Securing BFD now possible!

Confession Time.

I am guilty of committing several sins. One that egregiously stands out is writing two IETF specs for BFD security (here and here) without considering the impact on the routers and switches implementing those specs. Bear in mind that Bi-directional Forwarding Detection (BFD) is a hard protocol to implement well. Its hard to get into a conversation with engineers working on BFD without a few of them shedding copious quantities of tears on what it took them to avoid those dreaded BFD flaps in scaled setups. They will tell you how they resorted to clever tricks (hacks, if you will) to process BFD packets as fast as they could (plucking them out of order from a shared queue, dedicated tasks picking up BFD packets in the ISR contexts, etc) . In a candid conversation, an ex-employee of a reputed vendor revealed how they stage managed their BFD during a demo to a major customer since they didnt want their BFD to flap while the show (completely scripted) was on. So, long story short — BFD is hard when you start scaling. It just becomes a LOT worse, when you add security on top of it.

The reason BFD is hard is because of the high rate at which packets are sent and consumed. If you miss out a few packets from your neighbor you consider him dead and you bring down your routing adjacency with that neighbor. This causes a lot of bad things (micro-loops, traffic storms, angry phone calls) to happen , least of which trust me, is rerouting the traffic around the “affected” node.

When BFD flaps

The cost of losing BFD packets is very high — so you really want to keep the packet processing minimal, the protocol lean, which is why folks in the BFD WG get a migraine whenever an enthusiastic (though noble) soul mentions a TLV extension to BFD or (even worse) a BFD v2.

Now when you add security, things become a waaaaaaaaaaaaay more complex. Not only do you need to process the packets at a high rate, you also need to compute the SHA or the MD5 digest for each one of those. This becomes difficult when the sessions scale even with hardware assist for BFD.  The current BFD specification for security mandates the digest to be computed for each packet that is sent (you could do something clever with the non-meticulous mode and we’ll talk about it some other day) so the spec is really useless as there is no vendor who can do that at the rate at which BFD packets need to be processed.

This also explains why the BFD specs have not moved further down on the standards track — or simply why they arent RFCs yet.

But there is a need to enhance BFD security, since thats currently the weakest link in the service provider network security. The routing and the signalling protocols have all been enhanced to support stronger cryptographic algorithms and BFD is the only protocol left thats still running without any authentication  (!!!) . I hope this doesnt inspire hackers all around the world to break into the Verizons, the Comcasts and the Tatas. Well, if somebody does, then please pass me a pointer so that i can increase my bandwidth to get all those Pink Floyd bootlegs that i have been scavenging for.

So now, we need  to secure BFD and we are stuck with a proposal that cant be used. Kind of cute, if youre not responsible for running a network.

One way to crack BFD security

The solution to this routing quagmire is however quite simple. I dribbled coffee all over my shirt when i thought of it the first time — checked if I wasnt missing out something obvious and when i was sure that it would hold ground, i pinged one of my co-authors who happened to be thinking on similar lines, and we quickly came up with a draft (after more than a year).

What we’re essentially proposing is this:

Most BFD packets are ping-pong packets carrying same information as was carried in the earlier packets — the payload doesnt change at all (used by most vendors to optimize their implementation — HINT use caching). Only when the state changes, that is, the BFD sessions go Up or Down, or a parameter changes (rarely), does the payload change. Use authentication only when the payload changes and never otherwise. This means that in most cases the packets will be sent in clear-text which can be easily handled as is done today. Only when the state changes, the digest needs to be computed which we know from our extensive experience is a relatively low occurrence event.

This proposal makes it very easy for the vendors to support BFD security, something which folks have been wishing for since long. You can get all the sordid details of our proposal here.

This is the first iteration of the draft and things will change as we move forward. While the current version suggests no changes to the existing BFD protocol, we might going ahead suggest a few changes to the state machine if  that’s what it takes to make the protocol secure. Who said securing BFD was simple ? Its perhaps for this reason that the IETF community still hasnt proposed a solid mechanism for stronger authentication of BFD packets.

You can follow the discussion on the BFD WG mailing list or keep looking at this space for more updates.

Is this draft a reparation for the sins i had mentioned at the beginning of my post earlier?


About Manav Bhatia

Manav Bhatia is a SDN/NFV dataplane architect at Ionos Networks and has co-authored several IETF standards on routing protocols, BFD, IPv6, security, etc. He is also a member of IETF Routing Area Directorate where he helps the Area Directors review the IETF standards for their impact on the Routing Area. View all posts by Manav Bhatia

2 responses to “Securing BFD now possible!

  • Amit

    Hi Manav,

    Why would you need security for BFD? The routing protocols will determine who BFD forms sessions with. If they use authentication, is there still need for BFD to have any authentication? Also, I think MACSec is a better choice as it can do encryption/decryption at line rate.



    • Manav Bhatia


      (1) Assume i am a router and i get an inbound BFD connect from How do i know that i am indeed talking to the right and its not some other router claiming to be

      (2) Assume you already have a BFD session with a router. Now, the attacker sends you a malicious packet which claims the BFD state to be Down. If you dont authenticate, you will bring down the session.

      MACSec can only be used for directly connected links. It will not work for multi-hop BFD sessions. Then BFD works with different encapsulations and it MACsec wouldnt be useful there.

      Hope this helps.

      Cheers, Manav


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