We have begun to see a shift in Denial of Service (DoS) tactics by attackers, moving up the stack from networks to servers and from servers to the application layer. Over the last 18 months we have also witnessed a new wave of vulnerabilities and isolated attacks against databases, all related to denial of service. We have seen recent issues with Oracle with invalid object pointers, a serious vulnerability in the workload manager, the TNS listener barfing on malformed packets, a PostgreSQL issue with unrestricted networking access that was rumored to allow file corruption to crash the database, the IBM DB2 XML feature, and multiple vulnerabilities in MySQL including remote ability to crash the database. A vulnerability does not mean that exploitation has occurred but we hear more off-the-record accounts of database attacks. We cannot quantify the risk or likelihood of attack, but this seems like a good time to describe these attacks briefly and offer some mitigation suggestions.

It may come as a surprise but database denial of service attacks have been common over the last decade. We don’t hear much about them because they are lost among the din of SQL injection (SQLi) attacks, which cause more damage and offer attackers a wider range options. All things being equal, attackers generally prefer SQLi attacks as more directly useful for their objectives. Database DoS doesn’t make headlines compared to SQLi, because injection attacks often take control of the database and can be more damaging. But interruption of service is no longer a trivial matter. Ten years ago it was still common practice to take a database or application off the Internet while an attack was underway. But now web services and the databases are tied into them are critical business infrastructure. Take down a database and a company loses money – quite possibly a lot of money.

As Mike noted in his recent research on Denial of Service attacks, the most common DoS approaches are “flooding the pipes” rather than “exhausting the servers”. Flooding the pipes is accomplished by sending so many network packets that they simply overwhelm the network equipment. This type of volumetric attack is the classic denial of service, most commonly performed as a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) because it takes hundreds or thousands of malicious clients to flood a large network. Legitimate network traffic is washed away in the tide of junk, and users cannot reach servers.

Exhausting servers is different – these attacks target software running on the server, such as the operating system or web application components – to waste all its CPU, memory, or other resources and effectively disable it. These attacks can target either vulnerabilities or features of application stacks to overwhelm servers and prevent legitimate traffic from accessing web pages or completing transactions. The insidious part of this for attack is that, as you consume more than roughly 80% of hardware or software resources, these platforms become less efficient. The closer they get to maximum utilization the more they slow down. Push them to the limit and they may simply lock up, waiting for resources to become available. In some cases a reduction in load does not bring servers back – you need to reset or restart them. Databases have their own networking features and offer a full complement of services, so both these models apply.

The motivation for attacks is very similar to traditional DoS attacks. Hacktivism is a major trend, and taking down a major commercial web site is a weapon for people who dislike a company but lack legal or financial means to voice their complaints. “Covering attacks” are very common, where criminals flood servers and networks – including security systems – in order to mask an ongoing attack. common scenarios include shutting down a competitor, criminal racketeers threatening DoS and demanding ransom, and financial trading manipulation, and the list goes on. The motivations behind database DoS are essentially the same. The current tactics are a response to a couple new factors. Network and server defenses are getting better with the next generation of firewall technologies, and it has gotten nearly impossible to DoS cloud services providers with seemingly limitless redundant, and geographically dispersed resources. Attackers are looking for new ways to keep old crimes profitable.

But attackers are not discriminatory – they are happy to exploit any piece of hardware or software that allows them to accomplish their attacks, including web applications and databases sitting atop servers. Database denial of service is conceptually no different than traditional DoS attacks at the sever or application layers, but there are many more clever ways to create a denial of service attack against a database. Unlike DDoS you don’t need to throw everything including the kitchen sink at a site – often you just need to find a small logic flaw in a database function to push it over. Relational database platforms are some of the most complex application platforms in existence so there is a lot of room for mischief.

Attackers sometimes morph traditional protocol and server based denial of service attacks to move up the stack. But in most cases they exploit specific database features in novel ways to take down their targets. Current defensive systems are geared to block DoS-based network flooding and server attacks, so attackers are seeking greener fields in the application layer to better blend their incursions with legitimate customer transactions. With protection resources poured into the lower layers, relatively little is done at the application layer, and virtually nothing to stop database attacks. Worse, application layer attacks are much more difficult to detect because most look like legitimate database requests!

Our next post will take a look at the different classes of database DoS attacks. I will look at some historic examples of database DoS attacks and discuss current ones to help you understand the difficulty of defending databases from DoS.