Designing and Using DMZ Networks to Protect Internet Servers

Mick explains how to care for services that come into contact with untrusted networks.
Deciding What Should Reside on the DMZ

Once you've decided where to put the DMZ, you need to decide precisely what's going to reside there. In a nutshell, my advice is to put all publicly accessible services in the DMZ.

Too often I encounter organizations in which one or more crucial services are passed through the firewall to an internal host despite an otherwise strict DMZ policy. Frequently, the exception is made for MS-Exchange or some other application not necessarily designed for Internet-strength security to begin with and which hasn't been hardened to the extent it could be.

But, the one application passed through in this way becomes the dreaded single point of failure: all it takes is one buffer-overflow vulnerability in that application for it to be possible for an unwanted visitor to gain access to all hosts reachable by that host. Far better for that list of hosts to be a short one, i.e., DMZ hosts, than a long one (and a sensitive one), i.e., all hosts on the internal network. This point can't be stressed enough: the real value of a DMZ is that it allows us to better manage and contain the risk that comes with Internet connectivity.

Furthermore, the person who manages the passed-through service may be different from the one who manages the firewall and DMZ servers and may not be quite as security-minded. If for no other reason, all public services should go on a DMZ so that they fall under the jurisdiction of an organization's most paranoid system administrators, namely, its firewall administrators.

Does this mean that the corporate e-mail, DNS and other crucial servers should all be moved from the inside to the DMZ? Absolutely not! They should instead be split into internal and external services (see Figure 2).

DNS, for example, should be split into external DNS and internal DNS. The external DNS zone information, which is propagated out to the Internet, should contain only information about publicly accessible hosts. Information about other, nonpublic hosts should be kept on separate internal DNS zone lists that can't be transferred to or seen by external hosts.

Similarly, internal e-mail (i.e., mail from internal hosts to other internal hosts) should be handled strictly by internal hosts, and all Internet-bound or Internet-originated mail should be handled by a DMZ host, usually called an SMTP Gateway. (For more specific information on Split-DNS servers and SMTP Gateways and how to use Linux to create secure ones, see the October 2000 issue of Linux Journal.)

Thus, almost any service that has both private and public roles can and should be split in this fashion. While it may seem like a lot of added work, it need not be, and in fact, it's liberating: it allows you to construct your internal services based primarily on features or other management- and end-user-friendly factors while designing your public (DMZ) services based primarily on security and performance factors. It's also a convenient opportunity to integrate Linux, OpenBSD and other open-source software into otherwise proprietary-software-intensive environments!

Needless to say, any service that is strictly public (i.e., not used in a different or more sensitive way by internal users than by the general public) should reside solely in the DMZ. In summary: all public services, including the public components of services that are also used on the inside, should be split if applicable and hosted in the DMZ, without exception.

Allocating Resources in the DMZ

Okay, so everything public goes in the DMZ. But does each service need its own host? Can any of the services be hosted on the firewall itself? And should one use a hub or a switch on the DMZ?

The last question is the easiest: with the price of switched ports decreasing every year, switches are preferable on any LAN and especially so in DMZs. Switches are superior in two ways. From a security standpoint, they're better because it's impossible to sniff or eavesdrop traffic not delivered to one's own switch-port. Because one of our assumptions about DMZ hosts is they are more likely to be attacked than internal hosts, this is important. We need to think not only about how to prevent these hosts from being compromised but also about what the consequences might be if they are—being used to sniff other traffic on the DMZ is one possible consequence.

The other way switches are better than hubs is, of course, their performance. Most of the time each port has its own chunk of bandwidth rather than sharing one big chunk with all other ports. Note, however, that each switch has a backplane that describes the actual volume of packets the switch can handle; a 10-port 100Mbps switch can't really process 1000MBps if it has an 800MBps backplane. Even so, low-end switches disproportionately outperform comparable hubs.

Still, a hub may yet suffice for your DMZ depending on the number of hosts on your DMZ, the degree to which you're worried about a compromised DMZ host being used to attack other DMZ hosts and the amount of traffic to and from the DMZ.

The other two questions can usually be determined by nonsecurity-driven factors (cost, expected load, efficiency, etc.) provided that all DMZ hosts are thoroughly secured and monitored. Also, firewall rules (packet filters, etc.) governing traffic to and from the DMZ need to be as paranoid as possible.



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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(?)