1. Introduction

Network Address Translation (NAT) plays a crucial role in how our devices on a private network communicate with the vast expanse of the internet. It translates private Internet Protocol (IP) addresses into public ones and vice versa. This not only facilitates communication but also adds a layer of security and conserves the limited pool of our available public IP addresses.

In this tutorial, we’ll look at NAT Reflection or Loopback, an exciting feature that NAT provides. This functionality addresses a specific yet common scenario: accessing a service, like a web server hosted within our network, using the public IP address of our network as if we were accessing it from the outside world.

Let’s think of it as mailing a letter to ourselves by sending it to our own address through the post office. At first glance, it might seem unnecessary. Still, it’s a crucial capability for testing and seamless network use, especially in environments where internal and external access to resources needs to be consistent. Let’s get started!

2. Understanding NAT Basics

Before we dive into NAT Reflection, let’s brush up on the basics of NAT itself.

At its core, NAT works by modifying network address information in the IP header of packets while they are in transit across a traffic routing device. This process enables multiple devices on a private network to share a single public IP address for all their external communications.

Essentially, NAT acts as an intermediary, translating private (internal) IP addresses to public (external) ones for outgoing traffic and the reverse for incoming traffic.

As the context of our conversation is Linux, which also applies to many other operating systems, iptables is the utility that manages this translation through rules defined in the NAT table. These rules determine how our network handles, modifies, and routes incoming and outgoing packets.

For example, a basic NAT setup involves two primary rules. The first one masquerades outgoing traffic, making all internal requests appear as if they’re coming from a single public IP.

Afterward, the second one, Destination NAT (DNAT), directs incoming requests to the appropriate internal device.

3. The Need for NAT Reflection

Let’s imagine a scenario where our home or office network hosts a web server intended for both public and internal access. Externally, users access the server using its public IP address.

Internally, without NAT Reflection, we would need to remember to use the server’s private IP address instead. This dual addressing system can lead to confusion, inefficiency, and potential issues with web applications that rely on absolute URLs.

However, NAT Reflection solves this by allowing internal requests to the public IP address to be redirected back to the internal network, making the internal access path identical to the external one. As we said, it’s instrumental in testing environments, where the development teams or other IT professionals need to see exactly how to access the service from outside the network without leaving the network.

Additionally, for home networks where services such as game servers or media servers are accessed from both inside and outside the network, NAT Reflection simplifies access for us by using a single, consistent address.

4. A Practical Environment for NAT Reflection

Let’s see a typical network environment where such a setup would be necessary.

Let’s consider a small office network with a router and two hosts, one of which is a web server. The router, which connects the local network to the internet, handles NAT duties, assigning private IP addresses to devices on the internal network and managing their access to the internet via a single public IP address.

Here is an outline of our sample network layout:

  • Router interfaces – LAN (br-lan) with IP and WAN (eth0) with a public IP, say
  • Hosts – Two computers with IPs and within the local network
  • Web server – Hosted on the second computer (, serving content accessible ideally via both the internal network and the internet

This setup represents a typical configuration in small-to-medium-sized networks, where internal services need to be accessible via both internal and external pathways.

In this context, our goal with NAT Reflection is to allow a request made to the router’s public IP address ( from any host within the network (e.g., to be routed to the internal web server ( as if the request was coming from outside the network.

Notably, achieving this seamless routing requires a deeper understanding of NAT rules, configurations, and iptables explicitly used on Linux-based routers or firewalls.

5. Basic NAT Configuration

Before we dive into the specifics of NAT Reflection, we must understand how to set up the basic NAT configuration that allows external access to an internal web server.

The process involves two primary iptables rules: one for masquerading outgoing traffic and another for DNAT, which directs incoming external requests to the server.

5.1. Masquerading Outgoing Traffic

This rule is critical for enabling devices on our private network to communicate with the outside world using a single public IP address. The masquerade action dynamically assigns the router’s public IP address to outgoing traffic, making all internal requests appear as if they’re originating from the router itself.

Let’s see what implementing the rule with iptables will look like:

$ sudo iptables -t nat -A POSTROUTING -o eth0 -j MASQUERADE

This command appends a rule to the POSTROUTING chain of the nat table, specifying that all outbound traffic (-o eth0, where eth0 is the WAN interface) should be masqueraded.

5.2. DNAT for Incoming Requests

To allow external users to access the web server using the public IP address, we need to redirect incoming traffic to the server’s private IP address. We can achieve this through DNAT.

The rule effectively tells the router to forward all traffic coming to the public IP on a specific port (e.g., port 80 for HTTP) to the web server’s internal IP address:

$ sudo iptables -t nat -A PREROUTING -i eth0 -p tcp -m tcp --dport 80 -j DNAT --to-destination

Here, the setup ensures that any request from the internet to access the web server via the router’s public IP address forwards to the server’s private IP address, allowing external access to internal services.

6. Configuring NAT Reflection

Having established the basic NAT configuration for external access, our next step is to enable NAT Reflection to allow internal requests to the public IP to be correctly handled.

This involves creating specific iptables rules that intercept requests from the internal network to the public IP and redirect them to the intended internal destination.

6.1. DNAT for Internal Requests

The first rule we need for NAT Reflection involves using DNAT to redirect requests originating from the internal network that are addressed to the public IP back to the local web server.

The rule looks somewhat similar to the external DNAT rule, but we’re tailoring it for internal traffic:

$ sudo iptables -t nat -A PREROUTING -i br-lan -s -d -p tcp -m tcp --dport 80 -j DNAT --to-destination

With this, we’re appending a rule to the PREROUTING chain, specifying that any TCP traffic originating from the internal network (-s and whose destination is the router’s public IP (-d on port 80 should redirect to the web server’s internal IP address (

In short, this rule effectively allows internal devices to use the public IP address to access the web server as if the requests were coming from outside the network.

However, for NAT Reflection to function correctly, there’s still another piece of the puzzle we have to address, which involves modifying the source address of the redirected packets.

This is where Source NAT (SNAT) comes into play.

6.2. SNAT Rule for NAT Reflection

While the DNAT rule is crucial, it alone doesn’t complete the NAT Reflection setup. The packets now reach the web server correctly, but without modifying the source IP, the server’s responses would go directly back to the originating client, bypassing the NAT process. This direct response can lead to issues, as the client expects the return traffic to come from the public IP, not the server’s internal IP.

Therefore, to ensure that the communication loop completes correctly, we need an SNAT rule. This rule modifies the source IP of the packets to the router’s internal IP, ensuring that responses from the server go back to the router first, then are masqueraded (if necessary) and sent back to the original client.

Let’s see what the SNAT rule will look like:

$ sudo iptables -t nat -A POSTROUTING -o br-lan -s -d -p tcp -m tcp --dport 80 -j SNAT --to-source

Here, we alter the source IP of packets destined for the web server from the local network, making them appear as if they’re coming from the router itself.

Basically, we’re tricking the web server into sending the response back to the router, ensuring the NAT translation can occur in reverse, and the client receives the response from the expected public IP.

6.3. Enabling NAT Reflection for Multiple Services

If our network hosts multiple services, e.g., a web server on port 80 and an SSH server on port 22, we’ll need to set up NAT Reflection for each service. This involves creating separate DNAT and SNAT rules for each port.

Let’s see how we could add NAT Reflection for the SSH server alongside our existing web server setup:

# DNAT rule for SSH
$ sudo iptables -t nat -A PREROUTING -i br-lan -s -d -p tcp -m tcp --dport 22 -j DNAT --to-destination

# SNAT rule for SSH
$ sudo iptables -t nat -A POSTROUTING -o br-lan -s -d -p tcp -m tcp --dport 22 -j SNAT --to-source

Notably, these are examples that demonstrate the flexibility and utility of NAT Reflection in supporting seamless network access to internal services. We can always customize the iptables rules to fit our specific network and service configurations to ensure that internal and external access paths remain consistent and reliable.

6.4. Performance Considerations

NAT Reflection can introduce additional processing overhead on our router or firewall, as it has to handle and translate extra traffic that would otherwise stay within the local network.

For small-to-medium-sized networks, this is rarely an issue.

However, in larger deployments or high-traffic environments, we should monitor the performance impact. We can upgrade hardware or optimize iptables rules to minimize unnecessary processing and mitigate any potential slowdowns.

7. Conclusion

In this article, we explored the fundamentals of NAT Reflection, including its necessity and how to set it up using iptables. NAT Reflection is a powerful feature that simplifies network configurations and ensures consistent access to internal services, regardless of whether requests originate from inside or outside the network.

However, while NAT Reflection offers numerous benefits, we must balance these with considerations for security and performance. We should ensure that our firewall rules are stringent enough to prevent unauthorized access and regularly audit our NAT Reflection rules alongside our broader security posture.

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