OpenBSD - a secure alternative

By Kurt Seifried, [email protected]


So you want to build a firewall, but aren't quite sure what to use? You might want to consider OpenBSD, an secure offshoot of the BSD family. From the beginning OpenBSD's entire purpose has been to be a secure operating system. In order to achieve this, the OpenBSD founder (Theo de Raadt) started a code audit project, pretty much every single line of code in OpenBSD has been checked, and many problems were found, and fixed. In addition to this OpenBSD is based out of Canada, which allows for the inclusion of strong cryptography software with the OS. One prime example is the planned addition of OpenSSH, based off of SSH 1.2.12, in the next release of OpenBSD (2.7, this winter or so). OpenBSD also has a slightly better network stack then Linux (at least 2.2.x Linux), applications such as Network Flight Recorder, which take large volumes of data off of the network simply do not work well under most operating systems. Many of the commercial IDS systems use OpenBSD as their OS of choice.

Getting started

You can buy OpenBSD on CDROM, and this is probably a good choice for several reasons. One you are getting the OS on trusted media, you can verify the package signatures, and be sure that nothing strange has been done to the software. You also do not need to download OpenBSD, which depending on your network connection can be tricky (I'm lucky, my ISP has a 10 meg peer link to the UofA which hosts Also by buying the OpenBSD CD's you are supporting their effort, which is a nice thing to do. Once you have OpenBSD you can boot off the CD, or create a bootable floppy disk and use this. Simply write the file image "floppy25.fs" onto a floppy disk using dd under Linux/etc:

dd if=floppy25.fs of=/dev/fd0

Or under Windows use "rawrite.exe", or "ntrw.exe" under NT (NT complains loudly if you use rawrite.exe). These are available in the "tools" directory (please see links at the bottom of the page).


I'm going to assume we're installing on an Intel based PC, however OpenBSD supports a variety of architectures such as PowerPC, Alpha and Sparc among others if you want to use something more "exotic". For first time installers I would recommend giving up an entire harddrive to OpenBSD, this simplifies matters considerably. Simply boot off of the CDROM or floppy disk, choose Install, when it asks you which harddrive to use (for example on a machine with one IDE HD it will offer "wd0"), choose your harddrive, and answer "yes" to using the entire drive. You will then be dumped into the label editor, a somewhat traumatic experience if you've never used one before. The portion of the harddrive you want to use with OpenBSD will be in the "c" portion, and within that portion you will create the partitions you want. Minimally you will need one partition for data (/) and one for swap. Use "d" to delete existing portions if you want to clear the HD up a bit, and then create partitions with "a", you should end up with something like:

16 partitions:
#	size	offset	fstype	[fsize	bsize	cpg]
  a:  8200000	    63	4.2BSD	  1024	 8192	  6
  b:   221777    8200063	  swap
  c:  8421840	     0	unused	     0       0

Blocks are measured in 512 byte blocks, not 1024 byte blocks, so if your HD appears twice as large as normal, this is why (my example is a Western Digital Caviar 24300). Then hit q to quit and save changes. You probably don't want to edit the disk labels by hand using ed, so say no, and then yes to "Are you really sure that you're ready to proceed?", at this point the partitions will be formatted.

Configuring the network is a straightforward process, you assign it a hostname and so on, and then configure the individual interfaces. If you want to use dhcp on an interface, you can, or you can set them statically, following this you set the default gateway and nameservers, if one of your interfaces uses dhcp and is assigned this OpenBSD will "suggest" these, making life simple. The next step is to set the root password, the standard "choose a good password" lecture applies here of course.

You then get to choose what to install from, my preferred method is ftp, however you can also install from http, tae, CDROM, NFS or a local harddrive. If you choose ftp you will be asked for a proxy/etc (you don't need to use on of course), and then whether to use active ftp or not (this is nice since many firewalls and ftp servers do strange things). You can as for a list of potential servers, simply choose one "close" to you, of you can use your own server (what I do), and you can then login anonymously or with an account. The install then logs into the FTP server and gets a list of available packages you can install. I would recommend installing misc25.tar.gz, comp25.tar.gz, and man25.tar.gz if this is your first install, the man pages will really help, and the ability to compile software (like ssh, which will be included in 2.6) is nice. I wouldn't bother to install X on a machine destined to be a firewall. After this you will need to set the timezone, and will be asked if the machine is going to run X or not (it doesn't do the X configuration during install). After this it will populate the /dev/ directory, and then dump you to a root prompt. Type in "halt" and hit any key when it tells you to. Don't forget to take the floppy disk and/or CDROM out.


This is something I hated at first, simply because OpenBSD is "different" from what I am used to, but after a few hours I must say it grew on me, and I now wish Linux did things the OpenBSD way. Log in to your machine using the root account, if you do not know how to navigate using sh, or edit files using vi I suggest you check the resources and come back. First you will need to enable IP forwarding, by default OpenBSD will not pass packets between interfaces, which is a good idea for security. Edit the /etc/sysctl.conf file and uncomment the line:

#net.inet.ip.forwarding=1 # 1=Permit forwarding (routing) or packets
net.inet.ip.forwarding=1 # 1=Permit forwarding (routing) or packets

Then edit /etc/rc.conf and turn on IP Filtering and IP NAT.

ipnat=NO		# for "YES" ipfilter must also be "YES"


ipfilter=YES	# ipfiltering?
ipnat=YES		# for "YES" ipfilter must also be "YES"

You will also need to edit the IP filter rules and IP NAT table. For now we will allow any and all data traffic, you can always add rules later. Put the following into /etc/ipf.rules:

pass out from any to any
pass in from any to any

Assuming de0 is your external interface, and is your internal protected network you will want something like this in /etc/ipnat.rules:

map de0 -> de0/32 portmap tcp/udp 10000:20000
map de0 -> de0/32

This means map traffic going through de0 (the external interface) from (the internal network, so obviously this traffic is bound for the Internet) to the IP addresses associated with de0 (you can set this to for example). I prefer to use the interface/netmask because many machines I administer are on DHCP networks, so it takes some guess work out of the equation.

Reboot and you should be able to reach the Internet from your internal protected network. There is more extensive documentation at OpenBSD's website, and the various man pages (man ipnat, man ipf, and so on) also contain good information.

Securing the machine

On a firewall machine you should disable as much as possible. Turning off inetd and portmap (pretty much the only services installed and on by default in OpenBSD) will plug most of your holes. You should then install SSH so that your remote logins are encrypted. To disable inetd and portmap simply edit /etc/rc.conf:

portmap=YES # almost always needed
inetd=YES # almost always needed

And set them to:

portmap=NO # almost always needed
inetd=NO # almost always needed

Doing this will leave no externally available network daemons running, apart from SSH of course. Use "netstat -an" to list open sockets (i.e. the ones in state "LISTEN"). One note, you will see port 514 open, this is the port used by syslog, and unless you change syslog so that it runs in "INSECURE" mode, it will only use this port to SEND messages, it does not listen to it. Do not run syslog in "INSECURE" unless you are using OpenBSD as a remote logging box and are aware of the potential problems.


Since SSH is not yet included with OpenBSD I thought it would be prudent to cover installation of it. Start by getting the ports file (ports.tar.gz) from your favorite OpenBSD site, then unpack it to /usr, and start the SSH compile:

cd /usr
tar -zxf ~/ports.tar.gz
cd ports/security/ssh/
make install

You should of course use "make USA_RESIDENT=NO" if you are not in the US. This is due to the patents on RSA. By default SSH is turned on, if for some reason it isn't simply edit /etc/rc.conf:

sshd=YES # run sshd if it exists

And reboot to ensure everything works. If it doesn't take the typical trouble shooting methods of reading the boot up messages, followed by pinging hosts from other hosts on the same network, then pinging the external interface from an internal host, and so on. Generally speaking most errors will be a typo or something left out, and not "broken" software.


OpenBSD provides a very stable network operating system that is extremely secure. It is the only operating system I have seen that is widely available and includes strong crypto (IPSec, etc.) built into the basic distribution. It's network performance is also ahead of most other systems, especially in the areas of network sniffing (see the Anzen research paper for some startling results). I would highly recommend OpenBSD for firewall and IDS based systems. 


Reference links:


Last updated 15/2/2002

Copyright Kurt Seifried 2002