How FortiOS differentiates sessions when NATing

How FortiOS differentiates sessions when NATing

The basics of NAT are fairly simple. Many private addresses get translated into a smaller number of public addresses, often just one. The trick is how the FortiGate keeps track of the return traffic because the web server, or what ever device that was out on the Internet is going to be sending traffic back not to the private address behind the FortiGate but to the IP address of the interface on the public side of the FortiGate.

The way this is done is by making each session unique. Most of the attributes that are available in the network packets cannot be changed without changing where the packet will go but because the source port has to be changed anyway in case two computer on the network used the same source port this is a useful way of making each listing of network attributes a unique combination. As a packet goes through the NAT process FortiOS assigns different source ports for each of the internally initiated sessions and keeping track of which port was used for each device in a database until the session has ended. It then becomes a matter of how the port number is selected.

In a very simple example of an environment using NAT, we will use a fictitious university with a rather large student population. So large in fact that they use a subnet of 10.0.0.0/8 as their subnet for workstation IP addresses. All of these private IP addresses are NATed out a single IP address. To keep the number of numeric values in this example from getting to a confusing level, we’ll just us “u.u.u.1” to refer to the public IP address of the University and the IP address of the web server on the Internet will be “w.w.w.1”.

Student A (IP address 10.1.1.56) sends an HTML request to a web server on the Internet with the IP address w.w.w.1. The applicable networking information in the packet breaks down as follows:

Attribute Original Packet   Packet after NATing
Source IP address or src-ip 10.1.1.56   u.u.u.1
Attribute Original Packet Packet after NATing
Destination IP address or dst-ip: w.w.w.1 w.w.w.1
Source port or src-port: 10000 46372
Destination port or dst-port 80 80

The source IP address is now that of the public facing interface of the FortiGate and source port number is an unused TCP port number on the FortiGate chosen by the FortiGate. Of these variable the only one the that FortiGate can really change and still have the packet reach the correct destination, in both directions, is the source port number.

There are a few methods of assigning the port number. First we’ll look at the methods that are or have been used in the industry but aren’t used by Fortinet.

Global pool

This method of differentiation focuses on the attribute of the source port number. In this approach a single pool of potential port numbers is set aside for the purposes of NAT. As a pool number is assigned, it is removed from the pool so that two sessions from different computers can not using the same port number. Once the session is over and no longer in use by the computer, the port number is put back into the pool where it can be assigned again.

Example global pool:

  Hexidecimal Decimal
Start or range 0x7000 28672
End end of range 0xF000 61440
Possible ports in range 215 32768

This is a simple approach to implement and is good if the number of connections in unlike to reach the pool size. It would be okay for home use, but our example is for a university using 10.1.1.0/8 as a subnet. That means 16,777,214 possible IP addresses; more than this method can handle.

Fortinet does not use this method.

Global per protocol

This method uses the attributes source port number and type of protocol to differentiate between sessions.This approach is a variation of the first one. An additional piece of information is refered to in the packet that describes the protocol. For instance UDP or TCP. This could effectively double the number of potential addresses to NAT.

Example:

Here are two possible packets that would be considered different by the FortiGate so that any responses from the web server would make it back to their correct original sender.

From Student A

Attribute Original Packet Packet after NATing
Source IP address or src-ip 10.1.1.56 u.u.u.1
Destination IP address or dst-ip: w.w.w.1 w.w.w.1
Protocol tcp tcp
Source port or src-port: 10000 46372
Destination port or dst-port 80 80

From Student B

Attribute Original Packet Packet after NATing
Source IP address or src-ip 10.5.1.233 u.u.u.1
Destination IP address or dst-ip: w.w.w.1 w.w.w.1
Protocol udp udp
Source port or src-port: 26785 46372
Destination port or dst-port 80 80

Even though the source port is the same, because the protocol is different they are considered to be from different sessions and different computers.

The drawback is that it would depend on the protocols being used be evenly distributed between TCP and UDP.

Even if this was the case the number would only double; reaching an upper limit of 65,536 possible connections. That number is still far short of the possible more than 16 million for an IP subnet with an eight bit subnet mask like the one in our example.

Fortinet does not use this method.

Per NAT IP Pool

This approach adds on to the previous one by adding another variable. In this case that variable is the IP addresses on the public side of the FortiGate. By having a pool of IP addresses to assign as the source IP address when NATing, the same number that was potentially available for the Global per protocol method can be multiplied by the number of external IP addresses in the pool. If you can assign a second IP address to the pool, you can double the potential number of sessions.

Example:

In this example it will be assumed that the FortiGate has 2 IP addresses that it can use. This could happen either by using two ISPs, or by having a pool of IP addresses assigned to a single interface. For simplicity will will refer to these IP public IP addresses as u.u.u.1 and u.u.u.2.

Here are two possible packets that would be considered different by the FortiGate so that any responses from the web server would make it back to their correct original sender.

From Student A

Attribute Original Packet Packet after NATing
Source IP address or src-ip 10.1.1.56 u.u.u.1
Destination IP address or dst-ip: w.w.w.1 w.w.w.1
Protocol tcp tcp
Source port or src-port: 10000 46372
Destination port or dst-port 80 80

From Student B

Attribute Original Packet Packet after NATing
Source IP address or src-ip 10.5.1.233 u.u.u.2
Destination IP address or dst-ip: w.w.w.1 w.w.w.1
Protocol tcp tcp
Source port or src-port: 26785 46372
Destination port or dst-port 80 80

In this example we even made the protocl the same. After the NATing process all of the variables are the same except the sourse addresss. This is still going to make it bake to the original sender.

The drawback is that if you have only one IP address for the purposes of NATing this method does not gain you anything over the last method. Or if you do have multiple IP addresses to use it will still take quite a few to reach the 16 million possible that the subnet is capable of handling.

Fortinet does not use this method.

Per NAT IP, destination IP, port, and protocol

This is the approach that FortiOS uses.

It uses all of the differentiation point of the previous methods, NAT IP, port number and protocol, but the additonal information point of the destination IP is also used. So now the network information points in the packet that the FortiGate keeps in its database to differentiate between sessions is:

l Public IP address of the FortiGate assigned by NATing l Protocol of the traffic l Source port assigned by the FortiGate l Destination IP address of the packet

The last one is an especially good way to differentiate because as a theortical number, the upper limit on that is the numbers of Public IP addresses on the whole of the Internet. Chances are that while a large number of session from inside the University will be going to a small group of sites such as Google, Youtube, Facebook and some others it is unlikely that they will all be going to them at the same time.

Example:

In this example it will be assumed that the FortiGate has only one IP address.Two possible packets will be described. The only difference in the attributes recorded will be the destination of the HTML request.These packets are still considered to be from differnt sessions and any responses will make it back to the correct computer.

From Student A

Attribute Original Packet Packet after NATing
Source IP address or src-ip 10.1.1.56 u.u.u.1
Destination IP address or dst-ip: w.w.w.1 w.w.w.1
Protocol tcp tcp
Source port or src-port: 10000 46372
Destination port or dst-port 80 80

From Student B

Attribute Original Packet Packet after NATing
Source IP address or src-ip 10.5.1.233 u.u.u.1
Destination IP address or dst-ip: w.w.w.2 w.w.w.2
Protocol tcp tcp
Source port or src-port: 26785 46372
Destination port or dst-port 80 80

The reason that these attributes are used to determine defferentiation between traffic is based on how the indexes for the sessions are recorded in the database. When a TCP connection is made through a FortiGate unit, a session is created and two indexes are created for the session. The FortiGate unit uses these indexes to guide matching traffic to the session.

This following could be the session record for the TCP connection in the first example.

Attribute Outgoing Traffic Returning Traffic
Source IP address 10.78.33.97 (internal address) w.w.w.1
Destination address w.w.w.1 u.u.u.1
Protocol tcp tcp
Source port 10000 (from original computer)

46372 (assigned by NAT)

80
Destination port 80 46372 (FortiGate assigned port)

Using the FortiGate’s approach for session differentiation, FortiOS only has to ensure that the assigned port, along with the other four attributes is a unique combination to identify the session. So for example, if Student A simultaneously makes a HTTP(port 80) connection and a HTTPS(port 443) connection the same web server this would create another session and the index in the reply direction would be:

Attribute Outgoing Traffic Returning Traffic
Source IP address 10.78.33.97 (internal address) w.w.w.1
Destination address w.w.w.1 u.u.u.1
Protocol tcp tcp
Source port 10000 (from original computer)

46372 (assigned by NAT)

443
Destination port 443 46372 (FortiGate assigned port)

These two sessions are different and acceptable because of the different source port numbers on the returning traffic or the destination port depending on the direction of the traffic.

Calculations for possible session numbers

The result of using these four attributes instead of just the one that was originally used is a large increase in the number of possible unique combinations.For those who love math, the maximum number of simultaneous connections that can be supported is:

N x R x P x D x Dp where:

  • N is the number of NAT IP addresses
  • R is the port range,

 

IP Pools

  • P is the number of protocols, l D is the number of unique destination IP addresses l Dp the number of unique destination ports. As a rough example let’s do some basic calculations l N – In our existing example we have already stated that there is only one public IP address that is being used by NAT. Realistically, for a university this number would likely be larger, but we’re keeping it simple.

N = 1

R – The port range for our example has already been describe and we will keep it the same.

R = 32768

P – While there are a few protocols that are involved in Internet traffic we will limit this calculation just to TCP traffic.

P = 1

D – As mentioned before the number of unique destination addresses is growing larger every day,so figureing out the upper limit of that numbe would be difficult to say the least. Instead we will make the assumption that most of the university students, do to their shared interest and similar demographic will concentrate most of their web browsing to the same sites; sites such as YouTube, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Wikipedia etc. This is not even taking into account the fact that many of these popular sites use load balancing and multiple IP addresses. As an arbatrary number let’s use the number 25.

D = 25

Dp – To keep things simple it is tempting to limit the destiation port to port 80, the one that many associate with web browsing, but this would not be realistic. the use of HTTPS, port 443 is on the rise. There is also email, DNS, FTP, NTP and a number of other background services that we use without thinking too closely about. Let’s keep it small and say ten of them.

Dp = 10

The math on this very conservative calculation is:

1 x 32768 x 1 x 25 x 10 = 8,192,000 possible NAT sessions

When you take into account that the chances of everybody being online at the same time, going only to one of those 25 sites and not millions of others, and using only TCP not UDP or any of the other protocols, it starts to look like this method may provide enough potential unique sessions even for a subnet as large as the one described.


Having trouble configuring your Fortinet hardware or have some questions you need answered? Ask your questions in the comments below!!! Want someone else to deal with it for you? Get some consulting from Fortinet GURU!

One thought on “How FortiOS differentiates sessions when NATing

  1. Last time I worked on a Cisco ASA it was something like a 4,000 max limit, 8,000,000 is amazing!

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