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Network Perimeter Security

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In this sample chapter from CompTIA Security+ SY0-501 Cert Guide, Academic Edition, 2nd Edition, explore one of the most strategic pieces in your network security design—the firewall.

This chapter is from the book

This chapter is all about the network border, also known as the network perimeter. This should be a network security administrator’s primary focus when it comes to securing the network because it contains the entrances that many attackers attempt to use.

Allow me to analogize for a few moments. I’ve said it before; as you read this book, you are building yourself an impenetrable castle of knowledge, culminating in hands-on familiarity and the know-how to pass the exam. But we can use the castle analogy for your network as well. Imagine a big stone castle with tall walls, an expanse of clear land around the castle, or perhaps a moat surrounding it (with alligators, of course), and one or more drawbridges. The tall walls are meant to keep the average person out, sort of like a firewall in a computer network—not perfect, but necessary. The open area around the castle makes it difficult for people to sneak up on your castle; they would quickly be detected, just like malicious packets detected by a network intrusion detection system. Or better yet, if you had a moat, people trying to cross it would have a difficult time, would be easy targets for your bowmen, and would probably be gobbled up by your pet alligators. This would represent a network intrusion prevention system, which not only detects threats, but also eliminates those threats to the network.

The drawbridge, or drawbridges, could be seen as network ports open to the network. As drawbridges are part of the castle wall, so network ports are part of the firewall. You, as the network security administrator, have the ability and the right to close these ports at any time. At the risk of taking this analogy even further, you might decide to set traps for people; like a pool of quicksand that has an open netted bag of pyrite suspended above it, or maybe a false entry to the castle that, after a long corridor, is walled off on the inside, ultimately trapping the unwary. In a network environment, these would be known as honeypots. Of course, every once in a while, legitimate traffic needs to enter and exit your network, too! To do this in a more secure fashion, you can set up proxy servers to act as go-betweens for the computers inside your network and the servers they talk to on the Internet: kind of like a sentry in the tower of the castle that would relay an outsider’s messages to someone inside the castle.

The network perimeter is less tangible in an actual network environment (thus the previous use of superfluous metaphor). Networking devices are commonly located in a single server room or data center, or perhaps are located in a hybrid of in-house and cloud-based locations. Either way, they can be difficult to visualize. To better envision your network, one of the best tips I can give you is to map out your network on paper, or create network documentation using programs such as Microsoft Visio and by utilizing network mapping tools (more on these tools in Chapter 12, “Vulnerability and Risk Assessment”).

So, before we end up playing Dungeons & Dragons, let’s talk about one of the most important parts of your strategic defense—the firewall.

Foundation Topics

Firewalls and Network Security

Nowadays, firewalls are everywhere. Businesses large and small use them, and many households have simpler versions of these protective devices as well. You need to be aware of several types of firewalls, and you definitely want to spend some time configuring hardware and software firewalls. There are many free software-based firewalls and firmware-based emulators that you can download. A quick search on the Internet will give you several options.

The firewall is there to protect the entire network, but other tools are often implemented as well; for example, proxy servers that help protect users and computers by keeping them anonymous; honeypots meant to attract hackers, crackers, and other types of attackers into a false computer or network; and data loss prevention (DLP) devices to keep confidential data from leaving the network. But by far, the most important element in your network will be the firewall, so let’s begin with that.


In Chapter 3, “Computer Systems Security Part II,” we discussed personal firewalls—you remember, the kind installed to an individual computer. Now let’s broaden the scope of your knowledge with network-based firewalls. Network-based firewalls are primarily used to section off and protect one network from another. They are a primary line of defense and are extremely important in network security. There are several types of firewalls; some run as software on server computers, some as standalone dedicated appliances, and some work as just one function of many on a single device. They are commonly represented as a sort of “brick wall” between a LAN and the Internet, as shown in Figure 8-1.

Figure 8-1

Figure 8-1 Diagram of a Basic Firewall Implementation

Just as a firewall in a physical building is there to slow the spread of a fire and contain it until the fire department arrives, a firewall in a computer network is there to keep fire at bay in the form of malicious attacks. Often, a firewall (or the device the firewall resides on) has NAT in operation as well. In Figure 8-1, note that the firewall has a local address of; this connects it to the LAN. It also has an Internet address of, enabling connectivity for the entire LAN to the Internet, while hiding the LAN IP addresses. By default, the IP address is completely shielded. This means that all inbound ports are effectively closed and will not enable incoming traffic, unless a LAN computer initiates a session with another system on the Internet. However, a good security administrator always checks this to make sure; first, by accessing the firewall’s firmware (or software application, as the case may be) and verifying that the firewall is on, and next by scanning the firewall with third-party applications such as Nmap (https://nmap.org) or with a web-based port scanning utility, as was shown in a Chapter 7 Real-world Scenario. If any ports are open, or unshielded, they should be dealt with immediately. Then the firewall should be rescanned for vulnerabilities. You can find more information on port scanning and vulnerability assessments in Chapter 12.

Important point: Firewalls should be used only as they were intended. The company firewall should not handle any other extraneous services—for example, acting as a web server or SMTP server. By using a firewall as it was intended, its vulnerability is reduced.

Generally, a firewall inspects traffic that passes through it and permits or denies that traffic based on rules set by an administrator. These rules are stored within access control lists (ACLs). In regards to firewalls, an ACL is a set of rules that applies to a list of network names, IP addresses, and port numbers. These rules can be configured to control inbound and outbound traffic. This is a bit different than ACLs with respect to operating systems, which we cover in Chapter 11, “Access Control Methods and Models,” but the same basic principles apply: Basically, one entity is granted or denied permission to another entity. If you decide that a specific type of traffic should be granted access to your network, you would explicitly allow that traffic as a rule within an ACL. If on the other hand you decide that a specific type of traffic should not be granted access, you would explicitly deny that traffic within an ACL. And finally, if a type of network traffic is not defined in the firewall’s rule set, it should be stopped by default. This is the concept of implicit deny and is usually a default rule found in a firewall’s ACL. It is often added automatically to the end of a firewall’s rule set (ACLs) and is also known as “block all.”

Firewall rules should be specific. Here’s an example of a firewall rule:

deny TCP any any port 53

This rule can be used to restrict DNS zone transfers (as they run on top of TCP and use port 53), but other DNS traffic will still function properly. The rule is specific; it gives the transport layer protocol to be filtered, and the exact port, and also states that it applies to any computer’s IP address on the inbound and outbound side. Be careful with firewall rules and ACLs; they need to be written very cautiously so as not to filter required traffic.

A lot of today’s firewalls have two types of firewall technologies built into them: SPI and NAT. However, you also should be aware of a couple other types of firewall methodologies:


squ.jpg Packet filtering: Inspects each packet passing through the firewall and accepts or rejects it based on rules. However, there are two types: stateless packet inspection and stateful packet inspection (also known as SPI or a stateful firewall). A stateless packet filter, also known as pure packet filtering, does not retain memory of packets that have passed through the firewall; due to this, a stateless packet filter can be vulnerable to IP spoofing attacks. But a firewall running stateful packet inspection is normally not vulnerable to this because it keeps track of the state of network connections by examining the header in each packet. It can distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate packets. This function operates at the network layer of the OSI model.

squ.jpg NAT filtering: Also known as NAT endpoint filtering, filters traffic according to ports (TCP or UDP). This can be done in three ways: by way of basic endpoint connections, by matching incoming traffic to the corresponding outbound IP address connection, or by matching incoming traffic to the corresponding IP address and port.

squ.jpg Application-level gateway (ALG): Applies security mechanisms to specific applications, such as FTP or BitTorrent. It supports address and port translation and checks whether the type of application traffic is allowed. For example, your company might allow FTP traffic through the firewall, but might decide to disable Telnet traffic (probably a wise choice). The ALG checks each type of packet coming in and discards Telnet packets. Although this adds a powerful layer of security, the price is that it is resource-intensive, which could lead to performance degradation.

squ.jpg Circuit-level gateway: Works at the session layer of the OSI model, and applies security mechanisms when a TCP or UDP connection is established; it acts as a go-between for the transport and application layers in TCP/IP. After the connection has been made, packets can flow between the hosts without further checking. Circuit-level gateways hide information about the private network, but they do not filter individual packets.

A firewall can be set up in several different physical configurations. For example, in Chapter 6, “Network Design Elements,” we discussed implementing a DMZ. This could be done in a back-to-back configuration (two firewalls surrounding the DMZ), as shown in Figure 8-2, or as a 3-leg perimeter configuration.

Figure 8-2

Figure 8-2 Back-to-Back Firewall/DMZ Configuration

Generally, there will be one firewall with the network and all devices and computers residing “behind” it. By the way, if a device is “behind” the firewall, it is also considered to be “after” the firewall, and if the device is “in front of” the firewall, it is also known as being “before” the firewall. Think of the firewall as the drawbridge of a castle. When you are trying to gain admittance to the castle, the drawbridge will probably be closed. You would be in front of the drawbridge, and the people inside the castle would be behind the drawbridge. This is a basic analogy but should help you to understand the whole “in front of” and “behind” business as it relates to data attempting to enter the network and devices that reside on your network.

Logging is also important when it comes to a firewall. Firewall logs should be the first thing you check when an intrusion has been detected. You should know how to access the logs and how to read them. For example, Figure 8-3 shows two screen captures: The first displays the Internet sessions on a basic SOHO router/firewall, and the second shows log events such as blocked packets. Look at the blocked Gnutella packet that is pointed out. I know it is a Gnutella packet because the inbound port on my firewall that the external computer is trying to connect to shows as port 6346; this associates with Gnutella. Gnutella is an older P2P file-sharing network. None of the computers on this particular network use or are in any way connected to the Gnutella service. These external computers are just random clients of the Gnutella P2P network trying to connect to anyone possible.

Figure 8-3

Figure 8-3 SOHO Router/Firewall Internet Sessions

It’s good that these packets have been blocked, but maybe you don’t want the IP address shown ( to have any capability to connect to your network at all. To eliminate that IP, you could add it to an inbound filter or to an ACL.

So far, we have discussed host-based firewalls (in Chapter 3) and, just now, network-based firewalls. However, both of these firewalls can also fall into the category of application firewall. If either type runs protocols that operate on the application layer of the OSI model, then it can be classified as an application firewall. That means that it can control the traffic associated with specific applications. This is something a stateful network firewall cannot do, as this function operates at the application layer of the OSI model. Many host-based firewalls fall into this category, but when it comes to network-based firewalls, it varies. A basic SOHO router with built-in firewalling capabilities would usually not fall into the application firewall category. However, more advanced network appliances from companies such as Barracuda, Citrix, Fortinet, and Smoothwall do fall into this category. This means that they allow for more in-depth monitoring of the network by controlling the input, output, and access to applications and services all the way up through the application layer of the OSI model. These appliances might also be referred to as network-based application layer firewalls. Now that’s a mouthful—just be ready for multiple terms used by companies and technicians.

Going a step further, some of the aforementioned network appliances have tools that are designed to specifically protect HTTP sessions from XSS attacks and SQL injection. These types of tools are known as web application firewalls. WAFs can help to protect the servers in your environment.

Firewalls are often considered to be all-in-one devices, but actually they provide specific functionality as discussed in this section. Still, it is common to hear people refer to a firewall when they are really talking about another technology, or even another device. For example, many SOHO users have an all-in-one multifunction network device. This device has four ports for wired connections, plus a wireless antenna; it connects all the computers to the Internet, and finally has a firewall built-in. Because some users consider this to be simply a firewall, you should teach them about the benefits of disabling SSID broadcasting, and enabling MAC filtering. By disabling Service Set Identifier (SSID) broadcasting, the average user cannot connect wirelessly to the device. An attacker knows how to bypass this, but it is an important element of security that you should implement after all trusted computers have been connected wirelessly. MAC filtering denies access to any computer that does not have one of the MAC addresses you list, another powerful tool that we will cover more in Chapter 9, “Securing Network Media and Devices.”

To make matters a bit more confusing, a firewall can also act as, or in combination with, a proxy server, which we discuss in the following section.

Proxy Servers

A proxy server acts as an intermediary for clients, usually located on a LAN, and the servers that they want to access, usually located on the Internet. By definition, proxy means go-between, or mediator, acting as such a mediator in between a private network and a public network. The proxy server evaluates requests from clients and, if they meet certain criteria, forwards them to the appropriate server. There are several types of proxies, including a couple you should know for the exam:


squ.jpg IP proxy: Secures a network by keeping machines behind it anonymous; it does this through the use of NAT. For example, a basic four-port router can act as an IP proxy for the clients on the LAN it protects. An IP proxy can be the victim of many of the network attacks mentioned in Chapter 6, especially DoS attacks. Regardless of whether the IP proxy is an appliance or a computer, it should be updated regularly, and its log files should be monitored periodically and audited according to organization policies.

squ.jpg Caching proxy: Attempts to serve client requests without actually contacting the remote server. Although there are FTP and SMTP proxies, among others, the most common caching proxy is the HTTP proxy, also known as a web proxy, which caches web pages from servers on the Internet for a set amount of time. Examples of caching proxies include WinGate (for Windows systems) and Squid (commonly used on Linux-based systems). An example of a caching proxy is illustrated in Figure 8-4. For example, let’s say a co-worker of yours (Client A) accessed www.google.com, and that she was the first person to do so on the network. This client request will go through the HTTP proxy and be redirected to Google’s web server. As the data for Google’s home page comes in, the HTTP proxy will store or cache that information. When another person on your network (Client B) makes a subsequent request for www.google.com, the bulk of that information will come from the HTTP proxy instead of from Google’s web server. This is done to save bandwidth on the company’s Internet connection and to increase the speed at which client requests are carried out. Most HTTP proxies check websites to verify that nothing has changed since the last request. Because information changes quickly on the Internet, a time limit of 24 hours is common for storing cached information before it is deleted. Web browsers make use of a proxy auto-configuration (PAC) file, which defines how the browser can automatically choose a proxy server. The file itself and the embedded JavaScript function pose a security risk in that the file can be exploited and modified, ultimately redirecting the user to unwanted (and potentially malicious) websites. Consider disabling PAC files and auto-configuration in general within client web browsers.

Figure 8-4

Figure 8-4 Illustration of an HTTP Proxy in Action

Other types of proxies are available to apply policies, block undesirable websites, audit employee usage, and scan for malware. One device or computer might do all these things or just one or two. It depends on the software used or appliance installed. Reverse proxies can also be implemented to protect a DMZ server’s identity or to provide authentication and other secure tasks. This is done when users on the Internet are accessing server resources on your network. Generally, a proxy server has more than one network adapter so that it can connect to the various networks it is acting as a mediator for. Each of the network adapters in a proxy should be periodically monitored for improper traffic and for possible network attacks and other vulnerabilities. A proxy server might be the same device as a firewall, or it could be separate. Because of this, a multitude of network configurations are possible. Proxy servers, especially HTTP proxies, can be used maliciously to record traffic sent through them; because most of the traffic is sent in unencrypted form, this could be a security risk. A possible mitigation for this is to chain multiple proxies together in an attempt to confuse any onlookers and potential attackers.

Most often, a proxy server is implemented as a forward proxy. This means that clients looking for websites, or files via an FTP connection, pass their requests through to the proxy. However, there is also a reverse proxy, where multiple HTTP or FTP servers use a proxy server and send out content to one or more clients. These HTTP and FTP servers could be located in a server farm or similar grouping, and the reverse proxy might also undertake the role of load balancer in this situation. A reverse proxy can act as another layer of defense for an organization’s FTP or HTTP servers. An application proxy might be used as a reverse proxy; for example, Microsoft’s Web Application Proxy, which enables remote users to connect to the organization’s internal network to access multiple servers. These are often multipurpose by design, allowing for HTTP, FTP, e-mail, and other types of data connections. However, it could be that you have a single application stored on several servers. Those servers can work together utilizing clustering technology. The clustering might be controlled by the servers themselves or, more commonly, a load balancer can be installed in front of the servers that distributes the network load among them. That load balancer in effect acts as a reverse proxy.

Regardless of the type of proxy used, it will often modify the requests of the “client computer,” whatever that client is, providing for a level of anonymity. But in some cases, you might need a proxy that does not modify requests. This is known as a transparent proxy. While it allows for increased efficiency, there is less protection for the client system.

Another example of a proxy in action is Internet content filtering. An Internet content filter, or simply a content filter, is usually applied as software at the application layer and can filter out various types of Internet activities such as websites accessed, e-mail, instant messaging, and more. It often functions as a content inspection device, and disallows access to inappropriate web material (estimated to be a big percentage of the Internet!) or websites that take up far too much of an organization’s Internet bandwidth. Internet content filters can be installed on individual clients, but by far the more efficient implementation is as an individual proxy that acts as a mediator between all the clients and the Internet. These proxy versions of content filters secure the network in two ways: one, by forbidding access to potentially malicious websites, and two, by blocking access to objectionable material that employees might feel is offensive. It can also act as a URL filter; even if employees inadvertently type an incorrect URL, they can rest assured that any objectionable material will not show up on their display.

Internet filtering appliances analyze just about all the data that comes through them, including Internet content, URLs, HTML tags, metadata, and security certificates such as the kind you would automatically receive when going to a secure site that starts with https. (However, revoked certificates and certificate revocation lists, or CRLs, will not be filtered because they are only published periodically. More on certificates and CRLs is provided in Chapter 15, “PKI and Encryption Protocols.”) Some of these appliances are even capable of malware inspection. Another similar appliance is the web security gateway. Web security gateways (such as Forcepoint, previously known as Websense) act as go-between devices that scan for viruses, filter content, and act as data loss prevention (DLP) devices. This type of content inspection/content filtering is accomplished by actively monitoring the users’ data streams in search of malicious code, bad behavior, or confidential data that should not be leaked outside the network.

As you can see, many, many options for security devices are available for your network, and many vendors offer them. Based on price, you can purchase all kinds of devices, from ones that do an individual task, to ones that are combinations of everything we spoke about so far, which are also known as all-in-one security appliances or unified threat management (UTM) devices (discussed in the upcoming “NIDS Versus NIPS” section).

Honeypots and Honeynets

Honeypots and honeynets attract and trap potential attackers to counteract any attempts at unauthorized access of the network. This isolates the potential attacker in a monitored area and contains dummy resources that look to be of value to the perpetrator. While an attacker is trapped in one of 182these, their methods can be studied and analyzed, and the results of those analyses can be applied to the general security of the functional network.

A honeypot is generally a single computer but could also be a file, group of files, or an area of unused IP address space, whereas a honeynet is one or more computers, servers, or an area of a network; a honeynet is used when a single honeypot is not sufficient. Either way, the individual computer, or group of servers, will usually not house any important company information. Various analysis tools are implemented to study the attacker; these tools, along with a centralized group of honeypots (or a honeynet), are known collectively as a honeyfarm.

One example of a honeypot in action is the spam honeypot. Spam e-mail is one of the worst banes known to a network administrator; a spam honeypot can lure spammers in, enabling the network administrators to study the spammers’ techniques and habits, thus allowing the network admins to better protect their actual e-mail servers, SMTP relays, SMTP proxies, and so on, over the long term. It might ultimately keep the spammers away from the real e-mail addresses, because the spammers are occupied elsewhere. Some of the information gained by studying spammers is often shared with other network admins or organizations’ websites dedicated to reducing spam. A spam honeypot could be as simple as a single e-mail address or as complex as an entire e-mail domain with multiple SMTP servers.

Of course, as with any technology that studies attackers, honeypots also bear risks to the legitimate network. The honeypot or honeynet should be carefully firewalled off from the legitimate network to ensure that the attacker can’t break through.

Often, honeypots and honeynets are used as part of a more complex solution known as a network intrusion detection system, discussed following a short review of data loss prevention.

Data Loss Prevention (DLP)

We mentioned DLP in Chapter 3. Let’s discuss it briefly now as it relates to networks. Data loss prevention (DLP) systems are designed to protect data by way of content inspection. They are meant to stop the leakage of confidential data, often concentrating on communications. As such, they are also referred to as data leak prevention (DLP) devices, information leak prevention (ILP) devices, and extrusion prevention systems. Regardless, they are intended to be used to keep data from leaking past a computer system or network and into unwanted hands.

In network-based DLP, systems deal with data in motion and are usually located on the perimeter of the network. If data is classified in an organization’s policy as confidential and not to be read by outsiders, the DLP system detects it and prevents it from leaving the network. Network-based DLP systems can be hardware-based or software-based. An example of a network-based DLP system would be one that detects and prevents the transfer of confidential e-mail information outside the network. Organizations such as Check Point offer DLP solutions, and there are some free open source applications as well. Going further, there are cloud-based DLP solutions available. But it all depends on where you store your data. If you store some or all of your data on the cloud, or if you have a large bring your own device (BYOD) or choose your own device (CYOD) population, then cloud-based DLP becomes an important part of your security strategy. Because the data—and the security of that data—is now external from the company, planning becomes even more vital. Some key elements of the security mindset include: 1) planning for the mitigation of security risks; 2) adequate understanding of the cloud-based provider, where and how data is stored, and their service-level agreement (SLA); 3) in-depth analysis of code and the types of data that will be stored in the cloud; and 4) strong authentication, auditing, and logging. If all this is planned for and implemented properly, it can build the organization’s confidence in the cloud, which can lead to a smoother transition, and ultimately reduce risk. However, all this becomes a bigger conversation: We’ll talk more about general mindsets when dealing with cloud-based companies in Chapter 16, “Redundancy and Disaster Recovery,” and Chapter 18, “Policies and Procedures.”

As for DLP, the monitoring of possible leaked information could become a privacy concern. Before implementing a system of this nature, it is important to review your organization’s privacy policies. Leaks can still occur due to poor implementation of DLP systems, so it is essential to plan what type of DLP solution your organization needs, exactly how it will be installed, and how it will be monitored.


It’s not a battle royale, but you should be able to differentiate between a network intrusion detection system (NIDS) and a network intrusion prevention system (NIPS) for the exam. Previously, in Chapter 4, “OS Hardening and Virtualization,” we discussed host-based intrusion detection systems (or HIDSs). Although a great many attacks can hamper an individual computer, just as many network attacks could possibly take down a server, switch, router, or even an entire network. Network-based IDSs were developed to detect these malicious network attacks, and network-based IPSs were developed in an attempt to prevent them.


A network intrusion detection system (NIDS) by definition is a type of IDS that attempts to detect malicious network activities, for example, port scans and DoS attacks, by constantly monitoring network traffic. It can also be instrumental in rogue machine detection, including rogue desktops, laptops, and mobile devices, as well as rogue access points, DHCP servers, and network sniffers. Examples of NIDS solutions include open-source products such as Snort (https://www.snort.org/), Bro (https://www.bro.org/), and many other commercial hardware and software-based products. A NIDS should be situated at the entrance or gateway to your network. It is not a firewall but should be used with a firewall. Because the NIDS inspects every packet that traverses your network, it needs to be fast; basically, the slower the NIDS, the slower the network. So, the solution itself, the computer/device it is installed on, and the network connections of that computer/device all need to be planned out accordingly to ensure that the NIDS does not cause network performance degradation.

Figure 8-5 illustrates how a NIDS might be implemented on a network. Often it is placed in front of a firewall. The NIDS detects attacks and anomalies and alerts the administrator if they occur, whereas the firewall does its best to prevent those attacks from entering the network. However, a NIDS could be placed behind the firewall, or you might have multiple NIDS points strategically placed around the network. If the NIDS is placed in front of the firewall, it generates a lot more administrator alerts, but these can usually be whittled down within the firmware or software of the device running the NIDS. Regardless of where the NIDS is located, a network administrator should monitor traffic from time to time; to do so, the computer, server, or appliance that has the NIDS installed should have a network adapter configured to work in promiscuous mode. This passes all traffic to the CPU, not just the frames addressed to it.

Figure 8-5

Figure 8-5 Illustration of NIDS Placement in a Network

The beauty of a NIDS is that you might get away with one or two NIDS points on the network, and do away with some or all the HIDS installed on individual computers, effectively lowering the bottom line while still doing a decent job of mitigating risk. A couple of disadvantages of a NIDS, aside from possible network performance issues, are that it might not be able to read encrypted packets of information and will not detect problems that occur on an individual computer. Therefore, to secure a network and its hosts, many organizations implement a mixture of NIDS and HIDS. If a NIDS is placed in front of the firewall, it is subject to attack; therefore, it should be monitored and updated regularly. Some NIDS solutions will auto-update. Finally, the biggest disadvantage of a NIDS is that it is passive, meaning it only detects attacks; to protect against, or prevent, these attacks, you need something active, you need a NIPS.


A network intrusion prevention system (NIPS) is designed to inspect traffic and, based on its configuration or security policy, either remove, detain, or redirect malicious traffic that it becomes aware of. The NIPS (as well as the NIDS) is considered to be an application-aware device, meaning it can divine different types of packets, define what application they are based on, and ultimately permit or disallow that traffic on the network. More and more companies are offering NIPS solutions in addition to, or instead of, NIDS solutions. Examples of NIPS solutions include Check Point security appliances (https://www.checkpoint.com), and the aforementioned Snort, which is actually a NIDS/NIPS software package that should be installed on a dual-homed or multihomed server. Not only can a NIPS go above and beyond a NIDS by removing or redirecting malicious traffic, it can also redirect a recognized attacker to a single computer known as a padded cell, which contains no information of value and has no way out.

Like a NIDS, a NIPS should sit inline on the network, often in front of the firewall, although it could be placed elsewhere, depending on the network segment it protects and the network architecture. Whereas many NIPS solutions have two connections only and are known as perimeter solutions, other NIPS appliances have up to 16 ports enabling many points of detection on the network—these would be known as network “core” devices. Regardless of the solution you select, as packets pass through the device, they are inspected for possible attacks. These devices need to be accurate and updated often (hopefully automatically) to avoid the misidentification of legitimate traffic, or worse, the misidentification of attacks. If the NIPS blocks legitimate traffic, it would be known as a false positive, and effectively could deny service to legitimate customers, creating a self-inflicted denial-of-service of sorts.

If the IPS does not have a particular attack’s signature in its database, and lets that attack through thinking it is legitimate traffic, it is known as a false negative, also bad for obvious reasons! Many IPS systems can monitor for attack signatures and anomalies. More information on signatures can be found in Chapter 4 and Chapter 13, “Monitoring and Auditing.” Another type of error that can occur with NIDS and NIPS is a subversion error; this is when the NIDS/NIPS has been altered by an attacker to allow for false negatives, ultimately leading to attacks creeping into the network. This can be deadly because the NIDS/NIPS often is the first point of resistance in the network. To protect against this, some devices have the capability to hide or mask their IP address. They might also come with an internal firewall. It is also important to select an IPS solution that has a secure channel for the management console interface.

One advantage of newer NIPS solutions is that some of them can act as protocol analyzers by reading encrypted traffic and stopping encrypted attacks. In general, the beauty of a NIPS compared to a host-based IPS (HIPS) is that it can protect non-computer-based network devices such as switches, routers, and firewalls. However, the NIPS is considered a single point of failure because it sits inline on the network. Due to this, some organizations opt to install a bypass switch, which also enables the NIPS to be taken offline when maintenance needs to be done.

A vital NIPS consideration is whether to implement a fail-close or fail-open policy—in essence, deciding what will happen if the NIPS fails. Fail-close means that all data transfer is stopped, while fail-open means that data transfer (including potential attacks) are passed through. Let’s consider an example. Say that the NIPS was protecting an individual server (or router), and had a certain level of control over that system. Now let’s say that the NIPS failed. In a fail-close scenario, it would disconnect the system that it is protecting, stopping all data transfer. This is unacceptable to some organizations that require near 100 percent uptime. These organizations are willing to accept additional risk, and therefore are more receptive to a fail-open scenario. However, in this case, if the NIPS fails, it continues to pass all traffic to the “protected” system, which could include possible attacks. Sometimes, fail-open scenarios are necessary. In these cases, defense in depth is the best strategy. For instance, you might opt to have a firewall filter the bulk of traffic coming into the network, but have the IPS filter only specific traffic, reducing the chances of IPS failure. This layered approach can offer greater security with less chance of attacks passing through, but often comes with increased cost and administration.

Summary of NIDS Versus NIPS

Table 8-1 summarizes NIDS versus NIPS.


Table 8-1 Summary of NIDS Versus NIPS

Type of System Summary Disadvantage/Advantage Example
NIDS Detects malicious network activities Pro: Only a limited number of NIDSs are necessary on a network.
Con: Only detects malicious activities.
NIPS Detects, removes, detains, and redirects traffic Pro: Detects and mitigates malicious activity.
Pro: Can act as a protocol analyzer.
Con: Uses more resources.
Con: Possibility of false positives and false negatives.
Check Point Systems solutions

The Protocol Analyzer’s Role in NIDS and NIPS

You might be familiar already with protocol analyzers such as Wireshark (previously Ethereal) or Network Monitor. These are loaded on a computer and are controlled by the user in a GUI environment; they capture packets, enabling the user to analyze them and view their contents. However, some NIDS/NIPS solutions are considered to be full protocol analyzers with no user intervention required. The protocol analyzer is built into the NIDS/NIPS appliance. It decodes application layer protocols, such as HTTP, FTP, or SMTP, and forwards the results to the IDS or IPS analysis engine. Then the analysis engine studies the information for anomalous or behavioral exploits. This type of analysis can block many exploits based on a single signature. This is superior to basic signature pattern recognition (without protocol analysis), because with signature-based IDS/IPS solutions, many signatures have to be constantly downloaded and stored in the device’s database, and they don’t enable dynamic understanding of new attacks. However, as with any powerful analysis, like protocol analysis, a premium is placed on processing power, and the price of these types of IDS/IPS solutions will undoubtedly be higher.

Unified Threat Management

A relatively newer concept, unified threat management (UTM) is the culmination of everything we discussed in this chapter so far. As early as the year 2000, it was realized that the firewall was no longer enough to protect an organization’s network. Other devices and technologies such as NIDS/NIPS systems, content filters, anti-malware gateways, data leak prevention, and virtual private networks were added to the network in order to better protect it. However, with all these extra devices and technologies come added cost and more administration. And so, UTM providers simplify the whole situation by offering all-in-one devices that combine the various levels of defense into one solution. The all-in-one device might also be referred to as a next-generation firewall (NGFW). Companies such as Cisco, Fortinet, and Sophos (to name a few) offer UTM and NGFW solutions; often this is a single device that sits last on the network before the Internet connection. They usually come with a straightforward web-based GUI, which is good news for the beleaguered security administrator who might be burning the midnight oil researching the latest attacks and prevention methods. There’s a caveat to all this, and it is a common theme in network security: a single point of defense is a single point of failure. Get past the UTM, and your job as an attacker is done. Secondary and backup UTM devices, as well as server-based HIDSs, strike a balance and create a certain level of defense in depth, while still retaining a level of simplicity. Another consideration is that UTMs should be quick. If they are to take the place of several other devices, then their data processing and traffic flow requirements will be steep. The smart network administrator/security administrator will consider a device that exceeds their current needs and then some.

It was important to discuss each of the tools and technologies separately in this chapter so that you understand how to work with each. But keep in mind that many of these technologies are consolidated into a single solution, a trend that will likely continue as we move forward.

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