In computer networks, a DMZ (demilitarized zone), also sometimes known as a perimeter network or a screened subnetwork, is a physical or logical subnet that separates an internal local area network (LAN) from other untrusted networks, usually the internet. External-facing servers, resources and services are located in the DMZ. So, they are accessible from the internet, but the rest of the internal LAN remains unreachable. This provides an additional layer of security to the LAN as it restricts the ability of hackers to directly access internal servers and data via the internet.
Any service provided to users on the public internet should be placed in the DMZ network. Some of the most common of these services include web servers and proxy servers, as well as servers for email, domain name system (DNS), File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and voice over IP (VoIP).
The systems running these services in the DMZ are reachable by hackers and cybercriminals around the world and need to be hardened to withstand constant attack. The term DMZ comes from the geographic buffer zone that was set up between North Korea and South Korea at the end of the Korean War.
Architecture of network DMZs
There are various ways to design a network with a DMZ. The two basic methods are to use either one or two firewalls, though most modern DMZs are designed with two firewalls. This basic approach can be expanded on to create complex architectures, depending on the network requirements.
A single firewall with at least three network interfaces can be used to create a network architecture containing a DMZ. The external network is formed by connecting the public internet -- via internet service provider (ISP) connection -- to the firewall on the first network interface, the internal network is formed from the second network interface and the DMZ network itself is connected to the third network interface.
Different sets of firewall rules for traffic between the internet and the DMZ, the LAN and the DMZ, and the LAN and the internet tightly control which ports and types of traffic are allowed into the DMZ from the internet, limit connectivity to specific hosts in the internal network and prevent unrequested connections either to the internet or the internal LAN from the DMZ.
The more secure approach to creating a DMZ network is the dual-firewall approach, where two firewalls are deployed with the DMZ network positioned between them. The first firewall -- also called the perimeter firewall -- is configured to allow external traffic destined to the DMZ only. The second or internal firewall only allows traffic from the DMZ to the internal network. This is considered more secure since two devices would need to be compromised before an attacker could access the internal LAN.
As a DMZ segments a network, security controls can be tuned specifically for each segment. For example, a network intrusion detection and prevention system located in a DMZ and providing web services could be configured to block all traffic except HTTPS requests to TCP port 443.
How DMZs work
DMZs are intended to function as a sort of buffer zone between the public internet and the organizational network. Deploying the DMZ between two firewalls means that all inbound network packets are screened using a firewall or other security appliance before they arrive at the servers the organization hosts in the DMZ. This should be enough to block the most casual of threat actors.
If a better-prepared threat actor is able to get through the first firewall, they must then gain unauthorized access to those services before they can do any damage, and those systems are likely to be hardened against such attacks.
Finally, assuming that a well-resourced threat actor is able to breach the external firewall and take over a system hosted in the DMZ, they must still break through the internal firewall before they can reach sensitive enterprise resources. While even the best-secured DMZ architecture can be breached by a determined attacker, a DMZ under attack should set off alarms, giving security professionals enough warning to avert a full breach of their organization.
What DMZs are used for
DMZ networks have been an important part of enterprise network security for almost as long as firewalls have been in use and, in large part, for similar reasons firewalls are deployed: to protect sensitive organizational systems and resources.
The primary benefit of using a DMZ network is to provide access to necessary internet services from the public internet in a secure way. DMZ networks can be used to isolate and keep potential target systems separate from internal networks, as well as to reduce and control access to those systems from outside of the organization.
While many sensitive resources can be protected by deploying them inside the organizational network perimeter, as dependence on access to services through the public internet has grown so has the need for organizations to provide those services to users situated outside their perimeters.
Using a DMZ has long been the solution for hosting corporate resources to make at least some of them available to authorized users.
More recently, enterprises have opted to use virtual machines (VMs) or containers to isolate parts of the network or specific applications from the rest of the corporate environment.
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- Learn how DMZs and other techniques can be used to prevent a network attack by isolating infrastructure