Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Symmetric Traffic and IPS

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A well known problem for network and security professionals in the enterprise is asymmetric routing.  At it's simplest, this is where traffic flows outbound through Router A, while the return traffic returns through Router B, or through both Routers A and B.   If you're using a reflexive ACL, for example, this will lead to some, if not all of the return traffic being blocked as it attempts to return through Router B.  This is due to Router A having a record of the outbound traffic while Router B does not.  Riverbed breaks this down into several sub-categories such as complete asymmetry, server-side asymmetry, client-side asymmetry, and multi-SYN retransmit.  But for our purposes here, it's all asymmetric, and it's all a bad thing.  While some firewalls are able to share state to avoid this situation, not all do.  And Cisco Routers running IOS do not.

While asymmetric routing is known to be a problem at the network edge, it can be a problem for security professionals internally as well.  And the larger the network is, the more likely asymmetric traffic is to occur at some level.  When you deploy an IPS sensor in the network, it must be able to see all traffic in both directions for maximum effectiveness.  When an IPS sensor is able to see all the traffic involved in a particular session, you get better threat detection, reduced susceptibility to IPS evasion techniques, and less susceptibility to false-positives and false-negatives. 

While it cannot be completely avoided at the enterprise edge, the good news is that internally, steps can be taken to reduce if not eliminate the effects of asymmetric routing.  So good network design is a must to get the maximum effectiveness of an IPS deployment, particularly if there are going to be multiple sensors along a given traffic flow.

There's a few options to ensure symmetric traffic flows, or to mitigate the effect of asymmetric traffic flows including:

  • Duplicate traffic across multiple IPS sensors to ensure each sensor can see all applicable data.  In addition to the challenges presented in getting all the relevant data to each IPS, we also have a greater likelihood of overloading IPS sensors with traffic, which will result in packets being dropped.
  • Integration of an IPS switch.  This is reducing traffic down to a single switch.  While it is better from an IPS standpoint, it's introducing a single point of failure into the network.
  • Correctly configuring spanning tree parameters to ensure symmetrical paths across Layer 2 areas.
  • Routing manipulation with techniques such as PBR. This is a cost effective solution as it involves only configuration changes rather than additional hardware.  But it adds complexity to the network in addition to requiring cooperation between security and networking. 
  • Sticky load-balancing utilizing technology such Cisco's ACE module or Riverbed's Asymmetric Routing Detection to better reduce the chances of asymmetric routing.
  • In cases of HSRP induced asymmetry, utilize EEM and EOT in order to change the paths of HSRP related routes dynamically.
  • Configuring firewalls as active/standby pairs rather than active/active pairs.
But as you can see, many of these techniques involve taking redundant data paths out of the equation, and therefore reducing the amount of overall usable bandwidth across the network.  Others involve sending more data to or through each IPS unit, increasing the burden on each unit and increasing the likelihood of dropped packets.  So there is obviously a balancing act between performance and visibility.


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