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System overview

NetAuth is modular, so that the different implementations and algorithms can be used for each of the following three components:

  1. User authentication is triggered by new network APIs which (a) transparently perform cryptographic (public key) authentication over the network and (b) provide OS-based ownership of processes. Part (b) inherently requires an authorization mechanism which controls the conditions under which the user of a process can be changed.

  2. Encrypted communication between authenticated hosts ensures that confidentiality and integrity of communications are maintained, and also performs host authentication. This encryption is provided by the system and requires no application code.

  3. Authorization is used to determine if a process can (a) change ownership, (b) authenticate as a client, (c) perform network operations to a given address, and (d) access files (and other OS objects). In UBNS this ideally depends on both the service and the user. Thus, the authentication mechanism essentially labels server processes with the user on whose behalf the service is being performed so that external authorization can be done effectively. It is highly desirable that the authorization prevent attacks on one service spilling over to other services.

Due to space limitations, this paper focuses on user authentication. Authentication may seem trivial, but it requires significant amount of code in applications, so much so, that this mechanism is justified solely to improve authentication (without also improving authorization). Our server implementation is in the Linux kernel, but our client is user-space code which can be ported to any OS, including proprietary ones.

For encryption we require that hosts be authenticated and that cryptographic protections be set up transparently between hosts. Host authentication is important since if the end computer is owned by an attacker then security is lost. Such end devices can be highly portable devices such as cellphones. (For less important application one can use untrusted hosts.) Encryption can be triggered either in the network stack or by a standalone process. Currently, we are using IPsec [19,18] for this purpose as recent standards for IPsec have made it significantly more attractive as it allows for one of the hosts to be NATed [40]. But we expect to replace it with a new suite being developed which will be far less complex and faster.

The netAuth API can be used with any authorization model, which would need to control both change of ownership and client authentication, perhaps using simple configuration files [20] as well as networking and file systems to some extent. NetAuth's authorization model controls who may bind, accept, and connect to remote services on a per user basis as well as fine-grain support for the user and services which can access a file. NetAuth's authorization model is fully implemented, and we will describe it in a forthcoming paper.

A central tenet of our design is a clear separation between administration and use of our system. Even when the same person is performing both roles, this separation enables allowed actions to be determined in advance, instead of being interrupted in mid-task with authorization questions (e.g., ``do you accept this certificate?''). It also supports a model of dedicated system administrators; further partitioning of the system administration task is possible, for example to allow outsourcing of parts of the policy.

In netAuth, user processes never have access to cryptographic keys and cryptographic keys can only be used in authorized ways. Hence, from the authorization configuration the system administrator can easily determine which users are allowed to use a service and how services can interact with each other.

NetAuth enables successive connections by the same user to be directed to a single process dedicated to that user. We shall see that this has both programming and efficiency advantages. In addition to its uses in traditional network services, it can be used to easily set up back ends on the same system, and thus allow for further opportunities for UBNS.

We next give an overview of network authentication and UBNS mechanisms in netAuth.

Manigandan Radhakrishnan 2008-05-13