Designing a Safe Network Using Firewalls

Why you need a firewall and how to best set it up to meet your needs for network security.
How Do We Secure Our Network with One or More Firewalls?

These are the basic questions you should ask:

  1. What do we need to protect?

  2. Against whom do we need to protect?

  3. Where do we place the firewall(s) in the network?

  4. How do we configure the firewall?

  5. How do we monitor what is going on?

To answer these questions correctly, it is of vital importance that you map your entire network. You don't need to map every single device in the network, since that changes often anyway. Try to map the separate subnets, the routers, the hubs and the physical locations (floors, offices, classrooms). Include the important parts of the network that you wish to secure the most.

What Do We Need to Protect?

Firewall Placement

Most firewalls are used to protect the entire Local Area Network (LAN). In this case, the Internet router usually acts as the firewall. A properly configured Internet router filters out the IP numbers used locally (for instance 10.*, 127.* ,192.x.y.*) to prevent IP spoofing. It should also filter out all packets from the outside with an IP number that normally can come only from the inside. Any packet in this category can only be an attempt to trick your machines, and it should be denied access immediately. Next, filter out any outgoing IP traffic that doesn't have your registered class of IP numbers. This is not only to prevent sending out bogus packets (or to keep your people from spoofing the Internet), it's also for your own security. In particular, Windows products tend to disregard RFCs. One day I found a Windows 95 machine that shared its local printer by giving it the IP number 6.6.6.6. If your Internet router doesn't filter out these packets, you might be routing your printed documents onto the Internet.

Another frequent use for firewalls is to protect a single machine. If you want to protect a single machine with a firewall, you must make sure it doesn't depend on anything outside the firewall; otherwise, your firewall serves no purpose apart from giving a false sense of security. If the protected server is using data from an unprotected PC, someone can falsify the information on the PC in order to do potentially serious damage to your server's data. Someone gaining access to the PC could also reach the server by pretending to be the trusted PC user. If the machine relies on other machines, you want to place your firewall a bit further upstream, so that it can protect those machines as well. NFS is a good example of an application you would not want to allow through the firewall in this setup. This type of firewall is easy to configure. Block all protocols not in use on the sensitive server, forward only those packets with the server's IP, and don't forget to prevent IP spoofing of your server's IP number from the outside.

A script to set up typical firewall rules to protect a single machine or small subnet is shown in Listing 1. Script for Typical Firewall Rules.

Obviously, real networks aren't as simple as the above examples. Most networks have various machines which are multi-homed and part of different subnets. Larger organizations, like schools, have a problem in that a lot of people have physical access to the Ethernet. The best way to protect portions of these networks is to use subnets on physically separate cables. For example, it would be an excellent policy to give the system administration office a separate subnet, since system administrators often need to use the privileged accounts.

The Complex Network

Quite often a network you wish to protect does only a few limited tasks. On a typical administration network, people want to use the Web, e-mail, POP and quite often a telnet connection to the administrative database server (hidden in a Windows application). Masquerading works best for these networks. It makes sure the individual machines in the administrative network are not reachable (unless the masquerading host itself is compromised, which is next to impossible if it doesn't run any services), while keeping all the basic functionality of being connected to the Internet. This has an additional advantage. Often access to database servers is protected through a TCP wrapper, which allows only a certain set of hosts to access the database. For each new client machine added to the network, an entry into the appropriate /etc/hosts.* files must be made. With masquerading, this entry isn't necessary, since the new machine will be masqueraded and the IP number of the masquerading host is already known to the database server.

If you cannot physically separate the administrative network, you might want to consider using some form of encryption. Kerberos is often used in these cases, but you could also use an ssh-PPP tunnel (ssh is a key-pair encryption algorithm). With ssh you can easily create a virtual private (encrypted) network between your masquerading host(s) and your database server. That should take care of any eavesdropping risks from students booting rogue Linux machines on the network.

With complex networks, it is important to know who the threat is. The threat typically comes from the inside and not the outside, which is protected by the Internet Router/Firewall machine. Also, don't forget to protect yourself against your modem pool—IP spoofing can occur from there as well.

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