Networking definitions: Allowing traffic, Port forwarding, NAT, and Routing

I’m more of a systems administrator than a network admin (though I’ve also worked as the latter, in the past), but, of course, one can’t be a sysadmin without knowing at least something about networking. And yet (and like my previous post about compiling stuff), I’ve found that it’s possible to do a perfectly good job as a sysadmin, and yet still mix up a few networking concepts from time to time.

Therefore, I wanted to write about four different, but related, concepts, that I’ve noticed people sometimes confuse.

1. Allowing traffic

This just means that a network interface allows traffic to a specific destination and/or port, possibly restricted to a specific source (an IP address, or a network). Any traffic that is not allowed is simply refused.

Note that this by itself doesn’t mean that the interface (of a server, a router, etc.) will do anything (or anything desirable, at least) with the received traffic. For instance, it may not have something listening on that port, or it may not be configured to route that traffic to somewhere useful. This just means that it doesn’t instantly block the connection.

2. Port forwarding

Port forwarding just means: if you receive a packet on interface A, port B, then redirect it to IP address C, port D. “D” may be the same as “B”, and “C” may be on the same host or at the other end of the planet.

Again, note that the mere fact that there’s a matching redirect rule for the initial destination interface and port doesn’t mean that the host actually accepts redirecting the traffic (see 1.) or that it knows how to route it to its final destination (see 4.)

3. NAT

NAT, or Network Address Translation, can be seen as a special case of two-way port forwarding (see 3.). Basically, a router (which may well be a simple server with two or more (physical or virtual) network interfaces, it doesn’t have to be a “router” bought in a store) accepts traffic from a (typically private) network, then translates it so that it goes to the destination address in the (typically public) network, with the source “masked” as the router’s public IP address, and a different source port that the router “remembers”, and then knows how to handle the returning traffic and “untranslate” it so that it goes to the original source.

In short, NAT allows many private hosts in a network to access the Internet using a single public IP, and a single connection. (It can have other similar uses, even some not related to the public Internet, of course; this is just the most common one.)

4. Routing

Routing is simply a host knowing that a packet intended for IP address X should be directed to IP address Y 1.

Again, the obligatory caveats: this doesn’t mean that the traffic is even accepted before attempting to route it (see 1.), or that the host actually knows how to reach IP address Y itself (it may not have a local route to it). It may also be that the routing is correct, but there is no address translation (see 3.), so the destination host receives a packet in a public interface that claims to be from a private address, and refuses it. Finally, the destination host itself needs a route to the original source, and it may not have one configured (or have a misconfigured one, causing asynchronous routing and possibly making the source refuse the returning traffic).

Thoughts? Corrections? Clarifications? Yes, I know this is relatively basic stuff. 🙂

  1. there are other forms of routing, such as interface routing, where traffic is simply directed to a local interface, assuming that the destination is part of that interface’s local network; this is most useful for preventing asynchronous routing, but that is outside the scope of this post.

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