Ubuntu 20.04 Firewall Basics

A firewall is a vital component in protecting an individual computer system or network of computers from external attack (typically from an internet connection). Any computer connected directly to an internet connection should ideally run a firewall to protect against malicious activity. Similarly, any internal network must have some form of firewall between it and an external internet connection.

Ubuntu is supplied with powerful firewall technology known as iptables built-in. Entire books can, and indeed have, been written about configuring iptables. If you would like to learn about iptables we recommend:


The goal of this chapter is to cover some of the basic concepts of firewalls, TCP/IP ports and services. The configuration of a firewall on an Ubuntu system will be covered in “Using gufw and ufw to Configure an Ubuntu Firewall”. For more complex firewall requirements, a detailed overview of the firewalld firewall will be covered in the chapter entitled “Basic Ubuntu Firewall Configuration with firewalld”.

1.1  Understanding Ports and Services

The predominant network communications protocol in use these days is TCP/IP. It is the protocol used by the internet and as such has swept away most of the formerly popular protocols used for local area networks (LANs).

TCP/IP defines a total of 65,535 ports of which 1023 are considered to be well known ports. It is important to understand that these are not physical ports into which network cables are connected, but rather virtual ports on each network connection which can be used by applications and services to communicate over a TCP/IP network connection. In reality the number of ports that are used by popular network clients and services comprises an even smaller subset of the well known group of ports.

There are a number of different TCP/IP services that can be provided by an operating system. A comprehensive list of such services is provided in the table at the end of this chapter, but such services include HTTPS for running a secure web server, FTP for allowing file transfers, SSH for providing secure remote login access and file transfer and SMTP for the transport of email messages. Each service is, in turn, assigned to a standard TCP/IP port. For example, HTTPS is assigned to port 443 while SSH communication takes place on port 22.

1.2  Securing Ports and Services

A large part of securing servers involves defining roles, and based on the roles, defining which services and ports should be enabled. For example, a server that is to act solely as a web server should only run the HTTPS service (in addition to perhaps SSH for remote administration access). All other services should be disabled and, ideally, removed entirely from the operating system (thereby making it harder for an intruder to re-enable the service).

Securing a system involves both removing any unnecessary services from the operating system and ensuring that the ports associated with the non-essential services are blocked using a firewall. The rules that define which ports are accessible and under what circumstances are defined using iptables.

Many operating systems are installed with a number of services installed and activated by default. Before installing a new operating system it is essential that the installation be carefully planned. This involves deciding which services are not required and identifying which services have been installed and enabled by default. Deployment of new operating system installations should never be rushed. The fewer services and open ports available on a system the smaller the surface area and opportunities for attackers.

1.3  Ubuntu Services and iptables Rules

By default, a newly installed Ubuntu system does not have any iptables rules defined to restrict access to ports. To view the current iptables settings, the following command may be executed in a terminal window:

# iptables -L
Chain INPUT (policy ACCEPT)
target     prot opt source               destination         
Chain FORWARD (policy ACCEPT)
target     prot opt source               destination         
Chain OUTPUT (policy ACCEPT)
target     prot opt source               destination

As illustrated in the above output, no rules are currently defined. Whilst this may appear to be an unsafe configuration it is important to keep in mind that a newly installed Ubuntu system also has few services running by default, making the ports essentially useless to a potential attacker. It is not possible, for example, to remotely log into a newly installed Ubuntu system or access a web server for the simple reason that neither the ssh nor web server services are installed or running by default. Once services begin to be activated on the system, however, it will be important to begin to establish a firewall strategy by defining iptables rules.

A number of methods are available for defining iptables rules, including the use of command line tools and configuration files. For example, to block access to port 25 (used by the SMTP mail transfer protocol) from IP address, the following command could be issued in a terminal window:

# iptables -L
Chain INPUT (policy ACCEPT)
target     prot opt source               destination         
DROP       tcp  --         anywhere             tcp dpt:smtp
Chain FORWARD (policy ACCEPT)
target     prot opt source               destination         
Chain OUTPUT (policy ACCEPT)
target     prot opt source               destination

The rule may subsequently be removed as follows:

# iptables -D INPUT -s -p tcp --destination-port 25 -j DROP

Given the complexity of iptables it is not surprising that a number of user friendly graphical configuration tools have been created to ease the rule creation process. One such tool is the Uncomplicated Firewall with its ufw command-line tool and graphical equivalent (gufw) which will be covered in the chapter entitled “Using gufw and ufw to Configure an Ubuntu Firewall”. For more advanced firewall configurations, firewalld will be covered in “Basic Ubuntu Firewall Configuration with firewalld”.

1.4  Well Known Ports and Services

Before moving on to cover more complex firewall rules, it is first worth taking time to outline some of the key services that can be provided by an Ubuntu system, together with the corresponding port numbers:

20FTPFile Transfer Protocol (Data) – The File Transfer protocol provides a mechanism for transferring specific files between network connected computer systems. Transfer is typically performed using the ftp client. Most modern web browsers also have the ability to browse and download files located on a remote FTP server. FTP uses TCP (rather than UDP) to transfer files so is considered to be a highly reliable transport mechanism. FTP does not encrypt data and is not considered to be a secure file transfer protocol. The use of Secure Copy Protocol (SCP) and Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) is strongly recommended in place of FTP.
21FTPFile Transfer (Control) – Traditionally FTP has two ports assigned (port 20 and port 21). Port 20 was originally considered the data transfer port, while port 21 was assigned to communicate control information. In modern implementations port 20 is now rarely used, with all communication taking place on port 21.
22SSHSecure Shell – The Secure Shell is used to provide a secure, encrypted, remote logon session to a remote host over a TCP/IP network. The original mechanism for remote access was the Telnet protocol. Because Telnet transmits data in plain text its use is now strongly discouraged in favor of the secure shell, which encrypts all communications, including log-in and password credentials. SSH also provides the mechanism by which files can be securely transferred using the Secure Copy Protocol (SCP), and is also the basis for the Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP). SSH also replaces both the rsh and rlogin clients.
23TelnetTelnet – Telnet is a terminal emulation protocol that provides the ability to log into a remote system over a TCP/IP connection. The access is text based allowing the user to type into a command prompt on the remote host and text displayed by the remote host is displayed on the local Telnet client. Telnet encrypts neither the password nor the text communicated between the client and server. As such, the use of telnet is strongly discouraged. Most modern systems will have port 23 closed and the telnet service disabled to prevent its use. SSH should be used in place of Telnet.
25SMTPSimple Mail Transfer Protocol – SMTP defines the mechanism by which email messages are sent from one network host to another. SMTP is a very simple protocol and requires that the mail service always be available at the receiving host. Typically the receiving host will store incoming messages in a spool for subsequent access by the recipient using the POP3 or IMAP protocols. SMTP uses the TCP transport protocol to ensure error free message delivery.
53DNSDomain Name Server – The service used by TCP/IP networks to translate host names and Fully Qualified Domain Names (FQDN) to IP addresses.
69TFTPTrivial File Transfer Protocol – TFTP is a stripped down version of the File Transfer Protocol (FTP). It has a reduced command-set and lacks authentication. The most significant feature of TFTP is that it uses UDP to transfer data. This results in extremely fast transfer speeds but, consequently, lacks data reliability. TFTP is typically used in network based booting for diskless workstations.
80HTTPHypertext Text Transfer Protocol – HTTP is the protocol used to download text, graphics and multimedia from a web server and to a web browser. Essentially it defines the command and control mechanism between the browser and server defining client requests and server responses. HTTP is based on the TCP transport protocol and, as such, is a connection-oriented protocol.
110POP3Post Office Protocol – The POP3 protocol is a mechanism for storage and retrieval of incoming email messages from a server. In most corporate environments incoming email is stored on an email server and then downloaded to an email client running on the user’s desktop or laptop when the user checks email. POP3 downloads all new messages to the client, and does not provide the user the option of choosing which messages to download, view headers, or download only parts of messages. It is for this reason the IMAP protocol is increasingly being used in place of POP3.
119NNTPNetwork News Transfer Protocol – The protocol responsible for posting and retrieving messages to and from Usenet News Servers (i.e. newsgroups and discussion forums hosted on remote servers). NNTP operates at the Application layer of the OSI stack and uses TCP to ensure error free message retrieval and transmission.
123NTPNetwork Time Protocol – A protocol designed to synchronize computer clocks with an external time source. Using this protocol an operating system or application can request the current time from a remote NTP server. The remote NTP server is usually based on the time provided by a nuclear clock. NTP is useful for ensuring that all systems in a network are set to the same, accurate time of day. This is of particular importance in security situations when, for example, the time a file was accessed or modified on a client or server is in question.
143IMAP4Internet Message Access Protocol, Version 4 – IMAP4 is an advanced and secure email retrieval protocol. IMAP is similar to POP3 in that it provides a mechanism for users to access email messages stored on an email server, although IMAP includes many additional features such as the ability to selectively download messages, view message headers, search messages and download part of a message. IMAP4 uses authentication and fully supports Kerberos authentication.
161SNMPSimple Network Management Protocol – Provides a mechanism whereby network administrators are able to collect information about the devices (such as hubs, bridges, routers and switches) on a network. The SNMP protocol enables agents running on network devices to communicate their status to a central manager and, in turn, enables the manager to send new configuration parameters to the device agent. The agents can further be configured to notify the manager when certain events, known as traps, occur. SNMP uses UDP to send and receive data.
443HTTPSHypertext Transfer Protocol Secure – The standard HTTP (non-secure) protocol transfers data in clear text (i.e. with no encryption and visible to anyone who might intercept the traffic). Whilst this is acceptable for most web browsing purposes it poses a serious security risk when confidential information such as credit card details need to be transmitted from the browser to the web server. HTTPS addresses this by using the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) to send encrypted data between the client and server.
 2049NFSNetwork File System – Originally developed by Sun Microsystems and subsequently widely adopted throughout the industry, NFS allows a file system on a remote system to be accessed over the network by another system as if the file system were on a local disk drive. NFS is widely used on UNIX and LINUX based systems. Later versions of Microsoft Windows possess the ability to also access NFS shared file systems on UNIX and LINUX based systems.

1.5  Summary

A newly install Ubuntu system is generally considered to be secure due to the absence of any services running on the system ports. Once the system begins to be configured for use, however, it is important to ensure that it is protected from attack through the implementation of a firewall. When configuring firewalls, it is important to have an understanding of the various ports and the corresponding services.

A number of firewall options are available, the most basic being command-line configuration of the iptables firewall interface. More intuitive and advanced options are available via the Uncomplicated Firewall (ufw) and firewalld, both of which will be covered in the chapters that follow.