OpenBSD PF - Network Address Translation [Contents]


Network Address Translation (NAT) is a way to map an entire network (or networks) to a single IP address. It is necessary, for example, when the number of IP addresses assigned to a customer by an internet service provider is less than the total number of computers in that household that need internet access. NAT is described in RFC 1631.

NAT allows an administrator to take advantage of the reserved address blocks described in RFC 1918. Typically, the internal network will be set up to use one or more of these network blocks:       ( -    ( -   ( -
An OpenBSD system doing NAT will have at least two network interfaces: one to the internet and the other for the internal network. NAT will be translating requests from the internal network so they appear to all be coming from the OpenBSD NAT system.

How NAT Works

When a client on the internal network contacts a machine on the internet, it sends out IP packets destined for that machine. These packets contain all the addressing information necessary to get them to their destination. NAT is concerned with these pieces of information: source IP address and source TCP or UDP port.

When the packets pass through the NAT gateway, they will be modified so that they appear to be coming from the NAT gateway itself. The NAT gateway will record the changes it makes in its state table so that it can reverse the changes on return packets and ensure that return packets are passed through the firewall and are not blocked. For example, the following changes might be made:

Neither the internal machine nor the internet host is aware of these translation steps. To the internal machine, the NAT system is simply an internet gateway. To the internet host, the packets appear to come directly from the NAT system. It is completely unaware that the internal workstation even exists.

When the internet host replies to the internal machine's packets, they will be addressed to the NAT gateway's external IP at the translation port. The NAT gateway will then search the state table to determine if the reply packets match an already established connection. A unique match will be found based on the IP/port combination which tells PF the packets belong to a connection initiated by the internal machine. PF will then make the opposite changes it made to the outgoing packets and forward the reply packets on to the internal machine.

Translation of ICMP packets happens in a similar fashion but without the source port modification.

IP Forwarding

Since NAT is almost always used on routers and network gateways, it will probably be necessary to enable IP forwarding so that packets can travel between network interfaces on the OpenBSD machine. IP forwarding is enabled using the sysctl(2) mechanism:
# sysctl net.inet.ip.forwarding=1
# echo  'net.inet.ip.forwarding=1' >> /etc/sysctl.conf
Or, for IPv6:
# sysctl net.inet6.ip6.forwarding=1
# echo  'net.inet6.ip6.forwarding=1' >> /etc/sysctl.conf

Configuring NAT

NAT is specified as an optional nat-to parameter to an outbound pass rule. Often, rather than being set directly on the pass rule, a match rule is used. When a packet is selected by a match rule, parameters (e.g. nat-to) in that rule are remembered and are applied to the packet when a pass rule matching the packet is reached. This permits a whole class of packets to be handled by a single match rule and then specific decisions on whether to allow the traffic can be made with block and pass rules.

The general format in pf.conf looks something like this:

match out on interface [af] \
   from src_addr to dst_addr \
   nat-to ext_addr [pool_type] [static-port]
pass out [log] on interface [af] [proto protocol] \
   from ext_addr [port src_port] \
   to dst_addr [port dst_port]
When a packet traverses the ruleset and matches a match rule, any optional parameters specified in that rule are remembered for future use (made "sticky").

This rule allows the packet to be transmitted. If the packet was previously matched by a match rule where parameters were specified, they will be applied to this packet. pass rules may have their own parameters; these take priority over parameters specified in a match rule.

Specifies the direction of packet flow where this rule applies. nat-to may only be specified for outbound packets.

Log matching packets via pflogd(8). Normally, only the first packet that matches will be logged. To log all matching packets, use log (all).

The name or group of the network interface to transmit packets on.

The address family, either inet for IPv4 or inet6 for IPv6. PF is usually able to determine this parameter based on the source/destination address(es).

The protocol (e.g. tcp, udp, icmp) of packets to allow. If src_port or dst_port is specified, the protocol must also be given.

The source (internal) address of packets that will be translated. The source address can be specified as:

The source port in the Layer 4 packet header. Ports can be specified as: The port option is not usually used in nat rules because the goal is usually to NAT all traffic regardless of the port(s) being used.
The destination address of packets to be translated. The destination address is specified in the same way as the source address.

The destination port in the Layer 4 packet header. This port is specified in the same way as the source port.

The external (translation) address on the NAT gateway that packets will be translated to. The external address can be specified as:
Specifies the type of address pool to use for translation.

Tells PF not to translate the source port in TCP and UDP packets.

This would lead to a most basic form of these lines similar to this:

match out on tl0 from to any nat-to
pass on tl0 from to any
Or the following may be used:
pass out on tl0 from to any nat-to
This rule says to perform NAT on the tl0 interface for any packets coming from and to replace the source IP address with

While the above rule is correct, it is not recommended form. Maintenance could be difficult as any change of the external or internal network numbers would require the line be changed. Compare instead with this easier to maintain line (tl0 is external, dc0 internal):

pass out on tl0 inet from dc0:network to any nat-to tl0
The advantage should be fairly clear: the IP addresses of either interface can be changed without changing this rule. Note that inet should be specified in this case to ensure that only IPv4 addresses are used, avoiding unexpected surprises.

When specifying an interface name for the translation address as above, the IP address is determined at pf.conf load time, not on the fly. If DHCP is being used to configure the external interface, this can be a problem. If the assigned IP address changes, NAT will continue translating outgoing packets using the old IP address. This will cause outgoing connections to stop functioning. To get around this, PF can automatically update the translation address by putting parentheses around the interface name:

pass out on tl0 inet from dc0:network to any nat-to (tl0)
This method works for translation to both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses.

Bidirectional Mapping (1:1 Mapping)

A bidirectional mapping can be established by using the binat-to parameter. A binat-to rule establishes a one-to-one mapping between an internal IP address and an external address. This can be useful, for example, to provide a web server on the internal network with its own external IP address. Connections from the internet to the external address will be translated to the internal address and connections from the web server (such as DNS requests) will be translated to the external address. TCP and UDP ports are never modified with binat-to rules as they are with nat rules.


web_serv_int = ""
web_serv_ext = ""

pass on tl0 from $web_serv_int to any binat-to $web_serv_ext

Translation Rule Exceptions

If exceptions to NAT rules need to be provided in some cases, make sure the exceptions are handled by a filter rule which does not include the nat-to parameter. For example, if the NAT example above was modified to look like this:
pass out on tl0 from to any nat-to
pass out on tl0 from  to any
Then the entire network would have its packets translated to the external address except for

Checking NAT Status

To view the active NAT translations, pfctl(8) is used with the -s state option. This option will list all the current NAT sessions:
# pfctl -s state
fxp0 tcp ( -> TIME_WAIT:TIME_WAIT
fxp0 udp ( ->   MULTIPLE:SINGLE
Explanations (first line only):
Indicates the interface that the state is bound to. The word self will appear if the state is floating.

The protocol being used by the connection.
The IP address ( of the machine on the internal network. The source port (2132) is shown after the address. This is also the address that is replaced in the IP header.
The IP address ( and port (53136) on the gateway that packets are being translated to.
The IP address ( and the port (22) that the internal machine is connecting to.

This indicates what state PF believes the TCP connection to be in.