SecureNet: Simulating a Secure Network with Mininet

I have been working with OpenStack(devstack) for a while and I must say it is quite convenient to bring up a test setup using devstack. At times, I still feel it is an overkill to use devstack for a quick test to verify your understanding of the network/security rules/routing etc.

This is where Mininet shines. It is very lite on resources and extremely fast in getting your topology up and running. It cuts the setup to the absolute necessities and needless to say, it has proven invaluable to me while trying out various topologies and tests.

Lacking Security Device simulation

The default Mininet toolbox comes with a switch and hosts nodes. The switch is primarily a controller based SDN switch like OpenVSwitch or IVS. The primary focus of Mininet has been L2 networks with SDN controllers.

While for me the goal was to test routing and security much like what is available on OpenStack. I found an example topology in the Mininet code simulating a LinuxRouter. Basically, a Host node (Namespace) was configured to do l3 forwarding.

This give me the initial idea of implementing security devices with Mininet, after all the reference network services (routing and firewall) in OpenStack are based on Namespaces

A Simulated Perimeter Firewall

As IPTables are available within the namespace I decided to use them to implement a Perimeter Firewall that would inspect the traffic between the Networks. I used a separate table to have my firewall rules and redirected all traffic hitting the FORWARD table to my custom table PFW. The last rule in the FORWARD table was to drop all traffic.

So now when I started my topology with the perimeter Firewall the ping test confirmed that no traffic was flowing between the networks.


To allow traffic we need to specifically configure the Firewall to allow packets.


This took care of securing the Network boundary, but how about traffic flowing within the network. OpenStack supports this using micro segmentation with Security Groups.

Simulating Micro Segmentation with OpenStack like Security Groups

Well as I was using OpenVSwitch for my topology in standalone mode, I decided to configure the OVS packet filtering capabilities to implement a firewall within the Network itself. Here is some sample OVS rules to do L3 packet match and filter.

ovs-ofctl add-flow switch1 dl_type=0x0800,nw_src=,nw_dst=, action=DROP

And produces the following setting (can be verified with ovs-ofctl dump-flows switch1)

cookie=0x0, duration=9.050s, table=0, n_packets=0, n_bytes=0, idle_age=9, ip,nw_src=,nw_dst= actions=drop

Updated CLI to allow Firewall Rules

All this looks good but it’s a lot of work to manually configure all the rules. And I was thinking, how can this be automated?

I extended the switch node in Mininet to implement a Secure Switch and while at it I also implement the Perimeter Firewall as a specialized Host Node. My intention of implementing these special nodes was to add the capability of configuring the nodes with security settings. By this time, it was already looking like an interesting Weekend Project 🙂

So, got into it an implemented a set of CLI commands for Mininet to configure the firewall capabilities on the topology(using the security nodes that I introduced). I was calling it the Secure Network.

I wanted to keep things simple to start with and so kept the rule definitions very coarse, namely only L3 filtering only(I may look at L4 in future). So here is the CLI I came up with.

Securenet] secrule add allow [addr1] to [addr2]
Securenet] secrule add deny [addr1] to [addr3]

Here addr1, addr2 and addr3 are Micro Segments(or Security Groups)

Now, to define Firewall rules with Micro Segments (let’s call it Security Groups as this is what is was trying to simulate at the first place) I needed a way to define the Security Groups and associate Hosts to it.

To keep things simple I went for an automatic creation of Security Groups and when a Host association command is entered. This was done by extending the host commands. Here is an example of creating a Security Group and associating a Host with it.

Securenet] h30 bind sg1

Above command creates a Security Group called SG1 and associates host h30 to it.

To add another Host to the same SG issue the same command with a different Host name

Securenet] h31 bind sg1

This adds h31 to sg1. To view the members of the security group use the sghosts command

Securenet] sghosts sg1
0: h30
1: h31

Reacting to Security Group changes with events

By this time, I was already too excited to stop and was thinking of the interactions between the Firewall rules and Security Group definitions.

As the high-level Firewall rules are composed of Security Groups, the firewall must react to the changes to Security Group definition. This means the change in Security Group definition must produce some kind of event that is observable by the Firewall and then it must update its configuration accordingly to keep the firewall rule constrains satisfied.

To do this I extended the Topology and Mininet class so that any change in the SG definition can trigger a re-evaluation of the Firewall rules.


Again to keep things reasonably simple I went with a rip and replace of Firewall configuration (both IPTables and OVS) and did not bother about the traffic impact (we are in simulation after all). But this might be an interesting area to explore in future.

Simulating IPSets

One thing that I was missing while defining the Firewall rules was a way to target a set of external IP address. As the IP addresses associated to a Security Group definition was derived out of its member Hosts, so there was no way to define rules based on addresses that are not part of the topology.

So, another set of CLI commands were introduced to define groups based on IP addresses manually and without any topology based constrains.

Securenet] secrule ipg add ipg1
Securenet] secrule ipg add ipg2
Securenet] secrule ipg add ipg3

CLI to view a list of IPGs

Securenet] secrule ipg list
0: ipg2
1: ipg3
2: ipg1

And to view its content use the following

Securenet] secrule ipg show ipg1
0: ipgh-

With IPGs it was possible to have rules with arbitrary addresses.


Here is a run of a simple set of commands on the secure net topology


The updated IPTables config in the Perimeter Firewall.


And the security rules in OVS


This was more of a fun long weekend project for me. Once I dived into the project I realized a number of challenges that are posed by such an undertaking like rule optimization, minimizing the config changes, targeting the right device to push a security rule, figuring out duplicate rules and conflicts etc. Also, as I thought through more use cases I realized that the firewall rule definition needs a language of its own.

But at the end of the weekend I feel mostly it was a lot of fun.

Test driving App Firewall with IPTables

With more and more application moving to the cloud, web based applications have become ubiquitous. They are ideal for providing access to applications sitting on the cloud (over HTTP through a standard web browser). This has removed the need to install specialized application on the client system, the client just needs to install is a fairly modern browser.

While this is good for reducing load on the client, the job of the firewall has become much tougher.

Traditionally firewall rules look at the Layer 3 and Layer 4 attributes of a packet to identify a flow and associate it with applications generating the traffic. To a traditional firewall looking at L3/L4 headers all the traffic between the client and different web apps looks like http communication. Without proper classification of traffic flows the firewall is not be able to apply a security policy.

It has now become important to look at the application layer to identify the traffic associated with a web service or web application and enforce effective security and bandwidth allocation policy.

In this blog, I will look at features provided by IPTables that can be used to classify packets by application Layer header and how this can be used to implement security and other network policy.

Looking in to the application layer

IPTables are the de-facto choice for implementing firewall on Linux. It provides extensive packet matching, classification, filtering and many more facilities. Like any traditional firewall the core features of IPTables allow packet matching with Layer3 and Layer4 header attributes. These features as we discussed in the introduction may not be sufficient to differentiate between traffic from various web apps.

While researching for a solution to provide APP Firewall on Linux I came across an IPTables extensions called NFQUEUE.

The NFQUEUE extension provides a mechanism to pass a packet to a user-space program which can run some kind of test on the packet and tell IPTables what action(accept/drop/mark) to perform for the packet.


This gives a lot of flexibility for the IPTables user to hook up custom tests for the packets before it is allowed to pass through the firewall.

To understand how NFQUEUE can help classify and filter traffic based on application layer headers, let’s try to implement a web app filter providing URL based access control. In this test we will extract the request URL from the HTTP header and the filter will allow access based on this URL

A simple web app

For this experiment, we will use python bottle to deploy two application. Access will be allowed for the first app(APP1) while access to the second app(APP2) will be denied.

We will use the following code to deploy the sample Apps

from bottle import Bottle

app1 = Bottle()
app2 = Bottle()

def app1_route():
    return 'Access to APP1!\n'

def app2_route():
    return 'Access to APP2!\n'

if __name__ == '__main__':
    app1.merge(app2)'eventlet', host="", port=8081)

The web application will bind to port 8081 and local IP of

NOTE: we need a eventlet based bottle server else the application hangs after a deny from the app filter(connections are not closed and the next request is not processed)

To access the web apps use the curl commands


Configuring the IPTables NFQUEUE

The next step is to configure IPTables to forward the client traffic accessing the web apps to our user space web-app filter.

The NFQUEUE IPTables extension works by adding a new target to IPTables called NFQUEUE. This target allows IPTables to put the matching packet on a queue. These packets can then be read from this queue by a filter application in user space. The filter application can then perform custom tests and provide a verdict to allow or deny the packet.

The NFQUEUE extension provides 65535 different queues. It also provides fail-safe options like what action IPTables should take if a queue is created but no filter is attached to it, load balancing of packets across multiple queues. Also, there are knobs in the /proc filesystem to control how much of the packet data will be copied to user space. A complete list of options can be found in the iptables extensions man page

To enable NFQUEUE for the web-app traffic we will add the following rule to IPTables.

iptables -I INPUT -d -p tcp --dport 8081 -j NFQUEUE --queue-num 10 --queue-bypass

The –queue-num option selects the NFQUEUE number to which the packet will be queued. The –queue-bypass option allows the packet to be accepted if no custom filter is attached to queue number 10, without this option if no filter is attached to the queue, packets will be dropped.

Implementing a simple APP filter

With the above IPTables rule the packets destined for our sample web app will be pushed into NFQUEUE number 10.  I am going to use the python bindings for NFQUEUE called nfqueue-bindings to develop the filter. Let’s run a simple print and drop filter.


# need root privileges

import struct
import sys
import time

from socket import AF_INET, AF_INET6, inet_ntoa

import nfqueue
from dpkt import ip

def cb(i, payload):
    print "python callback called !"
    return 1

def main():
    q = nfqueue.queue()
    print "setting callback"
    print "open"
    q.fast_open(10, AF_INET)
    print "trying to run"
    except KeyboardInterrupt, e:
    	print "interrupted"
    print "unbind"
    print "close"

if __name__ == '__main__':

Now we have tested that the packets trying to access our web app are passing through a app filter implemented in user space. Next we need to unpack the packet and look at the HTTP header to extract the URL that the user is trying to access. For unpacking the headers we will use python dpkt library. The following code will let us access to APP1 and deny access to APP2


# need root privileges

import struct
import sys
import time

from socket import AF_INET, AF_INET6, inet_ntoa

import nfqueue
import dpkt
from dpkt import ip

count = 0

def cb(i, payload):
    global count
    count += 1
    data = payload.get_data()

    pkt = ip.IP(data)
    if pkt.p == ip.IP_PROTO_TCP:
        # print "  len %d proto %s src: %s:%s    dst %s:%s " % (
        #        payload.get_length(),
        #        pkt.p, inet_ntoa(pkt.src),,
        #        inet_ntoa(pkt.dst), pkt.tcp.dport)
        tcp_pkt =
        app_pkt =
            request = dpkt.http.Request(app_pkt)
            if "APP1" in request.uri:
                print "Allowing APP1"
            elif "APP2":
                print "Denying APP2"
                print "Denying by default"
        except (dpkt.dpkt.NeedData, dpkt.dpkt.UnpackError):
        print "  len %d proto %s src: %s    dst %s " % (
               payload.get_length(), pkt.p, inet_ntoa(pkt.src), 

    return 1

def main():
    q = nfqueue.queue()

    print "setting callback"

    print "open"
    q.fast_open(10, AF_INET)


    print "trying to run"
    except KeyboardInterrupt, e:
        print "interrupted"

    print "%d packets handled" % count

    print "unbind"
    print "close"
if __name__ == '__main__':

Here are the result of the test on the client


The output from the filter on the firewall


What else can be done with App based traffic classification

Firewall is just one use-case of the advance packet classification. With the flows identified and associated to different applications we can apply different routing and forwarding policy. NFQUEUE based filter can be used to set different firewall marks on the classified packets. The firewall marks can then be used to implement policy based routing in Linux.

IPTables: Matching A GRE packet based on tunnel key

I was trying to figure out a way to match packets with a certain GRE key and take some action. IPTables does not provide a direct solution to this problem but has the u32 extension modules that can be used to extract 4 bytes of the IP header and match against a pattern.

So, I decided to give a try to this extension.

Prepare the setup

I created a tunnel between 2 of my VMs and assign IP address to the tunnel interfaces

On VM1

sudo ip tunnel add tun2 mode gre remote local ttl 255 key 22

sudo ifconfig tun2 up

On VM2

sudo ip tunnel add tun2 mode gre remote local ttl 255 key 22

sudo ifconfig tun2 up

Start with a basic rule

Next, created a IPTables rule on the receiving system to generate logs for packet match, but you can also create an ACCEPT rule and check the builtin packet counter for the rule.

sudo iptables -I INPUT -p 47 -m limit --limit 20/min -j LOG --log-prefix "IPT GRE" --log-level 4

Now start ping from VM2 to VM2


You can keep a watch on the packet counters with the following command

watch "sudo iptables -L -v -n"

The GRE header

Next, a look at the GRE header format (taken from RFC The header format is described in the RFC and it contains an optional 32bit key, which is the data of our interest.

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1
|C| |K|S| Reserved0       | Ver |         Protocol Type         |
|      Checksum (optional)      |       Reserved1 (Optional)    |
|                         Key (optional)                        |
|                 Sequence Number (Optional)                    |

Run the following tcpdump command to capture the packets(My VMs don’t have GUI)

sudo tcpdump -s 0 -n -i ens3 proto GRE -w dump.pcap

The captured packets can be analyzed using wireshark


Understanding the iptables u32 extension match rule

Basically u32 module is able to extract 4 byte of data from the IP header at a given offset and match with the given hex number or range. Here is an example of a u32 match rule from the man-page. It matches packets within a certain length. The man page describes the format of the rule, you provide an offset , u32 extracts 4 byte from the offset position, and then we AND it with the MASK and finally compare with the HEX value


match IP packets with total length >= 256
The IP header contains a total length field in bytes 2-3.

--u32 "0 & 0xFFFF = 0x100:0xFFFF"

read bytes 0-3
AND that with 0xFFFF (giving bytes 2-3), 
and test whether that is in the range [0x100:0xFFFF]

The man page has more details.

Craft a match for GRE Key

The IP header length is 20 bytes and the GRE key starts at 24 bytes, as can be confirmed from the wireshark. At the beginning of the rule match starts at the IP header(highlighted in the wireshark screenshot)


Based on the example from the man page I crafted the following rule to match the GRE key.

sudo iptables -I INPUT -p 47 -m u32 --u32 "24 & 0xFFFFFFFF = 0x16" -m limit --limit 20/min -j LOG --log-prefix "IPT GRE key 22" --log-level 4

Checking for Key Present Flag

But the key can be optional. So, add match for Key-Present Flag.

sudo iptables -I INPUT -p 47 -m u32 --u32 "20 & 0x20000000 = 0x20000000 && 24 & 0xFFFFFFFF = 0x16" -m limit --limit 20/min -j LOG --log-prefix "IPT GRE key 22" --log-level 4

Here is a screen capture of the iptables packet counters

Chain INPUT (policy ACCEPT 294K packets, 78M bytes)
 pkts bytes target prot opt in out source destination
 711 79632 LOG 47 -- * * u32 "0x14&0x20000000=0x20000000&&0x18&0xffffffff=0x16" limit: avg 20/min burst 5 LOG flags
 0 level 4 prefix "IPT GRE key 22"

The above rule is simplistic and good to get you started but has short comings, e.g. it assumes a constant IP header length.

The man page describes examples of how to handle variable length headers, fragmentation check etc.