Operation of Context-Based Access Control

20 Mar

Operation of Context−Based Access Control
CBAC inspects traffic traveling through a router to discover and manage information about the state of the TCP or UDP sessions. This state information is used to create a temporary opening in access lists, which allows the returning traffic from the same session to enter the internal network through the firewall. To illustrate the operation of CBAC, Figure 4.1 shows an example CBAC network. When the router in Figure 4.1 initializes after a power−up or reload, it begins with an empty table to maintain state information for every session. When the host on the inside network of the router initiates a connection to a host on the outside network of the router, the router receives the first packet and will match the packet against any inbound access lists on the interface. If the packet is permitted by the inbound access list, CBAC will set up a table entry to record information about thesession. CBAC will also set up temporary access lists to permit returning packets that are part of the same session. This setup is handled through process−switching the first packet, and the information gathered is used as a reference so that all subsequent packets in the session may be fast−switched. The TCP and UDP sessions are identified through the IP addresses and the port numbers. To protect the session, the firewall feature set will inspect the TCP sequence and
acknowledgment values as well as the flags, which must correspond to the transmitted data. For UDP and TCP, the subsequent packets must arrive within a timeout period. After the session has completed, the opened session entry is torn down and the connection is closed.

Figure 4.1: Basic operation of CBAC.
When using CBAC, the protocols that are to be inspected must be specified, and the interface and interface direction where inspection originates should be configured. Only protocols that have been specified will be inspected by CBAC. Packets that enter the IOS firewall are inspected by CBAC only if they first pass the inbound access list at the input interface, and the outbound access list at the output interface will be serviced by the router. If a packet is denied by the access list, the packet is simply dropped and not inspected by CBAC. CBAC inspection tracks sequence numbers in all TCP packets and drops those packets with sequence numbers that are not within expected ranges.

There are some protocols, such as Telnet or SMTP, that will have only one connection between client and server. These are called singlechannel sessions. All packets are identified as conforming to the session by acknowledging the receipt of bytes from the other device. After the session ends, one side or the other can start the termination process by setting the FIN flag. CBAC monitors this, and when the returning ACK is seen, CBAC will remove the temporary access control list. Removing the temporary access list will deny packets from the outside network from entering the inside network after the two devices in the session have agreed to terminate. During a session,
CBAC will drop packets that violate its policy, such as packets with sequence/acknowledgment values outside of the acceptable window or with incorrectly set flags.

In addition to the single−channel sessions, several applications also use a control channel and create one or more additional data channels to carry information. These are called multichannel sessions, such as FTP and H.323. When the control channel forms, CBAC watches for an indication that a subsequent data channel will be needed. When this occurs, CBAC will add the access control list elements to accommodate the data channels. When the data channels are terminated, CBAC will remove the temporary access control list elements.

Two special cases also need to be mentioned: SMTP and Java processing. If SMTP inspection is enabled, only a set of the SMTP commands will be permitted through the firewall feature set. If some other command is seen coming from the untrusted network, CBAC will send a TCP/IP packet within the session to each participant with the RST flag set. This will terminate the session.

A Web browser request may return an HTML document that will initiate more than one TCP session from the client to the server to retrieve additional parts of the page. These can include text and graphics and may also include Java applets. If HTTP inspection is enabled and Java applets are being filtered, CBAC will inspect the leading parts of each HTTP session to match the Java applet signature. If CBAC finds this signature, it will terminate the session with a TCP packet, with the RST flag set sent to both client and server. When CBAC terminates a session like this, the temporary access control list is also removed, but the remainder of the page, text, and graphics will continue to load through each TCP session as they normally would.

These data channels are inspected for properly incrementing sequence and acknowledgment numbers as well as proper flag use. They will also be terminated in the way described earlier if they exceed the idle timeout values. However, to speed processing, the contents of the data channel packets are not inspected for commands as the control channel packets are.

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