Julia Evans

IP addresses & routing

Hello! Tomorrow I’m running a workshop at work about the humble IP address, so here are some notes about IP addresses and how IP routing on Linux works!

This came up because someone on my team pointed out that there’s actually a LOT going on with IP addresses even though it seems like a simple concept, and they said they’d like to learn more. Here goes!

This post is only about IPv4 because I’ve still never used IPv6.

What’s in the IP header?

Almost every packet your computer sends and receives (with some exceptions like ARP packets) has an IP header.

There are 14 fields in the IP header. The only 3 important ones for most people to know about are:

One thing you’ll notice isn’t in the IP header is a port! The TCP and UDP protocols both have ports, but that lives at a different network layer. (and is why TCP port 8080 and UDP port 8080 are different ports, and can run different services!)

There’s also a ‘protocol’ field that tells you the protocol (like TCP/UDP).

What’s a subnet?

IP addresses are often grouped into subnets. The main useful thing to know about subnets is to understand CIDR notation – means “all the packets that have the same first 8 bits as the packet”. In this case that would be 168.*.*.*, or any packet beginning in 168 (since each of the 4 numbers in an IP address is 8 bits).

When I create a packet on my computer, what happens to it?

Suppose you create a packet with IP address on it. Where does it go? It turns out that this isn’t a super simple question – there are at least 3 possible systems that can affect your packet

System 1: The route table

The most likely system to affect your new packet destined to is the route table. On Linux, you can view your route table with ip route list table all. Here’s what the route table on my laptop looks like:

$ ip route list table all
default via dev wlp3s0  proto static  metric 600 dev docker0  scope link  metric 1000 linkdown dev docker0  proto kernel  scope link  src linkdown dev wlp3s0  proto kernel  scope link  src  metric 600 
broadcast dev lo  table local  proto kernel  scope link  src 
local dev lo  table local  proto kernel  scope host  src 

Each of these routes has:

  • a subnet (,, etc)
  • a network device (my wireless card wlp3s0, the virtual loopback device lo, the virtual docker device docker0, etc)
  • possibly something like via which means “send all packets like this to IP’s MAC address, which happens to be Julia’s router”
  • a bunch of other stuff which I don’t understand that well (metric 600, scope link, proto kernel, etc). Not understanding what those things mean hasn’t hurt me yet.

The main things to pay attention to are the subnet and the network device. So dev wlp3s0 means “send packets in the range to the wlp3s0 network device. That’s not so complicated!

It’s useful to know a little bit about your Linux computer route table if you’re doing container networking, because with containers you’ll end up with one or more virtual network devices (like docker0) that packets will end up being sent to.

That’s it for the route table!

System 2: iptables

Having read the above, you might think that the way packets get routed is:

  1. they come into your computer
  2. Linux looks at the route table and decides which network device to send to the packet to
  3. That’s it

That’s often true, but not always!! There are a bunch of secret in between steps (“prerouting”, “output”, “postrouting”) where Linux says “hey, iptables, want to make changes to this packet here?“. When this happens, iptables can change the source or destination IP address on the packet to be something different.

The two main things I’ve used this for are DNAT (“destination NAT”) and SNAT (“source NAT”)

destination NAT

Let’s start with destination NAT! One place this shows up is in this program called kube2iam. kube2iam is this program that you run on your host that pretends to be the AWS metadata endpoint ( Why you might want this isn’t important right now, but – how can kube2iam pretend to be this other IP address? That would mean that we need to magically redirect those packets somehow? How?

It turns out that forcing packets destined for to go somewhere else is totally possible! Here’s the iptables rule that they suggest using:

iptables \
  --append PREROUTING \
  --protocol tcp \
  --destination \
  --dport 80 \
  --in-interface docker0 \
  --jump DNAT \
  --table nat \
  --to-destination $YOUR_IP_ADDRESS:8181

Usually iptables rules make me want to hide under the couch but in the last year I’ve become a little less afraid of them. Here’s what’s going on with this one:

  • it only applies to tcp packets to port 80 that came from the docker0 interface (--protocol tcp, --dport 80, --destination, --in-interface docker0)
  • it happens at the PREROUTING stage (before the packet gets assigned a network interface)
  • it (--jump DNAT, --table nat, --to-destination $YOUR_IP_ADDRESS:8181)

What’s this DNAT thing? Basically what this means is that Linux won’t just rewrite packets to to go to $LOCAL_IP:8081, it’ll also modify the reply packets from $LOCAL_IP:8081 to make them appear as if they came from So from the perspective of the application receiving the reply, it has no idea that it’s not talking to the IP Lies!!!

To make all this work, Linux needs to keep track of connection state and remember “hey, this reply packet is part of this DNATed connection so I need to rewrite it”

Phew. Hopefully that made any sense.

source NAT

Source NAT is like destination NAT, except instead of rewriting destination IP address, it rewrites source IP addresses!

The place I’ve used source NAT before is also for container stuff – if you have a bunch of containers with weird virtual container IP addresses sending packets to the outside world, you can’t just let them use those IP addresses!! The outside world (like google) has no idea about your container IPs and will not be able to reply to those packets. So you need to pretend that they come from your host.

If this is you, you probably want an iptables rule something like this on your host:

iptables -t nat -A POSTROUTING -o eth0 -j MASQUERADE

MASQUERADE is a confusing way of saying “use source NAT and pretend the packet is coming from this host’s IP address”. What this rule does is rewrite the source IP address on every packet to pretend to be from the host’s IP.

System 3: IPsec

I’m not going to go into this much (I wrote about IPsec the other day), but a third way packets can end up going to weird places is if you’re using IPsec. You can see what’s going on there with the ip xfrm command. It turns out xfrm stands for “transform”.

some notes on AWS networking

A lot of these concepts (a route table, NAT, IPSec) have their AWS networking analogs in Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) – much like you can control how packets get routed when they arrive on your Linux computer, you can use these AWS tools to control what happens when you send packets from an instance in a VPC. I looked at the VPC FAQ today and it’s pretty good.

here are some very rough mappings

  • route table: VPC route table, which controls how packets are routed in your VPC
  • iptables/source NAT: NAT gateway or Internet Gateway. If you have an AWS instance with no public IP address, you need to use source NAT (for the same reasons as we talked about before with containers) to talk to the public internet. The way this works in AWS is you set up a NAT gateway/internet gateway which will rewrite your packets for you.
  • IPsec: VPC peering. This isn’t really the same thing (peering connections are only encrypted for cross-region traffic), but it does give you a way to set up private connections between two different VPCs and I think it’s useful in some of the same scenarios.

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