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Encrypting the Internet

The authors are research scientists and engineers for Intel Labs. They can be contacted at,,, and, respectively. Copyright (c) 2009 Intel Corporation. All rights reserved.

As of January 2009, it is estimated that the Internet connects 625 million hosts. Every second, vast amounts of information are exchanged amongst these millions of computers. These data contain public and private information, which is often confidential and needs to be protected. Security protocols for safeguarding information are routinely used in banking and e-commerce. Private information, however, has not been protected on the Internet in general. Examples of private information (beyond banking and e-commerce data) include personal e-mail, instant messages, presence, location, streamed video, search queries, and interactions on a wide variety of on-line social networks. The reason for this neglect is primarily economic. Security protocols rely on cryptography, and as such are compute-resource-intensive. As a result, securing private information requires that an on-line service provider invest heavily in computation resources. In this article we present new technologies that can reduce the cost of on-line secure communications, thus making it a viable option for a large number of services.

A lot of private information is transmitted over the HTTP in an insecure manner. HTTP exists in the application layer of the TCP/IP protocol stack. The Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and its successor, Transport Layer Security (TLS) are security technologies applied to the same layer. In this article, we specifically refer to SSL/TLS over the HTTP application layer, known as HTTPS. The introduction of HTTPS significantly increases the cost of processing traffic for web-service providers, due to the fact that it is not possible for previous-generation, web-server hardware to process high-volume HTTPS traffic with all the added cryptographic overhead. In order to process this high-volume traffic, a web-service provider has to invest in expensive end-point SSL/TLS acceleration devices. This added cost makes HTTPS a selective or premium choice among web-service providers. Consequently, a large amount of private information is transmitted over the web in an insecure manner and can, therefore, be intercepted or modified en route. In this article we provide a solution to this problem by presenting new technologies and results that show that it is now possible to use general-purpose hardware for high-volume HTTPS traffic.

The motivation behind our research is primarily to enable widespread use of, and access to, HTTPS. It is important for service providers and users to be able to trust each other for their mutual benefit. An important aspect of the trust comes from knowing that private communications are kept confidential and adhere to the policies established between providers and users. Users need to be educated and informed about the benefits of HTTPS for privacy in on-line communications. Providers need to adopt ubiquitous HTTPS offerings to ensure that they hold up their end of the deal. Enabling HTTPS without expensive investment is important in creating such a partnership.

HTTPS provides an end-to-end solution to data privacy and authenticity. This end-to-end solution ensures that when users transmit information from their device to a provider, the information cannot be seen by man-in-the-middle spyware. This is important due to the fact that packets travel over untrusted networks all the time in the Internet. Although most routing devices are hidden from direct observation, they are not impervious to motivated eavesdroppers. Even more observable are the publicly accessible wireless access points that are in use all over the world. These access points broadcast information to all devices managed by them. If there is not an end-to-end solution for security, these communications can be easily observed by network neighbors. There are other solutions to the security problem, such as Layer 3 Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), but VPNs are typically limited to networks where users communicate with other users within a centrally managed network; that is, having multiple users but a single provider. In such cases, the network provider already has strict policies about data privacy and security that are communicated to users via training. For example, e-mails within an enterprise are often allowed only over the enterprise-managed VPN. For the larger Internet, users connect across the networks of multiple providers. In addition, in recent years we have seen a reduction in the use of a wide variety of communication protocols (for example, FTP) in favor of the HTTP protocol. In this environment, HTTPS is the most viable solution to enabling private and secure communications amongst the large and growing numbers of users and providers.

Future applications of HTTPS may include widespread e-mail encryption, secure video streaming, secure instant messaging and encrypted web searching. These are a few of the many applications of HTTPS that are not widely used today. Moreover, with each passing year, users are putting more of their personal and private information on-line. Cloud computing enables them to access their information across all their devices everywhere. We believe that it is inevitable that users will demand HTTPS support from their providers for all their communications. Being prepared for that day led us to research and develop the technologies described in this article. We envision that with these advancements, every HTTP-based communication made by every device today will be HTTPS-based in the near future. We refer to this as "https://everywhere!".

Anatomy of a Secure Sockets Layer Session

Secure sockets layer (SSL) (later versions known as "Transport Layer Security", TLS) includes a handshake phase and a cryptographic data exchange phase. The overall SSL handshake is shown in Figure 1. In our diagram, in phase 1, the handshake begins when a client sends a server a list of algorithms the client is willing to support as well as a random number used as input to the key generation process.

Figure 1: Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) Handshake (Source: Intel Corporation, 2009)

In phase 2, the server chooses a cipher and sends it back, along with a certificate containing the server's public key. The certificate proves the server's identity. We note that the domain name of the server is also verified via the certificate (which helps eliminate phishing sites) and demonstrates to the user they are talking with the correct server/service. In addition, the server provides a second random number that is used as part of the key generation process. In phase 3, the client verifies the server's certificate and extracts the server's public key. The client then generates a random secret string called a pre-master secret and encrypts it by using the server's public key. The pre-master secret is sent to the server. In phase 4, the server decrypts the pre-master secret by using RSA. This is one of the most compute-intensive parts of the SSL transaction on the server. The client and server then independently compute their session keys by using the pre-master secret to apply a procedure called a key derivation function (KDF) twice. In phases 5 and 6, the SSL handshake phase ends with the communicating parties sending authentication codes to each other, computed on all original handshake messages.

In SSL, the data are transferred by using a record protocol. The record protocol breaks a data stream into a series of fragments, each of which is independently protected and transmitted. In other words, in IPsec, protection is supported on an IP-packet-by-IP-packet basis, whereas in SSL, protection is supported on a fragment-by-fragment basis. Before a fragment is transmitted, it is protected against attacks by the calculation of a message authentication code on the fragment. The fragment's authentication code is appended to the fragment, thereby forming a payload that is encrypted by using the cipher selected by the server. Finally, a record header is added to the payload. The concatenated header and encrypted payload are referred to as a "record".

A secure web server is clearly a memory-intensive application. For an SSL connection, the most significant type of overhead is the one related to cryptography. This includes the operations of encrypting packets with a symmetric key, providing message authentication support, and setting up the session by using RSA, as mentioned previously. In the section that follows, we describe in more detail two encryption algorithms that we accelerate with technologies described in this article: the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) and Rivest Shamir Adleman (RSA).

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