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> Chapter 9 - Firewall > Network defense > Defending against DoS attacks

Defending against DoS attacks

A denial of service is the result of an attacker sending an abnormally large amount of network traffic to a target system. Having to deal with the traffic flood slows down or disables the target system so that legitimate users can not use it for the duration of the attack.

Any network traffic the target system receives has to be examined, and then accepted or rejected. TCP, UDP, and ICMP traffic is most commonly used, but a particular type of TCP traffic is the most effective. TCP packets with the SYN flag are the most efficient DoS attack tool because of how communication sessions are started between systems.

The “three-way handshake”

Communication sessions between systems start with establishing a TCP/IP connection. This is a simple three step process, sometimes called a “three-way handshake,” initiated by the client attempting to open the connection.

  1. The client sends a TCP packet with the SYN flag set. With the SYN packet, the client informs the server of its intention to establish a connection.
  2. If the server is able to accept the connection to the client, it sends a packet with the SYN and the ACK flags set. This simultaneously acknowledges the SYN packet the server has received, and informs the client that the server intends to establish a connection.
  3. To acknowledge receipt of the packet and establish the connection, the client sends an ACK packet.
Establishing a TCP/IP connection

The three-way handshake is a simple way for the server and client to each agree to establish a connection and acknowledge the other party expressing its intent. Unfortunately, the three-way handshake can be used to interfere with communication rather than facilitate it.

SYN flood

When a client sends a SYN packet to a server, the server creates an entry in its session table to keep track of the connection. The server then sends a SYN+ACK packet expecting an ACK reply and the establishment of a connection.

An attacker intending to disrupt a server with a denial of service (DoS) attack can send a flood of SYN packets and not respond to the SYN+ACK packets the server sends in response. Networks can be slow and packets can get lost so the server will continue to send SYN+ACK packets until it gives up, and removes the failed session from the session table. If an attacker sends enough SYN packets to the server, the session table will fill completely, and further connection attempts will be denied until the incomplete sessions time out. Until this happens, the server is unavailable to service legitimate connection requests.

A single client launches a SYN flood attack

SYN floods are seldom launched from a single address so limiting the number of connection attempts from a single IP address is not usually effective.

SYN spoofing

With a flood of SYN packets coming from a single attacker, you can limit the number of connection attempts from the source IP address or block the attacker entirely. To prevent this simple defense from working, or to disguise the source of the attack, the attacker may spoof the source address and use a number of IP addresses to give the appearance of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. When the server receives the spoofed SYN packets, the SYN+ACK replies will go to the spoofed source IP addresses which will either be invalid, or the system receiving the reply will not know what to do with it.

A client launches a SYN spoof attack

DDoS SYN flood

The most severe form of SYN attack is the distributed SYN flood, one variety of distributed denial of service attack (DDoS). Like the SYN flood, the target receives a flood of SYN packets and the ACK+SYN replies are never answered. The attack is distributed across multiple sources sending SYN packets in a coordinated attack.

Multiple attackers launch a distributed SYN flood

The distributed SYN flood is more difficult to defend against because multiple clients are capable of creating a larger volume of SYN packets than a single client. Even if the server can cope, the volume of traffic may overwhelm a point in the network upstream of the targeted server. The only defence against this is more bandwidth to prevent any choke‑points.

Configuring the SYN threshold to prevent SYN floods

The preferred primary defence against any type of SYN flood is the DoS anomaly check for tcp_syn_flood threshold. The threshold value sets an upper limit on the number of new incomplete TCP connections allowed per second. If the number of incomplete connections exceeds the threshold value, and the action is set to Pass, the FortiGate unit will allow the SYN packets that exceed the threshold. If the action is set to Block, the FortiGate unit will block the SYN packets that exceed the threshold, but it will allow SYN packets from clients that send another SYN packet.

The tools attackers use to generate network traffic will not send a second SYN packet when a SYN+ACK response is not received from the server. These tools will not “retry.” Legitimate clients will retry when no response is received, and these retries are allowed even if they exceed the threshold with the action set to Block.

SYN proxy

FortiGate units with network acceleration hardware, whether built-in or installed in the form of an add-on module, offer a third action for the tcp_syn_flood threshold. Instead of Block and Pass, you can choose to Proxy the incomplete connections that exceed the threshold value.

When the tcp_syn_flood threshold action is set to f, incomplete TCP connections are allowed as normal as long as the configured threshold is not exceeded. If the threshold is exceeded, the FortiGate unit will intercept incoming SYN packets from clients and respond with a SYN+ACK packet. If the FortiGate unit receives an ACK response as expected, it will “replay” this exchange to the server to establish a communication session between the client and the server, and allow the communication to proceed.

Other flood types

UDP and ICMP packets can also be used for DoS attacks, though they are less common. TCP SYN packets are so effective because the target receives them and maintains a session table entry for each until they time out. Attacks using UDP or ICMP packets do not require the same level of attention from a target, rendering them less effective. The target will usually drop the offending packets immediately, closing the session.

Use the udp_flood and icmp_flood thresholds to defend against these DoS attacks.

DoS policies

DDoS attacks vary in nature and intensity. Attacks aimed at saturating the available bandwidth upstream of your service can only be countered by adding more bandwidth. DoS policies can help protect against DDoS attacks that aim to overwhelm your server resources.

DoS policy recommendations

  • Use and configure DoS policies to appropriate levels based on your network traffic and topology. This will help drop traffic if an abnormal amount is received.
  • It is important to set a good threshold. The threshold defines the maximum number of sessions/packets per second of normal traffic. If the threshold is exceeded, the action is triggered. Threshold defaults are general recommendations, although your network may require very different values.
  • One way to find the correct values for your environment is to set the action to Pass and enable logging. Observe the logs and adjust the threshold values until you can determine the value at which normal traffic begins to generate attack reports. Set the threshold above this value with the margin you want. Note that the smaller the margin, the more protected your system will be from DoS attacks, but your system will also be more likely to generate false alarms.