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2.4 Network Address Translators

We're running out of IP addresses. In fact, some would say that we have already run out. The result has been the proliferation of NAT boxes [Srisuresh and Holdrege, 1999; Tsirtsis and Srisuresh, 2000; Srisuresh and Egevang, 2001]. Conceptually, NATs are simple: they listen on one interface (which probably uses so-called private address space [Rekhter et al., 1996]), and rewrite the source address and port numbers on outbound packets to use the public source IP address assigned to the other interface. On reply packets, they perform the obvious inverse operation. But life in the real world isn't that easy.

Many applications simply won't work through NATs. The application data contains embedded IP addresses (see, for example, the description of FTP in Section 3.4.2); if the NAT doesn't know how to also rewrite the data stream, things will break.

Incoming calls to dynamic ports don't work very well either. Most NAT boxes will let you route traffic to specific static hosts and ports; they can't cope with arbitrary application protocols.

To be sure, commercial NATs do know about common higher-level protocols. But if you run something unusual, or if a new one is developed and your vendor doesn't support it (or doesn't support it on your box, if it's more than a year or so old), you're out of luck.

From a security perspective, a more serious issue is that NATs don't get along very well with encryption. Clearly, a NAT can't examine an encrypted application stream. Less obviously, some forms of IPsec (see Section 18.3) are incompatible with NAT. IPsec can protect the transport layer header, which includes a checksum; this checksum includes the IP address that the NAT box needs to rewrite. These issues and many more are discussed in [Hain, 2000; Holdrege and Srisuresh, 2001; Senie, 2002].

Some people think that NAT boxes are a form of firewall. In some sense, they are, but they're low-end ones. At best, they're a form of packet filter (see Section 9.1). They lack the application-level filtering that most dedicated firewalls have; more importantly, they may lack the necessarily paranoid designers. To give just one example, some brands of home NAT boxes are managed via the Web—via an unencrypted connection only. Fortunately, you can restrict its management service to listen on the inside interface only.

We view the proliferation of NATs as an artifact of the shortage of IPv4 address space. The protocol complexities they introduce make them chancy. Use a real firewall, and hope that IPv6 comes soon.

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