using the Victim's Own Resources

Instead of directly overloading the victim, it may be possible to cause
the victim or a machine on the same subnet as the victim to overload

An example of such an attack is documented in [7], where the attacker
spoofs the source address on a packet sent to the victim's  UDP echo
port.  The source address is that of another machine that is running a
UDP chargen server (a chargen server sends a character pattern back to
the originating source).  The result is that the two machines bounce
packets back and forth as fast as they can, overloading either the
network between them or one of the end-systems itself.

2.1.6.  Triggered Lockouts and Quota Exhaustion

Many user-authentication mechanisms attempt to protect against password
guessing attacks by locking the user out after a small number of failed
authentications.  If an attacker can guess or discover a user's ID, they
may be able to trigger such a mechanism, locking out the legitimate

Another way to deny service using protection mechanisms is to cause a
quota to be exhausted.  This is perhaps most common in the case of small
web servers being commercially hosted, where the server has a contract
with the hosting company allowing a fixed amount of traffic per day.  An
attacker may be able to rapidly exhaust this quota, and cause service to
be suspended.  Similar attacks may be possible against other forms of

In the absence of such quotas, if the victim is charged for their
network traffic, a financial denial-of-service may be possible.

2.2.  DoS Attacks on Routers

Many of the denial-of-service attacks that can be launched against end-
systems can also be launched against the control processor of an IP
router, for example by flooding the ssh or telnet ports.  In the case of
a router, these attacks may cause the router to reboot, or may cause the
router to cease processing routing packets.  Even if the router does not
stop servicing routing packets, it may become sufficiently slow that
routing protocols time out.  In any of these circumstances, the
consequence of routing failure is not only that the router ceases to
forward traffic, but also that it causes routing protocol churn that may
have further side effects.

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An example of such a side effect is caused by BGP route flap damping
[35], which is intended to reduce global routing churn.  If an attacker
can cause BGP routing churn, route flap damping may then cause the
flapping routes to be suppressed [27].

A DoS attack on the router control processor might also prevent the
router being managed effectively.  This may prevent actions being taken
that would mitigate the DoS attack, and it might prevent diagnosis of
the cause of the problem.

2.2.1.  Attacks on Routers through Routing Protocols

In addition to their roles as end-systems, most routers run dynamic
routing protocols.  The routing protocols themselves can be used to
stage a DoS attack on a router or a network of routers.  To inject
routing information into a routing protocol, an attacker needs access
either to a router or to a end-host on a subnet where a routing protocol
is running.  In the latter case, if the routing protocol running on that
subnet is not authenticated, the end-host may be able to insert spoofed
routing information or pretend to be a router.

The simplest attack on a network of routers is to overload the routing
table with sufficiently many routes that the router runs out of memory,
or the router has insufficient CPU power to process the routes [15]. We
note that depending on the distribution and capacities of various
routers around the network, such an attack might not overwhelm routers
near to the attacking router, but might cause problems to show up
elsewhere in the network.

Some routing protocols allow limits to be configured on the maximum
number of routes to be heard from a neighbor [17]. However, if such a
limit doesn't block the spoofed routes at source, then imposition of
such a limit elsewhere in the network might cause legitimate routes to
be dropped.

An alternative attack is to overload the routers on the network by
creating sufficient routing table churn that routers are unable to
process the changes.  Many routing protocols allow damping factors to be
configured to avoid just such a problem.  However, as with table size,
such a threshold applied inconsistently may allow the spoofed routes to
merge with legitimate routes before the mechanism is applied, causing
legitimate routes to be damped.

The simplest routing attack on a specific destination is for an attacker
to announce a spoofed desirable route to that destination.  Such a route
might be desirable because it has low metric, or because it is a more
specific route than the legitimate route.  In any event, if the route is

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believed it will cause traffic for the victim to be drawn towards the
attacking router, where it will typically be discarded.

A more subtle denial-of-service attack might be launched against a
network rather than against a destination.  Under some circumstances,
the propagation of inconsistent routing information can cause traffic to
loop.  If an attacker can cause this to happen on a busy path, the
looping traffic might cause significant congestion, as well as not
reaching the legitimate destination.  However in many cases severe
congestion is unlikely because TCP's congestion control will shut down
the majority of traffic that fails to reach the destination.

If an attacker has access to a host on the same subnet as a router
running certain routing protocols, even if that router is configured not
to accept routes, it might be possible to cause that router to run out
of memory by spoofing the existence of fake routers on that subnet.

In the past there have been cases where different generations of routers
interpreted a routing protocol specification differently.  In
particular, BGP specifies that in the case of an error, the BGP peering
should be dropped.  However, if some of the routers in a network treat a
particular route as valid and other routes treat the route as invalid,
then it may be possible to inject a BGP route at one point in the
Internet and cause peerings to be dropped at many other places in the
Internet.  Unlike many of the examples above, while such an issue might
be a serious short-term problem, this is not a fundamental architectural
problem.  Once the problem is understood, deploying patched routing code
can permanently solve the issue.

2.2.2.  IP Multicast-based DoS Attacks

There are essentially two forms of IP multicast: "traditional" IP
multicast (ASM), as specified in RFC 1112 [19] where multiple sources
can send to the same multicast group, and source-specific multicast
(SSM) where the receiver must specify both the IP source address and the
group address.  The two forms of multicast provide rather different DoS

With ASM, an attacker can simply send to multiple multicast groups.
Routing protocols such as PIM-SM [21], MSDP [28] and DVMRP [38] then
have to instantiate routing state to ensure that the traffic goes to the
group receivers and not to non-receivers.  Thus ASM is particularly
vulnerable to DoS attacks causing both multicast routing table explosion
(and hence control processor memory exhaustion) and multicast forwarding
table exhaustion (and hence forwarding card memory exhaustion or

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ASM also permits an attacker to send traffic to the same group as
legitimate traffic, potentially causing network congestion and denying
service to the legitimate group.

However, unlike unicast traffic, it is comparatively difficult to spoof
source addresses for IP multicast traffic.  Most deployed IP multicast
routing protocols use reverse-path checks to build the forwarding tree,
and so multicast attackers are easily located.  In addition, multicast
traffic will only continue to flow to a receiver as long as the receiver
joins the multicast group.  Thus it may be harder to use multicast
traffic to cause a denial-of-service attack on a destination - an
attacker would need to be opportunistic, sending traffic to a multicast
group that is already being received by the victim or another host
located close to the victim.

SSM does not permit senders to send to arbitrary groups unless a
receiver has requested the traffic.  Thus sender-based attacks on
multicast routing state are not possible with SSM.  However, as with
ASM, a receiver can still join a large number of multicast groups
causing routers to hold a large amount of multicast routing state,
potentially causing memory exhaustion and hence denial-of-service to
legitimate traffic.

With IPv6, hosts are required to send ICMP Packet Too Big or Parameter
Problem messages under certain circumstances, even if the destination
address is a multicast address. If the attacker can place himself in the
appropriate position in the multicast tree, a packet with an unknown but
mandatory Destination Option, for instance, could generate a very large
number of responses to the claimed sender.

With IPv4 the same problem exists with multicast ICMP Echo Request
packets, but these are somewhat easier to filter.

2.2.3.  Attacks on Router Forwarding Engines

Router vendors implement many different mechanisms for packet
forwarding, but broadly speaking they fall into two categories: ones
that use a forwarding cache, and ones that do not.  With a forwarding
cache, the forwarding engine does not hold the full routing table, but
rather holds just the currently active subset of the forwarding table.

Routers or switches using a forwarding cache are potentially vulnerable
if an attacker can send many packets to different destinations through
the same router, causing the forwarding cache to thrash.  One effect of
this is likely to be that legitimate traffic is dropped because the
cache entry has been lost and takes time to reinstate.  Another possible

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effect is that the control traffic caused by the forwarding engine
attempting to refresh the cache causes overload of the control processor
(and potentially causes routing adjacencies to be dropped).  In
practice, this is only an issue if the forwarding engine does not have
sufficient space for the full routing table.  Even then such attacks may
be difficult to perpetrate if the intended victim is not close to the
attacker.  In other cases such an effect would normally only be seen in
the presence of a worm that manages to compromise a very large number of
hosts, and then scans widely in its attempt to propagate further.

Many modern routers use a loosely coupled architecture, where one or
more control processors handle the routing protocols, and communicate
over an internal network link to special-purpose forwarding engines,
which actually forward the data traffic.  In such architectures it may
be possible for an attacker to overwhelm the communications link between
the control processor and the forwarding engine.  This is possible
because the forwarding engines support very high speed links, and the
control processor simply cannot handle a similar rate of traffic.

There may be many ways in which an attacker can trigger communication
between the forwarding engines and the control processor.  The simplest
way is for the attacker to simply send to the router's IP address, but
this should in principle be relatively easy to prevent using filtering
on the forwarding engines.  Another way might be to cause the router to
forward data packets using the "slow path".  This involves sending
packets that require special attention from the forwarding router; if
the forwarding engine is not smart enough to perform such forwarding,
then it will typically pass the packet to the control processor.  In a
router using a forwarding cache, it may be possible to overload the
internal communications by thrashing the forwarding cache.  Finally, any
form of data-triggered communication between the forwarding engine and
the control processor might cause such a problem.  Certain multicast
routing protocols including PIM-SM contain many such data triggered
events that could potentially be problematic.

The effects of overloading such internal communications are hard to
predict, and very implementation-dependent.  One possible effect might
be that the forwarding table in the forwarding engine gets out of
synchronization with the routing table in the control processor that
reflects what the routing protocols believe is happening.  This might
cause traffic to be dropped or to loop.

Finally, if an attacker can generate traffic that causes a router to
install access control list (ACL) entries, perhaps by triggering a
response from an intrusion detection system, then it may be possible to
exhaust the hardware ACL resources on the router.  This might prevent
future attacks from being filtered, or worse, cause ACL processing to be
handled by the route processor.

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2.3.  DoS Attacks on Local Hosts or Infrastructure

There are a number of attacks that might only be performed by a local

An attacker with access to a subnet may be able to prevent other local
hosts from accessing the network at all by simply exhausting the address
pool allocated by a DHCP server.  This requires being able to spoof the
MAC address of an ethernet or wireless card, but this is quite feasible
with certain hardware and operating systems.

An alternative DHCP-based attack is simply to respond faster than the
legitimate DHCP server, and to give out an address that is not useful to
the victim.

These sorts of bootstrapping attacks tend to be difficult to avoid
because most of the time trust relationships are established after IP
communication has already been established.

Similar attacks are possible through ARP spoofing [4]; an attacker can
respond to ARP requests before the victim and prevent traffic from
reaching the victim.  Some brands of ethernet switch allow an even
simpler attack - simply send from the victim's MAC address, and the
switch will redirect traffic destined for the victim to the attacker's

It may be possible to cause broadcast storms [4] on a local LAN by
sending a stream of unicast IP packets to the broadcast MAC address -
some hosts on the LAN may then attempt to forward the packets to the
correct MAC address greatly amplifying the traffic on the LAN.

802.11 wireless networks provide many opportunities to deny service to
other users.  Unless encryption is enabled, it is trivial to announce
the presence of a basestation (or even of an ad-hoc mode host) with the
same network name (SSID) as the legitimate basestation.  Even adding
authentication and encryption a la 802.1X and 802.11i may not help much
in this respect. The SSID space is unmanaged, so everyone's free to put
anything they want in the SSID field.  Most host stacks don't deal
gracefully with this.

Some 802.11 basestations have limited memory for the number of
associations they can support.  If this is exceeded, they may drop all

Finally, as the authentication in 802.11 takes place at a comparatively
high level in the stack, it is possible to simply deauthenticate or
disassociate the victim from the basestation, even if WEP is in use
[26]. Bellardo and Savage [3] describe some simple remedies that reduce

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the effectiveness of such attacks.

What all these attacks have in common is that they exploit
vulnerabilities in the link auto-configuration mechanisms.  Such
problems are hard to solve because the reason for the existence of such
autoconfiguration mechanisms is ease of use, and to secure them requires
some form of authentication at a sufficiently early place in the
autoconfiguration process.

2.4.  DoS Attacks on Sites though DNS

In today's Internet, DNS is of sufficient importance that if access to a
site's DNS servers is denied, the site is effectively unreachable, even
if there is no actual communication problem with the site itself.

Many of the attacks on end-systems described above can be perpetrated on
DNS servers.  As servers go, DNS servers are not particularly vulnerable
to DoS.  So long as a DNS server has sufficient memory, a modern host
can usually respond very rapidly to DNS requests for which it is
authoritative.  This was demonstrated in October 2002 when the root
nameservers were subjected to a very large DoS attack [36]. A number of
the root nameservers have since been replicated using anycast [1] to
further improve their resistance to DoS.  However it is important for
authoritative servers to have relaying disabled, or it is possible for
an attacker to force the DNS servers to hold state [39].

Many of the routing attacks can also be used against DNS servers by
targeting the routing for the server.  If the DNS server is co-located
with the site for which is authoritative, then the fact that the DNS
server is also unavailable of secondary importance.  However, if all the
DNS servers are made unavailable, this may cause email to that site to
bounce rather than being stored while the mail servers are unreachable,
so distribution of DNS server locations is important.

Causing network congestion on links to and from a DNS server can have
similar effects to end-system attacks or routing attacks, causing DNS to
fail to obtain an answer, and effectively denying access to the site
being served.

We note that if an attacker can deny external access to all the DNS for
a site, this will not only cause email to that site to be dropped, but
will also cause email from that site to be dropped.  This is because
recent versions of mail transfer agents such as sendmail will drop email
if the mail originates from a domain that does not exist.  This is a
classic example of unexpected consequences.  Sendmail performs this
check as an anti-spam measure, and spam itself can be viewed as a form

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of DoS attack.  Thus defending against one DoS attack opens up the
vulnerability that allows another DoS attack.

Finally, a data corruption attack is possible if a site's nameserver is
permitted to relay requests from untrusted third parties [39]. The
attacker issues a query for the data he wishes to corrupt, and the
victim's nameserver relays the request to the authoritative nameserver.
The request contains a 16-bit ID that is used to match up the response
with the request.  If the attacker spoofs sufficient response packets
from the authoritative nameserver just before the official response will
arrive, each containing a forged response and a different DNS ID, then
there is a reasonable chance that one of the forged responses will have
the correct DNS ID.  The incorrect data will then be believed and cached
by the victim's nameserver, so giving the incorrect response to future
queries.  The probability of the attack can further be increased if the
attacker issues many different requests for the same data with different
DNS IDs, because many nameserver implementations will the issue relayed
requests with different DNS IDs, and so the response only has to match
any one of these request IDs [6] [33].

2.5.  DoS Attacks on Links

The simplest DoS attack is to simply send enough non-congestion-
controlled traffic that a link becomes excessively congested, and
legitimate traffic suffers unacceptably high packet loss.

Under some circumstances the effect of such a link DoS can be much more
extensive.  We have already discussed the effects of denying access to a
DNS server.  Congesting a link might also cause a routing protocol to
drop an adjacency if sufficient routing packets are lost, potentially
greatly amplifying the effects of the attack.  Good router
implementations will prioritize the transmission of routing packets, but
this is not a total panacea.  If routers are peered across a shared
medium such as ethernet, it may be possible to congest the medium
sufficiently that routing packets are still lost.

Even if a link DoS does not cause routing packets to be lost, it may
prevent remote access to a router using ssh or SNMP.  This might make
the router unmanageable, or prevent the attack being correctly

The prioritization of routing packets can itself cause a DoS problem.
If the attacker can cause a large amount of routing flux, it may be
possible for a router to send routing packets at a high enough rate that
normal traffic is effectively excluded.  This is however unlikely except
on low bandwidth links.

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Finally, it may be possible to an attacker to deny access to a link by
causing the router to generate sufficient monitoring or report traffic
that the link is filled.  SNMP traps are one possible vector for such an
attack, as they are not normally congestion controlled.

2.6.  DoS attacks on firewalls

Firewalls are intended to defend the systems behind them against attack.
In that they restrict the traffic that can reach those systems, they may
also aid in defending against denial-of-service attacks.  However, under
some circumstances the firewall itself may also be used as a weapon in a
DoS attack.

There are many different types of firewall, but generally speaking they
fall into stateful and stateless classes.  The state here refers to
whether the firewall holds state for the active flows traversing the
firewall.  Stateless firewalls generally can only be attacked by
attempting to exhaust the processing resources of the firewall.
Stateful firewalls can be attacked by sending traffic that causes the
firewall to hold excessive state or state which has pathological

In the case of excessive state, the firewall simply runs out of memory,
and can no longer instantiate the state required to pass legitimate
flows.  Most firewalls will then fail closed, causing denial-of-service
to the systems behind the firewall.

In the case of pathological structure, the attacker sends traffic that
causes the firewall's data structures to exhibit worst case behaviour.
An example of this would be when the firewall uses hash tables to look
up forwarding state, and the attacker can predict the hash function
used.  The attacker may then be able to cause a large amount of flow
state to hash to the same bucket, which causes the firewall's lookup
performance to change from O(1) to O(n), where n is the number of flows
the attacker can instantiate [18]. Thus the attacker can cause
forwarding performance to degrade to the point where service is
effectively denied to the legitimate traffic traversing the firewall.

2.7.  DoS attacks on IDS systems

Intrusion detection systems (IDS) suffer from similar problems to
firewalls.  It may be possible for an attacker to cause the IDS to
exhaust its available processing power, to run out of memory, or to
instantiate state with pathological structure.  Unlike a firewall, an
IDS will normally fail open, which will not deny service to the systems
protected by the IDS.  However it may mean that subsequent attacks that

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the IDS would have detected will be missed.

Some IDSs are reactive; that is on detection of a hostile event they
react to block subsequent traffic from the hostile system, or to
terminate an ongoing connection from that system.  It may be possible
for an attacker to spoof packets from a legitimate system, and hence
cause the IDS to believe that system is hostile.  The IDS will then
cause traffic from the legitimate system to be blocked, hence denying
service to it.  The effect can be particularly bad if the legitimate
system is a router, DNS server, or other system whose performance is
essential for the operation of a large number of other systems.

2.8.  DoS attacks on or via NTP

Network time servers are generally not considered security-critical
services, but under some circumstances NTP servers might be used to
perpetrate a DoS attack.

The most obvious such attack is to DoS the NTP servers themselves.  Many
end systems have rather poor clock accuracy and so, without access to
network time, their clock will naturally drift.  This can cause problems
with distributed systems that rely on good clocks.  For example one
commonly used revision control system can fail if it perceives the
modification timestamp to be in the future.

If the NTP servers relied on by a host can be subverted, either through
compromising or impersonating them, then the attacker may be able to
control the host's system clock.  This can cause many unexpected
consequences, including the premature expiry of dated resources such as
encryption or authentication keys.  This in turn can prevent access to
other more critical services.

2.9.  Physical DoS

The discussion thus far has centered on denial-of-service attacks
perpetrated using the network.  However, computer systems are only as
resilient as the weakest link.  It may be easier to deny service by
causing a power failure, by cutting network cables, or by simply
switching a system off, and so physical security is at least as
important as network security.

2.10.  Social Engineering DoS

The weakest link may also be human.  In defending against DoS, the
possibility of denial-of-service through social engineering should not

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be neglected, such as convincing an employee to make a configuration
change that prevents normal operation.

2.11.  Legal DoS

Computer systems cannot be considered in isolation from the social and
legal systems in which they operate.  This document focuses primarily on
the technical issues, but we note that "cease and desist" letters,
government censorship, and other legal mechanisms also touch on denial-
of-service issues.

2.12.  Spam and Black-hole Lists

Unsolicited commercial email, also known as "spam", can effectively
cause denial-of-service to email systems.  While the intent is not
denial-of-service, the large amount of unwanted mail can waste the
recipient's time, or cause legitimate email to fail to be noticed
amongst all the background noise.  If spam filtering software is used,
some level of false positives is to be expected, and so these messages
are effectively denied service.

One mechanism to reduce spam is the use of black-hole lists.  The IP
addresses of dial-up ISPs or mail servers used to originate or relay
spam are added to black-hole lists.  The recipients of mail choose to
consult these lists and reject spam if it originates or is relayed by
systems on the list.  One significant problem with such lists is that it
may be possible for an attacker to cause a victim to be black-hole
listed, even if the victim was not responsible for relaying spam.  Thus
the black-hole list itself can be a mechanism for effecting a DoS
attack.  Note that every black-hole list has its own policy regarding
additions, and some are less susceptible to this DoS attack than others.
Consumers of black-hole list technology are advised to investigate these
policies before they subscribe.

3.  Attack Amplifiers

Many of the attacks described above rely on sending sufficient traffic
to overwhelm the victim.  Such attacks are made much easier by the
existence of "attack amplifiers", where an attacker can send traffic
from the spoofed source address of the victim and cause larger responses
to be returned to the victim.  A detailed discussion of such reflection
attacks can be found in [31].

The simplest such attack was the "smurf" attack [11], where an ICMP echo
request packet with the spoofed source address of the victim is sent to

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the subnet-broadcast address of a network to be used as an amplifier.
Every system on that subnet then responds with an ICMP echo response
that returns to the victim.  Smurf attacks are no longer such a serious
problem, as these days routers usually drop such packets and end-systems
do not respond to them.

An alternative form of attack amplifier is typified by a DNS reflection
attack.  An attacker sends a DNS request to a DNS server requesting
resolution of a domain name.  Again the source address of the request is
the spoofed address of the victim.  The request is carefully chosen so
that the size of the response is significantly greater than the size of
the request, thereby providing the amplification.  As an aside, it is
interesting to note that the largest DNS responses tend to be those
incorporating DNSsec authentication information.  This attack amplifier
can only be used by an attacker with the ability to spoof the source
address of the victim.  However, we note that if the victim's DNS server
is configured to relay requests from external clients, it may be
possible to cause it to congest its own incoming network link.

Another variant of attack amplifier involves amplification through
retransmission.  This is typified by a TCP amplification attack known as
"bang.c".  The attacker sends a spoofed TCP SYN with the source address
of the victim to a arbitrary TCP server.  The server will respond with a
SYN|ACK which is sent to the victim, and when no final ACK is received
to complete the handshake, the SYN|ACK will be retransmitted a number of
times.  Typically this attack uses a very large list of arbitrarily
chosen servers as reflectors.  For the attack to be successful, the
reflector must not receive a RST from the victim in response to the
SYN|ACK - however if the attack traffic sufficiently overwhelms the
server or access link to the server, then packet loss will ensure that
many reflectors do not receive a RST in response to their SYN|ACK, and
so continue to retransmit.  The attack can be exacerbated by firewalls
that silently drop the incoming SYN|ACK without sending a RST.

Care must also be taken with services that relay requests.  If an
attacker can send a request to a proxy, and that proxy now attempts to
connect to a victim whose address is chosen by the attacker then, if the
proxy repeatedly resends the request when receiving no answer, this can
also serve as an attack amplifier.

Another variant of amplification occurs in protocols that include,
within the protocol payload, an IP address or name of host to which
subsequent messages should be sent. An example of such as protocol is
the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which carries a payload defined
by the Session Description Protocol (SDP). The SDP payload of the SIP
message conveys the IP address and port to which media packets,
typically encoded using the Real Time Transport Protocol (RTP), are

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To launch this attack, an attacker sends a protocol message, and sets
the IP address within the payload to point to the attack target. The
recipient of the message will generate subsequent traffic to that IP
address. Depending on the protocol, this attack can provide substantial
amplification properties. In the specific case of SIP, if a caller makes
calls to high bandwidth media sources (such as a video server or
streaming audio server), a single SIP INVITE packet, typically a few
hundred bytes, can result in a nearly continuous stream of media packets
at rates anywhere from a few kbits per second up to megabits per second.
This particular attack is called the "voice hammer".

Unlike the other techniques described above, this technique does not
require the attacker to modify packets or even spoof their source IP
address. This makes it easier to launch.

This attack is prevented through careful protocol design. Protocols
should, whenever possible, avoid including IP addresses or hostnames
within protocol payloads as addresses to which subsequent messaging
should be sent. Rather, when possible, messages should be sent to the
source IP from which the protocol packet came. If such a design is not
possible, the protocol should include a handshake whereby it can be
positively determined that the protocol entity at that IP address or
hostname does, in fact, wish to receive that subsequent messaging. That
handshake itself needs to be lightweight (to avoid being the source of
another DoS attack), and secured against the spoofing of the handshake

Finally, a somewhat similar attack is possible with some protocols where
where one message leads to another message that is not sent as a reply
to the source address of the first message.  This can be an issue with
protocols to enable mobility for example, and might permit an attacker
to avoid ingress filtering.  Such protocols are notoriously difficult to
get right.

In general, the architectural lessons to be learnt are simple:

o   As far as possible, perform ingress filtering [22] [37] to prevent
    source address spoofing.

o   Avoid designing protocols or mechanisms that can return
    significantly larger responses than the size of the request, unless
    a handshake is performed to validate the client's source address.
    Such a handshake needs to incorporate an unpredictable nonce that is
    secure enough to mitigate the amplification effects of the protocol.

o   All retransmission during initial connection setup should be
    performed by the client.

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o   Proxies should not arbitrarily relay requests to destinations chosen
    by a client.

o   Avoid signaling third-party connections.  Any unavoidable third-
    party connections setup by a signaling protocol should incorporate
    lightweight validation before sending significant data.

4.  DoS Solutions

Although it is not in principle possible to distinguish between a flash-
crowd and a DoS attack, in practice it should be possible to raise the
bar high enough that an attacker is forced to disguise their attack as
legitimate traffic.  This makes it much more expensive to perpetrate an
attack.  In addition, the goal should be to make it impossible to
perpetrate an attack from an untraceable host.  Thus, even though some
attacks may be impossible to prevent, the victim would then have legal
recourse.  This does not however mean that anonymity should be
impossible at the application level; merely that the choice to interact
with an anonymous party should be at the discretion of the other party.

A guiding principle when hardening systems against DoS is to avoid
causing additional different avenues for attack.  A classic example is
that of a mail server that verifies the "from" address of email is
resolvable, which allows email from a site to be DoSed by merely
preventing access to that site's DNS servers.

The guidelines below primarily concern the relatively obvious mechanisms
that are already reasonably well understood.  The aim of this document
is to help protocol designers and network operators understand the state
of the art, and to stimulate discussion on additional architectural

Don't Create an Attack Amplifier

The simplest guideline is to avoid building attack amplifiers and, as
far as possible, to perform ingress filtering to prevent compromised
systems on a subnet from spoofing the source address on packets.

Don't Hold State for Unverified Hosts

From an end-system server point of view, one simple aim is to avoid
instantiating state without having completed a handshake with the client
to validate their address, and as far as possible to push work and
stateholding to client.  There are a number of techniques that might be
used to do this, including SYN-cookies [5] [2]. All client-server
protocols should probably be designed to allow such techniques to be
used, but the enabling of the mechanism should normally be at the

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server's discretion to avoid unnecessary work under normal

State Lookup Complexity

Any system that instantiates per-connection state should take great care
to implement the state-lookup mechanisms in such a way that performance
can not be controlled by the attacker.  One way to achieve this is to
use hash-tables where the hash mechanism is keyed in such a way that the
attacker cannot instantiate a large number of flows in the same hash

Avoid Livelock

Most operating systems use network interrupts to receive data from the
network, which is a good solution if the host spends only a small amount
of its time handling network traffic.  However, this leaves the host
open to livelock [29], where under heavy load the OS spends all its time
handling interrupts and no time doing the work needed to handle the
traffic at the application level.  Server operating systems should
consider using network polling at times of heavy load, rather that being
interrupt-driven, and should be carefully architected so that as far as
reasonably possible, traffic received by the OS is processed to
completion, or very cheaply discarded.

Use Unpredictable Values for Session IDs

Most recent TCP implementations use fairly good random mechanisms for
allocating the TCP initial sequence numbers.  In general, any
dynamically allocated value used purely to identify a communications
session should be allocated using an unpredictable mechanism, as this
increases the search space for an attacker that wishes to disrupt
ongoing communications.  Thus the dynamically allocated port of the
active end of a TCP connection might also be randomly allocated.

With DNS, the ID which is used to match responses with requests should
also be randomly generated.  However, as the ID field is only 16 bits,
the protection is rather limited, especially in the face of birthday

Authenticate Routing Adjacencies

In general, cryptographic authentication mechanisms are too costly to
form the main part in DoS prevention.  However, routing adjacencies are
too important to risk an attacker being able to inject bad routing
information, which can affect more than the router in question.
Additional non-cryptographic mechanisms should then be used to avoid
arbitrary end-systems being able to cause the router to spend CPU cycles

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on validating authentication data.

For BGP, at the very least, this implies the use of TCP MD5 [24] or
IPsec authentication, combined with the TTL 255 hack [23] to prevent
EBGP association with non-immediate neighbours.  In future, this will
likely imply better authentication of the routing information itself.

Isolate Router-to-Router Traffic

As far as is feasible, router-to-router traffic should be isolated from
data traffic.  How this should be implemented depends on the precise
technologies available, both in the router and at the link-layer.  The
goal should be that failure of the link for data traffic should also
cause failure for the routing traffic, but that an attacker cannot
directly send packets to the control processor of the routers.

A downside of this is that some diagnostic techniques (such as pinging
consecutive routers to find the source of a delay) may no longer be
possible.  Ideally, alternative mechanisms (which do not open up
additional avenues for DoS) should be designed to replace such lost

Graceful Routing Degradation

A goal with routing protocols is that of graceful degradation in
overload, and automatic recovery after the source of the overload has
been remedied.  Some routing protocols satisfy this goal more than
others.  Although RIP doesn't scale well, if a router runs out of memory
when receiving a RIP route, it can just drop the route and send an
infinite metric to its peers.  The route will later be refreshed, and if
the original source of the problem has been resolved, the router will
now be able to process it correctly.

On the other hand, BGP is stateful in the sense that a peer assumes you
have processed or chosen to filter any route that it sent you.  There is
no mechanism to refresh state in the base BGP spec, and even the later
route refresh option [16] is hard to use usefully in the presence of
overload.  A BGP router that cannot store a route it received has two
choices: completely restart BGP, or shutdown one or more peerings [15].
This means that the effects of a BGP overload are rather more severe
than they need to be, and so amplifies the effect of any attack.

In general, few routing protocol designs actively consider the possible
behaviour of routers under overload conditions; this should be an
explicit part of future routing protocol designs.  Although precise
details should clearly be left to implementors, the protocol design
needs to give them the capability to do their job properly.

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Source-Specific Multicast

Source-specific multicast is easier to manage than ASM, and opens up
many fewer avenues for DoS attack.  However, ASM has many uses for
resource discovery and autoconfiguration.  A prudent deployment strategy
would be to use SSM for inter-domain multicast and ASM only within the
more controlled environment of an intranet.  In both environments,
administrative controls should be set to prevent a single receiver from
joining sufficient multicast groups to cause a state exhaustion problem
in the multicast routers.  Such a threshold needs to take into account
that some multicast congestion control mechanisms use multiple multicast
groups to allow the receiver to select an appropriate rate.

In the future, multicast protocols may be deployed which use shared
bidirectional trees for interdomain multicast.  This might allow ASM to
be deployed without the DoS vulnerabilities exhibited by current inter-
domain ASM solutions.  Such solutions are not currently available.

Autoconfiguration and Authentication

Autoconfiguration mechanisms greatly ease deployment, and are
increasingly necessary as the number of networked devices grows beyond
what can be managed manually.  However, it should be recognised that
unauthenticated autoconfiguration opens up many avenues for attack.
There is a clear tension between ease of configuration and security of
configuration.  Future autoconfiguration protocols should consider the
need to allow different end-systems to operate at different points in
this spectrum within the same autoconfiguration framework.

Establish a Monitoring Framework

Network operators are strongly encouraged to establish a monitoring
framework to detect and log abnormal network activity.  One can not
defend against an attack one doesn't detect or understand.  Such
monitoring tools can be used to set a baseline of "normal" traffic, and
can be used to determine:

1.  Aberrant flows.

2.  Type and source of the aberrant flows.

This is extremely helpful when responding to DDoS or a flash crowd, and
should be in place prior to the event.

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5.  Conclusions

In this document we have highlighted possible avenues for DoS attack on
networks and networked systems, with the aim of encouraging protocol
designers and network engineers towards designs that are more robust.
We have discussed partial solutions that reduce the effectiveness of
attacks, and highlighted how some partial solutions can be taken
advantage of by attackers to perpetrate alternative attacks.

Our focus has primarily been on protocol and network architecture
issues, but there are many things that network and service operators can
do to lessen the threat.  Further advice and information for network
operators can be found in [13] [37] [14].

It is our hope that this document will spur discussion leading to
architectural solutions that reduce the succeptibility of all Internet
systems to denial-of-service attacks.

6.  Acknowledgements

We are very grateful to Vern Paxson, Paul Vixie, Rob Thomas, Dug Song,
George Jones and Jari Arkko for their constructive comments on earlier
versions of this document.

7.  Authors' Addresses

Mark Handley
Department of Computer Science
University College London
Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT
United Kingdom.

Email: M.Handley@cs.ucl.ac.uk

8.  References

[1] J. Abley, "Hierarchical Anycast for Global Service Distribution",

[2] T. Aura, P. Nikander, J. Leiwo, "DOS-resistant authentication with
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     Protocols, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Cambridge, UK, April

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[3] J. Bellardo, S. Savage, "802.11 Denial-of-Service Attacks: Real
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[4] S.M. Bellovin, "Security Problems in the TCP/IP Protocol Suite",
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[5] D.J. Bernstein, "SYN Cookies", http://cr.yp.to/syncookies.html

[6] CCAIS/RNP Alertas do Cais ALR-19112002a, "Vulnerability in the
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[7] CERT Advisory CA-1996-01, "UDP Port Denial-of-Service Attack", Feb

[8] CERT Advisory CA-1996-21, "TCP SYN Flooding and IP Spoofing
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[9] CERT Advisory CA-2001-09, "Statistical Weaknesses in TCP/IP Initial
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[10] CERT Advisory CA-1996-26, "Denial-of-Service Attack via ping", Dec

[11] CERT Advisory CA-1998-01, "Smurf IP Denial-of-Service Attacks",
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[12] CERT Incident Note IN-2000-05, "'mstream' Distributed Denial of
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[13] CERT/CC - "Managing the Threat of Denial of Service Attacks",

[14] CERT/CC - "Trends in Denial of Service Attack Technology",

[15] D.F. Chang, R. Govindan, J. Heidemann, "An Empirical Study of
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     2nd Internet Measurement Workshop (IMW 2002), 2002.

[16] E. Chen, "Route Refresh Capability for BGP-4", RFC 2918, September

[17] Cisco Systems, "Configuring the BGP Maximum-Prefix Feature", Cisco
     Document ID: 25160, http://www.cisco.com/warp/public/459/bgp-

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[18] Scott A Crosby and Dan S Wallach, "Denial of Service via
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[19] S. Deering, "Host extensions for IP multicasting", RFC 1112, Aug

[20] T. Dierks, C. Allen, "The TLS Protocol, Version 1.0", RFC 2246, Jan

[21] D. Estrin, D. Farinacci, A. Helmy, D. Thaler, S.  Deering, M.
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[22] P. Ferguson, D. Senie, "Network Ingress Filtering: Defeating Denial
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[23] V. Gill, J. Heasley, D. Meyer, "The BGP TTL Security Hack (BTSH)",
     draft-gill-btsh-02.txt (work in progress), 29-May-03.

[24] A. Heffernan, "Protection of BGP Sessions via the TCP MD5 Signature
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[25] Laurent Joncheray, "Simple Active Attack Against TCP", 5th USENIX
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[26] M. Lough, "A Taxonomy of Computer Attacks with Applications to
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[27] Z. Mao, R. Govindan, G. Varghese, R. Katz, "Route Flap Dampening
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[28] D. Meyer, W. Fenner (Editors), "Multicast Source Discovery Protocol
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[29] J. Mogul, KK. Ramakrishnan, "Eliminating Receive Livelock in an
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[30] National Infrastructure Secuity Co-ordination Center (NISCC),
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[31] V. Paxson, "An Analysis of Using Reflectors for Distributed Denial-
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[32] Y. Rekhter, T. Li, "A Border Gateway Protocol 4 (BGP-4)", RFC 1771,
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[33] Joe Stewart, "DNS Cache Poisoning - The Next Generation", Jan 27
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[34] R. Stewart (Editor), Transmission Control Protocol security
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[35] C. Villamizar, R. Chandra, R. Govindan, "BGP Route Flap Damping",
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[36] P. Vixie, G. Sneeringer, M. Schleifer, "Events of 21-Oct-2002",

[37] P. Vixie, "Securing the Edge",

[38] D. Waitzman, C. Partridge, S.E. Deering, "Distance Vector Multicast
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[39] D. Wessels, "Running An Authoritative-Only BIND Nameserver",

[40] M. Zalewski, "Strange Attractors and TCP/IP Sequence Number
     Analysis", http://razor.bindview.com/publish/papers/tcpseq.html

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