4.2. The conntrack entries

Let's take a brief look at a conntrack entry and how to read them in /proc/net/ip_conntrack. This gives a list of all the current entries in your conntrack database. If you have the ip_conntrack module loaded, a cat of /proc/net/ip_conntrack might look like:

tcp      6 117 SYN_SENT src= dst= sport=32775 \
     dport=22 [UNREPLIED] src= dst= sport=22 \
     dport=32775 use=2

This example contains all the information that the conntrack module maintains to know which state a specific connection is in. First of all, we have a protocol, which in this case is tcp. Next, the same value in normal decimal coding. After this, we see how long this conntrack entry has to live. This value is set to 117 seconds right now and is decremented regularly until we see more traffic. This value is then reset to the default value for the specific state that it is in at that relevant point of time. Next comes the actual state that this entry is in at the present point of time. In the above mentioned case we are looking at a packet that is in the SYN_SENT state. The internal value of a connection is slightly different from the ones used externally with iptables. The value SYN_SENT tells us that we are looking at a connection that has only seen a TCP SYN packet in one direction. Next, we see the source IP address, destination IP address, source port and destination port. At this point we see a specific keyword that tells us that we have seen no return traffic for this connection. Lastly, we see what we expect of return packets. The information details the source IP address and destination IP address (which are both inverted, since the packet is to be directed back to us). The same thing goes for the source port and destination port of the connection. These are the values that should be of any interest to us.

The connection tracking entries may take on a series of different values, all specified in the conntrack headers available in linux/include/netfilter-ipv4/ip_conntrack*.h files. These values are dependent on which sub-protocol of IP we use. TCP, UDP or ICMP protocols take specific default values as specified in linux/include/netfilter-ipv4/ip_conntrack.h. We will look closer at this when we look at each of the protocols; however, we will not use them extensively through this chapter, since they are not used outside of the conntrack internals. Also, depending on how this state changes, the default value of the time until the connection is destroyed will also change.


Recently there was a new patch made available in iptables patch-o-matic, called tcp-window-tracking. This patch adds, among other things, all of the above timeouts to special sysctl variables, which means that they can be changed on the fly, while the system is still running. Hence, this makes it unnecessary to recompile the kernel every time you want to change the timeouts.

These can be altered via using specific system calls available in the /proc/sys/net/ipv4/netfilter directory. You should in particular look at the /proc/sys/net/ipv4/netfilter/ip_ct_* variables.

When a connection has seen traffic in both directions, the conntrack entry will erase the [UNREPLIED] flag, and then reset it. The entry tells us that the connection has not seen any traffic in both directions, will be replaced by the [ASSURED] flag, to be found close to the end of the entry. The [ASSURED] flag tells us that this connection is assured and that it will not be erased if we reach the maximum possible tracked connections. Thus, connections marked as [ASSURED] will not be erased, contrary to the non assured connections (those not marked as [ASSURED]). How many connections that the connection tracking table can hold depends upon a variable that can be set through the ip-sysctl functions in recent kernels. The default value held by this entry varies heavily depending on how much memory you have. On 128 MB of RAM you will get 8192 possible entries, and at 256 MB of RAM, you will get 16376 entries. You can read and set your settings through the /proc/sys/net/ipv4/ip_conntrack_max setting.