Transparent Firewalls

Architectural Overview

As discussed in Chapter 9, "Security Contexts," Cisco ASA can be deployed in either single or multiple mode. A transparent firewall can coexist with these modes to provide a great deal of flexibility for network deployments. This section discusses these modes in detail.

Single-Mode Transparent Firewall

In a single-mode transparent firewall (SMTF), the ASA acts as a secured bridge that switches traffic from one interface to another. You do not configure IP addresses on either the inside or the outside interface. Rather, you must specify a global IP address that is primarily used for management purposesTelnet and Secure Shell (SSH). The transparent firewall also uses the management IP address when it needs to source packets such as ARP requests.

This is the simplest form of configuration because it does not require configuration of security contexts, static or dynamic routes, or address translation. All that is needed is to set up the ACLs and inspection rules to determine what traffic is allowed. The next section talks about how a packet flows through an SMTF.

Packet Flow in an SMTF

Figure 10-3 shows SecureMe's office in Sydney, where the company has recently installed a Cisco ASA firewall in transparent mode. The network administrator in Sydney is curious to know how traffic traverses the ASA so that he can better implement network security. Therefore, he is monitoring the traffic sourced from Host A that is destined to www.cisco.com.

Figure 10-3. Packet Flow in an SMTF

For a successful connection, the ASA follows these steps:

Step 1.

ARP resolution Because the Cisco website is located in a different subnet from Host A's network, Host A needs to perform Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) to determine its default gateway, For the ARP process through an ASA, there are four possible cases that we will discuss.

Case 1: Host A and ASA do not have gateway's MAC address

For ARP resolution, Host A sends out an ARP broadcast request, shown as Step 1a. The ASA, after receiving this broadcast, performs two operations:

  1. It populates the Layer 2 forwarding (L2F) table with the source MAC address and the originating interface information.
  2. It forwards the broadcast to all the interfaces except the originating interface.
Upon receipt of this ARP request, the default gateway replies with a unicast ARP response packet, shown as Step 1b. The security appliance, once again, does two things:
  1. It forwards the response packet to Host A.
  2. It inserts the MAC address of the default gateway router into its L2F table along with the interface information on which the default gateway is located.
Case 2: Host A has gateway's MAC address but ASA does not

If, for some reason, the Cisco ASA does not learn the MAC address of the default gateway (either it aged out or someone manually cleared it), it goes through the process of learning the destination MAC address. Hence, when Host A sends a packet to its default gateway, the Cisco ASA drops the packet and generates an ICMP request packet with TTL (time to live) set to 1. It sets the destination MAC address of the default gateway, which is learned from the packet sent by Host A. The security appliance sends the packet on all interfaces. If a response is received on an interface, the security appliance updates its L2F table accordingly.

Case 3: Host A does not have gateway's MAC address, but ASA does

When Host A needs to resolve a gateway's MAC address, it sends out an ARP broadcast. The Cisco ASA treats this case similarly to Case 1. If there is a discrepancy in what the Cisco ASA learns and in what is already in the L2F table, the ASA updates its table with the new information.

Case 4: Host A and ASA have MAC address resolution

If both devices know about the MAC address of the default gateway, they do not need to update either the ARP or the L2F table. As such, they do not participate in any address resolution process.


For non-IP traffic, such as an Internetwork Packet Exchange (IPX) packet, there is no concept of ARP or ICMP to resolve destination MAC addresses. In this case, when the ASA receives a non-IP packet and it does not find an entry in its L2F table, it drops the packet and does not participate in resolution.

Step 2.

Inbound ACL checking Once Host A knows about the MAC address of its default gateway, it sends out a SYN packet to the web server to initiate a three-way TCP handshake. When the packet enters the inside interface of the security appliance, the packet is checked for uauth (user authentication) and an inbound ACL. If the packet is allowed in, a connection entry is created by verifying it against the inspection rules and TCP checks. It is then forwarded to the bridging engine, where the L2F table is used to determine the correct outbound interface (outside interface, in this case).

Step 3.

Outbound ACL checking After bridging the packet to the outside interface, the packet is then checked against the outbound interface ACL before transmitting it on the wire. If the packet is denied, it is dropped and a log entry is created in case the log keyword is specified in the ACL. The security appliance deletes the connection entry for this session if the packet is denied. If the packet is allowed, it is forwarded to the interface drivers for transmission.

Step 4.

The web server replies with a SYN-ACK, the ASA allows the packet to pass because the connection had already been created.

Step 5.

The packet is bridged to Host A after checking it against the outbound ACL on the inside interface. Finally, Host A and the web server complete the TCP three-way handshake and initiate data transmission.

As you can see from this packet flow, the security appliance applies security policies regardless of the firewall mode.

Multimode Transparent Firewall

In a multimode transparent firewall (MMTF), the ASA acts in a similar fashion to how it acts in single mode, with one major exception: packets are handled in different contexts. Because each context acts and behaves as an independent entity, you must configure an IP address in each context for administration and management purposes.

Packet Flow in an MMTF

Figure 10-4 illustrates SecureMe's topology for its Sydney office. SecureMe has recently acquired a small startup company (Site 2) in the same office building and is now responsible for providing the network services to the office. The new company currently uses an IP subnet of, and SecureMe wants to transparently add a firewall to inspect the Internet traffic destined to www.cisco.com.

Figure 10-4. Packet Flow in an MMTF

The following steps briefly talk about packet flow in an MMTF, as illustrated in Figure 10-4:

Step 1.

ARP resolution The process to resolve the default gateway's IP address is the same as discussed in the previous section. Host B sends a broadcast if it does not know the MAC address of its gateway. The ASA receives that packet on its GigabitEthernet0/3(G0/3) interface, which belongs to the "Site 2" context. The ASA forwards this request to its outside interface. Because the default gateway ( is also on the same context, it sends a unicast reply to Host B. The ASA updates its L2F table once the reply packet traverses through it.

Step 2.

Inbound ACL checking Once the MAC address is known, Host B sends out the first packet to initiate the TCP three-way handshake. When the packet enters the inside interface of the security appliance, it is checked for uauth (user authentication) and an inbound ACL. If the packet is allowed in, a connection entry is created by verifying it against the inspection rules and TCP checks. These connection entries are segregated in each context and are used to forward the return packet to the correct destination.

Step 3.

Outbound ACL checking The packet is switched to the outside interface, where it is then checked against the outbound ACL. If the packet is allowed to leave the ASA, it is sent to the next hop router located in the same context. The packet is then routed out to the Cisco website.

Step 4.

The web server sends a reply packet back to Host B.

Step 5.

The ASA inspects this reply packet against the connection entry and, because an entry already exists, forwards the packet to Host B.


You cannot use shared interfaces between the contexts in an MMTF.

Part I: Product Overview

Introduction to Network Security

Product History

Hardware Overview

Part II: Firewall Solution

Initial Setup and System Maintenance

Network Access Control

IP Routing

Authentication, Authorization, and Accounting (AAA)

Application Inspection

Security Contexts

Transparent Firewalls

Failover and Redundancy

Quality of Service

Part III: Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) Solution

Intrusion Prevention System Integration

Configuring and Troubleshooting Cisco IPS Software via CLI

Part IV: Virtual Private Network (VPN) Solution

Site-to-Site IPSec VPNs

Remote Access VPN

Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)

Part V: Adaptive Security Device Manager

Introduction to ASDM

Firewall Management Using ASDM

IPS Management Using ASDM

VPN Management Using ASDM

Case Studies

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Cisco Asa(c) All-in-one Firewall, IPS, And VPN Adaptive Security Appliance
Cisco ASA: All-in-One Firewall, IPS, and VPN Adaptive Security Appliance
ISBN: 1587052091
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2006
Pages: 231
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