Firewall

April 14, 2008 at 9:15 pm 1 comment

Definition

A firewall is a device or set of devices configured to permit, deny, encrypt, or proxy all computer traffic between different security domains based upon a set of rules or other criteria.

Function

A firewall is a dedicated appliance, or software running on another computer, which inspects network traffic passing through it, and denies or permits passage based on a set of rules.

A firewall’s basic task is to regulate some of the flow of traffic between computer networks of different trust levels. Typical examples are the Internet which is a zone with no trust and an internal network which is a zone of higher trust. A zone with an intermediate trust level, situated between the Internet and a trusted internal network, is often referred to as a “perimeter network” or Demilitarized zone (DMZ).

A firewall’s function within a network is similar to firewalls with fire doors in building construction. In the former case, it is used to prevent network intrusion to the private network. In the latter case, it is intended to contain and delay structural fire from spreading to adjacent structures.

Without proper configuration, a firewall can often become worthless. Standard security practices dictate a “default-deny” firewall ruleset, in which the only network connections which are allowed are the ones that have been explicitly allowed. Unfortunately, such a configuration requires detailed understanding of the network applications and endpoints required for the organization’s day-to-day operation. Many businesses lack such understanding, and therefore implement a “default-allow” ruleset, in which all traffic is allowed unless it has been specifically blocked. This configuration makes inadvertent network connections and system compromise much more likely.

History

Firewall technology emerged in the late 1980s when the Internet was a fairly new technology in terms of its global use and connectivity. The predecessors to firewalls for network security were the routers used in the late 1980s to separate networks from one another . The view of the Internet as a relatively small community of compatible users who valued openness for sharing and collaboration was ended by a number of major internet security breaches, which occurred in the late 1980s.

First generation – packet filters

The first paper published on firewall technology was in 1988, when engineers from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) developed filter systems known as packet filter firewalls. This fairly basic system was the first generation of what would become a highly evolved and technical internet security feature. At AT&T Bell Labs, Bill Cheswick and Steve Bellovin were continuing their research in packet filtering and developed a working model for their own company based upon their original first generation architecture.

Packet filters act by inspecting the “packets” which represent the basic unit of data transfer between computers on the Internet. If a packet matches the packet filter’s set of rules, the packet filter will drop (silently discard) the packet, or reject it (discard it, and send “error responses” to the source).

This type of packet filtering pays no attention to whether a packet is part of an existing stream of traffic (it stores no information on connection “state”). Instead, it filters each packet based only on information contained in the packet itself (most commonly using a combination of the packet’s source and destination address, its protocol, and, for TCP and UDP traffic, which comprises most internet communication, the port number).

Because TCP and UDP traffic by convention uses well known ports for particular types of traffic, a “stateless” packet filter can distinguish between, and thus control, those types of traffic (such as web browsing, remote printing, email transmission, file transfer), unless the machines on each side of the packet filter are both using the same non-standard ports.

Second generation – “stateful” filters

In computing, a stateful firewall (any firewall that performs stateful packet inspection (SPI) or stateful inspection) is a firewall that keeps track of the state of network connections (such as TCP streams, UDP communication) travelling across it. The firewall is programmed to distinguish legitimate packets for different types of connections. Only packets matching a known connection state will be allowed by the firewall; others will be rejected.

Second Generation firewalls in addition regard placement of each individual packet within the packet series. This technology is generally referred to as a stateful firewall as it maintains records of all connections passing through the firewall and is able to determine whether a packet is either the start of a new connection, a part of an existing connection, or is an invalid packet. Though there is still a set of static rules in such a firewall, the state of a connection can in itself be one of the criteria which trigger specific rules.

This type of firewall can help prevent attacks which exploit existing connections, or certain Denial-of-service attacks.

Third generation – application layer

In computer networking, an application layer firewall is a firewall operating at the application layer of a protocol stack. Generally it is a host using various forms of proxy servers to proxy traffic instead of routing it. As it works on the application layer, it may inspect the contents of the traffic, blocking what the firewall administrator views as inappropriate content, such as certain websites, viruses, attempts to exploit known logical flaws in client software, and so forth.

An application layer firewall does not route traffic on the network layer. All traffic stops at the firewall which may initiate its own connections if the traffic satisfies the rules.

The key benefit of application layer filtering is that it can “understand” certain applications and protocols (such as File Transfer Protocol, DNS, or web browsing), and it can detect whether an unwanted protocol is being sneaked through on a non-standard port or whether a protocol is being abused in a known harmful way.

Types

There are several classifications of firewalls depending on where the communication is taking place, where the communication is intercepted and the state that is being traced.

Network layer and packet filters

Network layer firewalls, also called packet filters, operate at a relatively low level of the TCP/IP protocol stack, not allowing packets to pass through the firewall unless they match the established rule set. The firewall administrator may define the rules; or default rules may apply. The term packet filter originated in the context of BSD operating systems.

Network layer firewalls generally fall into two sub-categories, stateful and stateless. Stateful firewalls maintain context about active sessions, and use that “state information” to speed up packet processing. Any existing network connection can be described by several properties, including source and destination IP address, UDP or TCP ports, and the current stage of the connection’s lifetime (including session initiation, handshaking, data transfer, or completion connection). If a packet does not match an existing connection, it will be evaluated according to the ruleset for new connections. If a packet matches an existing connection based on comparison with the firewall’s state table, it will be allowed to pass without further processing.

Stateless firewalls have packet-filtering capabilities, but cannot make more complex decisions on what stage communications between hosts have reached.

Modern firewalls can filter traffic based on many packet attributes like source IP address, source port, destination IP address or port, destination service like WWW or FTP. They can filter based on protocols, TTL values, netblock of originator, domain name of the source, and many other attributes.

Commonly used packet filters on various versions of Unix are ipf (various), ipfw (FreeBSD/Mac OS X), pf (OpenBSD, and all other BSDs), iptables/ipchains (Linux).

Application-layer

Application-layer firewalls work on the application level of the TCP/IP stack (i.e., all browser traffic, or all telnet or ftp traffic), and may intercept all packets traveling to or from an application. They block other packets (usually dropping them without acknowledgement to the sender). In principle, application firewalls can prevent all unwanted outside traffic from reaching protected machines.

On inspecting all packets for improper content, firewalls can restrict or prevent outright the spread of networked computer worms and trojans. In practice, however, this becomes so complex and so difficult to attempt (given the variety of applications and the diversity of content each may allow in its packet traffic) that comprehensive firewall design does not generally attempt this approach.

The XML firewall exemplifies a more recent kind of application-layer firewall.

Companies like SecureComputing (www.securecomputing.com) are a major manufacturer of Application Layer Firewalls.

Proxies

Refernces: Proxy server

A proxy device (running either on dedicated hardware or as software on a general-purpose machine) may act as a firewall by responding to input packets (connection requests, for example) in the manner of an application, whilst blocking other packets.

Proxies make tampering with an internal system from the external network more difficult and misuse of one internal system would not necessarily cause a security breach exploitable from outside the firewall (as long as the application proxy remains intact and properly configured). Conversely, intruders may hijack a publicly-reachable system and use it as a proxy for their own purposes; the proxy then masquerades as that system to other internal machines. While use of internal address spaces enhances security, crackers may still employ methods such as IP spoofing to attempt to pass packets to a target network.

Network address translation

Firewalls often have network address translation (NAT) functionality, and the hosts protected behind a firewall commonly have addresses in the “private address range”, as defined in RFC 1918. Firewalls often have such functionality to hide the true address of protected hosts. Originally, the NAT function was developed to address the limited number of IPv4 routable addresses that could be used or assigned to companies or individuals as well as reduce both the amount and therefore cost of obtaining enough public addresses for every computer in an organization. Hiding the addresses of protected devices has become an increasingly important defense against network reconnaissance.

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Entry filed under: internet, web, web security. Tags: , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. elite proxies  |  August 17, 2014 at 3:47 pm

    I couldn’t resist commenting. Very well written!

    Reply

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