A Guided Tour of Ethereal
I recently started using a network tool called Ethereal. For those familiar with tcpdump, think of Ethereal as a GUI form of tcpdump that shows you the whole packet and can break down the packet to show individual fields. For those who haven't used tcpdump or similar packet sniffers, it might be best to show the capabilities of Ethereal through a few examples.
When you start Ethereal, it looks like the graphic shown in Figure 1. Typically, you want to capture some data from the network attached to your workstation; do this by selecting Capture→Start..., which brings up the dialog shown in Figure 2. When you've captured the data you need, stop the capture and examine it. Figure 3 shows a capture of some IPv6 traffic, where I've selected an ICMPv6 packet (in the top frame) and expanded the IPv6 and ICMPv6 contents to select the IPv6 source address (in the middle frame). Ethereal automatically highlights the raw bytes corresponding to the selected field—in this case, source address—within the packet in the bottom frame. This type of functionality makes Ethereal useful for understanding various network protocols, and I definitely recommend its use as a teaching or self-education aid in conjunction with networking RFCs. Ethereal also is useful for educating users and management about the dangers of using protocols that send data in clear text, as shown for File Transfer Protocol in Figure 4.
Ethereal also is useful for investigating proprietary protocols or other networking protocols that are not well documented. Figure 5 shows a somewhat contrived example—rsync. This protocol is in widespread use because of its ability to save significant bandwidth but is essentially defined by the source code to the application. I used Ethereal to capture a number of rsync transactions and figured out how the protocol works—at least enough to write an rsync protocol dissector for Ethereal. I understand the Samba team uses Ethereal and a number of other tools to develop clients and servers that interoperate with the Microsoft CIFS implementations, because the Microsoft documentation for these protocols is incomplete or incorrect.
I also have used Ethereal as a part of network application testing (on zcip and Service Location Protocol) to assess correctness and response times. Ethereal time-tags each transaction, so you easily can see the relationship between packets.
Ethereal works by capturing packets through a reasonably portable library called libpcap, which on Linux accesses the packets on the network through using a kernel mechanism called packet socket. It is possible to disable this option under Linux, although probably all vendor kernels have it enabled, and it is enabled in the default kernel configuration for most architectures on Linux kernels. Other operating systems have different interfaces, but libpcap abstracts this away and provides a common API.
Having received a copy of the network packets, Ethereal builds an internal linked list and saves the packets to a file. It then determines what protocol the packet is carrying based on the port numbers, type fields in the supporting protocols or a heuristic that guesses the protocol based on the contents of the field. It is worth noting that this approach essentially is informed guesswork and is by no means infallible. For example, traffic to port 53 probably is DNS, but there is no reason why a network administrator could not choose to run another service on that port. In addition, Ethereal supports an option to interpret a particular packet as a different protocol, using Tools→Decode As.
Based on the guessed protocol, Ethereal decodes (dissects, in Ethereal nomenclature) the packet. Each protocol supported by Ethereal is handled through a bit of code known as a dissector. At the time of this writing, 333 dissectors are built in to Ethereal, some of which handle more than one protocol. Protocols also can be provided as plugins, which are loaded dynamically. Depending on the protocol and the level of sophistication provided by the dissector code, the packets can be broken down for analysis of individual bits or they can be presented at a very high level. Both options are depicted in Figure 6, where the TCP dissector shows the individual bits set in the flags, but the IMAP dissector breaks out only two fields. It is worth noting that IMAP is a text-based protocol, so a simple ASCII dump of the packet contents is an appropriate way to show them.
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