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Clientless SSL VPN Redux

By David J. Meier

Let’s try this again. Obviously I didn’t do a very good job of defining what ‘clientless’ means, creating some confusion. In part, this is because there’s a lot of documentation that confuses ‘thin client’ with ‘clientless’. Cisco actually has a good set of definitions, but in case you don’t want to click through I’ll just reiterate them (with a little added detail):

  • Clientless: All traffic goes through a standard browser SSL session – essentially, a simple proxy for web browsing. A remote client needs only an SSL-enabled web browser to access http – or https web servers on the corporate LAN (or the outside Internet, which is part of the problem we’re talking about).
  • Thin Client: Users must download a small, Java applet for secure access to TCP applications that use static port numbers. UDP is not supported. The client can add security features, and allows tunneling of non-web traffic, such as allowing Outlook to connect to an Exchange server. [Other vendors also use ActiveX.]
  • Client: The SSL VPN client downloads a small client to the remote workstation and allows full, secure access to all the resources on the internal corporate network. It’s a VPN that tunnels all traffic over SSL, as opposed to IPSec or older alternatives.

OK, so these definitions are a bit Cisco specific, but they do a good job. By “clientless” we’re stating no Java or ActiveX is in play here. This is key, because both the thin and full client models are immune to the flaw described in the US-CERT VU. The vulnerability is only when using a real, completely clientless, SSL VPN through the browser.

Speaking of the CERT VU, I think everyone can agree that it was poorly written. There are vendors in there who have never provided any sort of clientless SSL VPN (i.e., glorified proxy) functionality, so it’s better not to use that list even though most are marked as “Unknown”.

At this point if you’ve identified a true clientless SSL VPN in your environment, and are wondering how to mitigate the threat as much as possible, the best thing you can do is to make sure that the device only allows access to specified networks and domains. The more access end users have to external sites, the wider the window of opportunity is open for exploit. That being said, it is still generally a bad idea to use clientless VPNs on public networks, since they always provide a lower barrier against attacks can be provided in a (thin or full) VPN client, especially in light of all the threats to DNS in such an environment. It’s not hard to mess with a user’s DNS on an open (or hostile) network, or perform other man-in-the-middle attacks.

Clientless SSL VPNs are ultimately very fancy proxies, and should be carefully in tightly controlled environments. In situations where full control or public access is required there are far more secure solutions, including client-based SSL VPNs (OpenVPN, etc…) and IPsec options.

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Comments

Great definitions. That should clear up any confusion brought on by various and competing vendors and their marketing departments.

By David Mortman


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