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HTTP: The Application Transport Layer?


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HTTP: The Application Transport Layer?
Topic: Miscellaneous 2:00 pm EDT, May 22, 2008

In the early days of the web HTTP sat at the application layer (layer 7) and rode atop TCP, its transport layer.

An interesting thing happened on the way to the 21st century; HTTP became an application transport layer. Many web applications today use HTTP to transport other application protocols such as JSON and SOAP and RSS.

This is not the same as tunneling a different application through port 80 simply because almost all HTTP traffic flows through that port and it is therefore likely to be open on the corporate firewall. They're essentially just pretending to be HTTP by using the same port to fool firewalls into allowing their traffic to pass unhindered.

No, this is different.

This is the use of HTTP to wrap other application protocols and transport them. The web server interprets the HTTP and handles sessions and cookies and parameters, but another application is required to interpret the messages contained within because they represent the protocol of yet another application.

The problem is, of course, that there are no standards beyond HTTP. My JSON-based Web 2.0 application looks nothing like your SOAP-based Web 2.0 application. And yet a single solution must be able to adapt to those differences and provide the same level of scalability and reliability for me as it does you. It has to be extensible. It has to provide some mechanism for adding custom behavior and addressing the specific needs of application protocols that are unknown at the time the solution is created.

Applications aren't about HTTP anymore, they're about undefined and unknowable protocols.

There's a lot of traffic out there that's just HTTP, as it was conceived of and implemented years ago. But there's a growing amount of traffic out there that's more than HTTP, that's relegated this ubiquitous protocol to an application transport layer protocol and uses it as such to deliver custom applications that use protocols without RFCs, without standards bodies, without the W3C.

This is why Layer 4 IDS/IPS will not win. There's an RFC that defined IPv4, IPv6, TCP, SSL, etc. You can easily test structure and determine malformed IP packets. You can use stateful packet inspection to check FTP. There is no RFC that defines JSON. There is no RFC that defines what what the data inside the JSON literals is going to look like. There is no RFC about the character encodings that I'm applying. I've seen web applications using pipe (|) separated quoted strings that are Base64-ed to transfer data back and forth. How do you deep inspect something when you don't know the format?

(actually, this reminds me of an awesome presentation I saw in Toorcon back in 2004, Protocol Analysis using Bioinformatics Algorithms)

HTTP has become the long haul, reliable application transportation protocol of web applications, and we have no idea what the traffic traveling over it is supposed to look like. So how is an appliance in your DMZ suppose to validate it?

HTTP: The Application Transport Layer?

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