How to Configure iptables Firewall in Linux

This tutorial explains how to install, enable and configure iptables service in Linux step by step. Learn iptables rules, chains (PREROUTING, POSTROUTING, OUTPUT, INPUT and FORWARD), tables (Filter, NAT and Mangle) and target actions (ACCEPT, REJECT, DROP and LOG) in detail with practical examples.

To deal with growing security threats firewall must be used. Based on pre-defined rules, firewall can check each passing data packet. A host based firewall is the integrated part of RHEL/Centos Linux.

Linux uses netfilter kernel module for firewall. The netfilter module in kernel allows us to filer any incoming, outgoing and forwarded data packet even before it reaches at user level application. To communicate with netfilter module we have two tools; iptables and firewalld. Although it is possible to use both services at the same time, but that is not recommended. Both services are incompatible with each other’s. Running both services simultaneously will mess-up the firewall.

Next part of this tutorial explains iptables service in detail with examples.You can read it here. Firewalld Basic concepts Explained with Examples

In this part we will understand iptables service. For demonstration purpose I will use following RHCE LAB which is specially setup for the practice of RHCE exam objectives.

rhce practice lab

To learn how to setup above RHCE practice lab see this tutorial. RHCE Practice Lab Setup

We will configure iptables service on Server system and test it from on remaining systems.

Disable firewalld service

As we know, iptables and firewalld are incompatible with each other’s. To avoid any unnecessary complication we should always use one service while keeping disable other. To disable the firewalld service we can use following commands

systemctl disable firewalld
systemctl mask firewalld

First command will disable the service while second command will mask it. A disabled service can be started manually. But a masked service cannot be started manually or automatically.

disable firewalld service

Install iptables in RedHat Linux 7.0

iptables requires two RPMs; iptables and iptables-services. To find out whether the both packages are installed or not we can use following rpm query command.

rpm –qa iptables*

If above command does not return any output then both packages are not installed. If output returns only package then other is missing.

If iptables package is missing, we will get following error.

iptables command not found.

If iptables-services package is missing we will get following error while starting the iptables service.

Failed to execute operation: Access denied.

iptables service will not start until we have both packages. We can install missing RPM from two commands; yum and rpm.

To install packages from yum command use following:-
yum install -y iptables
yum install -y iptables-services

yum command depends on repository. If system is connected with repository, above commands will install the iptables service with all dependencies . If system is not connected with any repository, above commands will not work.

Alternatively if we have RHEL installation disk (or local copy of Packages directory from RHEL installation disk), we can use rpm command to install the necessary RPMs. Packages directory on RHEL installation media contents all RPMs. To install iptables service from rpm command use following:-

rpm –ivh iptables-[version number]
rpm –ivh iptables-services-[version number]

To verify the installation we can use rpm query command again.

Following figure illustrates iptables rpm query, installation and verification process.

install iptables rpm

Enable iptables services

Once we have installed necessary RPM we can manage iptables service through the systemctl management tool.

To start iptables service use following command

systemctl start iptables

To verify the status use following command

systemctl status iptables

With start option service will be enabled only for this session. To start it permanently we have to use enable option.

systemctl enable iptables

Following figure illustrates above process

enable firewall service

As output indicates iptables service is up and running. Before we learn how to configure it, let’s have a quick look on some essential terminology used by this service.

Basic concepts of iptables

As we know iptables filters data packets based on pre-defined rules. So basically rules are the instructions which iptables should follow when a match found. Similar rules are grouped in chains. For examples we may group rules in two chains, in first chain we can keep the rules which will filter the incoming traffic while in second chain we can store the rules which will filter the outgoing traffic. There are five pre-defined chains; INPUT,OUTPUT,FORWARD,PREROUTING and POSTROUTING. If iptables is configured, data packet must go through at least one of these chains. Each chain has an action known as target. Target have following values

  • ACCEPT :- Allows the packet pass through.
  • REJECT :- Discards the packet and sends a notification back.
  • DROP :- Discards the packet without sending notification back.
  • LOG :- Sends packet information to rsyslogd daemon for logging.

Chain can also inspect the packet based on its state. Following are some common states:-

  • NEW :- Packet is not the part of any exiting communication.
  • ESTABLISHED :- Packet is the part of an existing communication.
  • RELATED:- Packet is the part of other existing communication.
  • INVALID :- Packet does not match with any states.

Based on function chains are stored in tables. There are three pre-defined tables ; Filter, NAT and Mangle.

iptable chain tables

Table Table Function Chains Chain Function
Filter Packet filtering INPUT INPUT chain filters the data packets which are destined for this system.
OUTPUT OUTPUT chain filters the data packets which are originated form this system.
FORWARD FORWARD chain filters the data packets which are need to be routed on other network.
NatNetwork Address TranslationPREROUTING Packets will enter in this chain before a routing decision is made.
POSTROUTING Packets enters in this chain just before handing them off to the hardware. At this point routing decision has been made.
OUTPUT NAT for locally generated packets on the firewall.
Mangle TCP header modification PREROUTING, POSTROUTING,OUTPUT, INPUT, FORWARD Modification of the TCP packet and set quality of service bits before routing occurs.

iptables configuration file

iptables uses /etc/sysconfig/iptables configuration file to store the rules. Following figure illustrates the default content of this file.

default contain of iptables file

First line shows the default table which is set to filter table. Next three lines show to chains status. Remaining six lines show the default rules one by one. First rule says accept all incoming packets from established connection. Second rule accepts all ICMP requests. Third rule accepts all connections on loopback interface. Fourth rule accepts new SSH connections. Last two rules reject any network packets generated from any source with icmp-host-prohibited.

We have three options to add/update/remove rules in this file:-

  1. Directly editing in this file via text editor (Not recommended)
  2. From iptables command (most preferred way to manage the rules)
  3. From system-config-firewall graphical tool (deprecated and removed from RHEL7.0)

First option is not recommended and third option is deprecated. So theoretically we have only second option to manage the configuration file. Let’s understand it in details.

iptables command line explained

Basic syntax for iptables command is following:-

iptables [options] [chain] -j [target]

We have already discussed chain and target, let’s have a look on some common options.

Option (Short) Option (Long) Description
-L --list Display current rules
-I --insert Insert new rule in chain
-R --replace Replace a rule
-A --append Append new rule in chain
-D --delete Delete rule from chain
-F --flush Flush entire chain or table
-N --newchain Add a new chain
-X --deletechain Delete a chain
-i --ininterface Network interface which receives incoming packet
-0 --outinterface Network interface which sends packets out
-d --destination Destination address
--dport Destination port
-s --source Source address
--sport Source port
-j --jump The action which should be taken if packet match with given criteria
-m --match matching name
-p --protocol matching protocol
-t --table Specify the table (filter, nat, mangle) Filter is default
-v --verbose Print verbose

While working with configuration files we should always follow a simple guideline, always takes backup before modify. Following this lifesaver guideline let’s make a copy of current working rules

backup default iptable command

If anything goes wrong, we can restore working iptables configuration from backup copy.

iptables command examples

Before we add new rules let’s have a look on existing rules

iptables --list

As output indicates there are no custom rules in any chains except the default rules. All chains are set to default policy which is ACCEPT ( for all traffic).

To get a better understanding of rules lets flush the default rules.

iptables --flush

Any change will not be saved until we manually save them with following command

#service iptables save

To understand it more clearly lets view the iptables file again without running above command

service iptable save

Now save the rules and view the file again

iptables service start

So whenever we make any change, we have to save them with service iptables save command. Besides this we also have to restart the iptables service with following command so new rules can take effect.

#systemctl restart iptables

iptables practice

Add the following rules and test the configuration from respective LAB systems.

  • Allow Telnet connection only from . Drop Telnet connection from remaining hosts without any notifications.
  • Allow SSH connection only from Reject SSH connections from remaining systems with notification.
  • Allow FTP connection only from Reject FTP connections from remaining systems with notification.
  • Allow HTTP connection from all hosts on port 80.
  • Reject ping requests from all hosts with error message.

For the first requirement we have to create two rules. In first rule we have to allow the host then in second rule we have to deny all remaining hosts.

iptables –A INPUT –s –p tcp --dport 23 -j ACCEPT
iptables –A INPUT –s –p tcp --dport 23 -j DROP

Let’s break above commands,

Command / Option/ Argument Descriptions
iptables main command
-A INPUT we are appending INPUT chain
-s apply the rule if packet is coming from source Don’t confuse with /32. It is not a subnet mask. It is a wildcard mask. In rules we use wildcard mask instead of subnet mask. To specify a particular host we use /32 wildcard mask.
-s apply this rule if packet is coming from network The /24 wildcard mask represent the entire network.
-p tcp We are filtering TCP traffic
--dport 23 Apply the rule if packet is coming for telnet service
-j What action should iptables take, if packet matches with matching criteria
ACCEPT Allow the packet
DROP Drop the packet without any notification back.

So basically

first commands says “Let the packet pass if it is coming for telnet service from host”.

Second command says “Drop all the packets without any notification if they are coming for telnet service from network”.

Have you noticed conflict between rules?

First rule says allow host while second rules says deny all hosts from network Host also belongs to network. So both conditions apply on host

In this situation which rule will be applied on packet coming from host for telnet service?

To find out the answer we have to understand the basic packet processing flow.

Firewall packet processing flow

  • When a packet arrives, firewall checks all rules.
  • Rules are always processed from top to down.
  • Every rule has certain matching criteria.
  • If packet matches with matching criteria in any rule, action associated with that particular rule will be executed.
  • Once a match found, no further processing should be done for that packet. Technically this is also make sense, as once match found, associated action (allow/reject/drop) will be taken for that packet and packet will not be available for further processing.
  • Thus order of rules play important role in firewall.

In above condition a packet from host will never be matched with second rule.

Second and third requirements also look like as first requirement. In first requirement we filtered telnet service while in second and third requirement we will filter SSH(Port 22) and FTP(Port 21) service respectively.

iptables –A INPUT –s –p tcp --dport 22 -j ACCEPT
iptables –A INPUT –s –p tcp --dport 22 -j DROP
iptables –A INPUT –s –p tcp --dport 21 -j ACCEPT
iptables –A INPUT –s –p tcp --dport 22 -j DROP

The fourth requirement is allowing all hosts on port 80. Since we are allowing all source address, we can omit source address in rule.

iptables –A INPUT –p tcp --dport 80 -j ACCEPT

The last requirement is blocking all ICMP request.

iptables –A INPUT –p icmp -j REJECT

As we know firewall rules will not be applied until we save them and restart the service. Next two commands will save the rule and restart the service

service iptables save
systemctl restart iptables

Following figure illustrates the above process step by step

iptables rules practise

Testing iptables firewall

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We have additional three systems in LAB specially setup for testing purpose. Let’s test our iptables firewall configuration from these systems step by step.

Testing from (named -win)

We have allowed http and telnet service from this computer while denying the rest.

testing iptabels rules

Testing from (named client)

For this system we allowed http and ssh service while denying the rest. Let’s test them one by one

iptables practise rules testing

Testing from 192168.1.2/24 (named - ipa)

For this system we allowed http and ftp service while denying the rest.

iptables firewall testing

We have successfully finished the practice. Remember in starting of this practice we took the backup of original configuration file. If you are not getting the excepted result, restore the original configuration file back and practice again.

How to restore original iptables configuration file

To restore the original configuration back use following command

cp /etc/sysconfig/iptables.bak /etc/sysconfig/iptables

iptables command is a low level tool. iptables command is capable to manages only IPv4 firewall rules. For IPv6 we have to use ip6tables. Another management tool to communicate with netfilter module is firewalld. Firewalld is added in RHEL from version 7. If you have Centos/RHEL 7.0 (or higher), always use firewalld. I will explain firewalld in next part of this article.

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