Designing and Using DMZ Networks to Protect Internet Servers

Mick explains how to care for services that come into contact with untrusted networks.

One of the most useful tools in firewall engineering today is the DMZ, or DeMilitarized Zone, a network where all publicly accessible services are placed so they can be more closely watched and, also, isolated from one's internal network. DMZs, bastion servers and Linux make a particularly good combination.

But what, really, is a DMZ? Is there more than one correct way to design one? Does everyone who hosts internet services need a DMZ network? These are issues I really haven't addressed yet, so this month we're going to take a higher-level look at DMZ security.

By the way, you may decide that your current DMZ-less firewall system is reasonable for your needs. I hope you keep reading, regardless: any host or service (whether on a DMZ or not) that has direct contact with untrusted networks demands particular care, and many of the techniques and considerations discussed in this article apply to both non-DMZ and DMZ environments.

Some Terminology

Let's get some definitions cleared up before we proceed. These may not be the same definitions you're used to or prefer, but they're the ones I use in this article:

  • DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone): a network containing publicly accessible servers that is isolated from the “internal” network proper but not necessarily from the outside world.

  • Internal Network: that which we're trying to protect: end-user systems, servers containing private data and all other systems with which we do not wish the outside world to initiate connection. Also called the protected network.

  • Firewall: a system or network that isolates one network from another. This can be a router, a computer running special software in addition to or instead of its standard operating system, a dedicated hardware device (although these tend to be prepackaged routers or computers), or any other device or network of devices that performs some combination of packet filtering, application-layer proxying and other access control. In this article the term will generally refer to a single multihomed host.

  • Multihomed Host: any computer having more than one network interface.

  • Bastion Host: a system that runs publicly accessible services but is not itself a firewall. Bastion Hosts are what we put on DMZs (although they can be put anywhere). The term implies that a certain amount of OS-hardening has been done, but this (sadly) is not always the case.

  • Packet Filtering: inspecting the IP headers of packets and passing or dropping them based on some combination of their Source IP Address, Destination IP Address, Source Port (Service) and Destination Port (Service). Application data is not considered, i.e., intentionally malformed packets are not necessarily noticed, assuming their IP headers can be read. Packet filtering is part of nearly all firewalls' functionality but is not considered, in and of itself, to be sufficient protection against any but the most straightforward attacks. Most routers (and many low-end firewalls) are limited to packet filtering when it comes to network security.

  • Proxying: to act as an intermediary in all interactions of a given service type (FTP, HTTP, etc.) between internal hosts and untrusted/external hosts. This implies, but does not guarantee, sophisticated inspection of Application-Layer data (i.e., more than simple packet filtering). Some firewalls possess, and are even built around, Application-Layer Proxies. Each service to be proxied must be explicitly supported (i.e., “coded in”); firewalls that rely on Application-Layer Proxies tend to use packet filtering or rewriting for services they don't support by default.

  • Stateful Inspection: at its simplest, this refers to the tracking of the three-way handshake (host1:SYN, host2:SYNACK, host1:ACK) that occurs when each session for a given TCP service is initiated. At its most sophisticated, it refers to the tracking of this and subsequent (including application-layer) state information for each session being inspected. The latter is far less common than the former.

That's a mouthful of jargon, but it's useful jargon (useful enough, in fact, to make sense of the majority of firewall-vendors' propaganda). Now we're ready to dig into DMZ architecture.

Types of Firewall and DMZ Architectures

In the world of expensive commercial firewalls (the world in which I earn my living), the term firewall nearly always denotes a single computer or dedicated hardware device with multiple network interfaces. Actually, this definition can apply to much lower-end solutions as well: network interface cards are cheap, as are PCs in general.

Regardless, this is different from the old days when a single computer typically couldn't keep up with the processor overhead required to inspect all ingoing and outgoing packets for a large network. In other words, routers, not computers, used to be the first line of defense against network attacks.

This is no longer the case. Even organizations with high-capacity Internet connections typically use a multihomed firewall (whether commercial or OSS-based) as the primary tool for securing their networks. This is possible thanks to Moore's law, which has provided us with inexpensive CPU power at a faster pace than the market has provided us with inexpensive Internet bandwidth. In other words, it's now feasible for even a relatively slow PC to perform sophisticated checks on a full T1's-worth (1.544MBps) of network traffic.

The most common firewall architecture one tends to see nowadays, therefore, is the one illustrated in Figure 1. In this diagram, we have a packet-filtering router that acts as the initial but not sole line of defense. Directly behind this router is a proper firewall, in this case a Sun SparcStation running, say, Red Hat Linux with IPChains. There is no direct connection from the Internet or the external router to the internal network: all traffic to it or from it must pass through the firewall.

Figure 1. “Multihost Firewall”

By the way, in my opinion, all external routers should use some level of packet filtering (aka “Access Control Lists” in the Cisco lexicon). Even when the next hop inward from such a router is an expensive and/or carefully configured and maintained firewall, it never hurts to have redundant enforcement points. In fact, when several Check Point vulnerabilities were demonstrated at the most recent Black Hat Briefings, no less a personage than a Check Point spokesperson mentioned that it's foolish to rely solely on one's firewall!

What's missing or wrong in Figure 1? (I said this architecture is common, not perfect!) Public services such as SMTP (e-mail), Domain Name Service (DNS) and HTTP (WWW) must either be sent through firewall to internal servers or hosted on the firewall itself.

Passing such traffic doesn't automatically expose other internal hosts to attack, but it does magnify the consequences of such a server being compromised. Hosting public services on the firewall isn't necessarily a bad idea on the face of it, either (what could be a more secure environment than a firewall?), but the performance issue is obvious: the firewall should be allowed to use all its available resources for inspecting and moving packets. (Although there are some possible exceptions that we'll examine shortly.)

Where, then, to put public services so that they don't directly or indirectly expose the internal network and overtax the firewall? In a DMZ network, of course! At its simplest, a DMZ is any network reachable by the public but isolated from one's internal network. Ideally, however, a DMZ is also protected by the firewall. Figure 2 shows my preferred firewall/DMZ architecture.

Figure 2. “Multihoned Host” Firewall with DMZ

In Figure 2 we have a three-homed host as our firewall, placed so that hosts providing publicly accessible services are in their own network with a dedicated connection to the firewall, with the rest of the corporate network facing a different firewall interface. If configured properly, the firewall uses different rules in evaluating traffic from the Internet to the DMZ, from the DMZ to the Internet, from the Internet to the internal network, from the internal network to the Internet, from the DMZ to the internal network and from the internal network to the DMZ.

This may sound like more administrative overhead than with internally-hosted or firewall-hosted services, but actually, it's potentially much simpler because the DMZ can be treated as a single entity. In the case of internally hosted services, each host must be considered individually unless they're all located on a single IP network otherwise isolated from the rest of the internal network.

Other architectures are sometimes used, and Figure 3 illustrates two of them. The Screened Subnet architecture is completely dependent on the security of both the external and internal routers. There is a direct physical path from the outside to the inside, a path controlled by nothing more sophisticated than the router's packet-filtering rules.

Figure 3. “Screend Subnet” and “Flapping in the Breeze” DMZ Architectures

The right-hand illustration in Figure 3 shows what I call the “Flapping in the Breeze” DMZ architecture, in which there is a full-featured firewall between the Internet and the internal network but not between the Internet and the DMZ, which is placed outside of the firewall and is protected only by a single packet-filtering router.

Both the Screened Subnet and Flapping in the Breeze architectures still show up in firewall textbooks (albeit with different names), but in my opinion, they both place too much trust in routers. Such trust is problematic for several reasons: first, in may organizations routers are under a different person's control than the firewall is, and this person many insist that the router have a weak administrative password, weak access-control lists or even a modem attached so that the router's vendor can maintain it; second, routers are considerably more hackable than well-configured computers (for example, by default they nearly always support remote-administration via Telnet, a highly insecure service); and third, packet filtering is a crude and incomplete means of regulating network traffic.

Even an OSS/freeware-based firewall can support IPSEC, application-layer proxies, stateful inspection, RADIUS authentication and a variety of other sophisticated controls unavailable on most routers. When all is said and done, routers are designed to route, not to protect.

What about Cisco PIX? The PIX firewall is a router but with a hardened and security-focused version of the Cisco IOS operating system. Although it relies heavily on simple packet filtering, it supports enough additional features to be a good firewall if properly configured. When I question the viability of routers as firewalls, I'm referring to nonhardened, general-purpose routers.

In summary, what one's DMZ architecture looks like depends on what one's firewall architecture looks like. A firewall design built around a multihomed host lends itself to the DMZ architecture I recommend (see Figure 2), in which the DMZ is connected to its own interface on the firewall host and, thus, is isolated from both the Internet and one's internal network.

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Re: Paranoid Penguin: Designing and Using DMZ Networks to Protec

Saran's picture

This article is very fine, actually i want to implement the three hommed dmz. Will you please help me for that... I am using Redhat 6.2. I have three cards in my firewall machine. One for intranet, one for internet (i have the static ip), and another one for DMZ. I want to know how to configure the firewall machine for achive that. Except my linux firewall machine all are the machines are windows NT/2000. I want to communicate the DMZ mc to intranet mc and intranet to DMZ, for that purpose how to allocate the ip address and subnet mask for the internet and dmz machines. Intranet and DMZ machines are connected in seprate switches.

Re: Paranoid Penguin: Designing and Using DMZ Networks to Protec

Anonymous's picture

I learnt a lot from this - but still have this question - how do I link internal servers (database usually) to DMZ servers (Web linking to DMZ database). ie the DMZ DB servers contain a subset of internal data - but will also need to update internal db servers with results of web interactions with customers.

ie an Extranet(?)

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