Securing BGP: A Case Study (8)

Throughout the last several months, I’ve been building a set of posts examining securing BGP as a sort of case study around protocol and/or system design. The point of this series of posts isn’t to find a way to secure BGP specifically, but rather to look at the kinds of problems we need to think about when building such a system. The interplay between technical and business requirements are wide and deep. In this post, I’m going to summarize the requirements drawn from the last seven posts in the series.

Don’t try to prove things you can’t. This might feel like a bit of an “anti-requirement,” but the point is still important. In this case, we can’t prove which path along which traffic will flow. We also can’t enforce policies, specifically “don’t transit this AS;” the best we can do is to provide information and letting other operators make a local decision about what to follow and what not to follow. In the larger sense, it’s important to understand what can, and what can’t, be solved, or rather what the practical limits of any solution might be, as close to the beginning of the design phase as possible.

In the case of securing BGP, I can, at most, validate three pieces of information:

  • That the origin AS in the AS Path matches the owner of the address being advertised.
  • That the AS Path in the advertisement is a valid path, in the sense that each pair of autonomous systems in the AS Path are actually connected, and that no-one has “inserted themselves” in the path silently.
  • The policies of each pair of autonomous systems along the path towards one another. This is completely voluntary information, of course, and cannot be enforced in any way if it is provided, but more information provided will allow for stronger validation.

There is a fine balance between centralized and distributed systems. There are actually things that can be centralized or distributed in terms of BGP security: how ownership is claimed over resources, and how the validation information is carried to each participating AS. In the case of ownership, the tradeoff is between having a widely trusted third party validate ownership claims and having a third party who can shut down an entire business. In the case of distributing the information, there is a tradeoff between the consistency and the accessibility of the validation information. These are going to be points on which reasonable people can disagree, and hence are probably areas where the successful system must have a good deal of flexibility.

Cost is a major concern. There are a number of costs that need to be considered when determining which solution is best for securing BGP, including—

  • Physical equipment costs. The most obvious cost is the physical equipment required to implement each solution. For instance, any solution that requires providers to replace all their edge routers is simply not going to be acceptable.
  • Process costs. Any solution that requires a lot of upkeep and maintenance is going to be cast aside very quickly. Good intentions are overruled by the tyranny of the immediate about 99.99% of the time.

Speed is also a cost that can be measured in business terms; if increasing security decreases the speed of convergence, providers who deploy security are at a business disadvantage relative to their competitors. The speed of convergence must be on the order of Internet level convergence today.

Information costs are a particularly important issue. There are at least three kinds of information that can leak out of any attempt to validate BGP, each of them related to connectivity—

  • Specific information about peering, such as how many routers interconnect two autonomous systems, where interconnections are, and how interconnection points are related to one another.
  • Publicly verifiable claims about interconnection. Many providers argue there is a major difference between connectivity information that can be observed and connectivity information that is claimed.
  • Publicly verifiable information about business relationships. Virtually every provider considers it important not to release at least some information about their business relationships with other providers and customers.

While there is some disagreement in the community over each of these points, it’s clear that releasing the first of these is almost always going to be unacceptable, while the second and third are more situational.

With these requirements in place, it’s time to look at a couple of proposed systems to see how they measure up.


  1. […] There are a number of systems that have been proposed to validate (or secure) the path in BGP. To finish off this series on BGP as a case study, I only want to look at three of them. At some point in the future, I will probably write a couple of posts on what actually seems to be making it to some sort of deployment stage, but for now I just want to compare various proposals against the requirements outlined in the last post on this topic (you can find that post here). […]