Network Security – Firewalls


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Almost every medium and large-scale organization has a presence on the Internet and has an organizational network connected to it. Network partitioning at the boundary between the outside Internet and the internal network is essential for network security. Sometimes the inside network (intranet) is referred to as the “trusted” side and the external Internet as the “un-trusted” side.

Types of Firewall

Firewall is a network device that isolates organization’s internal network from larger outside network/Internet. It can be a hardware, software, or combined system that prevents unauthorized access to or from internal network.

All data packets entering or leaving the internal network pass through the firewall, which examines each packet and blocks those that do not meet the specified security criteria.

Firewall

Deploying firewall at network boundary is like aggregating the security at a single point. It is analogous to locking an apartment at the entrance and not necessarily at each door.

Firewall is considered as an essential element to achieve network security for the following reasons −

  • Internal network and hosts are unlikely to be properly secured.

  • Internet is a dangerous place with criminals, users from competing companies, disgruntled ex-employees, spies from unfriendly countries, vandals, etc.

  • To prevent an attacker from launching denial of service attacks on network resource.

  • To prevent illegal modification/access to internal data by an outsider attacker.

Firewall is categorized into three basic types −

  • Packet filter (Stateless & Stateful)
  • Application-level gateway
  • Circuit-level gateway

These three categories, however, are not mutually exclusive. Modern firewalls have a mix of abilities that may place them in more than one of the three categories.

Firewalls Types

Stateless & Stateful Packet Filtering Firewall

In this type of firewall deployment, the internal network is connected to the external network/Internet via a router firewall. The firewall inspects and filters data packet-by-packet.

Packet-filtering firewalls allow or block the packets mostly based on criteria such as source and/or destination IP addresses, protocol, source and/or destination port numbers, and various other parameters within the IP header.

The decision can be based on factors other than IP header fields such as ICMP message type, TCP SYN and ACK bits, etc.

Packet filter rule has two parts −

  • Selection criteria − It is a used as a condition and pattern matching for decision making.

  • Action field − This part specifies action to be taken if an IP packet meets the selection criteria. The action could be either block (deny) or permit (allow) the packet across the firewall.

Packet filtering is generally accomplished by configuring Access Control Lists (ACL) on routers or switches. ACL is a table of packet filter rules.

As traffic enters or exits an interface, firewall applies ACLs from top to bottom to each incoming packet, finds matching criteria and either permits or denies the individual packets.

Stateless Packet Firewall

Stateless firewall is a kind of a rigid tool. It looks at packet and allows it if its meets the criteria even if it is not part of any established ongoing communication.

Hence, such firewalls are replaced by stateful firewalls in modern networks. This type of firewalls offer a more in-depth inspection method over the only ACL based packet inspection methods of stateless firewalls.

Stateful firewall monitors the connection setup and teardown process to keep a check on connections at the TCP/IP level. This allows them to keep track of connections state and determine which hosts have open, authorized connections at any given point in time.

They reference the rule base only when a new connection is requested. Packets belonging to existing connections are compared to the firewall's state table of open connections, and decision to allow or block is taken. This process saves time and provides added security as well. No packet is allowed to trespass the firewall unless it belongs to already established connection. It can timeout inactive connections at firewall after which it no longer admit packets for that connection.

Application Gateways

An application-level gateway acts as a relay node for the application-level traffic. They intercept incoming and outgoing packets, run proxies that copy and forward information across the gateway, and function as a proxy server, preventing any direct connection between a trusted server or client and an untrusted host.

The proxies are application specific. They can filter packets at the application layer of the OSI model.

Application-specific Proxies

Application-specific Proxies

An application-specific proxy accepts packets generated by only specified application for which they are designed to copy, forward, and filter. For example, only a Telnet proxy can copy, forward, and filter Telnet traffic.

If a network relies only on an application-level gateway, incoming and outgoing packets cannot access services that have no proxies configured. For example, if a gateway runs FTP and Telnet proxies, only packets generated by these services can pass through the firewall. All other services are blocked.

Application-level Filtering

An application-level proxy gateway, examines and filters individual packets, rather than simply copying them and blindly forwarding them across the gateway. Application-specific proxies check each packet that passes through the gateway, verifying the contents of the packet up through the application layer. These proxies can filter particular kinds of commands or information in the application protocols.

Application gateways can restrict specific actions from being performed. For example, the gateway could be configured to prevent users from performing the ‘FTP put’ command. This can prevent modification of the information stored on the server by an attacker.

Transparent

Although application-level gateways can be transparent, many implementations require user authentication before users can access an untrusted network, a process that reduces true transparency. Authentication may be different if the user is from the internal network or from the Internet. For an internal network, a simple list of IP addresses can be allowed to connect to external applications. But from the Internet side a strong authentication should be implemented.

An application gateway actually relays TCP segments between the two TCP connections in the two directions (Client ↔ Proxy ↔ Server).

For outbound packets, the gateway may replace the source IP address by its own IP address. The process is referred to as Network Address Translation (NAT). It ensures that internal IP addresses are not exposed to the Internet.

Circuit-Level Gateway

The circuit-level gateway is an intermediate solution between the packet filter and the application gateway. It runs at the transport layer and hence can act as proxy for any application.

Similar to an application gateway, the circuit-level gateway also does not permit an end-to-end TCP connection across the gateway. It sets up two TCP connections and relays the TCP segments from one network to the other. But, it does not examine the application data like application gateway. Hence, sometime it is called as ‘Pipe Proxy’.

SOCKS

SOCKS (RFC 1928) refers to a circuit-level gateway. It is a networking proxy mechanism that enables hosts on one side of a SOCKS server to gain full access to hosts on the other side without requiring direct IP reachability. The client connects to the SOCKS server at the firewall. Then the client enters a negotiation for the authentication method to be used, and authenticates with the chosen method.

The client sends a connection relay request to the SOCKS server, containing the desired destination IP address and transport port. The server accepts the request after checking that the client meets the basic filtering criteria. Then, on behalf of the client, the gateway opens a connection to the requested untrusted host and then closely monitors the TCP handshaking that follows.

The SOCKS server informs the client, and in case of success, starts relaying the data between the two connections. Circuit level gateways are used when the organization trusts the internal users, and does not want to inspect the contents or application data sent on the Internet.

Firewall Deployment with DMZ

A firewall is a mechanism used to control network traffic ‘into’ and ‘out’ of an organizational internal network. In most cases these systems have two network interfaces, one for the external network such as the Internet and the other for the internal side.

The firewall process can tightly control what is allowed to traverse from one side to the other. An organization that wishes to provide external access to its web server can restrict all traffic arriving at firewall expect for port 80 (the standard http port). All other traffic such as mail traffic, FTP, SNMP, etc., is not allowed across the firewall into the internal network. An example of a simple firewall is shown in the following diagram.

Firewall Deployment with DMZ

In the above simple deployment, though all other accesses from outside are blocked, it is possible for an attacker to contact not only a web server but any other host on internal network that has left port 80 open by accident or otherwise.

Hence, the problem most organizations face is how to enable legitimate access to public services such as web, FTP, and e-mail while maintaining tight security of the internal network. The typical approach is deploying firewalls to provide a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the network.

In this setup (illustrated in following diagram), two firewalls are deployed; one between the external network and the DMZ, and another between the DMZ and the internal network. All public servers are placed in the DMZ.

With this setup, it is possible to have firewall rules which allow public access to the public servers but the interior firewall can restrict all incoming connections. By having the DMZ, the public servers are provided with adequate protection instead of placing them directly on external network.

Dual Firewall Deployment

Intrusion Detection / Prevention System

The packet filtering firewalls operate based on rules involving TCP/UDP/IP headers only. They do not attempt to establish correlation checks among different sessions.

Intrusion Detection/Prevention System (IDS/IPS) carry out Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) by looking at the packet contents. For example, checking character strings in packet against database of known virus, attack strings.

Application gateways do look at the packet contents but only for specific applications. They do not look for suspicious data in the packet. IDS/IPS looks for suspicious data contained in packets and tries to examine correlation among multiple packets to identify any attacks such as port scanning, network mapping, and denial of service and so on.

Difference between IDS and IPS

IDS and IPS are similar in detection of anomalies in the network. IDS is a ‘visibility’ tool whereas IPS is considered as a ‘control’ tool.

Intrusion Detection Systems sit off to the side of the network, monitoring traffic at many different points, and provide visibility into the security state of the network. In case of reporting of anomaly by IDS, the corrective actions are initiated by the network administrator or other device on the network.

Intrusion Prevention System are like firewall and they sit in-line between two networks and control the traffic going through them. It enforces a specified policy on detection of anomaly in the network traffic. Generally, it drops all packets and blocks the entire network traffic on noticing an anomaly till such time an anomaly is addressed by the administrator.

IDS Vs IPS

Types of IDS

There are two basic types of IDS.

  • Signature-based IDS

    • It needs a database of known attacks with their signatures.

    • Signature is defined by types and order of packets characterizing a particular attack.

    • Limitation of this type of IDS is that only known attacks can be detected. This IDS can also throw up a false alarm. False alarm can occur when a normal packet stream matches the signature of an attack.

    • Well-known public open-source IDS example is “Snort” IDS.

  • Anomaly-based IDS

    • This type of IDS creates a traffic pattern of normal network operation.

    • During IDS mode, it looks at traffic patterns that are statistically unusual. For example, ICMP unusual load, exponential growth in port scans, etc.

    • Detection of any unusual traffic pattern generates the alarm.

    • The major challenge faced in this type of IDS deployment is the difficulty in distinguishing between normal traffic and unusual traffic.

Summary

In this chapter, we discussed the various mechanisms employed for network access control. The approach to network security through access control is technically different than implementing security controls at different network layers discussed in the earlier chapters of this tutorial. However, though the approaches of implementation are different, they are complementary to each other.

Network access control comprises of two main components: user authentication and network boundary protection. RADIUS is a popular mechanism for providing central authentication in the network.

Firewall provides network boundary protection by separating an internal network from the public Internet. Firewall can function at different layers of network protocol. IDS/IPS allows to monitor the anomalies in the network traffic to detect the attack and take preventive action against the same.



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