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Example Nmap output

Nmap Network Scanning

Host Discovery Controls

By default, Nmap will include a ping scanning stage prior to more intrusive probes such as port scans, OS detection, Nmap Scripting Engine, or version detection. Nmap usually only performs intrusive scans on machines that are shown to be available during the ping scan stage. This saves substantial time and bandwidth compared to performing full scans against every single IP address. Yet this approach is not ideal for all circumstances. There are times when you do want to scan every IP (-Pn), and other times when you want to perform host discovery without a port scan (-sn). There are even times when you want to print out the target hosts and exit prior to even sending ping probes (-sL). Nmap offers several high-level options to control this behavior.

List Scan (-sL)

List scan is a degenerate form of host discovery that simply lists each host on the network(s) specified, without sending any packets to the target hosts. By default, Nmap still performs reverse-DNS resolution on the hosts to learn their names. Nmap also reports the total number of IP addresses at the end. List scan is a good sanity check to ensure that you have proper IP addresses for your targets. If the hosts display domain names you do not recognize, it is worth investigating further to prevent scanning the wrong company's network.

There are many reasons target IP ranges can be incorrect. Even network administrators can mistype their own netblocks, and pen-testers have even more to worry about. In some cases, security consultants are given the wrong addresses. In others, they try to find proper IP ranges through resources such as whois databases and routing tables. The databases can be out of date, or the company could be loaning IP space to other organizations. Whether to scan corporate parents, siblings, service providers, and subsidiaries is an important issue that should be worked out with the customer in advance. A preliminary list scan helps confirm exactly what targets are being scanned.

Another reason for an advance list scan is stealth. In some cases, you do not want to begin with a full-scale assault on the target network that is likely to trigger IDS alerts and bring unwanted attention. A list scan is unobtrusive and provides information that may be useful in choosing which individual machines to target. It is possible, though highly unlikely, that the target will notice all of the reverse-DNS requests. When that is a concern, you can bounce through anonymous recursive DNS servers using the --dns-servers option as described in the section called “DNS proxying”.

A list scan is specified with the -sL command-line option. Since the idea is to simply print a list of target hosts, options for higher level functionality such as port scanning, OS detection, or ping scanning cannot be combined with -sL. If you wish to disable ping scanning while still performing such higher level functionality, read up on the -Pn option. Example 3.6 shows list scan being used to enumerate the CIDR /28 network range (16 IP addresses) surrounding the main Stanford University web server.

Example 3.6. Enumerating hosts surrounding www.stanford.edu with list scan

felix~> nmap -sL www.stanford.edu/28

Starting Nmap ( http://nmap.org )
Host www9.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host www10.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host scriptorium.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host coursework-a.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host coursework-e.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host www3.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host leland-dev.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host coursework-preprod.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host stanfordwho-dev.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host workgroup-dev.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host courseworkbeta.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host www4.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host coursework-i.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host leland2.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host coursework-j.Stanford.EDU ( not scanned
Host not scanned
Nmap done: 16 IP addresses (0 hosts up) scanned in 0.38 seconds

Disable Port Scan (-sn)

This option tells Nmap not to run a port scan after host discovery. When used by itself, it makes Nmap do host discovery, then print out the available hosts that responded to the scan. This is often called a ping scan. Even though no port scanning is done, you can still request Nmap Scripting Engine (--script) host scripts and traceroute probing (--traceroute). A ping-only scan is one step more intrusive than a list scan, and can often be used for the same purposes. It performs light reconnaissance of a target network quickly and without attracting much attention. Knowing how many hosts are up is more valuable to attackers than the list of every single IP and host name provided by list scan.

Systems administrators often find this option valuable as well. It can easily be used to count available machines on a network or monitor server availability. This is often called a ping sweep, and is more reliable than pinging the broadcast address because many hosts do not reply to broadcast queries.

Example 3.7 shows a quick ping scan against the CIDR /24 (256 IPs) surrounding one of my favorite web sites, Linux Weekly News.

Example 3.7. Discovering hosts surrounding www.lwn.net with a ping scan

# nmap -sn -T4 www.lwn.net/24

Starting Nmap ( http://nmap.org )
Host seems to be a subnet broadcast address (returned 1 extra ping)
Host appears to be up.
Host appears to be up.
Host appears to be up.
Host server1.camnetsec.com ( appears to be up.
Host akqa.com ( appears to be up.
Host asria.org ( appears to be up.
Host webcubic.net ( appears to be up.
Host dizzy.yellowdog.com ( appears to be up.
Host www.outdoorwire.com ( appears to be up.
Host www.inspectorhosting.com ( appears to be up.
Host jwebmedia.com ( appears to be up.
Host rs.lwn.net ( appears to be up.
Host appears to be up.
Host cuttlefish.laughingsquid.net ( appears to be up.
Nmap done: 256 IP addresses (105 hosts up) scanned in 12.69 seconds

This example only took 13 seconds, but provides valuable information. In that class C sized address range, 105 hosts are online. From the unrelated domain names all packed into such a small IP space, it is clear that LWN uses a colocation or dedicated server provider. If the LWN machines turn out to be highly secure, an attacker might go after one of those neighbor machines and then perform a local ethernet attack with tools such as Ettercap or Dsniff. An ethical use of this data would be a network administrator considering moving machines to this provider. He might e-mail a few of the listed organizations and ask their opinion of the service before signing a long-term contract or making the expensive and disruptive datacenter move.

The -sn option sends an ICMP echo request, a TCP SYN packet to port 443, a TCP ACK packet to port 80, and an ICMP timestamp request by default. Since unprivileged Unix users (or Windows users without Npcap installed) cannot send these raw packets, only SYN packets are sent instead in those cases. The SYN packet is sent using a TCP connect system call to ports 80 and 443 of the target host. When a privileged user tries to scan targets on a local ethernet network, ARP requests (-PR) are used unless the --send-ip option is specified.

The -sn option can be combined with any of the techniques discussed in the section called “Host Discovery Techniques” for greater flexibility. If any of those probe type and port number options are used, the default probes are overridden. When strict firewalls are in place between the source host running Nmap and the target network, using those advanced techniques is recommended. Otherwise hosts could be missed when the firewall drops probes or their responses.

Disable Ping (-Pn)

Another option is to skip the Nmap discovery stage altogether. Normally, Nmap uses this stage to determine active machines for heavier scanning. By default, Nmap only performs heavy probing such as port scans, version detection, or OS detection against hosts that are found to be up. Disabling host discovery with the -Pn option causes Nmap to attempt the requested scanning functions against every target IP address specified. So if a class B sized target address space (/16) is specified on the command line, all 65,536 IP addresses are scanned. Proper host discovery is skipped as with a list scan, but instead of stopping and printing the target list, Nmap continues to perform requested functions as if each target IP is active.

There are many reasons for disabling the Nmap ping tests. One of the most common is intrusive vulnerability assessments. One can specify dozens of different ping probes in an attempt to elicit a response from all available hosts, but it is still possible that an active yet heavily firewalled machine might not reply to any of those probes. So to avoid missing anything, auditors frequently perform intense scans, such as for all 65,536 TCP ports, against every IP on the target network. It may seem wasteful to send hundreds of thousands of packets to IP addresses that probably have no host listening, and it can slow scan times by an order of magnitude or more. Nmap must send retransmissions to every port in case the original probe was dropped in transit, and Nmap must spend substantial time waiting for responses because it has no round-trip-time (RTT) estimate for these non-responsive IP addresses. But serious penetration testers are willing to pay this price to avoid even a slight risk of missing active machines. They can always do a quick scan as well, leaving the massive -Pn scan to run in the background while they work. Chapter 6, Optimizing Nmap Performance provides more performance tuning advice.

Another frequent reason given for using -Pn is that the tester has a list of machines that are already known to be up. So the user sees no point in wasting time with the host discovery stage. The user creates their own list of active hosts and then passes it to Nmap using the -iL (take input from list) option. This strategy is rarely beneficial from a time-saving perspective. Due to the retransmission and RTT estimate issues discussed in the previous paragraph, even one unresponsive IP address in a large list will often take more time to scan than a whole ping scanning stage would have. In addition, the ping stage allows Nmap to gather RTT samples that can speed up the following port scan, particularly if the target host has strict firewall rules. While specifying -Pn is rarely helpful as a time saver, it is important if some of the machines on your list block all of the discovery techniques that would otherwise be specified. Users must strike a balance between scan speed and the possibility of missing heavily cloaked machines.

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