What Is VPN?

The remote server would access the request, then authenticate through something like a username and password. The tunnel would be established and used to transfer data between the client and server.

If you want to emulate a point to point link, the data must be wrapped with a header – this is normally called encapsulation. This header should provide essential routing information which enables the data to traverse the public network and reach it\’s intended endpoint. In order to keep the link private on this open network all the data would normally be encrypted. Without this route information the data would never reach it\’s intended destination. The encryption ensures that all data is kept confidential. Packets that are intercepted on the shared or public network are indecipherable without the encryption keys. The link in which the private data is encapsulated and encrypted is known as a VPN connection.

One of the most important uses of remote access VPN connections is that it allows workers to connect back to their office or home by using the shared infrastructure of a public network such as the internet. At the users point, the VPN establishes an invisible connection between the client and the organisation’s servers. There is normally no need to specify and aspects of the shared network as long as it is capable of transporting traffic, the VPN tunnel controls all other aspects.   This does mean it’s very difficult to block these VPN connections as the BBC is discovering.

These connections are also known as router to router connections which are established between two fixed points. They are normally setup between distinct offices or based again using the public network of the internet. The link will operate in a similar way to a dedicated wide area network link, however at a fraction of the costs of a dedicated line. Many companies use these increasingly in order to establish fixed connections without the expense of WAN connections. It should be noted that these VPN connections operate over the data link layer of the OSI model.

One of the problems many network administrators find is that users on networks can set up their own VPN connections.  These can be very difficult to detect and allow a direct tunnels into a corporate network especially as they are often used for trivial issues such as obtaining an IP address for Netflix.  Needless to say having users stream encrypted videos streams to their desktops is not good for network performance or security.

Remember a site to site connection will establish a link between two distinct private networks. The VPN server will ensure that a reliable route is always available between the two VPN endpoints. One of the routers will take the role of the VPN client, by requesting the connection. The second server will authenticate and then reciprocate the request in order for the tunnel to be authenticated at each end. In these site to site connections, the packets which are sent across the routers will typically not be created on the routers but clients connected to these respective devices.

 

Using Reverse Proxies in your Environment

Many IT administrators use proxies extensively in their networks, however the concept or reverse proxying is slightly less common.  So what is a reverse proxy? Well, it refers to the setup where a proxy server like this is run in such a way that it appears to clients just like a normal web server.

Specifically, the client will connect directly to the proxy considering it to be the final destination i.e. the web server itself, they will not be aware that the requests could be relayed further to another server.   It is possible that this will even be an additional proxy server.   These ‘reverse proxy servers’ are also often referred to as gateways although this term can have different meanings too.  To avoid confusion we’ll avoid that description in this article.

In reality the word ‘reverse’ refers to the backward role of the proxy server. In a standard proxy, the server will act as a proxy for the client initially.  Any request by the proxy is made on behalf of the received client request.  This is not the case in the ‘reverse’ scenario because because it acts as a proxy for the web server and not the client.  This distinction can look quite confusing, as in effect the proxy will forward and receive requests to both the client and server however the distinction is important.  You can read RFC 3040 for further information on this branch of internet replication and caching.

A standard proxy is pretty much dedicated to the client’s needs,  all configured clients will forward all their requests for web pages to the proxy server.   In a standard network architecture they will normally sit fairly close to the clients in order to reduce latency and network traffic.   These proxies are also normally run by the organisations themselves although some ISPs will offer the service to larger clients.

In the situation of a reverse proxy, it is representing one or a small number of origin servers.  You cannot normally access random servers through a reverse proxy because it has to be configured to specifically access certain web servers.  Often these servers will need to be highly available and the caching aspect is important,  a large organisation like Netflix would probably have specific IP addresses (read this) pointing at reverse proxies.  The list of servers that are accessible should always be available from the reverse proxy server itself.   A reverse proxy will normally be used by ‘all clients’ to specifically access certain web resources, indeed access may be completely blocked by any other route.

Obviously in this scenario it is usual for the reverse proxy to be both controlled and administered by the owner of the origin web server.  This is because these servers are used for two primary purposes to replicate content across a wide geographic area and two replicate content for load balancing.  In some scenarios it’s also used to add an extra layer of security and authentication to accessing a secure web server too.

 

Do I Need a Residential or Datacenter IP Address

For many people, there is a very strong requirement to mask their true identity and location online.  IT might be for privacy reasons, perhaps to keep safe or you simply don’t want anyone to log everything you do online.  There are other reasons, using multiple accounts on websites, IP bans for whatever reason or simple region locking – no you can’t watch Hulu on your holidays in Europe. The solution usually now revolves around hiding your IP address using a VPN or proxy as a minimum.

Yet the choice doesn’t end there, proxies are pretty much useless now for privacy and security.  They’re easily detected when you logon and to be honest of very little use anymore.   VPN services are much better, yet even here it’s becoming more complicated to access media sites for example.   The problem is that it’s not the technology that is now the issue but the originating IP address. These are actually classified into two distinct groups – residential and commercial which can both be detected by most websites.

 

A residential IP address is one that appears to come from a domestic account assigned from an ISP. It’s by far the most discrete and secure address to use if you want to keep completely private. Unfortunately these IP addresses are difficult to obtain in any numbers and also tend to be very expensive. Bottom line is the majority of people for whatever reason who are hiding their true IP address do it by using commercial addresses and not residential ones.

Most security systems can easily detect whether you are using a commercial or residential vpn service provider, how they use that information is a little more unsure. So at the bottom of the pile for security and privacy are the datacentre proxy servers which add no encryption layer and are tagged with commercial IP addresses.

Do I really need a residential VPN IP Address? Well that depends on what you are trying to achieve, for running multiple accounts on things like craigslist and Itunes – residential is best. If you want to try and access the US version of Netflix like this, then you’ll definitely need a residential address. Netflix last year filtered out all commercial addresses which means that very few of the VPNs work anymore, and you can’t watch Netflix at work either.

If you just want to mask your real IP address then a commercial VPN is normally enough. The security is fine and no-one can detect your true location, although they can determine you’re not a home user if they check. People who need to switch IPs for multiple accounts and using dedicated tools will probably be best advised to investigate the residential IP options.

On-Demand Caching for Proxies

It is arguably the most important function of a web proxy at least as far as performance is concerned and that’s on-demand caching.  That is documents or web pages which are cached upon request by a client or application.    It’s important to remember that a document can only be cached if it has actually been requested by a user.  Without a request, it will not be cached and indeed the proxy server will not even be aware of it’s existence.

This is a different method than using a replication model which is typically used to distribute data and updates.   This is more often used on larger, busier networks where data can be replicated onto specific servers, this method is also known as mirroring and also useful for sharing over the internet.     One of the most common examples for mirroring is when a large software package is being distributed instead of a single server being responsible, multiple duplicates are replicated onto different servers.

One of the best ways to facilitate performance increases is to use a method called round-robin DNS.  This involves mapping a single host name to multiple physical servers.  These servers must be assigned separate IP and physical addresses and their addresses distributed evenly among the clients requesting the software.    When using the DNs method, the clients will be unaware of the existence of multiple servers because they will appear as a single logical server.

Most of the caching solutions used by proxies are centred around removing the load on a specific server.  However when a proxy caches resources locally without mirroring or replication then it’s still the single server which is responsible.    The physical loads doesn’t decrease however it does reduce the number of network requests that the server has to implement.   This also reduces the number of name requests that the server makes which can also introduce some levels of latency.

Having caching enabled can reduce the speed of the server responses significantly.  However this does depend largely on the sort of requests that are made, imagine a proxy used specifically to obtain a Czech IP Address and directly download a specific resource.  Caching that resource locally would improve the speed significantly as long as the content didn’t change much, however this would be different for sites which stream audio or video and contained large amounts of multimedia content.

Further Reading

 

 

Proxy Configuration – SSL Tunneling

The SSL Tunneling Protocol allows any proxy server which supports it the ability to act as a tunnel for SSL enhanced protocols.  This feature is essential to support normal web traffic and increasingly SSL is being used to secure normal web requests which would previously have been sent in clear text.    The client makes the initial HTTP request to the proxy and asks for an SSL tunnel.  If we look at the protocol level the actual handshake to establish the SSL tunneling connection is fairly straight-forward.

The connection is simple and in fact looks like virtually any other HTTP request, the only difference is that we use a new ‘Connect’ method.   The format is also slightly different as the parameter is not a full url but rather the destination host address and the post number in the format 192.168.1.1:8080.      The port number is always required with these connection requests, as the default number is generic and not always correct.

When the client has received a successful response then the connection will pass all data in both directions to the destination server.  For the proxy server much of it’s role in authentication and establishing the connection is over, and it’s role is then limited to simply forwarding data for the connection.   The final significant role for the proxy server is to close the connection which it will do when it receives a close request from either the client or the server.

Other situations where the connection will be closed mainly refer to error status codes.  For example an error generated in response to authentication would be a typical situation where authentication has failed.  Most proxies will require some sort of authentication especially the high quality US proxies such as this.  The methods might change however from a simple username password supplied via a challenge and response to pass through authentication from a system like the Active Directory or LDAP.

It’s interesting to note that the mechanism used to handle SSL tunnelling is not actually specific to this protocol.  It is in fact a generic technique which can be used to tunnel any protocol including SSL.   There is no actual reliance on any SSL support from the proxy, which can be confusing when you see people look for SSL enabled proxies online.    It is not required on a properly configured proxy server as the data is simply transported there is no need for the actual protocol to be understood after the initial connection request.

There are issues with some protocols transferring through proxies, certain specialised protocols need more support than is offered with the standard tunneling mechanism.  For example for many years LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) was not able to work across most common proxies.  Some implementations support LDAP by using SOCKS while there is some difficulty with LDAP queries being cached and subsequently causing performance issues.    Most protocols however work perfectly with this ‘hands off’ tunneling mechanism which you can see perfectly illustrated if you try and stream video through proxies like this which used to circumvent BBC iPlayer blocked abroad.

 

Protecting Your Network with IDS

There is little excuse for not installing an IDS (Intrusion Detection System) on your Network, even the usual culprit of budget doesn’t apply.  In fact one of the leading IDS systems called Snort is actually available completely free of charge and is sufficient for all but the most very complex network infrastructures.    It is virtually impossible to effectively monitor and control your network, particularly if it’s connected to the internet, without some sort of IDS in place.

There are certain questions about the day to day operation of your network that you should be able to answer.  Questions like the following will help you determine if you really have control over your network and it’s hardware =

  • Can you tag and determine how much traffic on  your network is associated with malware or unauthorised software.
  • Are you able to determine which of your clients do not have the latest client build?
  • Can you determine which websites are most popularly requested.  Are these requests from legitimate users or as a result of malware activity.
  • Can you determine which users are the top web surfers (and is it justified).
  • How much mail are your SMTP server’s processing?

It is surprising how many network professionals simply wouldn’t have a clue about obtaining this information from their network however, it’s impossible to ensure that the network is efficient without it.  For example a few high intensive web users can create much more traffic than the majority of ordinary business users.   Imagine two or three users in a small department who used a working BBC VPN to stream TV to their computer 8 hours a day.   The traffic that would generate would be huge and could easily swamp an important network segment.

All security professionals should ensure that they have the tools and reporting capacity to answer simple questions like this about network usage.   Knowing the answers to these questions, will help control and adapt your network to meet it’s users needs.   Of course a simple IDS won’t provide the complete solution but it will help keep control in your network.  Malware can sit and operate for many weeks in a network which is not monitored properly.  This will heavily impact performance and can enable it to spread to other devices and eventually other networks.  In network environments where performance is important, then being aware of the sorts of situations can make a huge difference.

John Williams

Network Professional and Broadcaster on author of BBC News Streaming.

Using Proxies for Virtual Locations

For many people, travel is becoming much easier and as a species our geographical horizons are perhaps wider than ever.  Inexpensive air travel and soft borders like the European Union means that instead of just looking to work in another city or town, another country is just as viable.  The internet of course enables this somewhat, many corporations have installed infrastructure to allow remote or home working which means many people can work from wherever they wish.   Instead of sitting in cubicles in vast expensive office space, the reality is that people can work together just as easily using high speed internet connections from home.

Unfortunately there are some issues from this digital utopia, of which most are self inflicted.  Instead of being a vast unfettered global communications medium, the internet in some senses has begun to shrink somewhat.  Not so much in size but rather an increasing number of restrictions, filters and blocks being applied to web servers across the planet.  For instance the company I work for has two main bases one in the UK and the other in Poland, which means there is quite a bit of travel between the two countries.  Not surprisingly employees who are working away from home for some time, use the internet to keep in touch with their homelife, yet this can be frustrating.

A common issue is the fact that many websites are not really accessible globally, they are locked to specific regions.  Take for example the main Polish TV channel – TVN, it has a fantastic website and a media player by which you can watch all their shows.  However a Polish citizen who tries to watch the local News from Warsaw from a hotel in the UK will find themselves blocked, the content is only available to those physically located in Poland.  It’s no one off either, this behaviour is shared by pretty much every large media company on the web who block access depending on your location.

There is a solution and for our employees it’s actually quite simple, all they need to do is fire up their VPN client and remotely connect back to their home server in Poland.  The instant they do this, their connection looks like it’s based in Poland and all the Polish TV channels will work perfectly.  There’s a post about something similar here – using a Polish proxy to watch TVN and some other channels although this one is through a commercial service designed to hide your location.  It’s a practice that is becoming increasingly necessary, the more we travel the more we find our online access is determined by our physical location.

The use of proxies and more recently VPNs allows you to break out of these artificial intranets which companies are creating by blocking access from other countries.  The idea is that if you have the ability to switch to various VPNs across the world you can effectively take back control and access whatever website you need. Your physical location becomes unimportant again, by taking control of your virtual location you have an huge advantage over other internet users by choosing the location you wish to appear from.  There are even some other options now take a look at this UK DNS proxy which does something fairly similar and can be used to watch the BBC and Netflix from outside the UK.

John Hammond

Author of – Does BBC Iplayer Work in Ireland 

SSL Tunneling Protocol for Proxies

In these times when security is becoming ever more important the SSL Tunneling Protocol is extremely important, it allows a web proxy server to act as a tunnel for SSL enhanced protocols. The protocol is used when any connected client makes a HTTP request to the proxy server and asks for a SSL tunnel to be initiated.  On the HTTP protocol level, the handshake required to initiate the SSL tunneling connection is simple.  There is little difference to an ordinary HTTP request except that a new ‘Connect’ method is used and the parameter passed is not a full URL but instead a destination port number and hostname separated by a colon.

The port number is always required with ‘CONNECT’ requests because the tunneling method is generic and there is no protocol specified, hence default port numbers cannot be used reliably.  The general syntax for the request is as below ;

CONNECT  <host>:<port> HTTP/1.0

HTTP Request Headers

Empty Line

The successful response would be a connection established message, followed by another empty line. After the successful response the connection will then pass all the data transparently to the destination server and pass through any replies from the server. In practice what is happening is the proxy is validating the initial request, establishes the connection and then takes a step back. After this initial stage the proxy merely forwards data back and forth between the client and the server. If either side closes the connection then the proxy will cause both connections to be closed and no mor tunneling will take place until a new connection is established between the server and client.

The proxy does have the ability to respond to error messages within the SSL tunnel. If this error is generated in the initial stages then the connection will not be established, if it is already connected then the proxy will close the connection after the error response has been sent. However it is important to remember especially where security is important that this SSL tunneling protocol is not specific to SSL and therefore has no in depth security. The tunnelling mechanism used in this instance is a generic one and can in fact be used for any protocol. This means that there is no requirement either for the proxy to support SSL either as the server is merely establishing a connection and then forwarding data without any processing.

Further Reading

BBC Iplayer Ireland – Here’s How you Can Watch

http://www.iplayerabroad.com/bbc-iplayer-ireland/