NSDI '06 Paper
[NSDI '06 Technical Program]
Architecture-Independent Support for Simple, Robust Servers
KyoungSoo Park and Vivek S. Pai
Department of Computer Science
For many network server applications, extracting the maximum
performance or scalability from the hardware may no longer be much of
a concern, given today's pricing - a $300 system can easily handle
100 Mbps of Web server traffic, which would cost nearly $30,000 per
month in most areas. Freed from worrying about absolute performance,
we re-examine the design space for simplicity and security, and show
that a design approach inspired by Unix pipes, Connection Conditioning
(CC), can provide architecture-neutral support for these goals.
By moving security and connection management into separate filters
outside the server program, CC supports multi-process, multi-threaded,
and event-driven servers, with no changes to programming style.
Moreover, these filters are customizable and reusable, making it easy
to add security to any Web-based service. We show that CC-enhanced
servers can easily support a range of security policies, and that
offloading connection management allows even simple servers to perform
comparably to much more complicated systems.
Web server performance has greatly improved due to a number of
factors, including raw hardware performance, operating systems
improvements (zero copy, timing wheels (29), hashed
PCBs), and parallel scale-out via load
balancers (11,9) and content distribution
networks (2,14). Coupled with the slower
improvements in network price/performance, extracting the maximum
performance from hardware may not be a high priority for most Web
sites. Hardware costs can be dwarfed by bandwidth costs - a $300
system can easily handle 100 Mbps of Web traffic, which would cost
$30,000 per month for wide-area bandwidth in the USA.
For most sites, the performance and scalability of the server software
itself may not be major issues - if the site can afford bandwidth, it
can likely afford the required hardware.
These factors may partly explain why the Apache Web server's market
share has increased to 69% (17) despite a decade of server
architecture research (18,13,12,8,32,30) that has often produced much
faster servers - with all of the other advances, Apache's simple
process pool performs well enough for most sites. The benefits of
cost, flexibility, and community support compensate for any loss in
maximum performance. Some Web sites may want higher performance per
machine, but even the event-driven Zeus Web server, often the best
performer in benchmarks, garners less than 2% of the
Given these observations and future hardware trends, we believe
designers are better served by improving server simplicity and
security. Deployed servers are still simple to attack in many ways,
and while some server security research (21,6)
has addressed these problems, it implicitly assumes the use of
event-driven programming styles, making its adoption by existing
systems much harder. Even when the research can be generalized, it
often requires modifying the code of each application to be secured,
which can be time-consuming, labor-intensive, and error-prone.
To address these problems, we revisit the lessons of Unix pipes to
decompose server processing in a system called Connection Conditioning
(CC). Requests are bundled with their sockets and passed through a
series of general-purpose user-level filters that provide connection
management and security benefits without invasive changes to the main
server. These filters allow common security and connection management
policies to be shared across servers, resulting in simpler design for
server writers, and more tested and stable code for filter writers.
This design is also architecture-neutral - it can be used in
multi-process, threaded, and event-driven servers.
We demonstrate Connection Conditioning in two ways: by demonstrating
its design and security benefits for new servers, and by providing
security benefits to existing servers. We build an extremely simple
CC-aware Web server that handles only one request at a time by moving
all connection management to filters. This approach allows this simple
design to efficiently serve thousands of simultaneous connections,
without explicitly worrying about unpredictable/unbounded delays and
blocking. This server is ideal for environments that require some
robustness, such as sensors, and is so small and simple that it can be
understood within a few minutes.
Despite being an order of magnitude smaller than most, this server can
handle a broad range of workloads while resisting DoS attacks that
affect other servers, both commercial and experimental. Its
performance is sufficient for many sites - it generally outperforms
Apache as well as some research Web servers, such as Haboob/SEDA.
Using the filters developed for this server, we can improve the
security of the Apache Web server as well as a research server, Flash,
while only losing a fraction of their performance.
All server software architectures ultimately address how to handle
multiple connections that can block in several places, sometimes for
arbitrarily long periods. Using some form of multiplexing (in the OS,
the thread library, or at application level), these schemes try to
keep the CPU utilized even when requests block or clients download
data at different speeds. Blocking stems from two sources, network
and disk, with disk being the more predictable source. Since the
client is not under the server's control, any communication with it
can cause network blocking. Typical delays include gaps between
connecting to the server and sending its request, reading data from
the server's response, or sending any subsequent requests in a
persistent connection. Disk-related blocking occurs when locating
files on disk, or when reading file data before sending it to the
client. Of the two, network blocking is more problematic, because the
client may delay indefinitely, while modern disk access typically
requires less than 10ms.
The multi-process servers are conceptually the simplest, and are the
oldest architectures for Web servers. One process opens the socket
used to accept incoming requests, and then creates multiple copies of
itself using the fork() system call. The earliest servers would
fork a new process that exited after each request, but this approach
quickly changed to a pool of pre-forked processes that serve multiple
requests before exiting. On Unix-like systems, this model is the only
option for Apache version 1, and the default for version 2.
Multi-threaded and event-driven servers use a single address space to
improve performance and scalability, but also increase programming
complexity. Sharing data in one address space simplifies bookkeeping,
cross-request policy implementations, and application-level caching.
The trade-off is programmer effort - multi-threaded programs require
proper synchronization, and event-driven programs require breaking
code into non-blocking portions. Both activities require more
programmer effort and skill than simply forking processes.
While these architectures differ in memory consumption, scalability,
and performance, well-written systems using any of these architectures
can handle large volumes of traffic, enough for the vast majority of
sites. A site's choice of web server software, then, is likely to be
tied to factors other than raw capacity, such as specific features,
flexibility, operating system support, administrator familiarity, etc.
Using a pipe-like mechanism and a simple API, Connection Conditioning
performs application-level interposition on connection-related system
calls, with all policy decisions made in user-level processes called
filters. Applying the pipe design philosophy, these filters each
perform simple tasks, but their combination yields power and
flexibility. In this section, we describe the design of Connection
Conditioning and discuss its impact on applications.
Typical Connection Conditioning usage - the server process
invokes a series of filters, which are connected to each other and the
server via Unix-domain sockets. The first filter creates the actual
TCP listen socket that is exposed to the clients. Clients connections
are accepted at this filter, and are passed via file-descriptor
passing through the other filters and finally to the server process.
Connection Conditioning replaces the server's code that accepts new
connections, and interposes one or more filters. This design, shown in
Figure 1, connects the filters and the server process
using Unix-domain sockets. The TCP listen socket, used to accept new
connections from clients, is moved from the server to the first
filter. If we replaced the clients with standard input, this diagram
would look very similar to a piped set of processes spawned by a
While modeled on Unix pipes, Connection Conditioning differs in
several domain-specific respects. The most important difference is
that rather than passing byte streams, the interface between filters
as well as between the filter and server process is passing an atomic,
delimited bundle consisting of the file descriptor (socket) and
associated request. Using Unix-domain sockets allows open file
descriptors to be passed from one process to another via the sendmsg() system call. While requests are passed between filters, the
server's reply is written directly to the client socket.
Passing the client's TCP connection, rather than proxying the data,
provides several benefits. First, the standard networking calls
behave as expected since any calls that manipulate socket behavior or
query socket information operate on the actual client socket instead
of a loopback socket. Second, latency is also lower than a proxy-based
solution, since data copying is reduced and the chance of any filter
blocking does not affect data sent from the server to the
client. Third, performance is also less impaired, since no extra
context switches or system calls are needed for the response path,
which transfer more data than the request path. Finally, the effort
for using CC with existing server software is minimized, since all of
the places where the server writes data back to the client are
unaffected. Also unmodified are systems like external CGI
applications, to which the server can freely pass the client's socket,
just as it would without CC.
This approach allows filters to be much simpler than servers, and to
be written in different styles - all of the parsing and concurrency
management normally associated with accepting requests can be isolated
into a single protocol-specific filter that is usable across many
servers. Removing this complexity allows each filter and the server
to use whatever architecture is appropriate. Programmers can use
threads, processes, or events as they see fit, both in the server and
in the filters. For simple servers and filters, it is even plausible
to not even have any concurrency and handle only one request at a
time, as we demonstrate later in the paper. This approach is feasible
with Connection Conditioning because all connection management can be
moved into the filters.
Note that the filters are tied to the number of features, not the
number of requests, so a server will have a small number of filters
even if it has many simultaneous connections. In practice, we expect
that most servers will use 4 filters. Filter 1 will manage connections
and take steps to reduce the possibility of denial-of-service attacks
based on exhausting the number of connections. Filter 2 will separate
multiple requests on a single connection, and present them as multiple
separate connections, in order to eliminate idle connections from
using server resources. Filter 3 will perform protocol-specific
checks to stop malformed requests, buffer overflows, and other
security attacks. Filter 4 can perform whatever request prioritization
policy the server desires.
Filters are generally tied to the protocol, instead of the
application, allowing filters to be used across servers, and
encouraging ``best practices'' filters that consolidate
protocol-related handling so that many servers benefit from historical
information. For example, the ``beck'' denial-of-service
attack (26) exploits a quadratic algorithm in URL parsing, and
was discovered and fixed on Apache in 1998. The exact same attack is
still effective against the thttpd server (1), despite being
demonstrated in a thttpd-derived server in 2002 (21).
The beck attack is actually worse for thttpd than Apache, since thttpd
is event-driven, and the attack will delay all simultaneous
connections, instead of just one process. Thttpd is used at a number
of high-profile sites, including Kmart, Napster, MTV, Drudge Report,
and Paypal. Using CC, a single security filter could be used to
protect a range of servers from attacks, giving server developers more
time to respond.
CC filters are best suited to environments that consist of
request/response pairs, where no hidden state is maintained across
requests, and where each transaction is a single request and
response. In this scenario, all request-related blocking is isolated
in the first (client-facing) filter, which only passes it once the
full request has arrived. Intermediate filters see only complete
requests, and do not have to be designed to handle blocking. If the
server's responses can fit into the outbound socket buffer, then any
remaining blocking in the server may be entirely bounded and
predictable. In these cases, the server can even handle just a single
request at a time, without any parallelism. All of the normal sources
of unpredictable blocking (waiting on the request, sending the reply)
are handled either by CC filters or by the kernel. This situation may
be very common in sensor-style servers with small replies.
To handle other models of connection operation, like persistent
connections, the semantics of filters can be extended in
protocol-specific ways. Since persistent connections allow multiple
requests and responses over a single connection, simply passing the
initial request to the server does not prevent all future blocking.
After the first request is handled, the server may have to wait for
further requests. Even if the server is designed to tolerate blocking,
it may cause resources, such as processes or threads, to be devoted to
the connection. In this case, the server can indicate to the filter
that it wants the file descriptor passed to it again on future
requests. Since the filter also has the file descriptor open, the
server can safely close it without disconnecting the client. In this
manner, the client sees the benefits of persistent connections, but
the server does not have to waste resources managing the connection
during the times between requests.
Connection Conditioning Library API
To implement Connection Conditioning, we provide a simple library,
shown in Figure 2. One function replaces the three system
calls needed to create a standard TCP listen socket, and the rest are
one-to-one analogues of standard Unix system calls. The parameters
for most calls are identical to their standard counterparts, and the
remaining parameters are instantly recognizable to server developers.
We believe that modifying existing servers to use Connection
Conditioning is straightforward, and that using them for new servers
is simple. Any of these calls can be used in process-based, threaded,
or event-driven systems, so this library is portable across
programming styles. This library also depends on only standard Unix
system calls, and does not use any kernel modifications, so is
portable across many operating systems. The library contains 244 lines
of code and 89 semicolons. Its functions are:
cc_createlsock - instantiates all of the Connection
Conditioning filters used by this server. Each filter in the
NULL-terminated array filters is spawned as a separate
process, using any arguments provided by the server. Each filter
shares a Unix-domain socket with its parent. The list of remaining
filters to spawn is passed to the newly-created filter. The final
filter in the list creates the listen socket that accepts connections
and requests from the client. The server specifies all of the filters,
as well as the parameters (address, port number, backlog) for the
listen socket, in the cc_createlsock call. The server process no
longer needs to call the socket/bind/listen system
calls itself. The return value of cc_createlsock is a socket,
suitable for use with cc_accept. Our filter instantiation differs
from Unix pipes, since the server instantiates them, instead of having
the shell perform the setup. This approach requires much less
modification for existing servers, and it also avoids other
compatibility issues, such as trying to use stdin for request passing.
cc_accept - this call replaces the accept system call,
and behaves similarly. However, instead of receiving the file
descriptor from the networking layer, it is received from the filter
closest to the server. The file descriptor still connects to the
client and is passed using the sendmsg() system call, which also
allows passing the request itself. The request is read and buffered,
but not presented yet.
cc_read - when cc_read is first called on a socket from
cc_accept, it returns the buffered request. On subsequent calls,
cc_read behaves as a standard read system call. The reason for
this behavior is because the socket is actually terminated at the
client. If any filter were to write data into the socket, it would be
sent to the client. So, the filters send the (possibly updated)
request via sendmsg when the client socket is being passed.
In multi-process servers, with many processes sharing the same listen
socket, the atomicity of sendmsg and recvmsg ensures that
the same process gets both the file descriptor and the request. If
requests will be larger than the Unix-domain atomicity limit, each
process has its own Unix-domain socket to the upstream filter, and
calling cc_accept sends a sentinel byte upstream. The upstream filter
sends ready requests to any willing downstream filter on its own
cc_close - since the same client socket is passed to all of
the filters and the actual server, some mechanism is needed to
determine when the socket is no longer useful. Some filters may want
to keep the connection open longer than the server, while other
filters may not care about the connection after passing it on. The
cc_close call provides for this behavior - the server indicates
whether only it is done with the connection or whether it and all
filters should abandon the connection. The former case is useful for
presenting multiple requests on a persistent connection as multiple
separate connections. The latter case handles all other scenarios, as
well as error conditions where a persistent connection needs to be
forcibly closed by the server.
cc_select, cc_poll - these functions are needed by
event-driven servers, and stem from transferring the request during
cc_accept. Since the request is read and buffered by the CC library,
the actual client socket will have no data waiting to be read. Some
event-driven servers optimistically read from the socket after accept,
but others use poll/select to determine when the request
is ready. In this case, the standard system calls will not know about
the buffered request. So, we provide cc_select and cc_poll that
check the CC library's buffers first, and return immediately if
buffered requests exist. Otherwise, they simply call the appropriate
cc_dup, cc_dup2, cc_fork - These functions replace
the Unix system calls dup, dup2, and fork. All of
these functions affect file descriptors, some of which may have been
created via cc_accept. As such, the library needs to know when
multiple copies of these descriptors exist, in order to adjust
reference counts and close them only when the descriptor is closed by
While the CC Library functions are easily mapped to standard system
calls, transparently converting applications by replacing
dynamically-linked libraries is not entirely straightforward. The
cc_createlsock call replaces socket, bind, and listen, but these calls are also used in other contexts. Determining
future intent at the time of the socket call may be difficult in
Our evaluation of Connection Conditioning explores three issues:
writing servers, CC performance, and CC security. We also examine
filter writing, but this issue is secondary to developers if the
filters are reusable and easily extensible. We first present a simple
server designed with Connection Conditioning in mind, and then discuss
the effort involved in writing filters. We compare its performance to
other servers, and then compare the performance effects of other
filters. Finally, we examine various security scenarios, and show
that Connection Conditioning can improve server security.
To demonstrate the simplicity of writing a Web server using Connection
Conditioning, we build an extremely simple Web server, called
CCServer. Using this server, we test whether the performance of such
a simple system would be sufficient for most sites. The pseudo-code
for the main loop, almost half the server, is shown in
Figure 3. This listing, only marginally simplified from
the actual source code, demonstrates how simple it can be to build
servers using Connection Conditioning. The total source for this
server is 236 lines, of which 80 are semicolon-containing lines. In
comparison, Flash's static content handling and Haboob (not including
NBIO) require over 2500 semicolon-lines and Apache's core alone (no
modules) contains over 6000. Note that we are not advocating replacing
other servers with CCServer, since we believe it makes sense to simply
modify servers to use CC.
CCServer's design sacrifices some performance for simplicity, and
achieves fairly good performance without much effort. Its simplicity
stems from using CC filters, and avoiding performance techniques like
application-level caching. CCServer radically departs from current
server architectures by handling only one request at a time. The only
exception is when the response exceeds the size of the socket buffer,
in which case CCServer forks a copy of itself to handle that
request. Within limits, the socket buffer size can be increased if
very popular files are larger than the default, in which case one time
cache miss in the main process is also justified - with the use of
the zero-copy sendfile call, multiple requests for a file consume very
little additional memory beyond the file's data in the filesystem
cache. Parallelism is implicitly achieved inside the network layer,
which handles sending the buffered responses to all clients.
Pseudo code of the really simple CCServer
CCServer ignores disk blocking for two reasons: decreasing memory
costs means that even a cheap system can cache a reasonably large
working set, and consumer-grade disk drives now have sub-10ms access
times, so even a disk-bound workload with small files can still
generate a fair amount of throughput. To really exceed the size of
main memory, the clients must request fairly large files, which can be
read from disk with high bandwidth. It is possible to build
degenerate workloads with thousands of small-file accesses, but using
a filter that gives low priority to heavy requestors (described in
Section 4.2) will limit the performance degradation
that other clients see.
The only obvious denial-of-service attack we can see in this approach
is that an attacker could request many large files, causing a large
number of processes to exist, and could make the situation worse by
reading the response data very slowly. This situation is not unique to
CCServer - any server, particularly threaded or process-oriented
servers, are vulnerable to these attacks. All of these techniques can
be handled similar to how they would be handled in other servers. We
could set process limits in the shell before launching the server, in
order to ensure that too many processes are not created. To handle the
``slow reading'' attack, we could split the sendfile into many small
pieces, and exit if any piece is received too slowly. With CC filters,
we could use a filter that places low priority on heavy requestors,
which would reduce the priority of any attacker.
All of the other concerns that one would expect, such as how long to
wait between a connection establishment and the request arrival, how
long to keep persistent connections open, etc., are handled by filters
outside the server. Normally, all of these issues would cause a server
that handled only one request at a time to block for unbounded amounts
of time, and would necessitate some parallelism in the server's
architecture, even for simple/short requests.
We have developed various filters to implement different connection
management and security policies. We have found that filter
development is relatively straightforward, and that the basic filter
framework is easy to modify for different purposes. Common idioms also
emerge in this approach, leading us to believe that filter development
will be manageable for the programmers who need to write their own.
We have found two common behavioral styles for filters, and these
shape their design. Those that implement some action on individual
requests, such as stripping pathname components or checking for
various errors, can be designed as a simple loop that accepts one
request, processes it, and passes it to the next filter. Those that
make policy decisions across multiple requests are conceptually small
These filters are an important aspect of the system, since they are
key to preserving programming style while enhancing security. In
traditional multi-process servers without Connection Conditioning,
making a policy decision across all active requests is difficult
enough, but it is virtually impossible to consider those requests that
are still waiting in the accept queue. Since the number of those
requests may exceed the number of processes in the server, certain
security-related policy decisions are unavailable to these servers.
Line counts for filters - the persistence filter is
conditionally-compiled support in the packaging filter, so its counts
are shown as the extra code for this feature. The other filter line
counts include the basic framework, which is 413 lines of source, and
The filters, in contrast, can use a different programming style, like
event-driven programming, so that each request consumes only a file
descriptor instead of an entire process. In this manner, the filters
can examine many more requests, and can more cheaply make policy
decisions. We use a very simple event-driven framework for the policy
filters, since we are particularly interested in trying to implement
policies that can effectively handle various DoS attacks. To gain
cross-platform portability and efficiency, we use the libevent
library (19), which supports platform-specific
event-delivery approaches (kqueue (15), epoll,
/dev/poll) in addition to standard select and poll.
Our filters include:
- Request packaging - this filter is often the first filter
in any server. It accepts connections, reads the requests, and hands
complete requests to the next filter. By making the filter
event-driven, it can handle attacks that try to open hundreds or
thousands of connections without sending requests, in order to starve
the server. The filter is only limited by the number of file
descriptors available to it, and we implement some simple policies to
prevent starvation. Any connection that is incomplete (has not sent a
full request) before a configurable timeout is terminated, and if the
filter is running out of sockets, incomplete connections are
terminated by network address. This filter maintains a 16-ary tree
organized by network address, where each node has a count of all open
connections in its children. The filter descends down the path with
the heaviest weights, ensuring that the connection it terminates is
coming from the range of network addresses with the most incomplete
- Persistent connection management - while persistent
connections help clients, they present connection management
problems for servers, so this filter takes multiple requests from a
persistent connection and separates them into individual requests.
When the server is done with the current request, it closes the
connection, and this filter re-sends the next request as a new
connection. Since the filters keeps a socket open, the server closing
a persistent connection is only a local operation, and is not visible
to the client. We expect that this filter would be the second filter
after the request packaging filter.
- Recency-based prioritization - this filter acts as a
holding area after the full request has already been received. It
provides a default policy that makes high-rate attacks less effective,
without requiring any feedback or throttling information from the
server. As a side-effect, it also provides simple fairness among
different users. This would be the last filter before the
server. This filter basically accepts all requests coming from the
previous filter, and then picks the highest-priority request when the
server asks for one. The details of this approach are described in
- Slow read prevention - this filter limits the damage
caused by ``slow read'' clients, who request a large file and then
keep the connection open by reading the data slowly. In a DoS
scenario, if a client could keep the connections open arbitrarily
long, the prioritization filter alone would not prevent it from having
too many connections. This filter explicitly checks how many
concurrent connections each client has, and delays or rejects requests
from any client range that is too high. We currently set the defaults
to allowing no more than 25% of all connections from a 8 network
range, 15% from a 16, and 10% from a 24. This approach limits
slow-read DoS, but can not fully protect against DDoS. Still, any
security improvement is a benefit for a wide range of servers.
We have also developed other more specialized filters, such as ones
that look for oddly-formatted requests, detect and strip the beck
attack, etc. Line count information for the filters described above
are presented in Table 1.
To handle rate-based attacks coming from sets of addresses, we use an
algorithm that aggregates traffic statistics automatically at multiple
granularities, but does not lose preciseness. We break the network
address into 8 pieces of 4 bits each. We use an 8 deep 16-ary tree,
with an LRU list maintained across the 16 elements of each parent.
Each node also contains a count to indicate how many requests are
stored in its subtrees. The tree is lazily allocated - any levels are
allocated only when distinct addresses exist in the subtree. When a
new request arrives, it is stored in the tree, creating any nodes that
are needed, and updating all counts of requests. When it is time to
provide the next request to be serviced, we descend each level of the
tree, using the LRU child with a nonzero request count at each
level. The request chosen by this process is removed, all counts are
updated, and all children along the path are moved to the ends of
their respective LRU lists. Subtrees without requests can be pruned if
If an attacker owns an entire range of network addresses, a
low-frequency client from another address range will always take
priority in having its requests serviced or its incomplete connections
kept alive. Even if the low-frequency client is more active than any
individual compromised machine, this algorithm will still give it
priority due to the traffic aggregation behavior. At the same time,
the aggregation does not lose precision - if even a single machine in
the attacker's range remains uncompromised, when it does send requests,
they will receive priority over the rest of the machines in that
Though performance is not a goal of Connection Conditioning, we
evaluate it so that designers and implementors have some idea of what
to expect. While we believe it is true that performance is generally
not a significant factor in these decisions, it would become worrying
if the performance impact caused any significant number of sites to
reject such an approach. As we show in this section, we believe that
the performance impact of Connection Conditioning is acceptable.
Our testbed servers consist of a low-end, single processor desktop
machine, as well as an entry-level dual-core server machine. Most of
our tests are run on a $200 Microtel PC from Wal-Mart, which comes
with a 1.5 GHz AMD Sempron processor, 40 GB IDE hard drive, and a
built-in 100 Mbps Ethernet card. We add 1 GB of memory and an Intel
Pro/1000 MT Server Gigabit Ethernet network adapter, bringing the
total cost to $396. Using a Gigabit adapter allows us to break the
100 Mbps barrier, just for the sake of measurement. The dual-core
server is an HP DL320 with a 2.8 GHz Intel Pentium D 820, 2 GB of
memory, and a 160GB IDE hard drive. This machine is still modestly
priced, with a list price of less than $3000. Both machines run the
Linux 2.6.9 kernel using the Fedora Core 3 installation. Our test
harness consists of four 1.5 GHz Sempron machines, connected to the
server via a Netgear Gigabit Ethernet switch.
In various places in the evaluation, we compare different servers, so
we briefly describe them here. We run the Apache server (3)
version 1.3.31, tuned for performance. Where specified, we run it with
either the default number of processes or with higher values, up to
both the ``soft limit,'' which does not require recompiling the
server, and above the soft limit. The Flash server (18)
is an event-driven research server that uses select to multiplex
client connections. We use the standard version of it, rather than the
more recent version (23) that uses sendfile and
epoll. The Haboob server (32) uses a combination of
events and threads with the SEDA framework in Java. We tune it for
higher performance by increasing the filesystem cache size from 200MB
to 400MB. CCServer is our simple single-request server using
Connection Conditioning. CC-Apache and CC-Flash are the Apache and
Flash servers modified to use Connection Conditioning. In all of the
servers using Connection Conditioning, we employ a single filter
unless otherwise specified. Since the CC Library currently only
supports C and C++, we do not modify Haboob. All servers have logging
disabled since their logging overheads vary significantly.
Single File Requests/sec
Single File Throughput
The simplest test we can perform is a file transfer microbenchmark,
where all of the clients request the same file repeatedly in a tight
loop. This test is designed to give an upper bound on performance for
each file size, rather than being representative of standard traffic.
The results of this test on the Microtel machine are shown in
Figures 4 and 5 for request rate and
throughput, respectively. The relative positions of Flash, Apache, and
Haboob are not surprising given other published studies on their
performance. Performance on the HP server is higher, but qualitatively
similar, and is omitted for space.
The performance of CCServer is encouraging, since this would mean that
it should have acceptable performance for any site using Apache. Any
performance loss due to forking overhead once the response size
exceeds the socket buffer size is not particularly visible. This
server is clearly not functionally comparable to Apache, but given the
use of multiple processes in request handling, we are pleased with the
Using Connection Conditioning filters with other servers also seems
promising, as seen in the results for CC-Apache and CC-Flash. Both
show performance loss when compared to their native counterparts, but
the loss is more than likely tolerable for most sites. We investigate
this further on a more realistic workload mix next.
Throughputs for SpecWeb99-like Workloads on the Microtel machine
Throughputs for SpecWeb99-like Workloads on the Dual-core HP server
While the single-file tests show relative request processing costs,
they do not have the variety of files, with different sizes and
frequency distributions, that might be expected in normal Web traffic.
For this, we also evaluate these servers using a more realistic
workload. In particular, we use a distribution modeled on the static
file portion of SpecWeb99 (28), which has also been used by
other researchers (23,32,30). The
SpecWeb99 benchmark scales data set size with throughput, and reports
a single metric, the number of simultaneous connections supported at a
specified quality of service.
We instead use fixed data set sizes and report the maximum throughput
achieved, which allows us to report a broader range of results for
each server. We still maintain the general access patterns - a data
set consists of a specified number of files per directory, with a
specified access frequency for files within each directory. The access
frequency of the directories follows a Zipf distribution, so the first
directory is accessed N times more frequently than the N
The results of these capacity tests, shown in
Figures 6 and 7, show some
expected trends, as well as some subtler results. The most obvious
trend is that once the data set size exceeds the physical memory of
the machine, the overall performance drops due to disk accesses. For
most servers, the performance prior to this point is roughly similar
across different working set sizes, indicating very little additional
work is generated for handling more files, as long as the files fit in
memory. CCServer performs almost three times as well on the HP server
as the Microtel box, demonstrating good scalability with faster hardware.
The performance drop at 3 or 4 GB instead of 1.5/2.5 GB can be understood
by taking into account SpecWeb's Zipf behavior. Even though a 1.5 and
2.5 GB data sets exceed the physical memories of the machines, the
Zipf-distributed file access causes the more heavily-used portion to
fit in main memory, so this size has a mix of in-memory and disk-bound
requests. At 3GB, more requests are disk-bound, causing the drop in
performance across all servers. The HP machine, with a larger gap
between CPU speed and disk speed, shows relatively faster degradation
with the 4GB data set. Though CCServer makes no attempt to avoid disk
blocking, its performance is still good on this workload.
In general, the results for the CC-enabled servers are quite positive,
since their absolute performance is quite good, and they show less
overhead than the single file microbenchmarks would have
suggested. The main reason for this is that the microbenchmarks show a
very optimistic view of server performance, so any additional
overheads appear to be much larger. On real workloads, the additional
data makes the overall workload less amenable to caching in the
processor, so the overheads of Connection Conditioning are less
Latency versus Number of Filters
Throughput versus Number of Filters
Inter-process communication using sockets has traditionally been viewed
as heavyweight, which may raise concerns about the practicality of
using smaller, single-purpose filters chained together to compose
To test the latency effects in absolute terms, we vary the number of
filters used in CCServer, and have a single client issuing one request
at a time for a single 100-byte file. All of the filters except the
first are dummy filters, simply passing along the request to the next
filter. These results, shown in Figure 8, show
that latency is nearly linear in the number of filters, and that each
filter only adds 34 microseconds (HP) or 94 microseconds (Microtel) of
overhead. Compared to wide-area delays on the order of 100ms, the
overhead of chained filters should not be significant for most sites.
The performance effects of chained filters are shown in
Figure 9, where an in-memory SpecWeb-like workload
is used to drive the test. Given the near-linear effect of multiple
filters on latency, the shape of the throughput curve is not
surprising. For small numbers of filters, the decrease is close to
linear, but the degradation slows down as more filters are added. Even
with what we would consider to be far more filters than most sites
would use, the throughput is still well above what most sites need.
CCServer performs better on the HP server than the Microtel box on
both tests, presumably due to the faster processor coupled with its
1MB L3 cache. The dual-core throughputs scale well versus the
single-core, indicating the ability of the various filters in the CC
chain to take advantage of the parallel resources. While enabling both
cores improves the throughput in this test, it does not improve the
latency benchmark, because only one request progresses through the
system at a time. The sawtooth pattern stems from several factors:
some exploitable parallelism between the clean-up actions of one stage
and the start-up actions of the next, SMP kernel overhead, and dirty
cache lines ping-ponging between the two independent caches as filters
run on different cores.
Here we evaluate the security effects of Connection Conditioning,
particularly the policies we described in Section 4.2.
These policies are implemented as filters, which allows their
use across servers. Note that some of these tests have been used in
previous research (21) - our contribution is the
mechanism of defending against them, rather than the attacks.
Our primary reason for selecting these tests is that they are simple
but effective - they could disrupt or deny service to a large
fraction of Web sites, and they do not require any significant
skill. Each attacking script requires less than 200 lines of code and
only a cursory knowledge of network programming and HTTP protocol
mechanics. Some of these attacks would also be hard to detect from a
traffic viewpoint - they either require very little bandwidth, or
their request behavior can be made to look like normal traffic. We
focus on the Apache server both because its popularity makes it an
attractive target, and because its architecture would normally make
some security policies harder to implement. All results are shown for
only the Microtel box because these tests focus primarily on
Number of Incomplete Connections Handled
To measure the effect of incomplete connections on the various
servers, we have one client machine send a stream of requests for
small files, while others open connections without sending requests.
We measure the traffic that can be generated by the regular client in
the presence of various numbers of incomplete connections. These
results are shown in Figure 10, and show various
behavior for the different servers. For the process-based Apache
server, each connection consumes one process for its life. We see
that a default Apache configuration takes only 150 connections, at
which point performance drops. Apache employs a policy of waiting 300
seconds before terminating a connection, so at this limit, throughput
drops to 0.5 requests/second. Though Flash and Haboob are
event-driven, neither have support for detecting or handling this
condition. Flash's performance slowly degrades with the number of
incomplete connections, and becomes unusable at 32K connections,
while Haboob's performance sharply drops after 100 incomplete
connections. Flash's performance degradation stems from the overheads
of the select system call (4).
With the CC Filters, all of these servers remain operational under
this load, even with 32K incomplete connections. Since the filter
terminates the oldest incomplete connection when new traffic arrives,
it can still handle workloads of 1800 requests/sec for CC-Apache, and
3700 requests/sec for CCServer and CC-Flash. This test demonstrates
the architecture-neutral security enhancement that Connection
Conditioning can provide - both a multi-process server and an
event-driven server handle this attack better with Connection
Conditioning than their own implementation provides.
Latency versus Number of Other Clients
Though the request packaging filter closes connections in a fair
manner, the previous test does not demonstrate fairness for valid
requests, so we devise another test to measure this effect. The test
consists of a number of clients requesting large files from a default
Apache, which can handle 150 simultaneous requests. The remaining
requests are queued for delivery, so an infrequent client may often
find itself waiting behind 150 or more requests. The infrequent client
in our tests requests a small file, to observe the impact on latency.
The results of this test, in Figure 11, show the
effect on latency of the infrequently-accessing client. The latency of
the small file fetch is shown as a function of the number of clients
requesting large files. Without the prioritization filter, Apache
treats the request in roughly first-come, first-served order. When the
total number of clients is less than the number of processes, the
infrequent client can still get service reasonably quickly. However,
once the number of clients exceeds the number of server processes, the
latency for the infrequent client also increases as more clients
With CC-Apache and the prioritization filter, though, the behavior is
quite different. The increase in the number of large-file clients
leads to a slight increase in latency once all of the processes are
busy. After that point, the latency levels again. This small step is
caused by the infrequent client being blocked behind the next request
to finish. Once any request finishes, it gets to run, so the latency
Performing this kind of prioritization in a multiple-process server
would be difficult, since each connection would be tied to a process.
As a result, it would be hard for the server to determine what request
to handle next. With Connection Conditioning, the filter's policy can
view all outstanding requests, and make decisions before the requests
reach the server.
Throughput under Persistent Connection Limits
Persistent connections present another avenue for connection-based
starvation, similar to the incomplete connection problem mentioned
above. In this scenario, an attacker requests a persistent connection,
requests a small file, and keeps the connection open. In order to
avoid complete starvation, any reasonable production-class server will
have some mechanism to shut down such connections either after some
timeout or under file descriptor pressure.
However, the difficulty of implementing a self-managing solution is
tied to server architecture, complicating matters. While detecting
this file descriptor pressure is relatively cheap in event-driven
servers, they are also less susceptible to it, since they can utilize
tens of thousands of file descriptors. In contrast, multi-process
servers tend to be designed to handle far fewer simultaneous
connections, and determining that persistent connection pressure
exists requires more synchronization and inter-process communication,
reducing performance. The simplest option in these circumstances is
to provide administrator-controlled configuration options regarding
persistent connection behavior as Apache does. However, the trade-off
is that if these timeouts are too short, they make persistent
connections less useful, while if they are too long, the possibility
of running out of server processes increases.
In Figure 12, we show the effects on throughput of
an attacker trying to starve the server via persistent connections.
We use Apache's default persistent connection timeouts of 15 seconds
and 150 server processes. An attacker opens multiple connections,
requests small files, and holds the connection open until the server
closes it. For any closed connection, the attacker opens a new
connection and repeats the process. We vary the number of connections
used by the attacker. At the same time, we have 16 clients on one
machine requesting the SpecWeb99-like workload with a 500 MB data set
size. We show the throughput received by the regular clients as a
function of the number of slow persistent connections. With the
regular Apache server, the throughput drops beyond 150 persistent
connections. However, CC-Apache shows virtually no performance
loss. Its maximum performance is lower than standard Apache due to the
CC filters, but it supports more open connections. Apache's server
processes never see the waiting periods between requests. This support
only required modifying 8 lines in Apache.
In this section, we discuss some of the possible alternatives to
Connection Conditioning, some of the objections that may be
raised to our claims, and possible deployment questions.
Our contribution in Connection Conditioning is the observation that
Unix pipes can be applied to servers, providing all of the benefits
associated with text processing (simplicity, composability, and
separation of concerns) while still providing adequate performance. In
retrospect, this may seem obvious, but we believe that Connection
Conditioning's design and focus on adoptability are directly
responsible for its other benefits. Our approach allows vastly
simpler servers with performance that approaches or even exceeds the
designs introduced in the past few years - CCServer's source code is
more than an order of magnitude smaller than Flash, Haboob, or Apache.
Particularly for small servers, such as sensors, our approach provides
easy development with a broad range of protection, something not
available in other approaches. We make no apologies for building on
the idea of Unix pipes - given the option to build on a great idea,
we see no reason to develop new approaches purely for the sake of
CC also provides the ability to incorporate best practices into
existing servers, without having to start from a clean slate. Given
the state of today's hardware, someone designing a server from scratch
may develop a design similar to Connection Conditioning. However, even
many research servers in general, with no user base or compatibility
constraints, have become increasingly complicated over time, rather
than simpler. We consider the ability to support existing servers like
Apache while still allowing new designs like CCServer to be a novel
aspect of Connection Conditioning.
Several servers provide rich APIs that can be used to inspect and
modify requests and responses - Apache has its module format,
Microsoft developed ISAPI, Netscape developed NSAPI, and Network
Appliance developed ICAP. Any of these could be used to protect their
host server from attacks like the beck attack mentioned earlier.
However, we believe Connection Conditioning can provide protection
from a separate class of attacks not amenable to protection via server
APIs. These attacks, such as the ``incomplete connection'' starvation
attack, waste server resources as soon as the connection has been
accepted, and these connections are accepted within the framework of
the server. Particularly for process-based servers, the resources
consumed just by accepting the connection can be significant. By
moving all of the inspection and modification outside the server,
Connection Conditioning provides protection against this class of
attack. Even event-driven servers can expend more state than
Connection Conditioning - in our request prioritization example, we
may want to select from tens of thousands of possible connections,
particularly when we are under attack. The richness of the server's
internal API does no good in this kind of example, since the server
may not even be able to accept all of the connections without
succumbing to the attack.
Some of CC's other benefits, such as relieving the server of the work
of maintaining persistent connections, cannot be done inside all servers
without architectural changes. The persistent connection attack we
have shown is particularly effective, since regular servers would have
to have global knowledge of the state of all requests in order to
detect it. With CC, no server re-architecting is required, since this
work can be done easily in the filters.
We have seen that CC is able to protect servers against a number of
DoS attacks, and that its architecture is flexible enough to also
provide other types of protocol-specific security filters. Given how
little bandwidth some of these attacks require, and given Apache's
wide deployment, we feel that CC can provide an immediate practical
security benefit. From a design standpoint, using CC with filters can
also provide other benefits - privileged operations, such as
communicating with authentication servers or databases, can be
restricted to specific policy filters, moving the potentially
sensitive code out of the larger code base of the main server. These
filters, if designed for re-use, can also be implemented using best
practices, and can be more thoroughly tested since wider deployment
and use with multiple servers is more likely to expose security holes.
We admit that some of these benefits will be hard to quantify, but we
also feel that some of them are self-evident - moving code out of a
large, monolithic server code base and executing it in a separate
address space is likely to restrict the scope of any security problem.
While our evaluation of Connection Conditioning has focused mostly on
Web servers, we believe CC has a fairly broad scope - it is suitable
to many request/reply environments that tend to have relatively
short-duration ``active'' periods of their transactions. Our focus on
Web servers is mostly due to pragmatism - Web servers are widely
deployed, and they provide ample opportunities for comparisons, so our
evaluation of CC can be independently assessed. In addition to the
server protection offered by CC, we also hope to use it in developing
lightweight, DoS-resistant sensors for PlanetLab. We run several
sensors on PlanetLab for providing status information - CoMon
provides node-level information, such as CPU load and disk activity,
while CoTop provides account-level (slice-level) information, such as
number of processes and memory consumption. While these tools all use
HTTP as a transport protocol, they are not traditional Web servers.
By using CC for these tools, we can make them much more robust while
eliminating most of their redundant code.
CC is not suitable for all environments, and any server with very
long-lived transactions may not gain simplicity benefits from it. One
class of server matching this profile is a video server, where a large
number of clients may be continuously streaming data over long-lived
connections for an hour or more. In this case, CC is no better than
other architectures at providing connection management. In all
likelihood, this case will require some form of event-driven
multiplexing at the server level, whether it is exposed to the
programmer or not. CC can still provide some filtering of requests and
admission control, but may not be a significant advantage in these
scenarios. This example is distinct from the persistent connection
example we provided earlier - the difference is that with persistent
connections, the long-lived connections may be handling a number of
short-lived transfers. In that case, CC can reduce the number of
connections actually being handled by the server core.
While this paper has argued that performance-related advances in
server design are of marginal benefit to most Web sites, some classes
of servers do see benefit from many advances. Banga and Mogul improved
the select() system call's performance by reducing the delay of
finding ready sockets (5). They subsequently
proposed a more scalable alternative system call (7),
which appears to have motivated kqueue() on
BSD (15) and epoll() on Linux. Caching Web
proxy servers have directly benefited from this work, since they are
often in the path of every request from a company or ISP to the rest
of the Internet. Any mechanism that reduces server latency is
desirable in these settings. Examining the results from the most
recent Proxy Cache-off (22) suggests that vendors are in
fact interested in more aggressive server designs. In these
environments, CC may not be the best choice, but many ISPs still use
the low-performance Squid proxy, so CC's overhead may be quite
tolerable in these environments.
The method of filters we present is very general and allows
customizable behavior. The closest approach we have found in any other
system is the ``accept filter'' in FreeBSD, which provides an
in-kernel filter with a hard-coded policy for determining when HTTP
requests are complete. However, it must be specifically compiled into
the kernel or loaded by a superuser. This approach resulted in opening
the possibility of denial-of-service attacks on the filter's request
parsing policy (10), which would have prevented the
application from processing any requests. It would also be unable to
handle some of the other starvation attacks we have covered in this
paper. Similarly, IIS has an in-kernel component, the Software Web
Cache, to handle static content in the kernel itself. While this
approach may be able to directly use kernel interfaces to improve
scalability, the desirability of it may depend on whether the
developer is willing to accept the associated risks of putting a full
server into the kernel. For some of the cases we have discussed, such
as developing simple, custom sensors that use HTTP as a transport
protocol, in-kernel servers may provide little benefit if the
infrastructure cannot be leveraged outside of its associated tasks.
Some of our security policies are shaped by work on making
event-driven servers more responsive under malicious
workloads (21). We have attempted, as much as
possible, to broaden these benefits to all servers, with as little
server modification as possible. We believe that our recency-based
algorithm is an elegant generalization of the approach presented in
the earlier work.
While many of our evaluations have used Apache, both because of its
popularity and because of the difficulty of performing certain
security-related operations in a multi-process server, we believe our
approach is fairly general. We have shown that it can be applied to
Flash, an event-driven Web server. We believe that it is broadly
amenable to other designs, including hybrid thread/event designs such
as Knot (30). While we tried to demonstrate this
feasibility, we were unable to get the standard Knot package working
in the 2.6 or 2.4 Linux kernel. We believe Connection Conditioning
would benefit a system like Knot most by preventing starvation-based
attacks. The higher-performance version of Knot, Knot-C, uses a
smaller number of threads to handle a large number of connections,
possibly leaving it open to this kind of attack. In conjunction with
CC Filters, only active connections would require threads in Knot.
Some work has been done on more complicated controllers for overload
control (31,25), which moves request
management policy inside the server. If such an approach were desired
in Connection Conditioning, it could be done via explicit
communication between the filter and servers, using shared memory or
other IPC mechanisms. However, implementing such schemes as filters
has the benefit of leaving the design style of the filter up to the
developer, instead of having to conform to the server's
architecture. Having the filter operate in advance of the server's
accepting connections has the possibility of reducing wasted
work. Servers would still be free to enforce whatever internal
mechanisms they desired.
Similarly, resource containers (6) have been used to
provide priority to certain classes of clients, both in event-driven
and process-based servers. This mechanism has been used to show that a
specified level of traffic can be provided to friendly clients even
when malicious clients are generating heavy traffic. This approach
depends on early demultiplexing in the kernel, and forcing policy
decisions into the kernel to support this behavior. We believe that
resource containers can be used in conjunction with Connection
Conditioning, such that livelock-related policies are moved into the
kernel with resource containers, and that the CC Filters handle the
remaining behavior at application-level.
Finally, we should mention that a large body of work exists on some
form of interposition, often used for implementing flexible security
policies. Some examples of this approach include Systrace (20),
which can add policies to existing systems, Kernel
Hypervisors (16), which can generalize the support for
customizable, in-kernel system call monitoring, and Flask (27), an
architecture designed to natively provide fine-grained control for a
microkernel system. While some of CC's mechanisms could be implemented
using system call interposition, the fundamental concerns of CC differ
from these projects in the sense that the filters in CC are trusted,
and are logically extending the server, rather than viewing the server
in an adversarial context. In this vein, CC is more similar to
approaches like TESLA (24), that are designed to extend/offload
the functionality of existing systems. Combining CC with TESLA, which
provides session-layer services, would likely be a logical pairing,
since their focus areas are complementary. The reason for not using
some form of system call interposition in the current CC is that some
decisions are simpler when made explicitly - for example, a purely
interposition-based system may have a difficult time detecting all
uses of the common networking idiom of socket()/listen()/accept(), especially if other operations, such as
fork() or dup() are interleaved. By making CC calls
explicit, the library is greatly simplified.
The next step for Connection Conditioning would be to add kernel
support for the interposition mechanisms, while still keeping the
server and filters in user space. We intentionally keep the filters in
user space because we believe that the flexibility of having them
easily customizable outweighs any performance gains of putting them in
the kernel. We also believe that by moving only the mechanisms into
the kernel, Connection Conditioning can be used without requiring root
The general idea is to allow the server to create its listen socket,
and then have a minimal kernel mechanism that allows another process
from the same user to ``steal'' any traffic to this socket. The first
filter would then perform connection passing to other filters using
the standard mechanisms. However, when the final filter wants to pass
the connection to the server, it uses another kernel mechanism to
re-inject the connection (file descriptor and request) where it would
have gone to the server. In effect, the entire filter chain is
interposed between the lower half of the kernel and the delivery to
the server's listen socket. Such a scheme would be transparent to the
server, and could operate without any server modification if the
ability to split persistent connections into multiple connections is
not needed. Otherwise, all of the other CC library functions could be
eliminated, with only cc_close exposed via the API. Some extra-server
process would have to launch all of the filters, and indicate which
socket to steal, but this infrastructure is also minimal.
For closed-source servers where even minimal modifications are not
possible, this approach may be the only mechanism to use Connection
Conditioning. However, since our current focus is on experimentation,
the library-based approach provides three important benefits: it is
portable across operating systems and kernel versions, it requires
less trust from a developer wanting to experiment with it, and it is
easier to change if we discover new idioms we want to support. At some
point in the future, after we gain more experience with Connection
Conditioning, we may revisit an in-kernel mechanism specifically to
support closed-source servers.
While server software design continues to be an active area of
research, we feel it is worthwhile to assess its chances for
meaningful impact given the current state of hardware and
networking. We believe that performance of most servers is good enough
for most sites, and that advances in simplifying server software
development and providing better security outweigh additional
performance gains. We have shown that a design inspired by Unix
pipes, called Connection Conditioning, can provide benefits in both
areas, and can even be used with existing server software of various
designs. While this approach has a performance impact, we have
demonstrated that even on laughably cheap hardware, this system can
handle far more bandwidth than most sites can afford.
Connection Conditioning provides these benefits in a simple,
composable fashion without dictating programming style. We have
demonstrated a new server that is radically simpler than most modern
Web servers, and have shown that fairly simple, general-purpose
filters can be used with this server and others to provide good
performance and security. The current implementation runs entirely in
user space, which gives it more flexibility and safety compared to a
kernel-based approach. However, a kernel-space implementation of the
mechanisms is possible, allowing for improved performance while
retaining the flexibility of user-space policies.
Overall, we believe that Connection Conditioning holds promise for
simplifying server design and improving security, and should be
applicable to a wide range of network-based services in the future.
We have demonstrated it in conjunction with multi-process servers as
well as event-driven servers, and have shown that it can help defend
these servers against a range of attacks. We are investigating its
use for DNS servers, which tend to prefer UDP over TCP in order to
reduce connection-related overheads, and for sensors on PlanetLab,
which use an HTTP framework for simple information services. We expect
that both environments will also prove amenable to Connection
We would like to thank our shepherd, David Andersen, and the anonymous
reviewers for their useful feedback on the paper. This work was
supported in part by NSF Grant CNS-0519829.
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