Jon Eisen

Software Engineer, Mathematician, Sabermatrician, etc.

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Stripe CTF3 Recap 

January 30, 2014

Stripe CTF 3 just finished. It was awesome. This year, it focused on distributed computing. I’ll walk through the problems and my solutions.

Level 0 - Set Membership

Level 0 gave you a small ruby program that read in a dictionary and a list of words and checked to see if the words were in the dictionary. The problem was to make this program faster:

It should be clear to most anyone with a small experience with data structures that the basic solution is to convert the list of dictionary words to a set. Ruby’s .to_set works fine. That got you a passing score.

To do better, you first had to get lower level, going into C++/C helped. Then you could see that the dictionary never changed and you can serialize the dictionary so that your program didn’t incur the cost of creating the set structure. You could use a structure with super-fast lookups, like a Bloom Filter or Hash Set. This would probably get you to a score of 300-600.

To get more, you could get creative. When Stripe ran your test code, they first run a ./build.sh script. In that script, you could start a process that compiled the dictionary and listened on a unix socket for the “real” program to be called; this way no initialization cost at all! This score could really get high, like 1000+. (Doesn’t work — See update.)

UPDATE: According to @thegdb, the real trick was to use a remote process to execute the work. However, this “bug” was patched out by the end of the competition using CPU monitoring.

And according to KJ, the interprocess communication wouldn’t work because of the LXC container environment, however, a shared memory solution would work, but reading the shared memory block takes time. Scores about 1000.

Here’s my solutions: ruby, haskell bloomfilter, haskell set and C++. Note that haskell solutions didn’t pass because compiling the data structure, even with the ST monad (mutability), took way too long.

Level 1 - Gitcoins

Level 1 introduced a new cryptocurrency, the Gitcoin. A gitcoin is mined a lot like a bitcoin, but uses the git commit hashing system. Essentially, to add a gitcoin to your account, you increase your count in a LEDGER.txt, then commit that with a commit message such that the commit’s hash is below some difficulty level, such as starting with 3 0’s, like 0001ba23.

To solve this, you basically just have to reverse engineer the git object hashing scheme. Although, if you missed the link to the git book on git object internals, you had a much harder time with this one. I didn’t bother to really optimize my code, I just left it running overnight (after staying up til 3am) and in the morning, I had a gitcoin and solved level 1!

To get higher scores, you had to compete for gitcoins in a global pool. I never did get around to running this, but obviously, parallelism and heavy-duty VPS instances would have helped.

My solution in haskell.

Level 2 - DDOS Shield

Level 2’s problem was to protect a fragile server from a DDOS attack. A few number of attackers were sending a lot of requests and breaking the fragile server, while a lot of valid users who sent relatively few requests were supposed to be let by. The solution is scored as valid requests that get correctly returned minus any idle time of the servers.

The basic solution is to just count requests by IP and not let anything by that has more than X requests. Since each valid user is hardcoded to only send 4 requests (2 per round) in the test runner, you can set this to 4 or 5 and move on to level 3. To do better though, you’ll need some sort of pressure-based routing that allows a known bad request through if your servers are idle.

No need to show solution here, as its pretty simple.

Level 3 - Distributed Full Text Search

In level 3, your given a directory of files to index and setup a web server with a query interface. Upon getting a query, your job is to return the file and line number of every instance of the query which could be a word or a sub-word. Immediately, you think about doing an inverted index to solve this.

The example code was given in Scala, which is a nightmare to work with. Just compiling a simple program took a minute and running it had all sorts of JVM costs. Once I switched to node.js, I could run an entire test in under 15 seconds, whereas Scala took 2 minutes. This sped up development time considerably.

My first try was to do a basic inverted index, but this ended up having weird issues with node’s objects. Turns out they don’t like objects with 250,000 keys. I turned to the npm module hashmap. Then I started to realize that any given query could be a sub-word of any other word, so you have to search the list of all words in order to find every word that may contain the query. This cost considerable time, but a solution like this could still pass (required score: 400). (Note: Using n-grams took too much time to index)

Your given 4 servers to work with (1 master and 3 slaves), so appropriate breaking up the work could really speed things up. Initially, I just split up the work of parsing the directories, but then I ended up with each slave having ~250K words in its inverted index. A smarter way is to have each server handle a quarter of the dictionary so any lookup (which takes O(n) because of the subword search) took a quarter of the time. This is what gave the best bonus to the score.

After I did all this work on this problem, I learned from a friend that a very simple call to grep and parsing the results could get you a 650. Boo on that.

Here’s my solution in node. This ones pretty messy because it was tough to get right.

Level 4 - Distributed Fault-Tolerant CP Database

Level 4 was all about building a distributed SQL database. Given a basic SQLite wrapper with a very stupid replication algorithm in Go, make that replication/fault-tolerance very good. It was tested using octopus, which would totally nuke parts of your network, creating partitions, killing nodes, and slowing the whole network. How, in those conditions, can you operate an ACID CP database?

First of all, if your looking for reading on this topic, you should check out these: CAP Theorem, Two Generals Problem, Jepsen Blog, The Log, Raft.

This was clearly the hardest problem, and with less than 200 captures by the end, it showed. The first problem to solve here is how to gain some distributed consensus about the state of the database. There are lots of protocols out there, but one of the more recent ones is Raft. Its much more understandable than Paxos, and it happens to have a Go implementation. Using the reference implementation, you can bring raft into the sqlcluster application pretty easily. After solving some stupid bugs with socket locations, this will get you a working fault-tolerant DB that has a single master, and can do failovers and replication. Unfortunately, it’ll be tough to get a score over 50 (passing) without some help.

Scoring for this problem was # of successful queries (with a valid and incrementing sequence ID) times 10 minus some measure of network traffic. I solved the problem of finding more points by doing more successful queries. A friend solved it by decreasing network traffic. Both are valid.

To decrease network traffic, don’t actually setup a distributed network. It creates a single point of failure with your node of choice, but since the tester only tests a single node for SPOF, you have an 80% chance of passing. Without replication, you’re golden to be able to just make a 50 on the test. UPDATE: Theres some questions about whether this was possible after the bugfixes went into octopus; but the answer is yes, it was still possible to get barely over 50 if you got lucky with your run.

To increase successful queries, you need to accept queries to slaves. Those slaves can’t actually process the queries, so they have to proxy them to the master using HTTP. But, consider the following case. A proxied request reaches the master and is successfully executed. The response containing the correct SQL response and sequence number is lost due to the network failure. The slave responds with an error and the whole test stops because now you’ve missed a sequence number! This is known as the Two Generals problem. My solution was to first attach a unique key to each proxied request. Then, after proxying a request, if a slave did not receive a response, instead of returning an error code, it would wait for its SQL instance to process that specific request (with the correct unique key). Once it did, the slave returned the response to the waiting test runner. Basically, instead of using a lossy communication (HTTP), I used a consistent communication channel (the shared log of SQL queries).

My full solution.


Overall, this was a great competition. I thought the topics were well chosen, and I had a great time with it. My favorite levels were the gitcoin mining and distributed database. I’d been meaning to use raft at some point, and now I have! Thank you Stripe for putting in the hard work to create such a fun and rewarding opportunity. I look forward to receiving my t-shirt!

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