SCiON, a New Architecture that Overcomes the Limitations of the Internet
In November last year, Telindus announced having joined its forces with Anapaya, an ETH Zurich spin-off, thereby becoming the first player to offer the SCiON architecture in Luxembourg. SCiON is an innovative connectivity solution that combines the openness and flexibility of the Internet with the security and resilience of a private network, eliminating the risks of network cyber-attacks towards its users. We met Adrian Perrig, creator of SCiON, and asked him a few questions.
What is SCiON?
"SCiON started with an attempt to redesign the Internet. Our initial goal was to answer the research question of how secure a global public network could be. Over time, we came up with the basis of SCiON and realized that the system offers a lot more than the properties that we originally targeted. SCiON finally evolved into a public network essentially, like today's Internet, that offers security properties approximating a military network, at a speed and networking quality even higher than those of today's Internet. You could compare this to the differences between a car that was designed in the 60s or 70s and a modern car: what you get is not just higher safety, but also better comfort and improved performance. In the same way, SCiON is a redesign with modern tools of the fundamental internet protocols. And that's why it is possible for SCiON to be more secure, more efficient, and even greener by using less energy and producing less CO2 than today's Internet".
How does it work?
Today’s Internet packet forwarding is similar to waypoints. At each node in the Internet, there's a list of places where you might want to go to. Do you want to go to North America, Asia, London, Paris, Amsterdam or Luxembourg? In a way, every router looks at a packet’s destination and then decides where to next send it to. That's how today's internet works, with 'waypoints' essentially".
"SCiON, in contrast, is a path-based architecture. A sender who wants to send a packet to a recipient selects, from the set of paths that are offered from the network, which one she wants to pick. She then picks the whole path and puts it into the packet header. From this point, there are no more decisions that need to be taken in the network. The high-level information about how to get to the destination is already determined when the packet is sent".
"It's quite a different design that provides many interesting properties. For instance, today, the internet is a single-path network. If I send a packet to you, there's exactly one path that this packet can be on, you cannot select among multiple paths. In SCiON, as things stand, you have two or three different paths you can pick from. In the long term, when more ISPs join and the network expands, we will see that with similar topologies as we have in today's Internet, there will be several dozens of paths available. Through path combinations, you will be able to select from possibly over 100 different paths how you want your packet to go to the destination. And that's also why you can achieve higher efficiency with SCiON, because you can pick paths that have the optimal property you seek - low latency, high bandwidth for low packet loss, low jitter, or low CO2 footprint. Similarly, when we travel we like to select the path we take, for instance to avoid a dangerous intersection, pass by a coffee shop, avoid a steep hill, enjoy a nice view, or simply arrive as fast as possible".
How did you come up with the idea of building a new internet architecture?
"I have always wondered if one could redesign the internet, how would you do it? But I never really started in earnest working on it. This started actually at Carnegie Mellon University in 2009, when I became a full professor. I decided to gather a team of PhD students and we started working on it. For almost a year, we had no result, we just kept writing down properties we wanted to achieve. The initial lack of progress was quite challenging, for the students especially".
"A that time, I was thinking that if we could only achieve 20 or 30% of the desired properties, we would have achieved a great result. Suddenly, however, the breakthrough idea arose and things fell into place: the basic structure of SCiON satisfied all the requirements - and achieved even more than what we wanted to accomplish".
What are SCiON's advantages in terms of security over conventional technologies such as VPN?
"Generally speaking, VPN doesn't provide availability against routing or DDoS attacks. VPN simply provides encryption, whereas SCiON is designed for availability. If someone tries to carry out a DDoS attack, or a routing attack, SCiON protects against that. In addition, I've never come across an internet architecture with secure error messages. Current systems simply report that an error has occurred, which can be falsely created by an attacker. And even though some of these things have been pointed out repeatedly over 30 years, still today there is no architecture with secure error messages, except SCiON".
"SCiON represents a quantum leap in terms of security. Every aspect is made secure down to the error messages. There are claims for secure network protocols. But typically, only a small subset of aspects is secure. For instance, a basic aspect is to perform a dependency analysis - meaning which part of the protocol are dependent on which other parts – to avoid circular dependencies. There are a lot of supposedly secure systems with dependency loops - module A depends on module B, but B depends on A. The problem with dependency loops becomes apparent when one of the dependencies is not satisfied and suddenly the whole system stops functioning. In SCiON, we have a clean dependency analysis of all the components to ensure the absence of dependency loops".
"SCiON is also the first inter-domain network architecture withformal validation of the security properties. Thus, SCiON is more secure at a very fundamental level. For instance, today's Internet has many vulnerabilities due to BGP convergence. When the BGP protocol - the routing protocol for the Internet - or its security extension BGPsec doesn't converge as a result of an attack, you cannot communicate any more. SCiON is not vulnerable to such attacks because it does not use an iterative convergence process. This also enables formal verification, as it is very challenging to prove properties about systems that may not converge".
"On a per-path basis, SCiON requires about 1000 times less overhead than BGPsec. With SCiON, it is also correspondingly much faster, at the global scale, to find paths and to provide multiple path options. We have witnessed cases where SCiON only used about 10% of the effort of BGP but found 60 different paths instead of just one. So not only was SCiON using 10 times less effort but it also did 60 times more work".
How can the adoption of SCiON benefit the financial sector?
"This has been actually the main reason why SCiON came this far. Experts in the financial industry analyzed the whole system, they carefully reviewed the code and conducted thorough security analysis. They found that SCiON is what they were looking for. And that's why several Swiss banks are today using SCiON to communicate with each other".
"Just imagine if you had a network connection at a cost similar to a normal internet connection, but that gives you near military-grade security on a public Internet. You would have a substantial cost advantage. This means that you don't need to build private networks anymore to achieve high levels of security. Instead, one can simply purchase a public SCiON internet connection, and obtain high quality and secure connectivity. It is important to emphasize that the properties achieved are network availability, not secrecy achieved throughencryption. ".
"The main purpose of SCiON is availability, which is actually very challenging to obtain today across global heterogeneous networks. It takes a lot more effort to achieve availability than secrecy. People have been working for many years on secrecy. But availability is at least as important, as it enables us to communicate."