Firewall Secure Configuration Guide

Firewall Secure Configuration Guide

Firewall Secure Configuration Guide

  • firewall guidance, network security, security architecture

Executive Summary

Firewalls are devices or programs that control the flow of network traffic between networks or hosts that employ differing security postures. At one time, most firewalls were deployed at network perimeters. This provided some measure of protection for internal hosts, but it could not recognize all instances and forms of attack, and attacks sent from one internal host to another often do not pass through network firewalls. Because of these and other factors, network designers now often include firewall functionality at places other than the network perimeter to provide an additional layer of security, as well as to protect mobile devices that are placed directly onto external networks.

Threats have gradually moved from being most prevalent in lower layers of network traffic to the application layer, which has reduced the general effectiveness of firewalls in stopping threats carried through network communications. However, firewalls are still needed to stop the significant threats that continue to work at lower layers of network traffic. Firewalls can also provide some protection at the application layer, supplementing the capabilities of other network security technologies.

There are several types of firewalls, each with varying capabilities to analyze network traffic and allow or block specific instances by comparing traffic characteristics to existing policies. Understanding the capabilities of each type of firewall, and designing firewall policies and acquiring firewall technologies that effectively address an organization’s needs, are critical to achieving protection for network traffic flows.

This document provides an overview of firewall technologies and discusses their security capabilities and relative advantages and disadvantages in detail. It also provides examples of where firewalls can be placed within networks, and the implications of deploying firewalls in particular locations. The document also makes recommendations for establishing firewall policies and for selecting, configuring, testing, deploying, and managing firewall solutions. This document does not cover technologies that are called “firewalls” but primarily examine only application layer activity, not lower layers of network traffic. Technologies that focus on activity for a particular type of application, such as email firewalls that block email messages with suspicious content, are not covered in detail in this document.

To improve the effectiveness and security of their firewalls, organizations should implement the following recommendations:

Create a firewall policy that specifies how firewalls should handle inbound and outbound network traffic.

A firewall policy defines how an organization’s firewalls should handle inbound and outbound network traffic for specific IP addresses and address ranges, protocols, applications, and content types based on the organization’s information security policies. Organizations should conduct risk analysis to develop a list of the types of traffic needed by the organization and how they must be secured—including which types of traffic can traverse a firewall under what circumstances. Examples of policy requirements include permitting only necessary Internet Protocol (IP) protocols to pass, appropriate source and destination IP addresses to be used, particular Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and User Datagram Protocol (UDP) ports to be accessed, and certain Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) types and codes to be used.

Generally, all inbound and outbound traffic not expressly permitted by the firewall policy should be blocked because such traffic is not needed by the organization. This practice reduces the risk of attack and can also decrease the volume of traffic carried on the organization’s networks.

Identify all requirements that should be considered when determining which firewall to implement.

There are many considerations that organizations should include in their firewall selection and planning processes. Organizations need to determine which network areas need to be protected, and which types of firewall technologies will be most effective for the types of traffic that require protection. Several important performance considerations also exist, as well as concerns regarding the integration of the firewall into existing network and security infrastructures. Additionally, firewall solution design involves requirements relating to physical environment and personnel as well as consideration of possible future needs, such as plans to adopt new IPv6 technologies or virtual rivate networks (VPN).

Create rulesets that implement the organization’s firewall policy while supporting firewall performance.

Firewall rulesets should be as specific as possible with regards to the network traffic they control. To create a ruleset involves determining what types of traffic are required, including protocols the firewall may need to use for management purposes. The details of creating rulesets vary widely by type of firewall and specific products, but many firewalls can have their performance improved by optimizing firewall rulesets. For example, some firewalls check traffic against rules in a sequential manner until a match is found; for these firewalls, rules that have the highest chance of matching traffic patterns should be placed at the top of the list wherever possible.

Manage firewall architectures, policies, software, and other components throughout the life of the firewall solutions.

There are many aspects to firewall management. For example, choosing the type or types of firewalls to deploy and their positions within the network can significantly affect the security policies that the firewalls can enforce. Policy rules may need to be updated as the organization’s requirements change, such as when new applications or hosts are implemented within the network. Firewall component performance also needs to be monitored to enable potential resource issues to be identified and addressed before components become overwhelmed. Logs and alerts should also be continuously monitored to identify threats—both successful and unsuccessful. Firewall rulesets and policies should be managed by a formal change management control process because of their potential to impact security and business operations, with ruleset reviews or tests performed periodically to ensure continued compliance with the organization’s policies. Firewall software should be patched as vendors provide updates to address vulnerabilities.

Source: NIST SP 800-41, “Guidelines on Firewall and Firewall Policy”


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