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WILS: Client IP or Not Client IP, SNAT Is the Question

Ever wonder why requests coming through proxy-based solutions end up with an IP address other than the real client?

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Ever wonder why requests coming through proxy-based solutions, particularly load balancers, end up with an IP address other than the real client? It’s not just a network administrator having fun at your expense. SNAT is the question – and the answer.

SNAT is the common abbreviation for Secure NAT, so-called because the configured address will not accept inbound connections and is, therefore, supposed to be secure. It is also sometimes (more accurately in the opinion of many) referred to as Source NAT, however, because it acts on source IP address instead of the destination IP address as is the case for NAT usage.


In load balancing scenarios SNAT is used to change the source IP of incoming requests to that of the Load balancer. Now you’re probably thinking this is the  reason we end up having to jump through hoops like X-FORWARDED-FOR to get the real client IP address and you’d be right. But the use of SNAT for this purpose isn’t intentionally malevolent. Really. In most cases it’s used to force the return path for responses through the load balancer, which is important when network routing from the server (virtual or physical) to the client would bypass the load balancer. This is often true because servers need a way to access the Internet for various reasons including automated updates and when the application hosted on the server needs to call out to a third-party application, such as integrating with a Web 2.0 site via an API call. In these situations it is desirable for the server to bypass the load balancer because the traffic is initiated by the server, and is not usually being managed by the load balancer.

In the case of a request coming from a client the response needs to return through the load balancer because incoming requests are usually destination NAT’d in most load balancing configurations, so the traffic has to traverse the same path, in reverse, in order to undo that translation and ensure the response is delivered to the client.

Most land balancing solutions offer the ability to specify, on a per-IP address basis, the SNAT mappings as well as providing an “auto map” feature which uses the IP addresses assigned to load balancer (often called “self-ip” addresses) to perform the SNAT mappings. Advanced load balancers have additional methods of assigning SNAT mappings including assigning a “pool” of addresses to a virtual (network) server to be used automatically as well as intelligent SNAT capabilities that allow the use of network-side scripting to manipulate on a case-by-case basis the SNAT mappings. Most configurations can comfortably use the auto map feature to manage SNAT, by far the least complex of the available configurations.

WILS: Write It Like Seth. Seth Godin always gets his point across with brevity and wit. WILS is an ATTEMPT TO BE concise about application delivery TOPICS AND just get straight to the point. NO DILLY DALLYING AROUND.

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More Stories By Lori MacVittie

Lori MacVittie is responsible for education and evangelism of application services available across F5’s entire product suite. Her role includes authorship of technical materials and participation in a number of community-based forums and industry standards organizations, among other efforts. MacVittie has extensive programming experience as an application architect, as well as network and systems development and administration expertise. Prior to joining F5, MacVittie was an award-winning Senior Technology Editor at Network Computing Magazine, where she conducted product research and evaluation focused on integration with application and network architectures, and authored articles on a variety of topics aimed at IT professionals. Her most recent area of focus included SOA-related products and architectures. She holds a B.S. in Information and Computing Science from the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Nova Southeastern University.

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