15.5 Some Last Comments on NFS

Here are a few final pieces of advice about making NFS as secure as possible.

15.5.1 Well-Known Bugs

NFS depends on NIS or NIS+ on many machines. Both NFS and NIS implementations have had some well-known implementation flaws and bugs in recent years. Not only are these flaws well-known, but there are also a number of hacker toolboxes available that include programs to take advantage of these flaws. Therefore, if you are running NFS, you should be certain that you are up to date on vendor patches and bug fixes. In particular:

  • Make sure that your version of the RPC portmapper does not allow proxy requests and that your own system is not in the export list for a partition. Otherwise, a faked packet sent to your RPC system can be made to fool your NFS system into acting as if the packet was valid and came from your own machine.

  • Make sure that your NFS uses either Secure RPC or examines the full 32 bits of the UIDs that are passed in. Some early versions of NFS examined only the least significant 16 bits of the passed-in UID for some tests, so accesses could be crafted that would function as root accesses instead of being mapped to nobody.

  • Make sure that your version of NFS does not allow remote users to issue mknod commands on partitions they import from your servers. A user creating a new /dev/kmem file on your partition has made a big first step towards a complete compromise of your system.

  • Make sure that your NFS does the correct thing when someone does a cd . in the top level of an directory imported from your server. Some older versions of NFS would return a file handle to the server's real parent directory instead of the parent to the client's mount point. Because NFS doesn't know how you get file handles, and it applies permissions on whole partitions rather than mount points, this process could lead to your server's security being compromised.

    In particular, when a server would export a subdirectory as the root partition for a diskless workstation, a user on the workstation could do cd /; cd .., and instead of getting the root directory again, he would have access to the parent directory on the server! Further compounding this scenario, the export of the partition needed to be done with root= access. As a result, clients would have unrestricted access to the server's disks!

    Admittedly, this was fixed a long time ago, in Version 2 of NFS. However, we have repeatedly seen mistakes reappear in reimplementations and ports to new platforms. By documenting this problem, perhaps we can help keep it from appearing again.

  • Make sure that your server parses the export option list correctly. Some past NFS implementations did not implement access control correctly. In particular, in these implementations, if you specify access= with either the rw= or root= option on the same line, the system sometimes forgot the access= specification and exported the partition without host restriction.

15.5.2 For Real Security, Don't Use NFS

NFS and other distributed filesystems provide some wonderful functions. They are also a source of continuing headaches. You should consider whether you really need all the flexibility and power of NFS and distributed systems. By reexamining your fundamental assumptions, you may find that you can reconfigure your systems to avoid NFS problems completely?by eliminating NFS.

Let's look at the reasons that organizations typically feel that they need NFS:

Software synchronization

One reason that is often given for having NFS is to easily keep software in sync on many machines at once. However, that argument was more valid before the days of high-speed local networks and cheap disks. You might be better served by equipping each workstation in your enterprise with a 20 GB or 40 GB disk, with a complete copy of all of your applications residing on each machine. You can use a facility such as rdist or rsync over SSH to make necessary updates. Not only will this configuration give you better security, but it will also provide better fault tolerance: if the server or network goes down, each system has everything necessary to continue operation. This configuration also facilitates system customization.

Home account access

A second argument for network filesystems is that they allow users to access their home accounts with greater ease, no matter which machine they use. But while this may make sense in a university's student lab, most employees almost always use the same machine, so there is no reason to access multiple machines as if they were equivalent.

Network filesystems are sometimes used to share large databases from multiple points. But network filesystems are a poor choice for this application because locking the database and synchronizing updates is usually more difficult than sharing a single machine using remote logins. In fact, with the X Window System, opening a window on a central database machine is convenient and often as fast as (or faster than) accessing the data via a network filesystem. Alternatively, you can use a database server with client programs that are run locally.


The argument is also made that sharing filesystems over the network results in lower cost. In point of fact, such a configuration may be more expensive than the alternatives. For instance, putting high-resolution color X display terminals on each desktop and connecting them with a 100 MB switched Ethernet to a multiprocessor server equipped with RAID disk may be more cost-effective, provide better security, give better performance, and use less electricity. The result may be a system that is cheaper to buy, operate, and maintain. The only loss is the cachet of equipping each user with a top-of-the-line workstation on their desktops when all they really need is access to a keyboard, mouse, and fast display.


Ironically, the only argument for network filesystems may be security?provided that you manage your system carefully. Today, most X terminals have no support for encryption.[18] On client-/server-based systems that use Kerberos or DCE, you can avoid sending unencrypted passwords and user data over the network. But be careful: you will only get the data confidentiality aspects of this approach if your remote filesystem encrypts all user data?most don't.

[18] When we published the second edition of this book, we expected this situation to change in the near future. It still hasn't. Dedicated X terminal hardware still does not encrypt data. On the other hand, it has become increasingly popular to use low-cost PCs as software-based X terminals, and many X Window System products for PCs do include the ability to make connections through SSH.

Questioning your basic assumptions may simultaneously save you time and money, and also improve your security.

    Part VI: Appendixes