netfilter: packet filtering framework for Linux overview

Linux security with netfilter

netfilter is a packet filtering framework in the Linux kernel that provides highly customizable handlers (or hooks) to control networking-related operations. These operations include the following:

  • Accepting or rejecting packets
  • Packet routing and forwarding
  • Network address and port translation (NAT/NAPT)

Applications that implement the netfilter framework use a set of callback functions built around hooks registered with kernel modules that manipulate the networking stack. These callback functions are further mapped to security rules and profiles, which control the behavior of every packet traversing the networking chain.

Firewall applications are first-class citizens of netfilter framework implementations. Consequently, a good understanding of the netfilter hooks will help Linux power users and administrators create reliable firewall rules and policies.

We'll have a brief look at these netfilter hooks next.

netfilter hooks

As packets traverse the various chains in the networking stack, netfilter triggers events for the kernel modules that are registered with the corresponding hooks. These events result in notifications in the module or packet filtering application (for example, the firewall) implementing the hooks. Next, the application takes control of the packet based on specific rules.

There are five netfilter hooks available for packet filtering applications. Each corresponds to a networking chain, as illustrated in Figure 9.44:

  • NF_IP_PRE_ROUTING: Triggered by incoming traffic upon entering the network stack and before any routing decisions are made about where to send the packet
  • NF_IP_LOCAL_IN: Triggered after routing an incoming packet when the packet has a localhost destination
  • NF_IP_FORWARD: Triggered after routing an incoming packet when the packet has a remote host destination
  • NF_IP_LOCAL_OUT: Triggered by locally initiated outbound traffic entering the network stack
  • NF_IP_POST_ROUTING: Triggered by outgoing or forwarded traffic, immediately after routing it and just before it exits the network stack

Kernel modules or applications registered with netfilter hooks must provide a priority number to determine the order the modules are called in when the hook is triggered. This mechanism allows us to deterministically order multiple modules (or multiple instances of the same module) that have been registered with a specific hook. When a registered module is done processing a packet, it provides a decision to the netfilter framework about what should be done with the packet.

The netfilter framework's design and implementation is a community-driven collaborative project as part of the Free and Open-Source Software (FOSS) movement. For a good starting point to the netfilter project, you may refer to

One of the most well-known implementations of netfilter is iptables – a widely used firewall management tool that shares a direct interface with the netfilter packet filtering framework. A practical examination of iptables would further reveal the functional aspects of netfilter. Let's explore iptables next.


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