BGP Flowspec Indirection

While Flowspec has been around for a while (RFC5575 was published in 2009), deployment across AS boundaries has been somewhat slow. The primary concern in deploying flowspec is the ability to shoot oneself in the foot, particularly as opening Flowspec to customers can also open apn entirely new, and not well understood, attack surface. Often Flowspec is only offered to customers the provider considers technically competent to reduce this line of risk, or does not offer Flowspec filtering at all.

A second concern is the simple cost of filtering packets. In theory, ASICs can filter packets based on a variety of parameters cheaply. Theory doesn’t always easily translate to practice, however. It is often the case that filtering packets is not a cheap operation, even in the ASIC. The kind and granularity of the filter, and how it is applied, can make a big difference in the cost of implementation.

Regardless, recent work in Flowspec is quite interesting; particularly the ability to redirect flows, rather than simply filtering them. Of course, the original RFCs did allow for the redirection of flows into a VRF on the local router, but this leaves a good bit to be desired. To make such a system work, you must actually have a VRF into which to redirect traffic; for one-off situations, such as directing attack traffic to a honey pot, building the VRF and populating it can be more work than capturing the traffic is worth. A newer draft, draft-ietf-idr-flowspec-path-redirect, aims to resolve this.

Before getting to the draft specifics, however, it is useful to review the basic concept of Flowspec, particularly for readers who might not be familiar with them. Essentially, Flowspec is a new address family carried in BGP where the reachable address (the Network Layer Reachability Information, or NLRI), actually carries a filter set. Communities attached to the NLRI (as attributes) provide a set of actions the router should take if a packet matches the filter criteria carried in the NLRI.

The filter formatting is a bit challenging to understand, as it is set up by bit and nibble, with the ability to string filters together with AND and OR. For instance:

  • You can filter based on a TCP destination port number AND a specific TCP flag by stringing together a type 4 filter and a type 9 filter (in that order specifically), setting the a bit on the second filter in the NLRI to indicate both filter conditions must be matched
  • You can filter based on a range of TCP destination port numbers, say ports 1000-2000, using a type 4 filter with a “greater than or equal to” operator combined with a “1000” value, combined with a “less than or equal to” operator combined with a “2000” value

Just about any combination of port numbers, source addresses, destination addresses, protocol types, and flags can be pulled into a single Flowspec match; hence the difficulty in building ASICs that will support the full range of filtering options in a way that is efficient from a switching perspective and inexpensive (remember: pick two).

In the original Flowspec specification, extended communities are used to describe the action a router should take once a packet has matched a particular filter. For instance—

  • 0x8006: traffic-rate
  • 0x8007: traffic-action
  • 0x8008: redirect
  • 0x8009: traffic-marking

It is 0x8008 that is interesting for the present. This redirect extended community encodes a route target, which in turn identifies a Virtual Routing/Forwarding (VRF) table on the local router. Normally, routes are placed in a particular VRF by attaching a route target community to a route carried in BGP. By matching the target VRF in the Flowspec action with a target VRF in routes carried in BGP, you can dump specific packets into a specific VRF. For instance, if you have two routes to 2001:db8:3e8:100::/64, one of which points to a honeypot box, and the other of which transits your network to a customer’s network, you can—

  • Advertise a route to the same destination as the customer route (2001:db8:3e8:100::/64 in this case) into a special “honeypot” VRF by attaching some community to the route advertisement
  • Detect a problem with traffic sourced from some IP address
  • Advertise the route into the customer’s VRF with a Flowspec rule moving traffic sourced from the attack address and destined to 2001:db8:3e8:100::/64 into the honeypot VRF
  • Resulting in the traffic being forwarded based on the next hop in the honeypot VRF, rather than the customer’s VRF

It would be nice to make the reaction in the example given a bit simpler; this is what draft-ietf-idr-flowspec-path-redirect does. Rather than the “action community” in Flowspec encoding a VRF to redirect traffic in to, the “action community” can point into a redirect action table, or point the packet at a specific tunnel. For instance, if you would like to redirect traffic sourced from address and destined to 2001:db8:3e8:100::/64 into a segment path through your network (ending at the same honeypot, to continue the example), you could—

  • Use the indirection community in the “action community” in the Flowspec advertisement (the actual community string has not been assigned at the time of this writing)
  • Set the indirection id part of the community to Node ID

This directs the traffic to the first node in the segment. Other options are a AS, an SR anycast ID, an SR multicast ID, and several others. The indirection ID can indicate the packet should be redirected according to a local table; in this case, it is up to the operator to figure out how to get the table created and filled with the right information.

This solution is still moderately complex—but BGP is increasingly complex, and Flowspec adds another layer of complexity into the mix. What this solution does do, however, is to allow operators to combine Flowspec with segment routing, or a simple table of operations, that makes it easier to deploy Flowspec in many situations outside the more traditional VPN types of services. This is particularly true for large “enterprise” operators with a BGP core in their network who would like to use Flowspec over a wider range of applications.