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2. Packet Filtering Basics

2.1 What?

All traffic through a network is sent in the form of packets. For example, downloading this package (say it's 50k long) might cause you to receive 36 or so packets of 1460 bytes each, (to pull numbers at random).

The start of each packet says where it's going, where it came from, the type of the packet, and other administrative details. This start of the packet is called the header. The rest of the packet, containing the actual data being transmitted, is usually called the body.

Some protocols, such TCP, which is used for web traffic, mail, and remote logins, use the concept of a `connection' -- before any packets with actual data are sent, various setup packets (with special headers) are exchanged saying `I want to connect', `OK' and `Thanks'. Then normal packets are exchanged.

A packet filter is a piece of software which looks at the header of packets as they pass through, and decides the fate of the entire packet. It might decide to deny the packet (ie. discard the packet as if it had never received it), accept the packet (ie. let the packet go through), or reject the packet (like deny, but tell the source of the packet that it has done so).

Under Linux, packet filtering is built into the kernel, and there are a few trickier things we can do with packets, but the general principle of looking at the headers and deciding the fate of the packet is still there.

2.2 Why?

Control. Security. Watchfulness.


when you are using a Linux box to connect your internal network to another network (say, the Internet) you have an opportunity to allow certain types of traffic, and disallow others. For example, the header of a packet contains the destination address of the packet, so you can prevent packets going to a certain part of the outside network. As another example, I use Netscape to access the Dilbert archives. There are advertisements from on the page, and Netscape wastes my time by cheerfully downloading them. Telling the packet filter not to allow any packets to or from the addresses owned by solves that problem (there are better ways of doing this though).


when your Linux box is the only thing between the chaos of the Internet and your nice, orderly network, it's nice to know you can restrict what comes tromping in your door. For example, you might allow anything to go out from your network, but you might be worried about the well-known `Ping of Death' coming in from malicious outsiders. As another example, you might not want outsiders telnetting to your Linux box, even though all your accounts have passwords; maybe you want (like most people) to be an observer on the Internet, and not a server (willing or otherwise) -- simply don't let anyone connect in, by having the packet filter reject incoming packets used to set up connections.


sometimes a badly configured machine on the local network will decide to spew packets to the outside world. It's nice to tell the packet filter to let you know if anything abnormal occurs; maybe you can do something about it, or maybe you're just curious by nature.

2.3 How?

A Kernel With Packet Filtering

You need a kernel which has the new IP firewall chains in it. You can tell if the kernel you are running right now has this installed by looking for the file `/proc/net/ip_fwchains'. If it exists, you're in.

If not, you need to make a kernel that has IP firewall chains. First, download the source to the kernel you want. If you have a kernel numbered 2.1.102 or higher, you won't need to patch it (it's in the mainstream kernel now). Otherwise, apply the patch from the web page listed above, and set the configuration as detailed below. If you don't know how to do this, don't panic -- read the Kernel-HOWTO.

The configuration options you will need to set for the 2.0-series kernel are:


For the 2.1 or 2.2 series kernels:


The tool ipchains talks to the kernel and tells it what packets to filter. Unless you are a programmer, or overly curious, this is how you will control the packet filtering.


The ipchains tool inserts and deletes rules from the kernel's packet filtering section. This means that whatever you set up, it will be lost upon reboot; see Making Rules Permanent for how to make sure they are restored the next time Linux is booted.

ipchains replaces ipfwadm, which was used for the old IP Firewall code. There is a set of useful scripts available from the ipchains ftp site:

This contains a shell script called ipfwadm-wrapper which allows you to do packet filtering as it was done before. You probably shouldn't use this script unless you want a quick way of upgrading a system which uses ipfwadm (it's slower, and doesn't check arguments, etc). In that case, you don't need this HOWTO much either.

See Appendix Differences between ipchains and ipfwadm and Appendix Using the `ipfwadm-wrapper' script for more details on ipfwadm issues.

Making Rules Permanent

Your current firewall setup is stored in the kernel, and thus will be lost on reboot. I recommend using the `ipchains-save' and `ipchains-restore' scripts to make your rules permanent. To do this, set up your rules, then run (as root):

# ipchains-save > /etc/ipchains.rules

Create a script like the following:

#! /bin/sh
# Script to control packet filtering.

# If no rules, do nothing.
[ -f /etc/ipchains.rules ] || exit 0

case "$1" in
        echo -n "Turning on packet filtering:"
        /sbin/ipchains-restore < /etc/ipchains.rules || exit 1
        echo 1 > /proc/sys/net/ipv4/ip_forward
        echo "."
        echo -n "Turning off packet filtering:"
        echo 0 > /proc/sys/net/ipv4/ip_forward
        /sbin/ipchains -F
        /sbin/ipchains -X
        /sbin/ipchains -P input ACCEPT
        /sbin/ipchains -P output ACCEPT
        /sbin/ipchains -P forward ACCEPT
        echo "."
        echo "Usage: /etc/init.d/packetfilter {start|stop}"
        exit 1

exit 0

Make sure this is run early in the bootup procedure. In my case (Debian 2.1), I make a symbolic link called `S39packetfilter' in the `/etc/rcS.d' directory (this will be run before S40network).

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