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Building Internet Firewalls

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4. Firewall Design

Some Firewall Definitions
Firewall Architectures
Variations on Firewall Architectures
Internal Firewalls
What the Future Holds

In Chapter 1, Why Internet Firewalls?, we introduced Internet firewalls and summarized what they can and cannot do to improve network security. In this chapter, we present major firewalls concepts. What are the terms you will hear in discussions of Internet firewalls? What types of firewall architectures are used at sites today? What are the components that can be put together to build these common firewall architectures? In the remaining chapters of this book, we'll describe these components and architectures in detail.

4.1 Some Firewall Definitions

You may be familiar with some of the firewall terms listed below, and some may be new to you. Some may seem familiar, but they may be used in a way that is slightly different from what you're accustomed to (though we try to use terms that are as standard as possible). Unfortunately, there is no completely consistent terminology for firewall architectures and components. Different people use terms in different - or, worse still, conflicting - ways. Also, these same terms sometimes have other meanings in other networking fields; the definitions below are for a firewalls context.

These are very basic definitions; we describe these terms in greater detail elsewhere.


A component or set of components that restricts access between a protected network and the Internet, or between other sets of networks.


A computer system attached to a network.

Bastion host

A computer system that must be highly secured because it is vulnerable to attack, usually because it is exposed to the Internet and is a main point of contact for users of internal networks. It gets its name from the highly fortified projections on the outer walls of medieval castles.[1]

[1] Marcus Ranum, who is generally held responsible for the popularity of this term in the firewalls professional community, says, "Bastions...overlook critical areas of defense, usually having stronger walls, room for extra troops, and the occasional useful tub of boiling hot oil for discouraging attackers."

Dual-homed host

A general-purpose computer system that has at least two network interfaces (or homes)


The fundamental unit of communication on the Internet.

Packet filtering

The action a device takes to selectively control the flow of data to and from a network. Packet filters allow or block packets, usually while routing them from one network to another (most often from the Internet to an internal network, and vice versa). To accomplish packet filtering, you set up a set of rules that specify what types of packets (e.g., those to or from a particular IP address or port) are to be allowed and what types are to be blocked. Packet filtering may occur in a router, in a bridge, or on an individual host. It is sometimes known as screening.[2]

[2] Some networking literature (in particular, the BSD UNIX release from Berkeley) uses the term "packet filtering" to refer to something else entirely (selecting certain packets off a network for analysis, as is done by the etherfind or tcpdump programs).

Perimeter network

A network added between a protected network and an external network, in order to provide an additional layer of security. A perimeter network is sometimes called a DMZ, which stands for De-Militarized Zone (named after the zone separating North and South Korea).

Proxy server

A program that deals with external servers on behalf of internal clients. Proxy clients talk to proxy servers, which relay approved client requests on to real servers, and relay answers back to clients.

The next few sections briefly describe packet filtering and proxy services, two major approaches used to build firewalls today.

4.1.1 Packet Filtering

Packet filtering systems route packets betweeen internal and external hosts, but they do it selectively. They allow or block certain types of packets in a way that reflects a site's own security policy as shown in Figure 4.1. The type of router used in a packet filtering firewall is known as a screening router.

Figure 4.1: Using a screening router to do packet filtering

Figure 4.1

As we discuss in Chapter 6, Packet Filtering, every packet has a set of headers containing certain information. The main information is:

  • IP source address

  • IP destination address

  • Protocol (whether the packet is a TCP, UDP, or ICMP packet)

  • TCP or UDP source port

  • TCP or UDP destination port

  • ICMP message type

In addition, the router knows things about the packet that aren't reflected in the packet headers, such as:

  • The interface the packet arrives on

  • The interface the packet will go out on

The fact that servers for particular Internet services reside at certain port numbers lets the router block or allow certain types of connections simply by specifying the appropriate port number (e.g., TCP port 23 for Telnet connections) in the set of rules specified for packet filtering. (Chapter 6 describes in detail how you construct these rules.)

Here are some examples of ways in which you might program a screening router to selectively route packets to or from your site:

  • Block all incoming connections from systems outside the internal network, except for incoming SMTP connections (so that you can receive email).

  • Block all connections to or from certain systems you distrust.

  • Allow email and FTP services, but block dangerous services like TFTP, the X Window System, RPC, and the "r" services (rlogin, rsh, rcp, etc.).

To understand how packet filtering works, let's look at the difference between an ordinary router and a screening router.

An ordinary router simply looks at the destination address of each packet and picks the best way it knows to send that packet towards that destination. The decision about how to handle the packet is based solely on its destination. There are two possibilities: the router knows how to send the packet towards its destination, and it does so; or the router does not know how to send the packet towards its destination, and it returns the packet, via an ICMP "destination unreachable" message, to its source.

A screening router, on the other hand, looks at packets more closely. In addition to determining whether or not it can route a packet towards its destination, a screening router also determines whether or not it should. "Should" or "should not" are determined by the site's security policy, which the screening router has been configured to enforce.

Although it is possible for only a screening router to sit between an internal network and the Internet, as shown in Figure 4.1, this places an enormous responsibility on the screening router. Not only does it need to perform all routing and routing decision-making, but it is the only protecting system; if its security fails (or crumbles under attack), the internal network is exposed. Furthermore, a straightforward screening router can't modify services. A screening router can permit or deny a service, but it can't protect individual operations within a service. If a desirable service has insecure operations, or if the service is normally provided with an insecure server, packet filtering alone can't protect it.

A number of other architectures have evolved to provide additional security in packet filtering firewall implementations. Later in this chapter, we show the way that additional routers, bastion hosts, and perimeter networks may be added to the firewall implementations in the screened host and screened subnet architectures.

4.1.2 Proxy Services

Proxy services are specialized application or server programs that run on a firewall host: either a dual-homed host with an interface on the internal network and one on the external network, or some other bastion host that has access to the Internet and is accessible from the internal machines. These programs take users' requests for Internet services (such as FTP and Telnet) and forward them, as appropriate according to the site's security policy, to the actual services. The proxies provide replacement connections and act as gateways to the services. For this reason, proxies are sometimes known as application-level gateways.[3]

[3] Firewall terminologies differ. Whereas we use the term proxy service to encompass the entire proxy approach, other authors refer to application-level gateways and circuit-level gateways. Although there are small differences between the meanings of these various terms, which we'll explore in Chapter 7, Proxy Systems, in general our discussion of proxies refers to the same type of technology other authors mean when they refer to these gateway systems.

Proxy services sit, more or less transparently, between a user on the inside (on the internal network) and a service on the outside (on the Internet). Instead of talking to each other directly, each talks to a proxy. Proxies handle all the communication between users and Internet services behind the scenes.

Transparency is the major benefit of proxy services. It's essentially smoke and mirrors. To the user, a proxy server presents the illusion that the user is dealing directly with the real server. To the real server, the proxy server presents the illusion that the real server is dealing directly with a user on the proxy host (as opposed to the user's real host).

NOTE: Proxy services are effective only when they're used in conjunction with a mechanism that restricts direct communications between the internal and external hosts. Dual-homed hosts and packet filtering are two such mechanisms. If internal hosts are able to communicate directly with external hosts, there's no need for users to use proxy services, and so (in general) they won't. Such a bypass probably isn't in accordance with your security policy.

How do proxy services work? Let's look at the simplest case, where we add proxy services to a dual-homed host. (We'll describe these hosts in some detail in "Dual-Homed Host Architectures" later in this chapter.)

As Figure 4.2 shows, a proxy service requires two components: a proxy server and a proxy client. In this situation, the proxy server runs on the dual-homed host. A proxy client is a special version of a normal client program (i.e., a Telnet or FTP client) that talks to the proxy server rather than to the "real" server out on the Internet; in addition, if users are taught special procedures to follow, normal client programs can often be used as proxy clients. The proxy server evaluates requests from the proxy client, and decides which to approve and which to deny. If a request is approved, the proxy server contacts the real server on behalf of the client (thus the term "proxy"), and proceeds to relay requests from the proxy client to the real server, and responses from the real server to the proxy client.

Figure 4.2: Using proxy services with a dual-homed host

Figure 4.2

In some proxy systems, instead of installing custom client proxy software, you'll use standard software, but set up custom user procedures for using it. (We'll describe how this works in Chapter 7.)

A proxy service is a software solution, not a firewall architecture per se. You can use proxy services in conjunction with any of the firewall architectures described in the section called "Firewall Architectures" below.

The proxy server doesn't always just forward users' requests on to the real Internet services. The proxy server can control what users do, because it can make decisions about the requests it processes. Depending on your site's security policy, requests might be allowed or refused. For example, the FTP proxy might refuse to let users export files, or it might allow users to import files only from certain sites. More sophisticated proxy services might allow different capabilities to different hosts, rather than enforcing the same restrictions on all hosts.

There is some excellent software available for proxying. SOCKS is a proxy construction toolkit, designed to make it easy to convert existing client/server applications into proxy versions of those same applications. The Trusted Information Systems Internet Firewall Toolkit (TIS FWTK) includes proxy servers for a number of common Internet protocols, including Telnet, FTP, HTTP, rlogin, X11, and others; these proxy servers are designed to be used in conjunction with custom user procedures. See the discussion of these packages in Chapter 7.

Many standard client and server programs, both commercial and freely available, now come equipped with their own proxying capabilities, or with support for generic proxy systems like SOCKS. These capabilities can be enabled at run time or compile time.

4.1.3 Using a Combination of Techniques and Technologies

The "right solution" to building a firewall is seldom a single technique; it's usually a carefully crafted combination of techniques to solve different problems. Which problems you need to solve depend on what services you want to provide your users and what level of risk you're willing to accept. Which techniques you use to solve those problems depend on how much time, money, and expertise you have available.

Some protocols (e.g., Telnet and SMTP) can be more effectively handled with packet filtering. Others (e.g., FTP, Archie, Gopher, and WWW) are more effectively handled with proxies. (Chapter 8, Configuring Internet Services describes how to handle specific services in a firewall environment.) Most firewalls use a combination of proxying and packet filtering.

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