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Improving the WAF with Machine Learning


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Improving the WAF with Machine Learning

Cloudflare handles 32 million HTTP requests per second and is used by more than 22% of all the websites whose web server is known by W3Techs. Cloudflare is in the unique position of protecting traffic for 1 out of 5 Internet properties which allows it to identify threats as they arise and track how these evolve and mutate.

The Web Application Firewall (WAF) sits at the core of Cloudflare's security toolbox and  Managed Rules are a key feature of the WAF. They are a collection of rules created by Cloudflare’s analyst team that block requests when they show patterns of known attacks. These managed rules work extremely well for patterns of established attack vectors, as they have been extensively tested to minimize both false negatives (missing an attack) and false positives (finding an attack when there isn’t one). On the downside, managed rules often miss attack variations (also known as bypasses) as static regex-based rules are intrinsically sensitive to signature variations introduced, for example, by fuzzing techniques.

We witnessed this issue when we released protections for log4j. For a few days, after the vulnerability was made public, we had to constantly update the rules to match variations and mutations as attackers tried to bypass the WAF. Moreover, optimizing rules requires significant human intervention, and it usually works only after bypasses have been identified or even exploited, making the protection reactive rather than proactive.

Today we are excited to complement managed rulesets (such as OWASP and Cloudflare Managed) with a new tool aimed at identifying bypasses and malicious payloads without human involvement, and before they are exploited. Customers can now access signals from a machine learning model trained on the good/bad traffic as classified by managed rules and augmented data to provide better protection across a broader range of old and new attacks.

Welcome to our new Machine Learning WAF detection.

The new detection is available in Early Access for Enterprise, Pro and Biz customers. Please join the waitlist if you are interested in trying it out. More information on pricing and packaging will be released when the feature will be generally available.

Improving the WAF with learning capabilities

The new detection system complements existing managed rulesets by providing three major advantages:

  1. It runs on all of your traffic. Each request is scored based on the likelihood that it contains a SQLi or XSS attack, for example. This enables a new WAF analytics experience that allows you to explore trends and patterns in your overall traffic.
  2. Detection rate improves based on past traffic and feedback. The model is trained on good and bad traffic as categorized by managed rules across all Cloudflare traffic. This allows small sites to get the same level of protection as the largest Internet properties.
  3. A new definition of performance. The machine learning engine identifies bypasses and anomalies before they are exploited or identified by human researchers.

The secret sauce is a combination of innovative machine learning modeling, a vast training dataset built on the attacks we block daily as well as data augmentation techniques, the right evaluation and testing framework based on the behavioral testing principle and cutting-edge engineering that allows us to assess each request with negligible latency.

A new WAF experience

The new detection is based on the paradigm launched with Bot Analytics. Following this approach, each request is evaluated, and a score assigned, regardless of whether we are taking actions on it. Since we score every request, users can visualize how the score evolves over time for the entirety of the traffic directed to their server.

Customers can use the machine learning categorization engine to identify trends in their traffic.

Furthermore, users can visualize the histogram of how requests were scored for a specific attack vector (such as SQLi) and find what score is a good value to separate good from bad traffic.

The actual mitigation is performed with custom WAF rules where the score is used to decide which requests should be blocked. This allows customers to create rules whose logic includes any parameter of the HTTP requests, including the dynamic fields populated by Cloudflare, such as bot scores.

Firewall rule built on waf ml score.

We are now looking at extending this approach to work for the managed rules too (OWASP and Cloudflare Managed). Customers will be able to identify trends and create rules based on patterns that are visible when looking at their overall traffic; rather than creating rules based on trial and error, log traffic to validate them and finally enforce protection.

How does it work?

Machine learning–based detections complement the existing managed rulesets, such as OWASP and Cloudflare Managed. The system is based on models designed to identify variations of attack patterns and anomalies without the direct supervision of researchers or the end user.

As of today, we expose scores for two attack vectors: SQL injection and Cross Site Scripting. Users can create custom WAF/Firewall rules using three separate scores: a total score (, one for SQLi and one for XSS (,, respectively). The scores can have values between 1 and 99, with 1 being definitely malicious and 99 being valid traffic.

Histogram of the score across all traffic hitting an application.

The model is then trained based on traffic classified by the existing WAF rules, and it works on a transformed version of the original request, making it easier to identify fingerprints of attacks.

For each request, the model scores each part of the request independently so that it’s possible to identify where malicious payloads were identified, for example, in the body of the request, the URI or headers.

The detection engine provides a breakdown of where the threats were found (for example, body, URI, headers).

This looks easy on paper, but there are a number of challenges that Cloudflare engineers had to solve to get here. This includes how to build a reliable dataset, scalable data labeling, selecting the right model architecture, and the requirement for executing the categorization on every request processed by Cloudflare’s global network (i.e. 32 million times per seconds).

In the coming weeks, the Engineering team will publish a series of blog posts which will give a better understanding of how the solution works under the hood.

Looking forward

In the next months, we are going to release the new detection engine to customers and collect their feedback on its performance. Long term, we are planning to extend the detection engine to cover all attack vectors already identified by managed rules and use the attacks blocked by the machine learning model to further improve our managed rulesets.

We protect entire corporate networks, help customers build Internet-scale applications efficiently, accelerate any website or Internet application, ward off DDoS attacks, keep hackers at bay, and can help you on your journey to Zero Trust.

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