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Chapter: Distributed Systems : Communication in Distributed System

Security model

the security of a distributed system can be achieved by securing the processes and the channels used for their interactions and by protecting the objects that they encapsulate against unauthorized access.

Security model


The sharing of resources as a motivating factor for distributed systems, and in Section 2.3 we described their architecture in terms of processes, potentially encapsulating higher-level abstractions such as objects, components or services, and providing access to them through interactions with other processes. That architectural model provides the basis for our security model:


the security of a distributed system can be achieved by securing the processes and the channels used for their interactions and by protecting the objects that they encapsulate against unauthorized access.


Protection is described in terms of objects, although the concepts apply equally well to resources of all types


Protecting objects :


Server that manages a collection of objects on behalf of some users. The users can run client programs that send invocations to the server to perform operations on the objects. The server carries out the operation specified in each invocation and sends the result to the client.


Objects are intended to be used in different ways by different users. For example, some objects may hold a user’s private data, such as their mailbox, and other objects may hold shared data such as web pages. To support this, access rights specify who is allowed to perform the operations of an object – for example, who is allowed to read or to write its state.



Securing processes and their interactions • Processes interact by sending messages. The messages are exposed to attack because the network and the communication service that they use are open, to enable any pair of processes to interact. Servers and peer processes expose their interfaces, enabling invocations to be sent to them by any other process.


The enemy • To model security threats, we postulate an enemy (sometimes also known as the adversary) that is capable of sending any message to any process and reading or copying any message sent between a pair of processes, as shown in the following figure. Such attacks can be made simply by using a computer connected to a network to run a program that reads network messages addressed to other computers on the network, or a program that generates messages that make false requests to services, purporting to come from authorized users. The attack may come from a computer that is legitimately connected to the network or from one that is connected in an unauthorized manner. The threats from a potential enemy include threats to processes and threats to communication channels.



Defeating security threats


Cryptography and shared secrets: Suppose that a pair of processes (for example, a particular client and a particular server) share a secret; that is, they both know the secret but no other process in the distributed system knows it. Then if a message exchanged by that pair of processes includes information that proves the sender’s knowledge of the


shared secret, the recipient knows for sure that the sender was the other process in the pair. Of course, care must be taken to ensure that the shared secret is not revealed to an enemy.


Cryptography is the science of keeping messages secure, and encryption is the process of scrambling a message in such a way as to hide its contents. Modern cryptography is based on encryption algorithms that use secret keys large numbers that are difficult to guess – to transform data in a manner that can only be reversed with knowledge of the corresponding decryption key.


Authentication: The use of shared secrets and encryption provides the basis for the authentication of messages proving the identities supplied by their senders. The basic authentication technique is to include in a message an encrypted portion that contains enough of the contents of the message to guarantee its authenticity. The authentication portion of a request to a file server to read part of a file, for example, might include a representation of the requesting principal’s identity, the identity of the file and the date and time of the request, all encrypted with a secret key shared between the file server and the requesting process. The server would decrypt this and check that it corresponds to the unencrypted details specified in the request.


Secure channels: Encryption and authentication are used to build secure channels as a service layer on top of existing communication services. A secure channel is a communication channel connecting a pair of processes, each of which acts on behalf of a principal, as shown in the following figure. A secure channel has the following properties:


Each of the processes knows reliably the identity of the principal on whose behalf the other process is executing. Therefore if a client and server communicate via a secure channel, the server knows the identity of the principal behind the invocations and can check their access rights before performing an operation. This enables the server to protect its objects correctly and allows the client to be sure that it is receiving results from a bona fide server.


A secure channel ensures the privacy and integrity (protection against tampering) of the data transmitted across it.


Each message includes a physical or logical timestamp to prevent messages from being replayed or reordered.



Communication aspects of middleware, although the principles discussed are more widely applicable. This one is concerned with the design of the components shown in the darker layer in the following figure.


The application program interface to UDP provides a message passing abstraction– the simplest form of interprocess communication. This enables a sending process to transmit a single message to a receiving process. The independent packets containing these messages are called datagrams. In the Java and UNIX APIs, the sender specifies the destination using a socket – an indirect reference to a particular port used by the destination process at a destination computer.


The application program interface to TCP provides the abstraction of a two-way stream between pairs of processes. The information communicated consists of a stream of data items with no message boundaries. Streams provide a building block for producer-consumer communication. A producer and a consumer form a pair of processes in which the role of the first is to produce data items and the role of the second is to consume them. The data items sent by the producer to the consumer are queued on arrival at the receiving host until the consumer is ready to receive them. The consumer must wait when no data items are available. The producer must wait if the storage used to hold the queued data items is exhausted.


The API for the Internet protocols


The general characteristics of interprocess communication and then discuss the Internet protocols as an example, explaining how programmers can use them, either by means of UDP messages or through TCP streams.


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