Data Encryption – How it Works (Part 1)


I’ve decided to start a short series of posts on data encryption, which is becoming an increasingly important subject in IT as government regulations and privacy concerns demand ever increasing levels of privacy and security.

In this series, I’ll try to cover the more confusing concepts in encryption, including the three main types of encryption systems used today; Private Key encryption, Public Key Encryption, and SSL/TLS encryption. I will cover how those types of encryption function and vary from one another. I will also get some coverage on one of the most confusing topics in IT security, Public Key Infrastructure. If you haven’t already read by article on Digital Certificates, I would highly recommend doing so before going on to part two of this series, since digital certificates underpin the vast majority of encryption standards today.

What is Encryption?

The goal of encryption is to make any message or information impossible to understand or read without permission. Perfect encryption is (currently) impossible. What I mean by that is there is no way to encrypt data so that it can’t *possibly* be read by someone who isn’t authorized to do so. There are an unlimited number of ways to encrypt data, but some methods are significantly more effective at preventing unauthorized disclosure of data than others.

Encryption Parts

Every encryption system, however, has a few things in common. First, there’s the data. If you don’t have something you want to keep private or secret, there’s no reason to encrypt your data, so no need for encryption. But since we live in a world where secrecy and privacy are occasionally necessary and desirable, we are going to have stuff we want to encrypt Credit card numbers, social security numbers, birth dates, and things like that, for instance, need to be encrypted to prevent people from misusing them. We call this data “Clear-text” because it’s clear what the text says.

The next part is the “encryption algorithm”. Encryption is based very heavily in math, so we have to borrow some mathematical terminology here. In math, an algorithm is all the steps required to reach a conclusion. The algorithm for 1+1 is identified by the + sign, which tells use the step we need to take to get the correct answer to the problem, which is to add the values together. Encryption algorithms can be as simple as adding numbers or so complicated that they require a library of books to explain. The more complicated the algorithm, the more difficult it is (in theory) to “crack” the encryption and expose the original clear-text.

Encryption algorithms also require some value to be added along with the clear-text to generate encrypted data. The extra value is called an encryption “key”. The encryption key has two purposes. First, it allows the encryption algorithm to produce a (theoretically) unique value from the clear-text. Second, it allows people who have permission to read the encrypted data to do so, since knowing what the key is will allow us to decrypt, or reveal, the clear-text (more on this in a bit).

These three pieces put together are used to create a unique “Cipher-text” that will appear to be just gobbledygook to casual inspection. The cipher-text can be given to anyone and whatever it represents will be unknown until the data is “decrypted”. The process we go through to do this is fairly simple. We take the clear-text and the key, enter them as input in the encryption algorithm, and after the whole algorithm is completed with those values, we get a cipher-text. The below image shows this:

Encryption

 

Every encryption algorithm requires the ability to “reverse” or “decrypt” the data, so they all have a different decryption algorithm. For instance, in order to get back to the original value of 1 after adding 1 to it to get 2, you would have to reverse that process by subtracting 1. In this case, we know what input (1) and algorithm (adding) was used to reach the value, so reversing it is easy. We just subtract whatever number we need to get back to the original value (1 in this case). In general, decryption algorithms will take the key and cipher-text as input to the algorithm. Once everything in the algorithm is done, it should result in the original clear-text, as shown below:

Decryption

Simple Examples

Two early examples of encryption come to us from Greek and Roman history. The Skytale was a fairly ingenious encryption tool that used a wooden block of varying size and shape as its key. The clear-text was written (or burned) on a strip of leather that was wrapped around the key on a single side of the key, which was usually hexagonal. The person who was supposed to receive the message had a key of similar shape and size. Wrapping the leather strip around the other key would allow the recipient to receive the message. Using the above terminology, the Clear-text is the message, the key is the block of wood, and the encryption algorithm is wrapping a strip of leather around the key and writing your message along with some fake gobbledygook on all the other sides. Unwrapping the leather from the block gives a cipher-text. Decryption is just wrapping the strip around a similarly shaped and sized block, then look at all sides to see which one makes sense.

One of the more famous encryption algorithms is called the “Caesar Cipher” because it was developed by Julius Caesar during his military conquests to keep his enemies from intercepting his plans. You’ve probably used this algorithm before without knowing it if you ever enjoyed passing notes to friends in school and wanted to keep the other kids (or the teacher) from knowing what the message said if they “intercepted” it.

The Caesar Cipher is fairly simple, but works well for quick, easy encryption. All you do is pick a number between 1 and 26 (or the number of letters in whatever language you’re using). When writing the message, you replace each letter with whatever letter whose space in the alphabet is equal to the number you chose above or below in the alphabet. For instance, “acbrownit” is “bdcspxmju” in a +1 Caesar Cypher. Decrypting the message is a simple matter of reversing that. For a Caesar Cypher, the key is whatever number you pick, the clear-text is the message you want to send, the algorithm is to add the key to the clear-text’s letters, outputting cipher-text.

Key Exchange

For any encryption algorithm to function properly as a way to send messages, you must have a way to ensure that the recipient of the message has the correct key to decrypt the message. Without a key, the recipient will be forced to “crack” the encryption to read the message. So you need to be able to provide that key to the recipient. The process of ensuring that both the sender and recipient have the keys to encrypt and decrypt the message (respectively), a “key exchange” must occur. This is often as simple as telling your friend what number to use with your Caesar cipher.

But what do you do if you need to exchange keys in a public place, surrounded by prying eyes (like, for instance, the Internet)? It becomes much more difficult to exchange keys when needed if there is significant distance between the sender and recipient, which means that the biggest weakness in any encryption standard is making sure that the recipient has the key they need to decrypt the message. If the key can be intercepted easily, the encryption system will fail.

The exchange method used will usually depend on they type of key required for decryption. For instance, in World War II, the German military developed a mechanical encryption device called “Enigma” that was essentially a typewriter, but it changed the letters used when typing out a message with a mechanical series of gears and levels. If you pushed the I button on the keyboard, depending on the key used it would type a J or a P (or whatever). The keys were written down in a large notebook that was given directly to military commanders before they departed on their missions, and the index location of the key assigned to the message was set on the machine itself to encrypt and decrypt messages. The process of creating that key book and handing it to the commander was a key exchange. It was kept secure by ensuring that the only people who had the notebook of keys were people that were allowed to have them. Commanders were ordered to destroy their Enigma machines and accompanying notebooks if capture was likely. The Allies in the war were able to capture some of these machines eventually, which allowed a lot of incredibly smart people a chance to examine them and learn the algorithm used to encrypt data, which ultimately resulted in the Enigma machines becoming useless.

Modern encryption systems utilize a number of different methods for exchanging keys. For example, there are VPN tunnels that utilize “hardware” keys. In these solutions, the networks on each side of the tunnel have a device that is connected to another over the internet through a VPN. Before a connection between each side can be established, a small electronic dongle (about the size of a flash drive) has to be plugged in on each side. The dongle contains the key used to encrypt and decrypt data. The key exchange in this scenario involves having an authorized individual take a key to each site and plug it in. This is a very low-tech kind of key exchange, but is extremely secure because, as long as the individual carrying the keys is trustworthy, we can be sure that no one else has a copy of the key.

There are many other kinds of key exchanges that can occur in an encryption system, but most people don’t realize when a key exchange is even happening on the Internet. Whenever you visit an encrypted website, there are actually two different kinds of key exchange that have to happen before the website is presented. Without the technology to perform those exchanges, entering your credit card to purchase the latest gadget online would be a much more complicated and annoying process.

The Future of Encryption

Encryption techniques have come a long way since the early days of leather straps around wooden blocks. Encryption is also used in more ways, by more people, and for more purposes than you can imagine. Despite the improvements and technological developments that have come along, there is still no such thing as a perfect, unbreakable encryption technique. It’s always possible to decrypt data without permission. All we can do is ensure that the time it takes to “crack” the encryption is prohibitive. AES encryption, for example, can take as long as the universe has existed to crack using brute force techniques (based on the average computer’s processing power). The future, though, will require better, more ingenious encryption systems. Why? Because, theoretically, a sufficiently powerful quantum computer (which doesn’t exist yet) can crack even the strongest encryption in almost no time at all. Rest assured, however, that someone (or a group of someones) will develop a better system that will be much more difficult for quantum computers to crack.

Summing it Up

Encryption is a part of our daily lives, whether we realize it or not. Understanding how it works is becoming more important as time goes on and the need to protect ourselves from prying eyes increases. Hopefully, after reading this article, you can see why encryption is important and what it really does for everyone.

 

Advertisements

Designing Infrastructure High Availability

IT people, for some reason, seem to have an affinity towards designing solutions that use “cool” features, even when those features aren’t really necessary. This tendency sometimes leads to good solutions, but a lot of times it ends up creating solutions that fall short of requirements or leave IT infrastructure with significant short-comings in any number of areas. Other times, “cool” features result in over-designed, unnecessarily expensive infrastructure designs.

The “cool” factor is probably most obvious in the realm of High Availability design. And yes, I do realize that with the cloud becoming more common and prevalent in IT there is less need to understand the key architectural decisions needed when designing HA, but there are still plenty of companies that refuse to use the cloud, and for good reason. Cloud solutions are not meant to be one size fits all solutions. They are one size fits most solutions.

High Availability (Also called “HA”) is a complex subject with a lot of variables involved. The complexity is due to the fact that there are multiple levels of HA that can be implemented, from light touch failover to globally replicated, multi-redundant, always on solutions.

High Availability Defined

HA is, put simply, any solution that allows an IT resource (Files, applications, etc) to be accessible at all times, regardless of hardware failure. In an HA designed infrastructure, your files are always available even if the server that normally stores those files breaks for any reason.

HA has also become much more common and inexpensive in recent years, so more people are demanding it. A decade ago, any level of HA involved costs that exponentially exceeded a normal, single server solution. Today, HA is possible for as little as half the cost of a single server (Though, more often, the cost is essentially double the single server cost).

Because of the cost reduction, many companies have started demanding it, and because of the cool factor, a lot of those companies have been spending way too much. Part of why this happens is due to the history of HA in IT.

HA History Lesson

Prior to the development of Virtualization (the technology that allows multiple “Virtual” servers to run on a single physical server), HA was prohibitively expensive and required massive storage arrays, large numbers of servers, and a whole lot of configuration. Then, VMWare implemented a solution called “VMotion” that allowed a Virtual Server to be moved between server hardware immediately at the touch of a button (Called VM High Availability). This signaled a kind of renaissance in High Availability because it allowed servers to survive a hardware failure for a fraction of the cost normally associated with HA. There is a lot more involved in this shift that just VMotion (SANs, cheaper high-speed internet, and similar advancements played a big part), but the shift began about the time VMotion was introduced.

Once companies started realizing they could have servers that were always running, regardless of hardware failures, an unexpected market for high-availability solutions popped up, and software developers started developing better techniques for HA in their products. Why would they care? Because there are a lot of situations where a server solution can stop working properly that aren’t related to hardware failures, and VMotion was only capable of handling HA in the event of hardware failures.

VM HA vs Software HA

The most common mistake I see people making in their HA designs is accepting the assumption that VM-level High Availability is enough. It is most definitely not. Take Exchange server as an example. There are a number of problems that can occur in Exchange that will prevent users from accessing their email. Log drives fill up, forcing database dismount. IIS can fail to function, preventing users from accessing their mailbox. Databases can become corrupted, resulting in a complete shutdown of Exchange until the database can be repaired or restored from backup. VM HA does nothing to help when these situations come up.

This is where the Exchange Database Availability Group (DAG) comes in to play. A DAG involves constantly replication changes to Mailbox Databases to additional Exchange servers (as many of them as you want, but 2-3 is most common). With a DAG in place, any issue that would cause a database to dismount in a single Exchange server will instead result in a Failover, where the database dismounts on one server and mounts on the other server immediately (within a few seconds or less).

The DAG solution alone, however, doesn’t provide full HA for Exchange, because IIS failures will still cause problems, and if there is a hardware failure, you have to change DNS records to point them to the correct server. This is why a Load Balancer is a necessary part of true HA solutions.

Load Balancing

A Load Balancer is a network device that allows users to access two servers with a single IP address. Instead of having to choose which server you talk to, you just talk to the load balancer and it decides which server to direct you to automatically. The server that is chosen depends on a number of factors. Among those is, of course, how many people are already on each server, since the primary purpose of a load balancer is to balance the load between servers more or less equally.

More importantly, though, most load balancers are capable of performing health checks to make sure the servers are responding properly. If a server fails a health check for any reason (for instance, if one server’s not responding to HTTP requests), the load balancer will stop letting users talk to that server, effectively ensuring that whatever failure occurs on the first server doesn’t result in users being unable to access their data.

Costs vs. Benefits

Adding a load balancer to the mix, of course, increases the cost of a solution, but that cost is generally justified by the benefit such a solution provides. Unfortunately, many IT solutions fail to take this fact into account.

If an HA solution requires any kind of manual intervention to fix, the time required for notifying IT staff and getting the switch completed varies heavily, and can be anywhere from 5 minutes to several hours. From an availability perspective, even this small amount of time can have a huge impact, depending on how much money is assumed as “lost” because of a failure. Here comes some math (And not just the Trigonometry involved in this slight tangent).

Math!

The easiest way to determine whether a specific HA solution is worth implementing involves a few simple calculations. First, though, we have to make a couple assumptions, none of which are going to be completely accurate, but are meant to help determine whether an investment like HA is worth making (Managers and CEOs take note)

  1. A critical system that experiences downtime results in the company being completely unable to make money for the period of time that system is down.
  2. The amount of money lost during downtime is equal to whatever percentage of a year the system is down times the amount of annual revenue the organization expects to make in a year.

For instance, if a company’s revenue is $1,000,000 annually, they will make an average of $2 per minute (Rounded up from $1.90), so you can assume that 5 minutes of downtime costs that company about $10 in gross revenue. The cheapest of Load balancers cost about $2,000 and will last about 5 years, so you recoup the cost of the load balancer by saving yourself 200 minutes of downtime. That’s actually less than the amount of time most organizations spend updating a single server. With Software HA in place, updates don’t cause downtime if done properly, so the cost of a load balancer is covered in just being able to keep Exchange running during updates (This isn’t possible with just VM HA). But, of course, that doesn’t cover the cost of the second server (Exchange runs well on a low-end server, so $5000 for server and licenses is about what it would cost). Now imagine if the company makes $10,000,000 in revenue, or think about a company that has revenue of several billion dollars a year. HA becomes a necessity according to these calculations very quickly.

VM HA vs Software HA Cost/Benefit

Realistically, the cost difference between VM HA and Software HA is extremely low for most applications. Everything MS sells has HA capability baked in that can be done for very low costs, now that the Clustering features are included in Windows 2012 Standard. So the costs associated with implementing Software HA vs VM HA are almost always justifiable. Thus, VM HA is rarely the correct solution. And mixing the two is not a good idea. Why? Because it requires twice the storage and network traffic to accomplish, and provides absolutely no additional benefit, other than the fact that VM Replication is kinda cool. Software HA requires 2 copies of the Server to function, and each copy should use a separate server (Separate servers are required for VM HA as well, so only the OS licensing  is an increased cost) to protect against hardware failure of one VM host server.

Know When to Use VM HA

Please note, though, that I am not saying you should never use VM HA. I am saying you shouldn’t use VM HA if software HA is available. You just need to know when to use it and when not to. If software HA isn’t possible (There are plenty of solutions out there with no High Availability capabilities), VM HA is necessary and provides the highest level of high availability for those products. Otherwise, use the software’s own HA capabilities, and you’ll save yourself from lots of headaches.