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Setting up port redirects in Linux with ncat

Learn how ncat is an essential power tool for debugging and other network activities in Linux.
ncat port redirection

As you know from my previous two articles, Linux troubleshooting: Setting up a TCP listener with ncat and The ncat command is a problematic security tool for Linux sysadminsnetcat is a command that is both your best friend and your worst enemy. And this article further perpetuates this fact with a look into how ncat delivers a useful, but potentially dangerous, option for creating a port redirection link. I show you how to set up a port or site forwarding link so that you can perform maintenance on a site while still serving customers.

The scenario

You need to perform maintenance on an Apache installation on server1, but you don't want the service to appear offline for your customers, which in this scenario are internal corporate users of the labor portal that records hours worked for your remote users. Rather than notifying them that the portal will be offline for six to eight hours, you've decided to create a forwarding service to another system, server2, while you take care of server1's needs.

This method is an easy way of keeping a specific service alive without tinkering with DNS or corporate firewall NAT settings.

Server1: Port 8088

Server2: Port 80

The steps

To set up this site/service forward, you need to satisfy the following prerequisites:

  1. ncat-nmap package (should be installed by default)
  2. A functional duplicate of the server1 portal on server2
  3. Root or sudo access to servers 1 and 2 for firewall changes

If you've cleared these hurdles, it's time to make this change happen.

The implementation

Configuring ncat in this way makes use of named pipes, which is an efficient way to create this two-way communication link by writing to and reading from a file in your home directory. There are multiple ways to do this, but I'm going to use the one that works best for this type of port forwarding.

Create the named pipe

Creating the named pipe is easy using the mkfifo command.

$ mkfifo svr1_to_svr2

$ file svr1_to_svr2
svr1_to_svr2: fifo (named pipe)

I used the file command to demonstrate that the file is there and it is a named pipe. This command is not required for the service to work. I named the file svr1_to_svr2, but you can use any name you want. I chose this name because I'm forwarding from server1 to server2.

Create the forward service

Formally, this was called setting up a Listener-to-Client relay, but it makes a little more sense if you think of this in firewall terms, hence my "forward" name and description.

$ ncat -k -l 8088 < svr1_to_svr2 | ncat 80 > svr1_to_svr2 &

Issuing this command drops you back to your prompt because you put the service into the background with the &. As you can see, the named pipe and the service are both created as a standard user. I discussed the reasons for this restriction in my previous article, The ncat command is a problematic security tool for Linux sysadmins.

Command breakdown

The first part of the command, ncat -k -l 8088, sets up the listener for connections that ordinarily would be answered by the Apache service on server1. That service is offline, so you create a listener to answer those requests. The -k option is the keep-alive feature, meaning that it can serve multiple requests. The -l is the listen option. Port 8088 is the port you want to mimic, which is that of the customer portal.

The second part, to the right of the pipe operator (|), accepts and relays the requests to on port 80. The named pipe (svr1_to_svr2) handles the data in and out.

The usage

Now that you have your relay set up, it's easy to use. Point your browser to the original host and customer portal, which is http://server1:8088. This automatically redirects your browser to server2 on port 80. Your browser still displays the original URL and port.

I have found that too many repetitive requests can cause this service to fail with a broken pipe message on server1. This doesn't always kill the service, but it can. My suggestion is to set up a script to check for the forward command, and if it doesn't exist, restart it. You can't check for the existence of the svr1_to_svr2 file because it always exists. Remember, you created it with the mkfifo command.

The caveat

The downside of this ncat capability is that a user could forward traffic to their own duplicate site and gather usernames and passwords. The malicious actor would have to kill the current port listener/web service to make this work, but it's possible to do this even without root access. Sysadmins have to maintain vigilance through monitoring and alerting to avoid this type of security loophole.

The wrap up

The ncat command has so many uses that it requires one article per feature to describe each one. This article introduced you to the concept of Listener-to-Client relay, or service forwarding, as I call it. It's useful for short maintenance periods but should not be used for permanent redirects. For those, you should edit DNS and corporate firewall NAT rules to send requests to their new destinations. You should remind yourself to turn off any ncat listeners when you're finished with them as they do open a system to compromise. Never create these services with the root user account.

[ Make managing your network easier than ever with Network automation for everyone, a free book from Red Hat. ]

Topics:   Linux   Networking   Security  
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Ken Hess

Ken has used Red Hat Linux since 1996 and has written ebooks, whitepapers, actual books, thousands of exam review questions, and hundreds of articles on open source and other topics. Ken also has 20+ years of experience as an enterprise sysadmin with Unix, Linux, Windows, and Virtualization. More about me

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