Automatic Protocol Inference: Unexpected Means of Identifying Protocols

Justin Ma, Kirill Levchenko, Christian Kreibich, Stefan Savage and Geoff Voelker
February 21, 2006

Network managers are inevitably called upon to associate network traffic with particular applications. Indeed, this operation is critical for a wide range of management functions ranging from debugging and security to analytics and policy support. Traditionally, managers have relied on application adherence to a well established global port mapping: Web traffic on port 80, mail traffic on port 25 and so on. However, a range of factors -- including firewall port blocking, tunneling, dynamic port allocation, and a bloom of new distributed applications -- has weakened the value of this approach. We analyze three alternative mechanisms using statistical and structural content models for automatically identifying traffic using the same application-layer protocol, relying solely on flow content. In this manner, known applications may be identified regardless of port number, while traffic from one unknown application will be identified as distinct from another. We evaluate each mechanism's classification performance using real-world traffic traces from multiple sites.

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