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Why OCaml-TLS?

By Amir Chaudhry - 2015-06-26

TLS implementations have a history of security flaws, which are often the result of implementation errors. These security flaws stem from the underlying challenges of interpreting ambiguous specifications, the complexities of large APIs and code bases, and the use of unsafe programming practices.

Re-engineering security-critical software allows the opportunity to use modern approaches to prevent these recurring issues. Creating the TLS stack in OCaml offers a range of benefits, including:

Robust memory safety: Lack of memory safety was the largest single source of vulnerabilities in various TLS stacks throughout 2014, including Heartbleed (CVE-2014-0160). OCaml-TLS avoids this class of issues entirely due to OCaml's automatic memory management, safety guarantees and the use of a pure-functional programming style.

Improved certificate validation: Implementation errors in other stacks allowed validation to be skipped under certain conditions, leaving users exposed (e.g. CVE-2014-0092). In our TLS stack, we return errors explicitly as values and handle all possible variants. The OCaml toolchain and compile-time checks ensure that this has taken place.

Mitigation of state machine errors: Errors such as Apple's GoTo Fail (CVE-2014-1266) involved code being skipped and a default 'success' value being returned, even though signatures were never verified. Our approach encodes the state machine explicitly, while state transitions default to failure. The code structure also makes clear the need to consider preconditions.

Elimination of downgrade attacks: Legacy requirements forced other TLS stacks to incorporate weaker 'EXPORT' encryption ciphers. Despite the environment changing, this code still exists and leads to attacks such as FREAK (CVE-2015-0204) and Logjam (CVE-2015-4000). Our TLS server does not support weaker EXPORT cipher suites so was never vulnerable to such attacks. In addition our stack never supported SSLv3, which was known to be the cause of many vulnerabilities and is only now in the process of being deprecated (RFC: 7568).

Greatly reduced TCB: The size of the trusted computing base (TCB) of a system, measured in lines of code, is a widely accepted approximation of the size of its attack surface. Our secure Bitcoin PiƱata, a unikernel built using our TLS stack, is less than 4% the size of an equivalent, traditional stack (102 kloc as opposed to 2560 kloc).

These are just some of the benefits of re-engineering critical software using modern techniques.