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Tcpdump: An Open Source Tool for Analyzing Packets

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The most widely used open source tool for directly analyzing packets is a program called tcpdump. This chapter from "Open Source Network Administration" introduces tcpdump and shows you how to install, debug, and maintain it.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

8.1 Overview of Tcpdump

Most network administration tools are not based directly on the data being transmitted on a network, but rather on information related to that data. MRTG, for example, uses network bandwidth values. Other tools make use of system logs on network equipment or they test for system availability. It is sometimes necessary, however, to examine the packets themselves. Doing so will allow you to diagnose some particularly tricky network problems and can also serve as a hands-on approach to learning more about network protocols.

The most widely used open source tool for directly analyzing packets is a program called tcpdump, originally written by Van Jacobson. The standard tcpdump, through version 3.4, is maintained and distributed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Additional work has produced a second train of tcpdump releases as high as version 3.7.2 available from http://www.tcpdump.org/. The tcpdump that ships with most Linux distributions comes from this source. Both versions of tcpdump rely on the pcap library, a system for capturing packets across different operating systems. The pcap library is available from both the LBL and www.tcpdump.org.

One word of caution is necessary before you use tcpdump and other packet analyzers. Even though encryption is becoming more and more common in network protocols, there are still many protocols that transport data unencrypted. When using a packet analyzer to monitor network traffic, you will be able to view private data sent by users on the network—data that they may believe is not visible to others. There are serious legal implications to monitoring such data because it can be considered a form of wire tapping. Be sure to research relevant state and federal law before using a program such as tcpdump in an environment where user data will be present. When do you use a packet analyzer in this manner, remember to respect the privacy of other users as fully as possible and also ensure that you adhere to any privacy policies in place at your facility.

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