Cisco IOS Flexible NetFlow Overview
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Cisco IOS Flexible NetFlow Overview
Last Updated: October 12, 2012
NetFlow is a Cisco IOS technology that provides statistics on packets flowing through the router. NetFlow is the standard for acquiring IP operational data from IP networks. NetFlow provides data to enable network and security monitoring, network planning, traffic analysis, and IP accounting.
Flexible NetFlow improves on original NetFlow by adding the capability to customize the traffic analysis parameters for your specific requirements. Flexible NetFlow facilitates the creation of more complex configurations for traffic analysis and data export through the use of reusable configuration components.
This module provides an overview of Flexible NetFlow and the advanced Flexible NetFlow features and services.
Finding Feature Information
Your software release may not support all the features documented in this module. For the latest caveats and feature information, see Bug Search Tool and the release notes for your platform and software release. To find information about the features documented in this module, and to see a list of the releases in which each feature is supported, see the feature information table at the end of this module.
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Information About Flexible NetFlow
Typical Uses for NetFlow
NetFlow is typically used for several key customer applications, including the following:
Use of Flows in Original NetFlow and Flexible NetFlow
Original NetFlow and Flexible NetFlow both use the concept of flows. A flow is defined as a stream of packets between a given source and a given destination.
Original NetFlow and Flexible NetFlow both use the values in key fields in IP datagrams, such as the IP source or destination address and the source or destination transport protocol port, as the criteria for determining when a new flow must be created in the cache while network traffic is being monitored. When the value of the data in the key field of a datagram is unique with respect to the flows that already exist, a new flow is created.
Original NetFlow and Flexible NetFlow both use nonkey fields as the criteria for identifying fields from which data is captured from the flows. The flows are populated with data that is captured from the values in the nonkey fields.
The figure below is an example of the process for inspecting packets and creating flow records in the cache. In this example, two unique flows are created in the cache because different values are in the source and destination IP address key fields.
Original NetFlow and Flexible NetFlow
Original NetFlow uses a fixed seven tuples of IP information to identify a flow. Flexible NetFlow allows the flow to be user defined. The benefits of Flexible NetFlow include:
Original NetFlow allows you to understand the activities in the network and thus to optimize network design and reduce operational costs. Flexible NetFlow allows you to understand network behavior with more efficiency, with specific flow information tailored for various services used in the network. The following are some example applications for a Flexible NetFlow feature:
The figure below is an example of how Flexible NetFlow might be deployed in a network.
Flexible NetFlow Components
Flexible NetFlow consists of components that can be used together in several variations to perform traffic analysis and data export. The user-defined flow records and the component structure of Flexible NetFlow facilitates the creation of various configurations for traffic analysis and data export on a networking device with a minimum number of configuration commands. Each flow monitor can have a unique combination of flow record, flow exporter, and cache type. If you change a parameter such as the destination IP address for a flow exporter, it is automatically changed for all the flow monitors that use the flow exporter. The same flow monitor can be used in conjunction with different flow samplers to sample the same type of network traffic at different rates on different interfaces. The following sections provide more information on Flexible NetFlow components:
In Flexible NetFlow a combination of key and nonkey fields is called a record . Flexible NetFlow records are assigned to Flexible NetFlow flow monitors to define the cache that is used for storing flow data. Flexible NetFlow includes several predefined records that can help you get started using Flexible NetFlow. To use Flexible NetFlow to its fullest potential, you need to create your own customized records, as described in the following sections:
NetFlow Predefined Records
Flexible NetFlow includes several predefined records that you can use to start monitoring traffic in your network. The predefined records are available to help you quickly deploy Flexible NetFlow and are easier to use than user-defined flow records. You can choose from a list of already defined records that may meet the needs for network monitoring. As Flexible NetFlow evolves, popular user-defined flow records will be made available as predefined records to make them easier to implement.
The predefined records ensure backward compatibility with your existing NetFlow collector configurations for the data that is exported. Each of the predefined records has a unique combination of key and nonkey fields that offer you the built-in ability to monitor various types of traffic in your network without customizing Flexible NetFlow on your router.
Two of the predefined records (NetFlow original and NetFlow IPv4/IPv6 original output), which are functionally equivalent, emulate original (ingress) NetFlow and the Egress NetFlow Accounting feature in original NetFlow, respectively. Some of the other Flexible NetFlow predefined records are based on the aggregation cache schemes available in original NetFlow. The Flexible NetFlow predefined records that are based on the aggregation cache schemes available in original NetFlow do not perform aggregation. Instead each flow is tracked separately by the predefined records.
Flexible NetFlow enables you to define your own records for a Flexible NetFlow flow monitor cache by specifying the key and nonkey fields to customize the data collection to your specific requirements. When you define your own records for a Flexible NetFlow flow monitor cache, they are referred to as user-defined records . The values in nonkey fields are added to flows to provide additional information about the traffic in the flows. A change in the value of a nonkey field does not create a new flow. In most cases the values for nonkey fields are taken from only the first packet in the flow. Flexible NetFlow enables you to capture counter values such as the number of bytes and packets in a flow as nonkey fields.
You can create user-defined records for applications such as QoS and bandwidth monitoring, application and end user traffic profiling, and security monitoring for dDoS attacks. Flexible NetFlow also includes several predefined records that emulate original NetFlow.
Flexible NetFlow user-defined records provide the capability to monitor a contiguous section of a packet of a user-configurable size, and use it in a flow record as a key or a nonkey field along with other fields and attributes of the packet. The section may include any Layer 3 data from the packet.
The packet section fields allow the user to monitor any packet fields that are not covered by the Flexible NetFlow predefined keys. The ability to analyze packet fields that are not collected with the predefined keys enables more detailed traffic monitoring, facilitates the investigation of dDoS attacks, and enables implementation of other security applications such as URL monitoring.
Flexible NetFlow provides predefined types of packet sections of a user-configurable size. The following Flexible NetFlow commands (used in Flexible NetFlow flow record configuration mode) can be used to configure the predefined types of packet sections:
The bytes values are the sizes in bytes of these fields in the flow record. If the corresponding fragment of the packet is smaller than the requested section size, Flexible NetFlow will fill the rest of the section field in the flow record with zeros. If the packet type does not match the requested section type, Flexible NetFlow will fill the entire section field in the flow record with zeros.
Flexible NetFlow adds a new Version 9 export format field type for the header and packet section types. Flexible NetFlow will communicate to the NetFlow collector the configured section sizes in the corresponding Version 9 export template fields. The payload sections will have a corresponding length field that can be used to collect the actual size of the collected section.
Flow monitors are the Flexible NetFlow component that is applied to interfaces to perform network traffic monitoring. Flow monitors consist of a user-defined or predefined record, an optional flow exporter, and a cache that is automatically created at the time the flow monitor is applied to the first interface. Flow data is collected from the network traffic and added to the flow monitor cache during the monitoring process based on the key and nonkey fields in the flow record.
Flexible NetFlow can be used to perform different types of analysis on the same traffic. In the figure below, packet 1 is analyzed using a record designed for standard traffic analysis on the input interface and a record designed for security analysis on the output interface.
The figure below shows a more complex example of how you can apply different types of flow monitors with custom records.
There are three types of flow monitor caches. You change the type of cache used by the flow monitor after you create the flow monitor. The three types of flow monitor caches are described in the following sections:
The default cache type is "normal." In this mode, the entries in the cache are aged out according to the timeout active and timeout inactive settings. When a cache entry is aged out, it is removed from the cache and exported via any exporters configured.
A cache of type "immediate" ages out every record as soon as it is created. As a result, every flow contains just one packet. The commands that display the cache contents will provide a history of the packets seen.
This mode is desirable when you expect only very small flows and you want a minimum amount of latency between seeing a packet and exporting a report.
A cache of type "permanent" never ages out any flows. A permanent cache is useful when the number of flows you expect to see is low and there is a need to keep long-term statistics on the router. For example, if the only key field in the flow record is the 8-bit IP ToS field, only 256 flows can be monitored. To monitor the long-term usage of the IP ToS field in the network traffic, you can use a permanent cache. Permanent caches are useful for billing applications and for an edge-to-edge traffic matrix for a fixed set of flows that are being tracked. Update messages will be sent periodically to any flow exporters configured according to the "timeout update" setting.
Flow exporters export the data in the flow monitor cache to a remote system, such as a server running NetFlow collector, for analysis and storage. Flow exporters are created as separate entities in the configuration. Flow exporters are assigned to flow monitors to provide data export capability for the flow monitors. You can create several flow exporters and assign them to one or more flow monitors to provide several export destinations. You can create one flow exporter and apply it to several flow monitors.
NetFlow Data Export Format Version 9
The basic output of NetFlow is a flow record. Several different formats for flow records have evolved as NetFlow has matured. The most recent evolution of the NetFlow export format is known as Version 9. The distinguishing feature of the NetFlow Version 9 export format is that it is template-based. Templates provide an extensible design to the record format, a feature that should allow future enhancements to NetFlow services without requiring concurrent changes to the basic flow-record format. Using templates provides several key benefits:
The Version 9 export format consists of a packet header followed by one or more template flow or data flow sets. A template flow set provides a description of the fields that will be present in future data flow sets. These data flow sets may occur later within the same export packet or in subsequent export packets. Template flow and data flow sets can be intermingled within a single export packet, as illustrated in the figure below.
NetFlow Version 9 will periodically export the template data so the NetFlow collector will understand what data is to be sent and also export the data flow set for the template. The key advantage to Flexible NetFlow is that the user configures a flow record, which is effectively converted to a Version 9 template and then forwarded to the collector. The figure below is a detailed example of the NetFlow Version 9 export format, including the header, template flow, and data flow sets.
For more information on the Version 9 export format, refer to the white paper titled Cisco IOS NetFlow Version 9 Flow-Record Format, available at this URL: http://www.cisco.com/en/US/tech/tk648/tk362/technologies_white_paper09186a00800a3db9.shtml .
Flow samplers are created as separate components in a router's configuration. Flow samplers are used to reduce the load on the device that is running Flexible NetFlow by limiting the number of packets that are selected for analysis. Samplers use either random or deterministic sampling techniques (modes):
Flow sampling exchanges monitoring accuracy for router performance. When you apply a sampler to a flow monitor, the overhead load on the router of running the flow monitor is reduced because the number of packets that the flow monitor must analyze is reduced. The reduction in the number of packets that are analyzed by the flow monitor causes a corresponding reduction in the accuracy of the information stored in the flow monitor's cache.
Samplers are combined with flow monitors when they are applied to an interface with the ip flow monitor command.
Security Monitoring with Flexible NetFlow
Flexible NetFlow can be used as a network attack detection tool with capabilities to track all parts of the IP header and even packet sections and characterize this information into flows. Security monitoring systems can analyze Flexible NetFlow data, and upon finding an issue in the network, create a virtual bucket or virtual cache that will be configured to track specific information and identify details about the attack pattern or worm propagation. The capability to create caches dynamically with specific information combined with input filtering (for example, filtering all flows to a specific destination) makes Flexible NetFlow a powerful security monitoring tool.
One common type of attack occurs when TCP flags are used to flood open TCP requests to a destination server (for example, a SYN flood attack). The attacking device sends a stream of TCP SYNs to a given destination address but never sends the ACK in response to the servers SYN-ACK as part of the TCP three-way handshake. The flow information needed for a security detection server requires the tracking of three key fields: destination address or subnet, TCP flags, and packet count. The security detection server may be monitoring general Flexible NetFlow information, and this data may trigger a detailed view of this particular attack by the Flexible NetFlow dynamically creating a new flow monitor in the router's configuration. The new flow monitor might include input filtering to limit what traffic is visible in the Flexible NetFlow cache along with the tracking of the specific information to diagnose the TCP-based attack. In this case the user may want to filter all flow information to the server destination address or subnet to limit the amount of information the security detection server needs to evaluate. If the security detection server decided it understood this attack, it might then program another flow monitor to collect and export payload information or sections of packets to take a deeper look at a signature within the packet. This example is just one of many possible ways that Flexible NetFlow can be used to detect security incidents.
Feature Comparison of Original NetFlow and Flexible NetFlow
The table below provides a feature-by-feature comparison of original NetFlow and Flexible NetFlow.
When using Flexible NetFlow to monitor outbound traffic on a router at the edge of an MPLS cloud, for IP traffic that leaves over a VRF, the following fields are not collected and have a value of 0:
Where to Go Next
To implement a basic Flexible NetFlow configuration that emulates original NetFlow traffic analysis and data export, refer to the "Getting Started with Configuring Cisco IOS Flexible NetFlow" module. To implement other Flexible NetFlow configurations, refer to the Where to Go Next.
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