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IP Network Traffic Plane Security Concepts

Chapter Description

This chapter introduces the concepts of defense in depth and breadth as applied to IP traffic plane security.

Network Core Security Concepts

The network core is the trusted domain of a single organization. It includes network devices that typically only have internal (trusted) interfaces that are wholly within and controlled by a single group or administrative domain. For enterprises and SPs alike, with rare exceptions, external IP traffic should never be destined to core network infrastructure. Generally, the only packets destined to these devices should be internal control plane and management plane traffic generated by other network elements or management stations also within the same administrative domain. A well-designed network edge security policy may greatly limit the exposure of the network core to attacks. Even so, human error, misconfigurations, change management, and exception cases dictate that core security mechanisms must be defined and deployed in support of defense in depth and breadth principles. Such core policies help to mitigate the risk if edge policies are inadvertently bypassed.

The primary role of security in the core is to protect the core, not to apply policy to mitigate transit attacks within the data plane. Such attacks should be filtered at the network edge to mitigate the risk of transit attack traffic from adversely affecting transit authorized traffic. Further, anti-spoofing protection mechanisms need to be deployed at the edge; otherwise, it is not possible to accurately verify IP source addresses, which increases the risk of IP spoofing attacks. Nevertheless, control and management plane security policies are applied in support of the defense in depth and breadth strategy to protect the core in the event that edge policies are bypassed.

Just as with the network edge, different types of IP core networks exist. This section considers two types of network cores: an IP core and an MPLS VPN core. Although there are some similarities, each type has its own distinct security requirements, based on attack types and risks present in each network.

IP Core

IP core networks of enterprise and SPs have some basic similarities, but also some distinguishing characteristics. The most obvious similarity is the ability of all IP core networks to route IP packets (as compared with Layer 2 Ethernet switching and MPLS forwarding core networks). Packets are forwarded based on the destination address in the IP header and the matching prefix entry or entries installed in the CEF forwarding table. Having correct routing information is fundamental to a secure IP core network, and this is achieved by maintaining the integrity of the control plane.

The most obvious difference between enterprise and SP core networks involves transit traffic. Enterprise core networks do not carry transit traffic. They are closed private networks and interconnect with SP networks for Internet and/or VPN access (via MPLS, IPsec, Frame Relay, or ATM VPN services). SPs, on the other hand, are purpose-built transit networks. How this impacts the security of core networks may not be obvious, but the implications with respect to routing protocols and security may be quite substantial. These can be summarized as follows:

  • IP networks use an Interior Gateway Protocol (IGP) to dynamically learn and provide reachability to internal prefixes. The dominant IGPs in use today are OSPF and EIGRP for enterprises, and OSPF and IS-IS for SPs. Enterprises often only run an IGP, and thus all the prefixes contained in the forwarding tables on all network devices (routers and Layer 3 switches) are from the IGP, connected interfaces, and static routes (if any), and all packet forwarding decisions are made using these prefixes. SPs, on the other hand, use the IGP only to carry prefixes associated with the internal network infrastructure. That is, no customer or Internet prefixes are carried in the IGP and thus no transit traffic packet forwarding decisions are made exclusively based on IGP-learned prefixes (other than for IP load balancing). Transit customer and Internet peer prefixes are only carried in BGP, for which the IGP provides reachability information between BGP border (or edge) routers.
  • Service providers and larger enterprises, especially those with multiple Internet connections to different SPs (multi-homing) also require BGP for reachability to external IP prefixes. In these networks, the core is typically configured either as a full-mesh iBGP network (or uses some BGP scalability scheme such as route reflectors). In addition, these networks are typically default-route free because they have the full Internet routing table.

The main idea here, then, is that the focus of security in the network core is on protecting the control plane and management plane, as everything else follows from this. Control plane and management plane protocols and applications are well known, and may be unique to each network. Mechanisms must also be deployed that prevent data plane and services plane traffic from impacting the control plane and management plane. As previously described, exception data plane traffic (for example, TTL expiry, IP header options, and so on) may adversely impact network devices in the core of the network. Finally, internally based attack mechanisms and paths cannot be ignored. For example, malware infected hosts may flood the core from the inside, potentially leading to serious network disruptions. This is especially true in enterprise networks where default routes are used, because all destination IP addresses are then considered valid from a routing perspective (hence, nothing is dropped for lack of a route), and stateful control is only enabled at the enterprise edge. Appropriate security techniques are discussed in detail in Chapters 4 through 7 and in the case studies in Chapters 8 and 9.


Referring to Figure 3-5 once again, you can see that MPLS VPN core routers only have internal interfaces wholly within a single administrative domain. These are known as provider (P) routers or intermediate label switch routers (LSR). MPLS core routers perform label switching to forward customer traffic within the services plane. Even so, all MPLS routers rely on the underlying IGP routing protocol(s) to construct the label forwarding information base (LFIB). From the perspective of the MPLS core routers, therefore, only internal control plane and management plane traffic generated by MPLS network elements or management stations should be seen within the IP core control and management planes. MPLS core routers receive customer traffic as labeled packets only. Recall that the MPLS edge (PE) routers receive customer IP packets and apply the appropriate labels to switch these packets across the MPLS core.

The addressing and routing isolation provided by RFC 4364, makes MPLS core (P) routers hidden to MPLS VPN customers. Consequently, it is not possible for a VPN customer to launch direct attacks against core (P) routers because they have no IP reachability. Nevertheless, core (P) routers remain susceptible to, and must be protected against, transit attacks. Of course, if the MPLS core also provides Internet services, then both MPLS VPN and IP security techniques must be considered to prevent Internet-based attacks against the network core infrastructure from impacting MPLS operations.

The MPLS core control plane and management plane must be protected as well. MPLS VPNs depend on proper label distribution, which is generally done using M-BGP for customer prefix label distribution and LDP for IGP prefix label distribution. The typical implementation includes M-BGP routing on MPLS edge (PE) routers for VPN route propagation, and LDP on PE and MPLS core (P) routers for MPLS label switched path (LSP) establishment between ingress and egress PE routers based upon the IGP protocol best paths. While M-BGP uses only TCP for IP transport, LDP uses UDP for peer discovery and TCP for transport of LDP messages.

The main ideas for the MPLS VPN core are as follows:

  • PE isolates the core from direct attack, but still must be protected from transit attacks.
  • The MPLS core uses IP protocols for the control plane and management plane and these should be protected just like in the IP core case.
  • When the MPLS core also provides Internet transit services, both MPLS VPN and IP security techniques must be considered to prevent Internet-based attacks against the network core infrastructure from impacting MPLS operations.

Additional details are provided in Chapters 4 through 7 and in the case studies in Chapters 8 and 9. In addition, the Cisco Press book entitled MPLS VPN Security covers these topics in thorough detail.