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Introduction to and Design of Cisco ASA with FirePOWER Services

Chapter Description

In this chapter from Cisco Next-Generation Security Solutions: All-in-one Cisco ASA Firepower Services, NGIPS, and AMP, authors Omar Santos, Panos Kampanakis, and Aaron Woland provide an introduction to the Cisco ASA with FirePOWER Services solution. It also provides design guidance and best practices for deploying Cisco ASA with FirePOWER Services.

Cisco ASA FirePOWER Services and Failover

The Cisco ASA supports high availability using failover and clustering. This section covers the deployment of the Cisco ASA FirePOWER module in failover scenarios. Clustering is covered later in this chapter.

The Cisco ASA supports two types of failover:

  • Active/standby

  • Active/active

In active/standby failover, one unit in a failover pair is always active, and the other one is in standby. Figure 2-17 illustrates active/standby failover.

Figure 2-17

Figure 2-17 Active/Standby Failover

The standby device drops all transit traffic that it may receive and accepts only management connections. For a switchover to occur automatically, the active unit must become less operationally healthy than the standby. The failover event moves all transit traffic to the peer device, even if the actual impact on the previously active unit is localized. When running in multiple-context mode, all contexts switch over at the same time. Active/standby failover is the only option when running in single-context mode.

What are these so-called security contexts? Security contexts enable a physical Cisco ASA to be partitioned into multiple standalone firewalls. Each context acts and behaves as an independent entity, with its own configuration, interfaces, security policies, routing table, and administrators. The following are some examples of scenarios in which security contexts are useful in network deployments:

  • You act as a service provider and want to provide firewall services to customers; however, you do not want to purchase additional physical firewalls for each client.

  • You manage an educational institution and want to segregate student networks from faculty networks for improved security while using one physical security appliance.

  • You administer a large enterprise with different departmental groups, and each department wants to implement its own security policies.

  • You have overlapping networks in your organization and want to provide firewall services to all those networks without changing the addressing scheme.

  • You currently manage many physical firewalls, and you want to integrate security policies from all firewalls into one physical firewall.

  • You manage a data center environment and want to provide end-to-end virtualization to reduce operational costs and increase efficiency.

The responsibilities of the active unit include the following items:

  • Accept configuration commands from the user and replicate them to the standby peer. All management and monitoring of a failover pair should happen on the active unit because configuration replication is not a two-way process. Making any changes on the standby ASA causes configuration inconsistency that may prevent subsequent command synchronization and create issues after a switchover event. If you inadvertently made a change on the standby device, exit the configuration mode and issue the write standby command on the active unit to restore the proper state. This command completely overwrites the existing running configuration of the standby unit with the running configuration of the active ASA.

  • Process all transit traffic, apply configured security policies, build and tear down connections, and synchronize the connection information to the standby unit, if configured for stateful failover.

  • Send NetFlow Secure Event Logging (NSEL) and syslog messages to the configured event collectors. When necessary, you may configure the standby unit to transmit syslog messages with the logging standby command. Keep in mind that this command doubles the connection-related syslog traffic from the failover pair.

  • Build and maintain dynamic routing adjacencies. The standby unit never participates in dynamic routing.

By default, failover operates in a stateless manner. In this configuration, the active unit only synchronizes its configuration to the standby device. All the stateful flow information remains local to the active ASA, so all connections must reestablish upon a failover event. While this configuration preserves ASA processing resources, most high-availability configurations require stateful failover. To pass state information to the standby ASA, you must configure a stateful failover link.

Stateful failover is not available on the Cisco ASA 5505 platform. When stateful replication is enabled, an active ASA synchronizes the following additional information to the standby peer:

  • Stateful table for TCP and UDP connections. To preserve processing resources, ASA does not synchronize certain short-lived connections by default. For example, HTTP connections over TCP port 80 remain stateless unless you configure the failover replication http command. Similarly, ICMP connections synchronize only in active/active failover with asymmetric routing (ASR) groups configured. Note that enabling stateful replication for all connections may cause up to a 30 percent reduction in the maximum connection setup rate supported by the particular ASA platform.

  • ARP table and bridge-group MAC mapping table when running in transparent mode.

  • Routing table, including any dynamically learned routes. All dynamic routing adjacencies must reestablish after a failover event, but the new active unit continues to forward traffic based on the previous routing table state until full reconvergence.

  • Certain application inspection data, such as General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), GPRS Tunneling Protocol (GTP), Packet Data Protocol (PDP), and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) signaling tables. Keep in mind that most application inspection engines do not synchronize their databases because of resource constraints and complexity, so such connections switch over at the Layer 4 level only. As the result, some of these connections may have to reestablish after a failover event.

  • Most VPN data structures, including security associations (SA) for site-to-site tunnels and remote-access users. Only some clientless SSL VPN information remains stateless.

    Stateful failover supports only Cisco ASA software features. The Cisco ASA FirePOWER module tracks connection state independently, and the Cisco ASAs do not synchronize their configuration or any other stateful data in failover. When a Cisco ASA switchover occurs, the Cisco ASA FirePOWER module typically recovers existing connections transparently to the user, but some advanced security checks may apply only to new flows that are established through the newly active Cisco ASA and its local application module.

    In active/active failover, Cisco ASAs operate in multiple-context mode. In this configuration, the traffic load is split between members of the failover pair so that each unit is active for some set of security contexts. This way, both failover peers are passing traffic concurrently and fully utilizing their respective hardware resources.

    Figure 2-18 illustrates active/active failover.

    Figure 2-18

    Figure 2-18 Active/Active Failover

    This separation is achieved by assigning specific application contexts to one of the two failover groups and then making each of the failover peers own one of these groups. As opposed to active/standby failover, where all contexts switch over to the peer on active unit failure, this model localizes the impact to the contexts in a particular failover group.

In total, an ASA supports three failover groups when configured for active/active failover:

  • Group 0: This is a hidden, nonconfigurable group that covers only the system context. It is always active on the same unit that is active for group 1.

  • Group 1: All newly created contexts belong to this group by default. The admin context must always be a member of this group. By default, the primary unit owns this group, and you typically keep it this way.

  • Group 2: Use this group to assign some contexts to be active on the secondary unit. The primary unit also owns this group by default, so you have to change its ownership to the secondary ASA after assigning all the desired contexts. Keep in mind that both groups have to be active on the same unit in order to move contexts between groups 1 and 2.

You should deploy active/active failover only when you can effectively separate the network traffic flows into these two independent groups. Keep in mind that interface sharing is not supported between contexts that belong to different failover groups.

Although active/active failover offers some load-sharing benefits, consider the following implications of this model:

  • You must be able to separate the traffic flows into multiple contexts such that no interfaces are shared between contexts in different failover groups. Keep in mind that not all features are supported in multiple-context mode.

  • If a switchover occurs, a single physical device must carry the full traffic load that was originally intended for two ASA units. This effectively reduces the benefits of load balancing because you should only plan the overall load on the failover pair for this worst-case scenario with a single remaining unit.

  • When using stateful failover, the standby device requires as much processing power as the active one to create new connections; the only difference is that the standby unit does not have to accept transit traffic from the network. When you enable stateful replication with active/active failover, you significantly reduce the available processing capacity of each failover pair member.

Generally speaking, active/standby is the preferred deployment model for failover. Consider clustering instead of active/active failover when your ASA deployment scenario requires load sharing.

What Happens When the Cisco ASA FirePOWER Module Fails?

If the Cisco ASA FirePOWER module fails, you can configure it to do either of the following:

  • Fail open

  • Fail close

When the Cisco ASA FirePOWER module is configured to fail open, all traffic still passes through the Cisco ASA if the module fails. In contrast, when the Cisco ASA FirePOWER module is configured to fail close, all traffic stops through the Cisco ASA if the module fails.

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