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I am trying to understand some techniques regarding SYN flood prevention and there are three terms I couldn't find a clear explanation of.

The terms that are confusing me are:

  1. SYN Proxy
  2. SYN Cache
  3. SYN Cooke

What do these mean and what is the different between them?

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Syn-proxy is a propriatary protocol. An appliance will proxy any TCP request but will only forward it to the server if the three way handshake is completely established.

For SYN-Cache and SYN-Cookie refer to the following excerpt from Cisco:

SYN Caches: Two end-host defenses, called SYN caches and SYN cookies (described later), operate by reducing the amount of state allocated initially for a TCB generated by a received SYN, and putting off instantiating the full state [8]. In a host that uses a SYN cache, a hash table with a limited amount of space in each hash bucket is used to store a subset of the data that would normally go into an allocated TCB. If and when a handshake completing ACK is received, this data can be moved into a full TCB; otherwise the oldest bucket at a particular hash value can be reaped when needed. In Lemon's FreeBSD example [8], the SYN cache entry for a half connection is 160 bytes, versus 736 bytes for a full TCB, and 15359 entries in the SYN cache are supported.

The SYN cache data structure is robust to attackers attempting to overflow its buckets because it uses the initiator's local port number and some secret bits in the hash value. Because stacks are a more effective data structure to search than a simple linked list, stacks that use a SYN cache can have improved speed, even when not under attack. Under Lemon's tests, during an active attack a host using a SYN cache was able to establish legitimate connections with only about a 15-percent increase in latency.

SYN Cookies: In contrast to the SYN cache approach, the SYN cookies technique causes absolutely zero state to be generated by a received SYN. Instead, the most basic data comprising the connection state is compressed into the bits of the sequence number used in the SYN-ACK. Since for a legitimate connection, an ACK segment will be received that echoes this sequence number (actually the sequence number plus one), the basic TCB data can be regenerated and a full TCB can safely be instantiated by decompressing the Acknowledgement field. This decompression can be effective even under heavy attack because there is no storage load whatsoever on the listener, only a computational load to encode data into the SYN-ACK sequence numbers. The downside is that not all TCB data can fit into the 32-bit Sequence Number field, so some TCP options required for high performance might be disabled. Another problem is that SYN-ACKs are not retransmitted (because retransmission would require state), altering the TCP synchronization procedures from RFC 793. The exact format of TCP SYN cookies is not an interoperability issue, because they are only locally interpreted, and the format and procedures for generation and validation can vary slightly among implementations. Figure 5 depicts the general process of SYN cookie generation and validation used by multiple implementations.

To compute the SYN-ACK sequence number (that is, the TCP cookie) when using TCP cookies, a host first concatenates some local secret bits, a data structure that contains the IP addresses and TCP ports, the initial SYN sequence number, and some index data identifying the secret bits. An MD5 digest is computed over all these bytes, and some bits are truncated from the hash value to be placed in the SYN-ACK sequence number. Because the sequence number is about a fourth the size of the full hash value, this truncation is necessary, but generally at least 3 bytes worth of the hash bits are used, meaning that there should still be close to a 2^24 effort required to guess a valid cookie without knowing the local secret bits. In addition to the hash output, some of the cookie bits indicate a lower bound on the Maximum Segment Size (MSS) that the SYN contained, and the index bits identifying the local secret used within the hash.

To validate a SYN cookie, first the acknowledgement number in an incoming ACK segment is decremented by 1 to retrieve the generated SYN cookie. The valid value for the set of truncated hash bits is computed based on the IP address pair, TCP port numbers, segment sequence number minus one, and the value from the secret pool corresponding to the index bits inside the cookie. If these computed hash bits match those within the ACK segment, then a TCB is initialized and the connection proceeds. The encoded MSS bound is used to set a reasonable-sized MSS that is no larger than what was originally advertised. This MSS is usually implemented as three bits whose code points correspond to eight "commonly advertised" MSS values based on typical link Maximum Transmission Units (MTUs) and header overheads.

Hybrid Approaches: A hybrid approach combines two or more of the single defense techniques described previously. For instance, some end-host operating systems implement both a large backlog and SYN cookies, but enable SYN cookies only when the amount of the backlog that is occupied exceeds some threshold, allowing them to normally operate without the disadvantages of SYN cookies, but also allowing them to fail over to the SYN-cookie behavior and be strongly protected when an attack occurs.

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  • I disagree with SYN proxy being proprietary. At least OpenBSD's PF and Linux's iptables SYN proxy module (lwn.net/Articles/563151) implement it. Far from proprietary. – juhist Mar 11 '18 at 12:16

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