Cisco Blogs

Trust in IOS XR

In a previous blog on Cisco Trusted Platforms I looked at the hardware Trust Anchor module (TAm) that enhances the security of Cisco Service Provider products and provides visibility into the authenticity and integrity of the platforms. In this blog I will go over the software functionalities in IOS XR that enhance the security posture of the router, defends the router against common attacks, and provides evidence of trust.

Buffer Overflow Protection

A buffer overflow attack involves a common error by developers where the input to an allocated buffer (a memory region) is not validated, and the input overflows the allocated memory. This attack can lead to execution of arbitrary code. A similar attack involves prior knowledge of where critical data is loaded into memory and then targeting that memory location.

IOS XR uses multiple runtime defenses (RTDs) to protect from such errors.

  1. W^X (Write XOR Execute): This is a feature in Linux where any page of memory can either be written to or executed but not both. In the scenario where an input overflows the buffer, the overflow data exists in a memory region that can be written to but cannot be used to execute arbitrary malicious code.
  2. Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR): This is a Linux feature wherein the memory locations of running processes are randomized each time. This prevents critical data from always being loaded at the same location in memory, and makes it more difficult for an attacker to launch malicious operations on a specific, well-known memory location.
  3. Object Size Checking (OSC): This is a compiler technique used to identify the size of objects, even at compile time for specific types of objects, and then detecting if the data being written will overflow the allocated memory. The compiler will flag such errors at compile time, if the errors can be detected at compile time, or it will add additional instructions to raise exceptions at run time.
  4. Safe-C: Many library functions used in C are known to be quite difficult to use safely when it comes to certain memory related operations. Developers working on IOS XR use a safer and secure variant of the library functions, called the Safe-C Library. This provides an alternative to the standard C library calls, where memory accesses, particularly writes to memory locations, are first verified to be within bounds before data in memory is read from or written to. Note that not all modules in IOS XR fully utilize Safe-C libraries due to the maturity of the code base. Critical modules use Safe-C libraries and we migrate to Safe-C libraries in other modules as appropriate.

The above 4 features provide a much safer environment in which to run IOS XR software and mitigate a very common class of security problems.

Integrity Measurement Architecture (IMA)

Cisco hardware-anchored Secure Boot verifies the integrity of the image, including all firmware, to prevent inauthentic or compromised code from booting on a Cisco device. Once a router has booted up, it typically runs for months without a reboot. A malicious actor could get access to the router and tamper a binary at runtime and this would not be detected for a long time. To prevent such tampering of binaries at runtime, we are bringing Linux Integrity Measurement Architecture into IOS XR.

Linux IMA is a kernel security module which checks the integrity of every binary loaded into memory at runtime. Every binary carries a Cisco-issued signature. The Linux kernel validates this signature using Cisco’s Public IMA Certificate that is stored in the hardware-based Trust Anchor module. In the IMA measurement mode, the hashes of all binaries launched are logged into a secure location. In the IMA appraisal mode, if the signature validation fails, the binary will not be allowed to launch. Thus any accidental or malicious modification of a binary at runtime is detected and its execution prevented.  This significantly enhances security and allows the integrity the running software to be verified.

Remote Attestation

We have built a significant number of security controls into our Service Provider product and one of the important aspect of building trust in a product is the ability to verify that the router is in fact doing what it claims to be doing. If an attacker were to tamper the system, the very first action by the attacker will be to remove all evidence of the attack and to present the router as untampered. The only means of verifying the integrity of the router cannot be the router itself.

Remote Attestation will allow the operator to cryptographically verify that the router’s boot keys, boot configuration and all launched software have not been tampered. Cisco’s Trust Anchor supports Remote Attestation functionality where every aspect of the boot up process – starting from the verification of the root of trust and extending throughout the entire secure boot process – as well as the runtime IMA measurements are extended into Platform Configuration Registers (PCRs) in the Trust Anchor. Cisco’s software release process will provide Known Good Value (KGV) hashes for every software, firmware, and key material data shipped with the router.

Once the router is up and running, a verifying party will be able to request an attestation quote from the router. The Trust Anchor hardware can output the audit log and a PCR quote, signs the quote using an Attestation Private Key for that specific router and responds back to the verifying party. The verifying party will be able to use Cisco provided Known Good Value hashes and the Attestation Public Certificate to verify the attested PCR quotes and audit logs. This verification is protected against replay attacks using a nonce, and ensures the attestation is specific to a particular router by using Attestation key pairs that are unique to each router. Thus, one will be able to trust that the router hardware, boot keys, boot configuration and the running software have not been tampered.


Figure 1 Security Technologies at All Layers

We set a target of fulfilling security requirements at every layer of the Cisco Hardware and IOS XR Network OS. Figure 1 shows the various technologies in use that satisfy these requirements. Cisco’s Trust Anchor provides a foundation of trust for the Next Generation of Security in Service Provider routers that allows service providers to deploy Trusted Platforms, especially when deployed in remote and open locations. The security features in IOS XR software provide a strong defensive environment to run Cisco and Customer applications. Together, the union of Cisco’s Trust Anchor hardware and IOS XR software provide truly Trustworthy Solutions, where the trustworthiness of the system can be measured using Remote Attestation.

As new attacks emerge, Cisco is dedicated to further strengthen security and trustworthy solutions. We are committed to transparency and accountability, acting as a trusted partner to our customers to address evolving security threats.

The next blog in this series will provide more details on how to measure Trust using Cisco Trust Insights. For more information check out how to build Trusted Network Infrastructure.


Leave a comment

We'd love to hear from you! Your comment(s) will appear instantly on the live site. Spam, promotional and derogatory comments will be removed and HTML formatting will not appear.