5.2. Packet FilteringPacket filtering systems route packets between 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 5-1. The type of router used in a packet filtering firewall is known as a screening router.
Figure 5-1. Using a screening router to do packet filteringAs we discuss in Chapter 8, "Packet Filtering", every packet has a set of headers containing certain information. The main information is:
In addition, the router knows things about the packet that aren't reflected in the packet itself, such as:
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 forgets about the packet and returns an ICMP "destination unreachable" message, to the packet's 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.
Packet filtering may also be performed by devices that pay attention only to "should" and "should not" and have no ability to route. Devices that do this are packet filtering bridges. They are rarer than packet filtering routers, mostly because they are dedicated security devices that don't provide all the other functions that routers do. Most sites would rather add features to routers that they need anyway, instead of adding a dedicated device. However, being a dedicated device provides advantages for packet filtering bridges; in particular, they are harder to detect and attack than packet filtering routers. They provide the same general features that we discuss for packet filtering routers.
Once it has looked at all the information, a straightforward packet filtering router can do any of the following things:
Here are some examples of ways in which you might program a screening router to selectively route packets to or from your site:
A packet filtering system is also a logical place to provide virtual private network or network address translation services. Since the packet filter is already looking at all of the packets, it can easily identify packets that are intended for a destination that is part of the virtual private network, encrypt those packets, and encapsulate them in another packet bound for the appropriate destination.
5.2.1. Advantages of Packet FilteringPacket filtering has a number of advantages.
188.8.131.52. One screening router can help protect an entire networkOne of the key advantages of packet filtering is that a single, strategically placed packet filtering router can help protect an entire network. If only one router connects your site to the Internet, you gain tremendous leverage on network security, regardless of the size of your site, by doing packet filtering on that router.
184.108.40.206. Simple packet filtering is extremely efficientBecause simple packet filtering requires paying attention only to a few packet headers, it can be done with very low overhead. Proxying is a fairly time-consuming operation, and adding proxying means directing connections through another program, usually on a machine that otherwise wouldn't be necessary to the routing process. Packet filtering takes place on a machine that was already in the critical path, and introduces a much smaller delay.
However, there is no free lunch; the more work your packet filters do, the slower they will be. If your packet filters behave like proxies, doing complicated data-driven operations that require keeping track of multiple packets, they will tend to perform like proxies as well.
220.127.116.11. Packet filtering is widely availablePacket filtering capabilities are available in many hardware and software routing products, both commercial and freely available over the Internet. Most sites already have packet filtering capabilities available in the routers they use.
ost commercial router products include packet filtering capabilities. Packet filtering capabilities are also available for a number of general-purpose computers. These are discussed further in Chapter 8, "Packet Filtering".
5.2.2. Disadvantages of Packet FilteringAlthough packet filtering provides many advantages, there are some disadvantages to using packet filtering as well.
18.104.22.168. Current filtering tools are not perfectDespite the widespread availability of packet filtering in various hardware and software packages, packet filtering is still not a perfect tool. The packet filtering capabilities of many of these products share, to a greater or lesser degree, common limitations:
22.214.171.124. Packet filtering reduces router performanceDoing packet filtering places a significant extra load on a router. As we discussed previously, more complex filters place more load on the router, but in some cases, simply turning on packet filtering on a given interface can also cost you a lot of performance on some routers, because the filtering is incompatible with certain caching strategies commonly used for performance enhancement. Cisco's "fastpath" functionality is an example of this; normally, fastpath can perform basic routing functions completely on the interface card, without involving the main CPU, but using some forms of filtering requires involving the main CPU for each packet, which is much slower. What enables/disables fastpath depends on the hardware and software version.
126.96.36.199. Some policies can't readily be enforced by normal packet filtering routersThe information that a packet filtering router has available to it doesn't allow you to specify some rules you might like to have. For example, packets say what host they come from but generally not what user. Therefore, you can't enforce restrictions on particular users. Similarly, packets say what port they're going to but not what application; when you enforce restrictions on higher-level protocols, you do it by port number, hoping that nothing else is running on the port assigned to that protocol. Malicious insiders can easily subvert this kind of control.
This problem is eased by using more intelligent packet filters; however, in each case, you have to give up some of the advantages of normal packet filtering. For instance, a packet filter can insist that users authenticate themselves before sending packets, and then it can filter packets by username. However, this removes the transparency advantage of normal packet filtering. A packet filter can also do protocol validity checking, but this is less than perfect and also increases filtering overhead.
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