Keep an Eye on Your Linux Systems with Netstat

Wednesday Nov 3rd 2004 by Carla Schroder

Maintaining a Linux system involves paying close attention to running services and network traffic. With netstat, you've got a powerful surveillance and troubleshooting tool.

Two of the fundamental aspects of Linux system security and troubleshooting are knowing what services are running, and what connections and services are available. We're all familiar with ps for viewing active services. netstat goes a couple of steps further, and displays all available connections, services, and their status. It shows one type of service that ps does not: services run from inetd or xinetd, because inetd/xinetd start them up on demand. If the service is available but not active, such as telnet, all you see in ps is either inetd or xinetd:

$ ps ax | grep -E 'telnet|inetd'
520 ?      Ss      0:00 /usr/sbin/inetd

But netstat shows telnet sitting idly, waiting for a connection:

$ netstat --inet -a | grep telnet
tcp      0      0     *:telnet      *:*      LISTEN

This netstat invocation shows all activity:

$ netstat -a
Active Internet connections (servers and established)
Proto Recv-Q Send-Q Local Address Foreign Address State
tcp      0      0     *:telnet      *:*      LISTEN
tcp      0      0     *:ipp      *:*      LISTEN
tcp      0      0     *:smtp      *:*      LISTEN
tcp      0      0      nest.anthill.echid:ircd     ESTABLISHED
udp      0      0     *:ipp      *:*
Active UNIX domain sockets (servers and established)
Proto RefCnt Flags Type State I-Node Path
unix 2 [ ACC ] STREAM LISTENING 1065 /tmp/ksocket-carla/klaunchertDCh2b.slave-socket
unix 2 [ ACC ] STREAM LISTENING 1002 /tmp/ssh-OoMGfFm666/agent.666
unix 2 [ ACC ] STREAM LISTENING 819 private/smtp

Your total output will probably run to a couple hundred lines. (A fun and quick way to count lines of output is netstat -a | wc -l.) You can ignore everything under "Active UNIX domain sockets." Those are local inter-process communications, not network connections. To avoid displaying them at all, do this:

$ netstat --inet -a

This will display only network connections, both listening and established. Already netstat has earned its keep- both the telnet and smtp services are running. This is bad, because I don't want to have either a telnet or smtp server running on this machine. So now I know I need to turn them off, and re-configure my startup files so they won't start at boot.

How do you know what services you want running? That is a mondo subject for another day, and an important one. For example, if your system has been compromised, this is one place to find evidence of a Trojan horse or other malware phoning home. In this example, ipp is Internet Printing Protocol, which belongs to CUPS (Common Unix Printing System.) If you want your printer to work, this needs to be here. The connection on is my active IRC (Internet Relay Chat) connection. Refer to your /etc/services file to learn more about TCP and UDP ports, and the services assigned to them.

What It Means

"Proto" is short for protocol, which is either TCP or UDP. "Recv-Q" and "Send-Q" mean receiving queue and sending queue. These should always be zero; if they're not you might have a problem. Packets should not be piling up in either queue, except briefly, as this example shows:

tcp      0      593      ESTABLISHED

That happened when I hit the "check mail" button in KMail; a brief queuing of outgoing packets is normal behavior. If the receiving queue is consistently jamming up, you might be experiencing a denial-of-service attack. If the sending queue does not clear quickly, you might have an application that is sending them out too fast, or the receiver cannot accept them quickly enough.

"Local address" is either your IP and port number, or IP and the name of a service. "Foreign address" is the hostname and service you are connected to. The asterisk is a placeholder for IP addresses, which of course cannot be known until a remote host connects. "State" is the current status of the connection. Any TCP state can be displayed here, but these three are the ones you want to see:

    LISTEN- waiting to receive a connection
    ESTABLISHED- a connection is active
    TIME_WAIT- a recently terminated connection; this should last only a minute or two, then change back to LISTEN. The socket pair cannot be re-used as long the TIME_WAIT state persists.

UDP is stateless, so the "State" column is always blank.

A socket pair is both sides of a TCP/IP connection, like this example for a locally-attached printer:

localhost:ipp      localhost:34493      ESTABLISHED

Or a telnet connection to a remote server:    ESTABLISHED

A socket is any hostname-port combination, or IP address-port.

Continuous Capture

Because all these things change often, how do you capture the changes? Run netstat continuously with the -c flag and record the output:

$ netstat --inet -a -c > netstat.txt

Then check email, start and stop services, surf the web, log in to a telnet BBS and play Legend of the Red Dragon; then review your capture file to see what it all looks like.

Borken DNS

If netstat is taking too long, or not resolving a hostname at all, give it the -n flag to turn off DNS lookups:

$ netstat --inet -an

Checking Interfaces

netstat can help diagnose NIC problems. Use the -i flag when you're troubleshooting a flakey connection, and you suspect your NIC:

$ netstat -i
Kernel Interface table
eth0    1500 0     28698      0      0      0   33742      0      0      0 BMRU
lo      16436 0           14      0      0      0         14      0      0      0 LRU
You should see large numbers in the RX-OK (received OK) and TX-OK (transmitted OK) columns, and very low numbers in all the others. If you are seeing a lot of RX-ERRs or TX-ERRs, suspect the NIC or the patch cable. This is what the flags mean:

B = broadcast address
L = loopback device
M = promicuous mode
R = interface is running
U = interface is up


Correction: the M flag means Multicast, not Promiscuous mode. Promiscuous mode is indicate by a P. You can test this yourself by activating Promiscuous mode with ifconfig:

# ifconfig eth0 promisc

Then run both ifconfig and netstat -i, and you'll see for yourself. This is a common error, because The Linux Network Administrator's Guide and other reference materials contain this error, and the netstat man page does not define the flags.

Don't forget to turn off promiscuous mode with ifconfig eth0 -promisc. Thank you to fine reader Lena J. for pointing this out to me.


Linux Network Administrator's Guide, by Olaf Kirch & Terry Dawson

Updated to reflect correction to the use of the "M" flag. 11/8/04

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