// Tutorial //

How To Forward Ports through a Linux Gateway with Iptables

Published on August 20, 2015 · Updated on March 10, 2022
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By Justin Ellingwood
Developer and author at DigitalOcean.
How To Forward Ports through a Linux Gateway with Iptables

Introduction

NAT, or network address translation, is a general term for mangling packets in order to redirect them to an alternative address. Usually, this is used to allow traffic to transcend network boundaries. A host that implements NAT typically has access to two or more networks and is configured to route traffic between them.

Port forwarding is the process of forwarding requests for a specific port to another host, network, or port. As this process modifies the destination of the packet in-flight, it is considered a type of NAT operation.

In this tutorial, we’ll demonstrate how to use iptables to forward ports to hosts behind a firewall by using NAT techniques. This is useful if you’ve configured a private network, but still want to allow certain traffic inside through a designated gateway machine.

Prerequisites

To follow along with this guide, you will need:

  • Two Ubuntu 20.04 servers setup in the same datacenter with private networking enabled. On each of these machines, you will need to set up a non-root user account with sudo privileges. You can learn how to do this with our guide on Ubuntu 20.04 initial server setup guide. Make sure to skip Step 4 of this guide since we will be setting up and configuring the firewall during this tutorial.
  • On one of your servers, set up a firewall template with iptables so it can function as your firewall server. You can do this by following our guide on How To Implement a Basic Firewall with Iptables on Ubuntu 20.04. Once completed, your firewall server should have the following ready to use:
    • iptables-persistent installed
    • Saved the default rule set into /etc/iptables/rules.v4
    • An understanding of how to add or adjust rules by editing the rule file or by using the iptables command

The server in which you set up your firewall template will serve as the firewall and router for your private network. For demonstration purposes, the second host will be configured with a web server that is only accessible using its private interface. You’ll be configuring the firewall machine to forward requests received on its public interface to the web server, which it will reach on its private interface.

Host Details

Before you begin, you need to know what interfaces and addresses are being used by both of your servers.

Finding Your Network Details

To get the details of your own systems, begin by finding your network interfaces. You can find the interfaces on your machines and the addresses associated with them by running the following:

  1. ip -4 addr show scope global
Sample Output
2: eth0: <BROADCAST,MULTICAST,UP,LOWER_UP> mtu 1500 qdisc pfifo_fast state UP group default qlen 1000 inet 203.0.113.1/18 brd 45.55.191.255 scope global eth0 valid_lft forever preferred_lft forever 3: eth1: <BROADCAST,MULTICAST,UP,LOWER_UP> mtu 1500 qdisc pfifo_fast state UP group default qlen 1000 inet 10.0.0.1/16 brd 10.132.255.255 scope global eth1 valid_lft forever preferred_lft forever

The highlighted output shows two interfaces (eth0 and eth1) and the addresses assigned to each (203.0.113.1 and 10.0.0.1 respectively). To find out which of these interfaces is your public interface, run this command:

  1. ip route show | grep default
Output
default via 111.111.111.111 dev eth0

The interface information from this output (eth0 in this example) will be the interface connected to your default gateway. This is almost certainly your public interface.

Find these values on each of your machines and use them to follow along with the rest of this guide.

Sample Data Used in this Guide

To make things clearer, we’ll be using the following empty address and interface assignments throughout this tutorial. Please substitute your own values for the ones listed in the following:

Web server network details:

  • Public IP Address: 203.0.113.1
  • Private IP Address: 10.0.0.1
  • Public Interface: eth0
  • Private Interface: eth1

Firewall network details:

  • Public IP Address: 203.0.113.2
  • Private IP Address: 10.0.0.2
  • Public Interface: eth0
  • Private Interface: eth1

Setting Up the Web Server

Begin connecting to your web server host and by logging in with your sudo user.

Installing Nginx

The first step is to install Nginx on your web server host and lock it down so that it only listens to its private interface. This will ensure that your web server will only be available if you correctly set up port forwarding.

Begin by updating the local package cache:

  1. sudo apt update

Next, use apt to download and install the software:

  1. sudo apt install nginx

Restricting Nginx to the Private Network

After Nginx is installed, open up the default server block configuration file to ensure that it only listens to the private interface. Open the file using your preferred text editor. Here we’ll use nano:

  1. sudo nano /etc/nginx/sites-enabled/default

Inside, find the listen directive. It should be listed twice in a row towards the top of the configuration:

/etc/nginx/sites-enabled/default
server {
    listen 80 default_server;
    listen [::]:80 default_server ipv6only=on;

    . . .
}

At the first listen directive, add your web server’s private IP address and a colon before the 80 to tell Nginx to only listen on the private interface. We’re only demonstrating IPv4 forwarding in this guide, so you can remove the second listen directive, which is configured for IPv6.

Next, modify the listen directives as follows:

/etc/nginx/sites-enabled/default
server {
    listen 10.0.0.1:80 default_server;

    . . .
}

Save and close the file when you are finished. If you used nano, you can do this by pressing CTRL + X, then Y, and ENTER.

Now test the file for syntax errors:

  1. sudo nginx -t
Output
nginx: the configuration file /etc/nginx/nginx.conf syntax is ok nginx: configuration file /etc/nginx/nginx.conf test is successful

If there are no errors in the output, restart Nginx to enable the new configuration:

  1. sudo systemctl restart nginx

Verifying the Network Restriction

At this point, it’s useful to verify the level of access you have to your web server.

From your firewall server, try to access your web server from the private interface with the following command:

  1. curl --connect-timeout 5 10.0.0.1

If successful, your output will result in the following message:

Output
<!DOCTYPE html> <html> <head> <title>Welcome to nginx!</title> <style> body { width: 35em; margin: 0 auto; font-family: Tahoma, Verdana, Arial, sans-serif; } </style> </head> <body> <h1>Welcome to nginx!</h1> . . .

If you try to use the public interface, you’ll receive a message that says it cannot connect:

  1. curl --connect-timeout 5 203.0.113.1
Output
curl: (7) Failed to connect to 203.0.113.1 port 80: Connection refused

These results are expected.

Configuring the Firewall to Forward Port 80

Now you will work on implementing port forwarding on your firewall machine.

Enabling Forwarding in the Kernel

The first thing you need to do is enable traffic forwarding at the kernel level. By default, most systems have forwarding turned off.

To turn port forwarding on for this session only, run the following:

  1. echo 1 | sudo tee /proc/sys/net/ipv4/ip_forward
Output
1

To turn port forwarding on permanently, you will have to edit the /etc/sysctl.conf file. You can do this by opening the file with sudo privileges:

  1. sudo nano /etc/sysctl.conf

Inside the file, find and uncomment the line that reads as follows:

/etc/sysctl.conf
net.ipv4.ip_forward=1

Save and close the file when you are finished.

Then apply the settings in this file. First run the following command:

  1. sudo sysctl -p
Output
net.ipv4.ip_forward = 1

Then run the same command, but replace the -p flag with--system:

  1. sudo sysctl --system
Output
. . . * Applying /usr/lib/sysctl.d/50-pid-max.conf ... kernel.pid_max = 4194304 * Applying /etc/sysctl.d/99-cloudimg-ipv6.conf ... net.ipv6.conf.all.use_tempaddr = 0 net.ipv6.conf.default.use_tempaddr = 0 * Applying /etc/sysctl.d/99-sysctl.conf ... net.ipv4.ip_forward = 1 * Applying /usr/lib/sysctl.d/protect-links.conf ... fs.protected_fifos = 1 fs.protected_hardlinks = 1 fs.protected_regular = 2 fs.protected_symlinks = 1 * Applying /etc/sysctl.conf ... net.ipv4.ip_forward = 1

Adding Forwarding Rules to the Basic Firewall

Next, you will configure your firewall so that traffic flowing into your public interface (eth0) on port 80 will be forwarded to your private interface (eth1).

The firewall you configured in the prerequisite tutorial has your FORWARD chain set to DROP traffic by default. You need to add rules that will allow you to forward connections to your web server. For security’s sake, you’ll lock this down fairly tightly so that only the connections you wish to forward are allowed.

In the FORWARD chain, you’ll accept new connections destined for port 80 that are coming from your public interface and traveling to your private interface. New connections are identified by the conntrack extension and will specifically be represented by a TCP SYN packet as in the following:

  1. sudo iptables -A FORWARD -i eth0 -o eth1 -p tcp --syn --dport 80 -m conntrack --ctstate NEW -j ACCEPT

This will let the first packet, meant to establish a connection, through the firewall. You’ll also need to allow any subsequent traffic in both directions that results from that connection. To allow ESTABLISHED and RELATED traffic between your public and private interfaces, run the following commands. First for your public interface:

  1. sudo iptables -A FORWARD -i eth0 -o eth1 -m conntrack --ctstate ESTABLISHED,RELATED -j ACCEPT

Then for your private interface:

  1. sudo iptables -A FORWARD -i eth1 -o eth0 -m conntrack --ctstate ESTABLISHED,RELATED -j ACCEPT

Double check that your policy on the FORWARD chain is set to DROP:

  1. sudo iptables -P FORWARD DROP

At this point, you’ve allowed certain traffic between your public and private interfaces to proceed through your firewall. However, you haven’t configured the rules that will actually tell iptables how to translate and direct the traffic.

Adding the NAT Rules to Direct Packets Correctly

Next, you will add the rules that will tell iptables how to route your traffic. You need to perform two separate operations in order for iptables to correctly alter the packets so that clients can communicate with the web server.

The first operation, called DNAT, will take place in the PREROUTING chain of the nat table. DNAT is an operation that alters a packet’s destination address in order to enable it to correctly route as it passes between networks. The clients on the public network will be connecting to your firewall server and will have no knowledge of your private network topology. Therefore, you need to alter the destination address of each packet so that when it is sent out on your private network, it knows how to correctly reach your web server.

Since you’re only configuring port forwarding and not performing NAT on every packet that hits your firewall, you’ll want to match port 80 on your rule. You will match packets aimed at port 80 to your web server’s private IP address (10.0.0.1 in the following example):

  1. sudo iptables -t nat -A PREROUTING -i eth0 -p tcp --dport 80 -j DNAT --to-destination 10.0.0.1

This process takes care of half of the picture. The packet should get routed correctly to your web server. However, right now, the packet will still have the client’s original address as the source address. The server will attempt to send the reply directly to that address, which will make it impossible to establish a legitimate TCP connection.

On DigitalOcean, packets leaving a Droplet with a different source address will actually be dropped by the hypervisor, so your packets at this stage will never even make it to the web server (which will be fixed by implementing SNAT momentarily). This is an anti-spoofing measure put in place to prevent attacks where large amounts of data are requested to be sent to a victim’s computer by faking the source address in the request. To learn more, read this response in our community.

To configure proper routing, you also need to modify the packet’s source address as it leaves the firewall en route to the web server. You need to modify the source address to your firewall server’s private IP address (10.0.0.2 in the following example). The reply will then be sent back to the firewall, which can then forward it back to the client as expected.

To enable this functionality, add a rule to the POSTROUTING chain of the nat table, which is evaluated right before packets are sent out on the network. You’ll match the packets destined for your web server by IP address and port:

  1. sudo iptables -t nat -A POSTROUTING -o eth1 -p tcp --dport 80 -d 10.0.0.1 -j SNAT --to-source 10.0.0.2

Once this rule is in place, your web server should be accessible by pointing your web browser at your firewall machine’s public address:

  1. curl 203.0.113.2
Output
<!DOCTYPE html> <html> <head> <title>Welcome to nginx!</title> <style> body { width: 35em; margin: 0 auto; font-family: Tahoma, Verdana, Arial, sans-serif; } </style> </head> <body> <h1>Welcome to nginx!</h1> . . .

Your port forwarding setup is now complete.

Adjusting the Permanent Rule Set

Now that you have set up port forwarding, you can save this to your permanent rule set.

If you do not care about losing the comments that are in your current rule set, use the netfilter-persistent command to use the iptables service and save your rules:

  1. sudo service netfilter-persistent save
Output
* Saving netfilter rules... run-parts: executing /usr/share/netfilter-persistent/plugins.d/15-ip4tables save run-parts: executing /usr/share/netfilter-persistent/plugins.d/25-ip6tables save [ OK ]

If you would like to keep the comments in your file, open it up and edit manually:

  1. sudo nano /etc/iptables/rules.v4

You will need to adjust the configuration in the filter table for the FORWARD chain rules that were added. You will also need to adjust the section which configures the nat table so that you can add your PREROUTING and POSTROUTING rules. The contents will resemble the following:

/etc/iptables/rules.v4
*filter
# Allow all outgoing, but drop incoming and forwarding packets by default
:INPUT DROP [0:0]
:FORWARD DROP [0:0]
:OUTPUT ACCEPT [0:0]

# Custom per-protocol chains
:UDP - [0:0]
:TCP - [0:0]
:ICMP - [0:0]

# Acceptable UDP traffic

# Acceptable TCP traffic
-A TCP -p tcp --dport 22 -j ACCEPT

# Acceptable ICMP traffic

# Boilerplate acceptance policy
-A INPUT -m conntrack --ctstate ESTABLISHED,RELATED -j ACCEPT
-A INPUT -i lo -j ACCEPT

# Drop invalid packets
-A INPUT -m conntrack --ctstate INVALID -j DROP

# Pass traffic to protocol-specific chains
## Only allow new connections (established and related should already be handled)
## For TCP, additionally only allow new SYN packets since that is the only valid
## method for establishing a new TCP connection
-A INPUT -p udp -m conntrack --ctstate NEW -j UDP
-A INPUT -p tcp --syn -m conntrack --ctstate NEW -j TCP
-A INPUT -p icmp -m conntrack --ctstate NEW -j ICMP

# Reject anything that's fallen through to this point
## Try to be protocol-specific w/ rejection message
-A INPUT -p udp -j REJECT --reject-with icmp-port-unreachable
-A INPUT -p tcp -j REJECT --reject-with tcp-reset
-A INPUT -j REJECT --reject-with icmp-proto-unreachable

# Rules to forward port 80 to our web server

# Web server network details:

# * Public IP Address: 203.0.113.1
# * Private IP Address: 10.0.0.1
# * Public Interface: eth0
# * Private Interface: eth1
# 
# Firewall network details:
# 
# * Public IP Address: 203.0.113.2
# * Private IP Address: 10.0.0.2
# * Public Interface: eth0
# * Private Interface: eth1
-A FORWARD -i eth0 -o eth1 -p tcp --syn --dport 80 -m conntrack --ctstate NEW -j ACCEPT
-A FORWARD -i eth0 -o eth1 -m conntrack --ctstate ESTABLISHED,RELATED -j ACCEPT
-A FORWARD -i eth1 -o eth0 -m conntrack --ctstate ESTABLISHED,RELATED -j ACCEPT
# End of Forward filtering rules

# Commit the changes

COMMIT

*raw
:PREROUTING ACCEPT [0:0]
:OUTPUT ACCEPT [0:0]
COMMIT

*nat
:PREROUTING ACCEPT [0:0]
:INPUT ACCEPT [0:0]
:OUTPUT ACCEPT [0:0]
:POSTROUTING ACCEPT [0:0]

# Rules to translate requests for port 80 of the public interface
# so that we can forward correctly to the web server using the
# private interface.

# Web server network details:

# * Public IP Address: 203.0.113.1
# * Private IP Address: 10.0.0.1
# * Public Interface: eth0
# * Private Interface: eth1
# 
# Firewall network details:
# 
# * Public IP Address: 203.0.113.2
# * Private IP Address: 10.0.0.2
# * Public Interface: eth0
# * Private Interface: eth1
-A PREROUTING -i eth0 -p tcp --dport 80 -j DNAT --to-destination 10.0.0.1
-A POSTROUTING -d 10.0.0.1 -o eth1 -p tcp --dport 80 -j SNAT --to-source 10.0.0.2
# End of NAT translations for web server traffic
COMMIT

*security
:INPUT ACCEPT [0:0]
:FORWARD ACCEPT [0:0]
:OUTPUT ACCEPT [0:0]
COMMIT

*mangle
:PREROUTING ACCEPT [0:0]
:INPUT ACCEPT [0:0]
:FORWARD ACCEPT [0:0]
:OUTPUT ACCEPT [0:0]
:POSTROUTING ACCEPT [0:0]
COMMIT

Save and close the file once you’ve added the content and adjusted the values to reflect your own network environment.

Next, test the syntax of your rules file:

  1. sudo sh -c "iptables-restore -t < /etc/iptables/rules.v4"

If no errors are detected, load the rule set:

  1. sudo service netfilter-persistent reload
Output
* Loading netfilter rules... run-parts: executing /usr/share/netfilter-persistent/plugins.d/15-ip4tables start run-parts: executing /usr/share/netfilter-persistent/plugins.d/25-ip6tables start [ OK ]

Now test that your web server is still accessible through your firewall’s public IP address:

  1. curl 203.0.113.2

This should work the same as it did before.

Conclusion

By now, you should be comfortable with forwarding ports on a Linux server with iptables. The process involves permitting forwarding at the kernel level, setting up access to allow forwarding of the specific port’s traffic between two interfaces on the firewall system, and configuring the NAT rules so that the packets can be routed correctly. This may seem like an unwieldy process, but it also demonstrates the flexibility of the netfilter packet filtering framework and the iptables firewall. This can be used to disguise your private network’s topology while permitting service traffic to flow freely through your gateway firewall machine.


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Dear Justin,

You change the client ip address to the internal ip address of the firewall which is 192.0.2.15 with the following command:

sudo iptables -t nat -A POSTROUTING -o eth1 -p tcp --dport 80 -d 192.0.2.2 -j SNAT --to-source 192.0.2.15

My question, how can the packet be returned back to the client, since the destination ip address only reach the internal ip address of the firewall? I think the above command does not necessary, as long as the web server has a proper gateway. thanks.

Wow, incredibly helpful tutorial. Thanks so much!

How do I find the private IP of my firewall?

Perfect tutorial! Thanks!

Brilliant!!

This post save my life!!

After the forwarding port, How can I get network usage on the forwarded port(in this tutorial 80)? Is it possible with iptables? I try it : sudo iptables -A FORWARD -p tcp --dport 80 -j DROP, sudo iptables -A FORWARD -p tcp --dport 80 -m quota --quota 100000 -j ACCEPT, but it doesnt work.

Thanks for the guide, it did work for me. However, my gateway is also doing IP masquerading/NAT and after applying these rules, I lose all egress from the web server.

If I have two virtual external NIC in my firewal with two IP @, I want to forward each one to a server on port 80 How I can do this

Is this same rule for allow rtp port to asterisk server?

Nice blog. Thanks for putting this up.

I was facing traffic issues in AWS environment having one private subnet, and another subnet connected through VPN to my company network. The packets were not being sent in either direction even after setting ip_forward=1 and all the iptables rules mentioned in this blog.

One thing I realized I had to do was to set the private IP of NAT server as default router in my web server. Just thought of mentioning this - in case someone faces similar problems in future.