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Chapter: Security in Computing : Security in Networks

Network Protocols

When we use a network, the communication media are usually transparent to us. That is, most of us do not know whether our communication is carried over copper wire, optical fiber, satellite, microwave, or some combination.



When we use a network, the communication media are usually transparent to us. That is, most of us do not know whether our communication is carried over copper wire, optical fiber, satellite, microwave, or some combination. In fact, the communication medium may change from one transmission to the next. This ambiguity is actually a positive feature of a network: its independence. That is, the communication is separated from the actual medium of communication. Independence is possible because we have defined protocols that allow a user to view the network at a high, abstract level of communication (viewing it in terms of user and data); the details of how the communication is accomplished are hidden within software and hardware at both ends. The software and hardware enable us to implement a network according to a protocol stack, a layered architecture for communications. Each layer in the stack is much like a language for communicating information relevant at that layer.


Two popular protocol stacks are used frequently for implementing networks: the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) and the  Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) architecture. We examine each one in turn.


ISO OSI Reference Model


The International Standards Organization (ISO) Open Systems Interconnection model consists of layers by which a network communication occurs. The OSI reference model contains the seven layers listed in Table 7-1.

How communication works across the different layers is depicted in Figure 7-5. We can think of the layers as creating an assembly line, in which each layer adds its own service to the communication. In concert, the layers represent the different activities that must be performed for actual transmission of a message. Separately, each layer serves a purpose; equivalent layers perform similar functions for the sender and receiver. For example, the sender's layer four affixes a header to a message, designating the sender, the receiver, and relevant sequence information. On the receiving end, layer four reads the header to verify that the message is for the intended recipient, and then removes this header.

Each layer passes data in three directions: above with a layer communicating more abstractly, parallel or across to the same layer in another host, and below with a layer handling less abstract (that is, more fundamental) data items. The communications above and below are actual interactions, while the parallel one is a virtual communication path. Parallel layers are called "peers."


Let us look at a simple example of protocol transmission. Suppose that, to send email to a friend, you run an application such as Eudora, Outlook, or Unix mail. You type a message, using the application's editor, and the application formats the message into two parts: a header that shows to whom the message is intended (as well as other things, such as sender and time sent), and a body that contains the text of your message. The application reformats your message into a standard format so that even if you and your friend use different mail applications, you can still exchange e-mail. This transformation is shown in Figure 7-6.

However, the message is not transmitted exactly as you typed it, as raw text. Raw text is a very inefficient coding, because an alphabet uses relatively few of the 255 possible characters for an 8-bit byte. Instead, the presentation layer is likely to change the raw text into something else. It may do compression, character conversions, and even some cryptography. An e-mail message is a one-way transfer (from sender to receiver), so it is not initiating a session in which data fly back and forth between the two endpoints. Because the notion of a communication session is not directly relevant in this scenario, we ignore the session layer for now. Occasionally, spurious signals intrude in a communication channel, as when static rustles a telephone line or interference intrudes on a radio or television signal. To address this, the transport layer adds error detection and correction coding to filter out these spurious signals.




Suppose your message is addressed to yourfriend@somewhere.net. This notation means that "somewhere.net" is the name of a destination host (or more accurately, a destination network). At the network layer, a hardware device called a router actually sends the message from your network to a router on the network somewhere.net. The network layer adds two headers to show your computer's address as the source and somewhere.net's address as the destination. Logically, your message is prepared to move from your machine to your router to your friend's router to your friend's computer. (In fact, between the two routers there may be many other routers in a path through the networks from you to your friend.) Together, the network layer structured with destination address, source address, and data is called a packet. The basic network layer protocol transformation is shown in Figure 7-7.

The message must travel from your computer to your router. Every computer connected to a network has a network interface card (NIC) with a unique physical address, called a MAC address (for Media Access Control). At the data link level, two more headers are added, one for your computer's NIC address (the source MAC) and one for your router's NIC address. A data link layer structure with destination MAC, source MAC, and data is called a frame. Every NIC selects from the network those frames with its own address as a destination address. As shown in Figure 7-8, the data link layer adds the structure necessary for data to get from your computer to another computer (a router is just a dedicated computer) on your network.

Finally, the message is ready to be sent out as a string of bits. We noted earlier that analog transmissions communicate bits by using voltage or tone changes, and digital transmissions communicate them as discrete pulses. The physics and electronics of how bits are actually sent are handled at the physical layer.


On the receiving (destination) side, this process is exercised in reverse: Analog or digital signals are converted to digital data. The NIC card receives frames destined for it. The recipient network layer checks that the packet is really addressed to it. Packets may not arrive in the order in which they were sent (because of network delays or differences in paths through the network), so the session layer may have to reorder packets. The presentation layer removes compression and sets the appearance appropriate for the destination computer. Finally, the application layer formats and delivers the data as an e-mail message to your friend.


The layering and coordinating are a lot of work, and each protocol layer does its own part. But the work is worth the effort because the different layers are what enable Outlook running on an IBM PC on an Ethernet network in Washington D.C. to communicate with a user running Eudora on an Apple computer via a dial-up connection in Prague. Moreover, the separation by layers helps the network staff troubleshoot when something goes awry.




Each layer reformats the transmissions and exchanges information with its peer layer. Let us summarize what each layer contributes. Figure 7-9 shows a typical message that has been acted upon by the seven layers in preparation for transmission. Layer 6 breaks the original message data into blocks. At the session layer (5), a session header is added to show the sender, the receiver, and some sequencing information. Layer 4 adds information concerning the logical connection between the sender and receiver. The network layer (3) adds routing information and divides the message into units called packets, the standard units of communication in a network. The data link layer (2) adds both a header and a trailer to ensure correct sequencing of the message blocks and to detect and correct transmission errors. The individual bits of the message and the control information are transmitted on the physical medium by level 1. All additions to the message are checked and removed by the corresponding layer on the receiving side.


The OSI model is one of several transmission models. Different network designers implement network activities in slightly different combinations, although there is always a clear delineation of responsibility. Some designers argue that the OSI model is overly complexit has too many levelsand so other models are typically shorter.




The OSI model is a conceptual one; it shows the different activities required for sending a communication. However, full implementation of a seven-layer transmission carries too much overhead for megabit-per-second communications; the OSI protocol slows things down to unacceptable levels. For this reason, TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) is the protocol stack used for most wide area network communications. TCP/IP was invented for what became the Internet. TCP/IP is defined by protocols, not layers, but we can think of it in terms of four layers: application, host-to-host (end-to-end) transport, Internet, and physical. In particular, an application program deals only with abstract data items meaningful to the application user. Although TCP/IP is often used as a single acronym, it really denotes two different protocols: TCP implements a connected communications session on top of the more basic IP transport protocol. In fact, a third protocol, UDP (user datagram protocol) is also an essential part of the suite.


The transport layer receives variable-length messages from the application layer; the transport layer breaks them down into units of manageable size, transferred in packets. The Internet layer transmits application layer packets in datagrams, passing them to different physical connections based on the data's destination (provided in an address accompanying the data). The physical layer consists of device drivers to perform the actual bit-by-bit data communication. Table 7-2 shows how each layer contributes to the complete interaction.



The TCP protocol must ensure the correct sequencing of packets as well as the integrity (correct transmission) of data within packets. The protocol will put out-of-sequence packets in proper order, call for retransmitting a missing packet, and obtain a fresh copy of a damaged packet. In this way, TCP hands a stream of correct data in proper order to the invoking application. But this service comes at a price. Recording and checking sequence numbers, verifying integrity checks, and requesting and waiting for retransmissions of faulty or missing packets take time and induce overhead. Most applications expect a flawless stream of bits, but some applications can tolerate a less accurate stream of data if speed or efficiency is critical.


A TCP packet is a data structure that includes a sequence number, an acknowledgment number for connecting the packets of a communication session, flags, and source and destination port numbers. A port is a number designating a particular application running on a computer. For example, if Jose and Walter begin a communication, they establish a unique channel number by which their computers can route their respective packets to each of them. The channel number is called a port. Each service uses a well-known port, such as port 80 for HTTP (web pages), 23 for Telnet (remote terminal connection), 25 for SMTP (e-mail), or 161 for SNMP (network management). More precisely, each of these services has a waiting process that monitors the specified port number and tries to perform its service on any data passed to the port.


The UDP protocol does not provide the error-checking and correcting features of TCP, but it is a much smaller, faster protocol. For instance, a UDP datagram adds 8 bytes for control information, whereas the more complex TCP packet adds at least 24 bytes.


Most applications do not interact directly in TCP or UDP themselves. Instead, they operate on data structured by an application-level protocol applied on top of TCP or UDP. Some of the more common Internet protocols are shown in Table 7-3.

Whatever the model, a layer will typically subdivide data it receives from a higher layer and then add header and/or trailer information to the data before passing it to a lower layer. Each layer encapsulates the higher layer, so that higher layer headers and trailers are seen simply as part of the data to be transmitted.


Addressing Scheme


For communication to occur, the bits have to be directed to somewhere. All networks use an addressing scheme so that data can be directed to the expected recipient. Because it is the most common, we use the Internet addressing scheme known as IP addresses in our examples, since it is the addressing handled by the IP protocol.


All network models implement an addressing scheme. An address is a unique identifier for a single point in the network. For obvious reasons, addressing in shared, wide area networks follows established rules, while addressing in local area networks is less constrained.


Starting at the local area network, each node has a unique address, defined in hardware on the network connector device (such as a network interface card) or its software driver. A network administrator may choose network addresses to be easy to work with, such as 1001, 1002, 1003 for nodes on one LAN, and 2001, 2002, and so forth on another.


A host on a TCP/IP wide area network has a 32-bit address, called an IP address . An IP address is expressed as four 8-bit groups in decimal notation, separated by periods, such as People prefer speaking in words or pseudowords, so network addresses are also known by domain names, such as ATT.COM or CAM.AC.UK. Addressing tables convert domain names to IP addresses.

A domain name is parsed from right to left. The rightmost portion, such as .COM, .EDU, .NET, .ORG, or .GOV, or one of the two-letter country specific codes, such as .UK, .FR, .JP, or .DE, is called a top-level domain. A small set of organizations called the Internet Registrars controls these top-level domains; the registrars also control the registration of second-level domains, such as ATT in ATT.COM. Essentially, the registrars publish addresses of hosts that maintain tables of the second-level domains contained in the top-level domain. A host connected to the Internet queries one of these tables to find the numeric IP address of ATT in the .COM domain. AT&T, the company owning the ATT Internet site, must maintain its own host to resolve addresses within its own domain, such as MAIL.ATT.COM. You may find that the first time you try to resolve a fully qualified domain name to its IP address, your system performs a lookup starting at the top; for subsequent attempts, your system maintains a cache of domain name records that lets it resolve addresses locally. Finally, a domain name is translated into a 32- bit, four -octet address, and that address is included in the IP packets destined for that address. (We return to name resolution later in this chapter because it can be used in network attacks.)


Routing Concepts


A host needs to know how to direct a packet from its own IP address. Each host knows to what other hosts it is directly connected, and hosts communicate their connections to their neighbors. For the example network of Figure 7-2, System 1 would inform System 2 that it was one hop away from Clients A, B, and C. In turn, System 2 would inform its other neighbor, System 3, that it (System 2) was two hops away from Clients A, B, and C. From System 3, System 2 would learn that System 3 was one hop away from Clients D and E, Server F, and System 4, which System 2 would then pass to System 1 as being a distance of two hops. The routing protocols are actually more complex than this description, but the concepts are the same; hosts advertise to their neighbors to describe to which hosts (addresses) they can route traffic and at what cost (number of hops). Each host routes traffic to a neighbor that offers a path at the cheapest cost.


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