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RFC 6093 - On the Implementation of the TCP Urgent Mechanism


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Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)                           F. Gont
Request for Comments: 6093                                       UTN/FRH
Updates: 793, 1011, 1122                                  A. Yourtchenko
Category: Standards Track                                          Cisco
ISSN: 2070-1721                                             January 2011

           On the Implementation of the TCP Urgent Mechanism

Abstract

   This document analyzes how current TCP implementations process TCP
   urgent indications and how the behavior of some widely deployed
   middleboxes affects how end systems process urgent indications.  This
   document updates the relevant specifications such that they
   accommodate current practice in processing TCP urgent indications,
   raises awareness about the reliability of TCP urgent indications in
   the Internet, and recommends against the use of urgent indications
   (but provides advice to applications that do).

Status of This Memo

   This is an Internet Standards Track document.

   This document is a product of the Internet Engineering Task Force
   (IETF).  It represents the consensus of the IETF community.  It has
   received public review and has been approved for publication by the
   Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG).  Further information on
   Internet Standards is available in Section 2 of RFC 5741.

   Information about the current status of this document, any errata,
   and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at
   http://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc6093.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright (c) 2011 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the
   document authors.  All rights reserved.

   This document is subject to BCP 78 and the IETF Trust's Legal
   Provisions Relating to IETF Documents
   (http://trustee.ietf.org/license-info) in effect on the date of
   publication of this document.  Please review these documents
   carefully, as they describe your rights and restrictions with respect
   to this document.  Code Components extracted from this document must
   include Simplified BSD License text as described in Section 4.e of
   the Trust Legal Provisions and are provided without warranty as
   described in the Simplified BSD License.

Table of Contents

   1. Introduction ....................................................3
   2. Specification of the TCP Urgent Mechanism .......................3
      2.1. Semantics of Urgent Indications ............................3
      2.2. Semantics of the Urgent Pointer ............................4
      2.3. Allowed Length of "Urgent Data" ............................4
   3. Current Implementation Practice of the TCP Urgent Mechanism .....5
      3.1. Semantics of Urgent Indications ............................5
      3.2. Semantics of the Urgent Pointer ............................5
      3.3. Allowed Length of "Urgent Data" ............................6
      3.4. Interaction of Middleboxes with TCP Urgent Indications .....6
   4. Updating RFC 793, RFC 1011, and RFC 1122 ........................6
   5. Advice to New Applications Employing TCP ........................7
   6. Advice to Applications That Make Use of the Urgent Mechanism ....7
   7. Security Considerations .........................................7
   8. Acknowledgements ................................................8
   9. References ......................................................8
      9.1. Normative References .......................................8
      9.2. Informative References .....................................8
   Appendix A.  Survey of the Processing of TCP Urgent
                Indications by Some Popular TCP Implementations ......10
      A.1. FreeBSD ...................................................10
      A.2. Linux .....................................................10
      A.3. NetBSD ....................................................10
      A.4. OpenBSD ...................................................11
      A.5. Cisco IOS software ........................................11
      A.6. Microsoft Windows 2000, Service Pack 4 ....................11
      A.7. Microsoft Windows 2008 ....................................11
      A.8. Microsoft Windows 95 ......................................11

1.  Introduction

   This document analyzes how some current TCP implementations process
   TCP urgent indications, and how the behavior of some widely deployed
   middleboxes affects the processing of urgent indications by hosts.
   This document updates RFC 793 [RFC0793], RFC 1011 [RFC1011], and RFC
   1122 [RFC1122] such that they accommodate current practice in
   processing TCP urgent indications.  It also provides advice to
   applications using the urgent mechanism and raises awareness about
   the reliability of TCP urgent indications in the current Internet.

   Given the above issues and potential interoperability issues with
   respect to the currently common default mode operation, it is
   strongly recommended that applications do not employ urgent
   indications.  Nevertheless, urgent indications are still retained as
   a mandatory part of the TCP protocol to support the few legacy
   applications that employ them.  However, it is expected that even
   these applications will have difficulties in environments with
   middleboxes.

   Section 2 describes what the current IETF specifications state with
   respect to TCP urgent indications.  Section 3 describes how current
   TCP implementations actually process TCP urgent indications.  Section
   4 updates RFC 793 [RFC0793], RFC 1011 [RFC1011], and RFC 1122
   [RFC1122], such that they accommodate current practice in processing
   TCP urgent indications.  Section 5 provides advice to new
   applications employing TCP, with respect to the TCP urgent mechanism.
   Section 6 provides advice to existing applications that use or rely
   on the TCP urgent mechanism.

   The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT",
   "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this
   document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119 [RFC2119].

2.  Specification of the TCP Urgent Mechanism

2.1.  Semantics of Urgent Indications

   TCP implements an "urgent mechanism" that allows the sending user to
   stimulate the receiving user to accept some "urgent data" and that
   permits the receiving TCP to indicate to the receiving user when all
   the currently known "urgent data" have been read.

   The TCP urgent mechanism permits a point in the data stream to be
   designated as the end of urgent information.  Whenever this point is
   in advance of the receive sequence number (RCV.NXT) at the receiving
   TCP, that TCP must tell the user to go into "urgent mode"; when the
   receive sequence number catches up to the urgent pointer, the TCP

   must tell user to go into "normal mode" [RFC0793].  This means, for
   example, that data that was received as "normal data" might become
   "urgent data" if an urgent indication is received in some successive
   TCP segment before that data is consumed by the TCP user.

   The URG control flag indicates that the "Urgent Pointer" field is
   meaningful and must be added to the segment sequence number to yield
   the urgent pointer.  The absence of this flag indicates that there is
   no "urgent data" outstanding [RFC0793].

   The TCP urgent mechanism is NOT a mechanism for sending "out-of-band"
   data: the so-called "urgent data" should be delivered "in-line" to
   the TCP user.

2.2.  Semantics of the Urgent Pointer

   There is some ambiguity in RFC 793 [RFC0793] with respect to the
   semantics of the Urgent Pointer.  Section 3.1 (page 17) of RFC 793
   [RFC0793] states that the Urgent Pointer "communicates the current
   value of the urgent pointer as a positive offset from the sequence
   number in this segment.  The urgent pointer points to the sequence
   number of the octet following the urgent data.  This field is only be
   interpreted in segments with the URG control bit set" (sic).
   However, Section 3.9 (page 56) of RFC 793 [RFC0793] states, when
   describing the processing of the SEND call in the ESTABLISHED and
   CLOSE-WAIT states, that "If the urgent flag is set, then SND.UP <-
   SND.NXT-1 and set the urgent pointer in the outgoing segments".

   RFC 1011 [RFC1011] clarified this ambiguity in RFC 793 stating that
   "Page 17 is wrong.  The urgent pointer points to the last octet of
   urgent data (not to the first octet of non-urgent data)".  RFC 1122
   [RFC1122] formally updated RFC 793 by stating, in Section 4.2.2.4
   (page 84), that "the urgent pointer points to the sequence number of
   the LAST octet (not LAST+1) in a sequence of urgent data".

2.3.  Allowed Length of "Urgent Data"

   RFC 793 [RFC0793] allows TCP peers to send "urgent data" of any
   length, as the TCP urgent mechanism simply provides a pointer to an
   interesting point in the data stream.  In this respect, Section
   4.2.2.4 (page 84) of RFC 1122 [RFC1122] explicitly states that "A TCP
   MUST support a sequence of urgent data of any length".

3.  Current Implementation Practice of the TCP Urgent Mechanism

3.1.  Semantics of Urgent Indications

   As discussed in Section 2, the TCP urgent mechanism simply permits a
   point in the data stream to be designated as the end of urgent
   information but does NOT provide a mechanism for sending "out-of-
   band" data.

   Unfortunately, virtually all TCP implementations process TCP urgent
   indications differently.  By default, the last byte of "urgent data"
   is delivered "out of band" to the application.  That is, it is not
   delivered as part of the normal data stream [UNPv1].  For example,
   the "out-of-band" byte is read by an application when a recv(2)
   system call with the MSG_OOB flag set is issued.

   Most implementations provide a socket option (SO_OOBINLINE) that
   allows an application to override the (broken) default processing of
   urgent indications, so that "urgent data" is delivered "in line" to
   the application, thus providing the semantics intended by the IETF
   specifications.

3.2.  Semantics of the Urgent Pointer

   All the popular implementations that the authors of this document
   have been able to test interpret the semantics of the TCP Urgent
   Pointer as specified in Section 3.1 of RFC 793.  This means that even
   when RFC 1122 formally updated RFC 793 to clarify the ambiguity in
   the semantics of the Urgent Pointer, this clarification was never
   reflected in actual implementations (i.e., virtually all
   implementations default to the semantics of the urgent pointer
   specified in Section 3.1 of RFC 793).

   Some operating systems provide a system-wide toggle to override this
   behavior and interpret the semantics of the Urgent Pointer as
   clarified in RFC 1122.  However, this system-wide toggle has been
   found to be inconsistent.  For example, Linux provides the sysctl
   "tcp_stdurg" (i.e., net.ipv4.tcp_stdurg) that, when set, supposedly
   changes the system behavior to interpret the semantics of the TCP
   Urgent Pointer as specified in RFC 1122. However, this sysctl changes
   the semantics of the Urgent Pointer only for incoming segments (i.e.,
   not for outgoing segments).  This means that if this sysctl is set,
   an application might be unable to interoperate with itself if both
   the TCP sender and the TCP receiver are running on the same host.

3.3.  Allowed Length of "Urgent Data"

   While Section 4.2.2.4 (page 84) of RFC 1122 explicitly states that "A
   TCP MUST support a sequence of urgent data of any length", in
   practice, all those implementations that interpret TCP urgent
   indications as a mechanism for sending "out-of-band" data keep a
   buffer of a single byte for storing the "last byte of urgent data".
   Thus, if successive indications of "urgent data" are received before
   the application reads the pending "out-of-band" byte, that pending
   byte will be discarded (i.e., overwritten by the new byte of "urgent
   data").

   In order to avoid "urgent data" from being discarded, some
   implementations queue each of the received "urgent bytes", so that
   even if another urgent indication is received before the pending
   "urgent data" are consumed by the application, those bytes do not
   need to be discarded.  Some of these implementations have been known
   to fail to enforce any limits on the amount of "urgent data" that
   they queue; thus, they become vulnerable to trivial resource
   exhaustion attacks [CPNI-TCP].

   It should be reinforced that the aforementioned implementations are
   broken.  The TCP urgent mechanism is not a mechanism for delivering
   "out-of-band" data.

3.4.  Interaction of Middleboxes with TCP Urgent Indications

   As a result of the publication of Network Intrusion Detection System
   (NIDS) evasion techniques based on TCP urgent indications [phrack],
   some middleboxes clear the urgent indications by clearing the URG
   flag and setting the Urgent Pointer to zero.  This causes the "urgent
   data" to become "in line" (that is, accessible by the read(2) call or
   the recv(2) call without the MSG_OOB flag) in the case of those TCP
   implementations that interpret the TCP urgent mechanism as a facility
   for delivering "out-of-band" data (as described in Section 3.1).  An
   example of such a middlebox is the Cisco PIX firewall [Cisco-PIX].
   This should discourage applications from depending on urgent
   indications for their correct operation, as urgent indications may
   not be reliable in the current Internet.

4.  Updating RFC 793, RFC 1011, and RFC 1122

   Considering that as long as both the TCP sender and the TCP receiver
   implement the same semantics for the Urgent Pointer there is no
   functional difference in having the Urgent Pointer point to "the
   sequence number of the octet following the urgent data" vs.  "the
   last octet of urgent data", and that all known implementations
   interpret the semantics of the Urgent Pointer as pointing to "the

   sequence number of the octet following the urgent data", we hereby
   update RFC 793 [RFC0793], RFC 1011 [RFC1011], and RFC 1122 [RFC1122]
   such that "the urgent pointer points to the sequence number of the
   octet following the urgent data" (in segments with the URG control
   bit set), thus accommodating virtually all existing TCP
   implementations.

5.  Advice to New Applications Employing TCP

   As a result of the issues discussed in Section 3.2 and Section 3.4,
   new applications SHOULD NOT employ the TCP urgent mechanism.
   However, TCP implementations MUST still include support for the
   urgent mechanism such that existing applications can still use it.

6.  Advice to Applications That Make Use of the Urgent Mechanism

   Even though applications SHOULD NOT employ the urgent mechanism,
   applications that still decide to employ it MUST set the SO_OOBINLINE
   socket option, such that "urgent data" is delivered in line, as
   intended by the IETF specifications.

   Additionally, applications that still decide to use the urgent
   mechanism need to be designed for correct operation even when the URG
   flag is cleared by middleboxes.

7.  Security Considerations

   Multiple factors can affect the data flow that is actually delivered
   to an application when the TCP urgent mechanism is employed: for
   example, the two possible interpretations of the semantics of the
   Urgent Pointer in current implementations (e.g., depending on the
   value of the tcp_stdurg sysctl), the possible implementation of the
   urgent mechanism as an "out-of-band" (OOB) facility (versus "in-band"
   as intended by the IETF specifications), or middleboxes (such as
   packet scrubbers) or the end-systems themselves that could cause the
   "urgent data" to be processed "in line".  This might make it
   difficult for a Network Intrusion Detection System (NIDS) to track
   the application-layer data transferred to the destination system and
   thus lead to false negatives or false positives in the NIDS
   [CPNI-TCP] [phrack].

   Probably the best way to avoid the security implications of TCP
   "urgent data" is to avoid having applications use the TCP urgent
   mechanism altogether.  Packet scrubbers could probably be configured
   to clear the URG bit and set the Urgent Pointer to zero.  This would
   basically cause the "urgent data" to be put "in line".  However, this

   might cause interoperability problems or undesired behavior in those
   applications that rely on the TCP urgent mechanism, such as Telnet
   [RFC0854] and FTP [RFC0959].

8.  Acknowledgements

   The authors of this document would like to thank (in alphabetical
   order) Jari Arkko, Ron Bonica, David Borman, Dave Cridland, Ralph
   Droms, Wesley Eddy, John Heffner, Alfred Hoenes, Alexey Melnikov,
   Keith Moore, Carlos Pignataro, Tim Polk, Anantha Ramaiah, Joe Touch,
   Michael Welzl, Dan Wing, and Alexander Zimmermann for providing
   valuable feedback on earlier versions of this document.

   Fernando would like to thank David Borman and Joe Touch for a
   fruitful discussion about the TCP urgent mechanism at IETF 73
   (Minneapolis).

   Fernando Gont's attendance to IETF meetings was supported by ISOC's
   "Fellowship to the IETF" program.

   Finally, Fernando Gont wishes to express deep and heartfelt gratitude
   to Jorge Oscar Gont and Nelida Garcia for their precious motivation
   and guidance.

9.  References

9.1.  Normative References

   [RFC0793]     Postel, J., "Transmission Control Protocol", STD 7, RFC
                 793, September 1981.

   [RFC1011]     Reynolds, J. and J. Postel, "Official Internet
                 protocols", RFC 1011, May 1987.

   [RFC1122]     Braden, R., Ed., "Requirements for Internet Hosts -
                 Communication Layers", STD 3, RFC 1122, October 1989.

   [RFC2119]     Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate
                 Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, March 1997.

9.2.  Informative References

   [CPNI-TCP]    Gont, F., "Security Assessment of the Transmission
                 Control Protocol (TCP)", "http://www.cpni.gov.uk/
                 Docs/tn-03-09-security-assessment-TCP.pdf", 2009.

   [Cisco-PIX]   Cisco PIX, "http://www.cisco.com/en/US/docs/security/
                 asa/asa70/command/reference/tz.html#wp1288756".

   [FreeBSD]     The FreeBSD project, "http://www.freebsd.org".

   [Linux]       The Linux Project, "http://www.kernel.org".

   [NetBSD]      The NetBSD project, "http://www.netbsd.org".

   [OpenBSD]     The OpenBSD project, "http://www.openbsd.org".

   [RFC0854]     Postel, J. and J. Reynolds, "Telnet Protocol
                 Specification", STD 8, RFC 854, May 1983.

   [RFC0959]     Postel, J. and J. Reynolds, "File Transfer Protocol",
                 STD 9, RFC 959, October 1985.

   [UNPv1]       Stevens, W., "UNIX Network Programming, Volume 1.
                 Networking APIs: Sockets and XTI", Prentice Hall PTR,
                 1997.

   [Windows2000] Microsoft Windows 2000, "http://technet.microsoft.com/
                 en-us/library/bb726981(printer).aspx".

   [Windows95]   Microsoft Windows 95, "ftp://ftp.demon.co.uk/pub/
                 mirrors/win95netfaq/faq-c.html".

   [phrack]      Ko, Y., Ko, S., and M. Ko, "NIDS Evasion Method named
                 "SeolMa"", Phrack Magazine, Volume 0x0b, Issue 0x39,
                 Phile #0x03 of 0x12 http://www.phrack.org/
                 issues.html?issue=57&id=3#article, 2001.

Appendix A.  Survey of the Processing of TCP Urgent Indications by Some
             Popular TCP Implementations

A.1.  FreeBSD

   FreeBSD 8.0 [FreeBSD] interprets the semantics of the urgent pointer
   as specified in Section 4 of this document.  It does not provide any
   sysctl to override this behavior.

   FreeBSD provides the SO_OOBINLINE socket option that, when set,
   causes TCP "urgent data" to remain "in line".  That is, it will be
   accessible by the read(2) call or the recv(2) call without the
   MSG_OOB flag.

   FreeBSD supports only one byte of "urgent data".  That is, only the
   byte preceding the Urgent Pointer is considered "urgent data".

A.2.  Linux

   Linux 2.6.15-53-386 [Linux] interprets the semantics of the urgent
   pointer as specified in Section 4 of this document.  It provides the
   net.ipv4.tcp_stdurg sysctl to override this behavior to interpret the
   Urgent Pointer as specified in RFC 1122 [RFC1122].  However, this
   sysctl only affects the processing of incoming segments (the Urgent
   Pointer in outgoing segments will still be set as specified in
   Section 4 of this document).

   Linux provides the SO_OOBINLINE socket option that, when set, causes
   TCP "urgent data" to remain "in line".  That is, it will be
   accessible by the read(2) call or the recv(2) call without the
   MSG_OOB flag.

   Linux supports only one byte of "urgent data".  That is, only the
   byte preceding the Urgent Pointer is considered "urgent data".

A.3.  NetBSD

   NetBSD 5.0.1 [NetBSD] interprets the semantics of the urgent pointer
   as specified in Section 4 of this document.  It does not provide any
   sysctl to override this behavior.

   NetBSD provides the SO_OOBINLINE socket option that, when set, causes
   TCP "urgent data" to remain "in line".  That is, it will be
   accessible by the read(2) call or the recv(2) call without the
   MSG_OOB flag.

   NetBSD supports only one byte of "urgent data".  That is, only the
   byte preceding the Urgent Pointer is considered "urgent data".

A.4.  OpenBSD

   OpenBSD 4.2 [OpenBSD] interprets the semantics of the urgent pointer
   as specified in Section 4 of this document.  It does not provide any
   sysctl to override this behavior.

   OpenBSD provides the SO_OOBINLINE socket option that, when set,
   causes TCP "urgent data" to remain "in line".  That is, it will be
   accessible by the read(2) or recv(2) calls without the MSG_OOB flag.

   OpenBSD supports only one byte of "urgent data".  That is, only the
   byte preceding the Urgent Pointer is considered "urgent data".

A.5.  Cisco IOS software

   Cisco IOS Software Releases 12.2(18)SXF7, 12.4(15)T7 interpret the
   semantics of the urgent pointer as specified in Section 4 of this
   document.

   The behavior is consistent with having the SO_OOBINLINE socket option
   turned on, i.e., the data is processed "in line".

A.6.  Microsoft Windows 2000, Service Pack 4

   Microsoft Windows 2000 [Windows2000] interprets the semantics of the
   urgent pointer as specified in Section 4 of this document.  It
   provides the TcpUseRFC1122UrgentPointer system-wide variable to
   override this behavior, interpreting the Urgent Pointer as specified
   in RFC 1122 [RFC1122].

   Tests performed with a sample server application compiled using the
   cygwin environment has shown that the default behavior is to return
   the "urgent data" "in line".

A.7.  Microsoft Windows 2008

   Microsoft Windows 2008 interprets the semantics of the urgent pointer
   as specified in Section 4 of this document.

A.8.  Microsoft Windows 95

   Microsoft Windows 95 interprets the semantics of the urgent pointer
   as specified in Section 4 of this document.  It provides the
   BSDUrgent system-wide variable to override this behavior,
   interpreting the Urgent Pointer as specified in RFC 1122 [RFC1122].
   Windows 95 supports only one byte of "urgent data".  That is, only
   the byte preceding the Urgent Pointer is considered "urgent data"
   [Windows95].

Authors' Addresses

   Fernando Gont
   Universidad Tecnologica Nacional / Facultad Regional Haedo
   Evaristo Carriego 2644
   Haedo, Provincia de Buenos Aires  1706
   Argentina

   Phone: +54 11 4650 8472
   EMail: fernando@gont.com.ar
   URI:   http://www.gont.com.ar

   Andrew Yourtchenko
   Cisco
   De Kleetlaan, 7
   Diegem  B-1831
   Belgium

   Phone: +32 2 704 5494
   EMail: ayourtch@cisco.com

 

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