On the week of Black Friday, Cloudflare automatically detected and mitigated a unique ACK DDoS attack, which we’ve codenamed “Beat”, that targeted a Magic Transit customer. Usually, when attacks make headlines, it’s because of their size. However, in this case, it’s not the size that is unique but the method that appears to have been borrowed from the world of acoustics.
Acoustic inspired attack
As can be seen in the graph below, the attack’s packet rate follows a wave-shaped pattern for over 8 hours. It seems as though the attacker was inspired by an acoustics concept called beat. In acoustics, a beat is a term that is used to describe an interference of two different wave frequencies. It is the superposition of the two waves. When the two waves are nearly 180 degrees out of phase, they create the beating phenomenon. When the two waves merge they amplify the sound and when they are out of sync they cancel one another, creating the beating effect.
Acedemo.org has a nice tool where you can create your own beat wave. As you can see in the screenshot below, the two waves in blue and red are out of phase and the purple wave is their superposition, the beat wave.
Reverse engineering the attack
It looks like the attacker launched a flood of packets where the rate of the packets is determined by the equation of the beat wave: y‘beat=y1+y2. The two equations y1 and y2 represent the two waves.
Each equation is expressed as
where fi is the frequency of each wave and t is time.
Therefore, the packet rate of the attack is determined by manipulation of the equation
to achieve a packet rate that ranges from ~18M to ~42M pps.
To get to the scale of this attack we will need to multiply y‘beat by a certain variable a and also add a constant c, giving us ybeat=ay‘beat+c. Now, it’s been a while since I played around with equations, so I’m only going to try and get an approximation of the equation.
By observing the attack graph, we can guesstimate that
by playing around with desmos’s cool graph visualizer tool, if we set f1=0.0000345 and f2=0.00003455 we can generate a graph that resembles the attack graph. Plotting in those variables, we get:
Now this formula assumes just one node firing the packets. However, this specific attack was globally distributed, and if we assume that each node, or bot in this botnet, was firing an equal amount of packets at an equal rate, then we can divide the equation by the size of the botnet; the number of bots b. Then the final equation is something in the form of:
In the screenshot below, g = f 1. You can view this graph here.
Beating the drum
The attacker may have utilized this method in order to try and overcome our DDoS protection systems (perhaps thinking that the rhythmic rise and fall of the attack would fool our systems). However, flowtrackd, our unidirectional TCP state tracking machine, detected it as being a flood of ACK packets that do not belong to any existing TCP connection. Therefore, flowtrackd automatically dropped the attack packets at Cloudflare’s edge.
The attacker was beating the drum for over 19 hours with an amplitude of ~7 Mpps, a wavelength of ~4 hours, and peaking at ~42 Mpps. During the two days in which the attack took place, Cloudflare systems automatically detected and mitigated over 700 DDoS attacks that targeted this customer. The attack traffic accumulated at almost 500 Terabytes out of a total of 3.6 Petabytes of attack traffic that targeted this single customer in November alone. During those two days, the attackers utilized mainly ACK floods, UDP floods, SYN floods, Christmas floods (where all of the TCP flags are ‘lit’), ICMP floods, and RST floods.
The challenge of TCP based attacks
TCP is a stateful protocol, which means that in some cases, you’d need to keep track of a TCP connection’s state in order to know if a packet is legitimate or part of an attack, i.e. out of state. We were able to provide protection against out-of-state TCP packet attacks for our “classic” WAF/CDN service and Spectrum service because in both cases Cloudflare serves as a reverse-proxy seeing both ingress and egress traffic.
However, when we launched Magic Transit, which relies on an asymmetric routing topology with a direct server return (DSR), we couldn’t utilize our existing TCP connection tracking systems.
And so, being a software-defined company, we’re able to write code and spin up software when and where needed — as opposed to vendors that utilize dedicated DDoS protection hardware appliances. And that is what we did. We built flowtrackd, which runs autonomously on each server at our network’s edge. flowtrackd is able to classify the state of TCP flows by analyzing only the ingress traffic, and then drops, challenges, or rate-limits attack packets that do not correspond to an existing flow.
flowtrackd works together with our two additional DDoS protection systems, dosd and Gatebot, to assure our customers are protected against DDoS attacks, regardless of their size or sophistication — in this case, serving as a noise-canceling system to the Beat attack; reducing the headaches for our customers.
Read more about how our DDoS protection systems work here.