With the speed of network hardware now reaching 100 Gbps and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks going in the Tbps range, Linux kernel developers are scrambling to optimize key network paths in the kernel to keep up. Many efforts are actually geared toward getting traffic out of the costly Linux TCP stack. We have already covered the XDP (eXpress Data Path) patch set, but two new ideas surfaced during the Netconf and Netdev conferences held in Toronto and Montreal in early April 2017. One is a patch set called af_packet, which aims at extracting raw packets from the kernel as fast as possible; the other is the idea of implementing in-kernel layer-7 proxying. There are also user-space network stacks like Netmap, DPDK, or Snabb (which we previously covered).

This article aims at clarifying what all those components do and to provide a short status update for the tools we have already covered. We will focus on in-kernel solutions for now. Indeed, user-space tools have a fundamental limitation: if they need to re-inject packets onto the network, they must again pay the expensive cost of crossing the kernel barrier. User-space performance is effectively bounded by that fundamental design. So we'll focus on kernel solutions here. We will start from the lowest part of the stack, the af_packet patch set, and work our way up the stack all the way up to layer-7 and in-kernel proxying.

  1. af_packet v4
  2. XDP updates
  3. In-kernel layer-7 proxying
  4. Conclusion

af_packet v4

John Fastabend presented a new version of a patch set that was first published in January regarding the af_packet protocol family, which is currently used by tcpdump to extract packets from network interfaces. The goal of this change is to allow zero-copy transfers between user-space applications and the NIC (network interface card) transmit and receive ring buffers. Such optimizations are useful for telecommunications companies, which may use it for deep packet inspection or running exotic protocols in user space. Another use case is running a high-performance intrusion detection system that needs to watch large traffic streams in realtime to catch certain types of attacks.

Fastabend presented his work during the Netdev network-performance workshop, but also brought the patch set up for discussion during Netconf. There, he said he could achieve line-rate extraction (and injection) of packets, with packet rates as high as 30Mpps. This performance gain is possible because user-space pages are directly DMA-mapped to the NIC, which is also a security concern. The other downside of this approach is that a complete pair of ring buffers needs to be dedicated for this purpose; whereas before packets were copied to user space, now they are memory-mapped, so the user-space side needs to process those packets quickly otherwise they are simply dropped. Furthermore, it's an "all or nothing" approach; while NIC-level classifiers could be used to steer part of the traffic to a specific queue, once traffic hits that queue, it is only accessible through the af_packet interface and not the rest of the regular stack. If done correctly, however, this could actually improve the way user-space stacks access those packets, providing projects like DPDK a safer way to share pages with the NIC, because it is well defined and kernel-controlled. According to Jesper Dangaard Brouer (during review of this article):

This proposal will be a safer way to share raw packet data between user space and kernel space than what DPDK is doing, [by providing] a cleaner separation as we keep driver code in the kernel where it belongs.

During the Netdev network-performance workshop, Fastabend asked if there was a better data structure to use for such a purpose. The goal here is to provide a consistent interface to user space regardless of the driver or hardware used to extract packets from the wire. af_packet currently defines its own packet format that abstracts away the NIC-specific details, but there are other possible formats. For example, someone in the audience proposed the virtio packet format. Alexei Starovoitov rejected this idea because af_packet is a kernel-specific facility while virtio has its own separate specification with its own requirements.

The next step for af_packet is the posting of the new "v4" patch set, although Miller warned that this wouldn't get merged until proper XDP support lands in the Intel drivers. The concern, of course, is that the kernel would have multiple incomplete bypass solutions available at once. Hopefully, Fastabend will present the (by then) merged patch set at the next Netdev conference in November.

XDP updates

Higher up in the networking stack sits XDP. The af_packet feature differs from XDP in that it does not perform any sort of analysis or mangling of packets; its objective is purely to get the data into and out of the kernel as fast as possible, completely bypassing the regular kernel networking stack. XDP also sits before the networking stack except that, according to Brouer, it is "focused on cooperating with the existing network stack infrastructure, and on use-cases where the packet doesn't necessarily need to leave kernel space (like routing and bridging, or skipping complex code-paths)."

XDP has evolved quite a bit since we last covered it in LWN. It seems that most of the controversy surrounding the introduction of XDP in the Linux kernel has died down in public discussions, under the leadership of David Miller, who heralded XDP as the right solution for a long-term architecture in the kernel. He presented XDP as a fast, flexible, and safe solution.

Indeed, one of the controversies surrounding XDP was the question of the inherent security challenges with introducing user-provided programs directly into the Linux kernel to mangle packets at such a low level. Miller argued that whatever protections are expected for user-space programs also apply to XDP programs, comparing the virtual memory protections to the eBPF (extended BPF) verifier applied to XDP programs. Those programs are actually eBPF that have an interesting set of restrictions:

XDP is not a one-size-fits-all solution: netfilter, the TC traffic shaper, and other normal Linux utilities still have their place. There is, however, a clear use case for a solution like XDP in the kernel.

For example, Facebook and Cloudflare have both started testing XDP and, in Facebook's case, deploying XDP in production. Martin Kafai Lau, from Facebook, presented the tool set the company is using to construct a DDoS-resilience solution and a level-4 load balancer (L4LB), which got a ten-times performance improvement over the previous IPVS-based solution. Facebook rolled out its own user-space solution called "Droplet" to detect hostile traffic and deploy blocking rules in the form of eBPF programs loaded in XDP. Lau demonstrated the way Facebook deploys a three-part chained eBPF program: the first part allows debugging and dumping of packets, the second is Droplet itself, which drops undesirable traffic, and the last segment is the load balancer, which mangles the packets to tweak their destination according to internal rules. Droplet can drop DDoS attacks at line rate while keeping the architecture flexible, which were two key design requirements.

Gilberto Bertin, from Cloudflare, presented a similar approach: Cloudflare has a tool that processes sFlow data generated from iptables in order to generate cBPF (classic BPF) mitigation rules that are then deployed on edge routers. Those rules are created with a tool called bpfgen, part of Cloudflare's BSD-licensed bpftools suite. For example, it could create a cBPF bytecode blob that would match DNS queries to any example.com domain with something like:

    bpfgen dns *.example.com

Originally, Cloudflare would deploy those rules to plain iptables firewalls with the xt_bpf module, but this led to performance issues. It then deployed a proprietary user-space solution based on Solarflare hardware, but this has the performance limitations of user-space applications — getting packets back onto the wire involves the cost of re-injecting packets back into the kernel. This is why Cloudflare is experimenting with XDP, which was partly developed in response to the company's problems, to deploy those BPF programs.

A concern that Bertin identified was the lack of visibility into dropped packets. Cloudflare currently samples some of the dropped traffic to analyze attacks; this is not currently possible with XDP unless you pass the packets down the stack, which is expensive. Miller agreed that the lack of monitoring for XDP programs is a large issue that needs to be resolved, and suggested creating a way to mark packets for extraction to allow analysis. Cloudflare is currently in a testing phase with XDP and it is unclear if its whole XDP tool chain will be publicly available.

While those two companies are starting to use XDP as-is, there is more work needed to complete the XDP project. As mentioned above and in our previous coverage, massive statistics extraction is still limited in the Linux kernel and introspection is difficult. Furthermore, while the existing actions (XDP_DROP and XDP_TX, see the documentation for more information) are well implemented and used, another action may be introduced, called XDP_REDIRECT, which would allow redirecting packets to different network interfaces. Such an action could also be used to accelerate bridges as packets could be "switched" based on the MAC address table. XDP also requires network driver support, which is currently limited. For example, the Intel drivers still do not support XDP, although that should come pretty soon.

Miller, in his Netdev keynote, focused on XDP and presented it as the standard solution that is safe, fast, and usable. He identified the next steps of XDP development to be the addition of debugging mechanisms, better sampling tools for statistics and analysis, and user-space consistency. Miller foresees a future for XDP similar to the popularization of the Arduino chips: a simple set of tools that anyone, not just developers, can use. He gave the example of an Arduino tutorial that he followed where he could just look up a part number and get easy-to-use instructions on how to program it. Similar components should be available for XDP. For this purpose, the conference saw the creation of a new mailing list called xdp-newbies where people can learn how to create XDP build environments and how to write XDP programs.

In-kernel layer-7 proxying

The third approach that struck me as innovative is the idea of doing layer-7 (application) proxying directly in the kernel. This comes from the idea that, traditionally, we build firewalls to segregate traffic and apply controls, but as most services move to HTTP, those policies become ineffective.

Thomas Graf, presented this idea during Netconf using a Star Wars allegory: what if the Death Star were a server with an API? You would have endpoints like /dock or /comms that would allow you to dock a ship or communicate with the Death Star. Those API endpoints should obviously be public, but then there is this /exhaust-port endpoint that should never be publicly available. In order for a firewall to protect such a system, it must be able to inspect traffic at a higher level than the traditional address-port pairs. Graf presented a design where the kernel would create an in-kernel socket that would negotiate TCP connections on behalf of user space and then be able to apply arbitrary eBPF rules in the kernel.

Graf's design of in-kernel proxying

In this scenario, instead of doing the traditional transfer from Netfilter's TPROXY to user space, the kernel directly decapsulates the HTTP traffic and passes it to BPF rules that can make decisions without doing expensive context switches or memory copies in the case of simply wanting to refuse traffic (e.g. issue an HTTP 403 error). This, of course, requires the inclusion of kTLS to process HTTPS connections. HTTP2 support may also prove problematic, as it multiplexes connections and is harder to decapsulate. This design was described as a "pure pre-accept() hook". Starovoitov also compared the design to the kernel connection multiplexer (KCM). Tom Herbert, KCM's author, agreed that it could be extended to support this, but would require some extensions in user space to provide an interface between regular socket-based applications and the KCM layer.

In any case, if the application does TLS (and lots of them do), kTLS gets tricky because it breaks the end-to-end nature of TLS, in effect becoming a man in the middle between the client and the application. Eric Dumazet argued that HA-Proxy already does things like this: it uses splice() to avoid copying too much data around, but it still does a context switch to hand over processing to user space, something that could be fixed in the general case.

Another similar project that was presented at Netdev is the Tempesta firewall and reverse-proxy. The speaker, Alex Krizhanovsky, explained the Tempesta developers have taken one person month to port the mbed TLS stack to the Linux kernel to allow an in-kernel TLS handshake. Tempesta also implements rate limiting, cookies, and JavaScript challenges to mitigate DDoS attacks. The argument behind the project is that "it's easier to move TLS to the kernel than it is to move the TCP/IP stack to user space". Graf explained that he is familiar with Krizhanovsky's work and he is hoping to collaborate. In effect, the design Graf is working on would serve as a foundation for Krizhanovsky's in-kernel HTTP server (kHTTP). In a private email, Graf explained that:

The main differences in the implementation are currently that we foresee to use BPF for protocol parsing to avoid having to implement every single application protocol natively in the kernel. Tempesta likely sees this less of an issue as they are probably only targeting HTTP/1.1 and HTTP/2 and to some [extent] JavaScript.

Neither project is really ready for production yet. There didn't seem to be any significant pushback from key network developers against the idea, which surprised some people, so it is likely we will see more and more layer-7 intelligence move into the kernel sooner rather than later.


All of this work aims at replacing a rag-tag bunch of proprietary solutions that recently came up to bypass the Linux kernel TCP/IP stack and improve performance for firewalls, proxies, and other key edge network elements. The idea is that, unless the kernel improves its performance, or at least provides a way to bypass its more complex code paths, people will work around it. With this set of solutions in place, engineers will now be able to use standard APIs to hook high-performance systems into the Linux kernel.

The author would like to thank the Netdev and Netconf organizers for travel assistance, Thomas Graf for a review of the in-kernel proxying section of this article, and Jesper Dangaard Brouer for review of the af_packet and XDP sections.

Note: this article first appeared in the Linux Weekly News.

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