nftables backend


As noted in the v0.6.0 release announcement, firewalld recently gained support for using nftables as a firewall backend. This post will highlight why that’s a good thing, how it affects firewalld, and how to start using it. The content here may be interesting to intermediate to advanced users of firewalld or anyone generally interested in firewalling.

Why nftables?

nftables in a replacement for all of; iptables, ip6tables, arptables, ebtables, and ipset (henceforth know as “iptables and family”). It brings many advantages, some examples are; built in sets, faster rule updates, and combined ipv4/ipv6 processing. One of the most relevant advantages for firewalld is the ability to maintain all firewall rules through a single interface.

One issue with firewalld’s use of iptables and family is that firewalld assumes complete control of the hosts firewalling. With the nftables backend this is no longer true. Since nftables allows multiple namespaces (tables in nftables vernacular), firewalld will scope all of its rules, sets, and chains to the firewalld table. This will avoid much of the contention with other pieces of software that don’t interact directly with firewalld.

Another nicety of nftables is you can combine logging with verdicts in the same rule. This means you can optimize rules, e.g. log and drop a packet in the same rule. In iptables this would require two rules, both with the same match parameters.

How does firewalld use nftables?

firewalld interacts with nftables directly through the nft binary. This is similar to how firewalld currently interacts with iptables and family. In a future release interaction with nftables will be further improved by using the newly minted libnftables.

As can be seen in the firewalld structure diagram, nftables fits into firewalld alongside the other firewall backends.


All firewalld’s primitives (services, ports, forward ports, etc.) use nftables by default. In addition some translations occur; ipsets will be translated to native nftables sets, and ICMP types are morphed into nftables equivalents.

What about the direct interface?

Seasoned firewalld users may already be asking themselves, What about the direct interface? No worries, it’s still there and works almost exactly as it did in previous releases. When the nftables backend is enabled direct rules are treated specially and still use iptables and family. This means your existing configurations with custom direct rules will continue to work. However, there is one deliberate behavioral change - direct rules take precedence over all other firewalld rules. For further details see the Behavorial Changes section below.

How do I use the nftables backend?

In firewalld 0.6.0 and later nftables is the default backend - so all you have to do is upgrade. The switch over should be transparent to users. The nftables backend has feature parity with the old iptables backend. That means any issues or missing functionality will be treated as bugs.

If for some reason you need to revert to the old iptables backend, you can easily do so by setting FirewallBackend in /etc/firewalld/firewalld.conf to iptables, then restart firewalld. However, please realise that future firewalld development will focus on the nftables backend and not iptables.

This new configuration option is documented in the man pages.

What the future holds

The future of firewalld development will focus on the nftables backend. While the iptables backend is still supported new features won’t necessarily be implemented.

With the nftables backend firewalld has many possible improvements on the horizon:

  • output filtering
  • DoS protection or rate limiting
  • log targets can be combined into the same rule as accept/drop
  • avoid creating empty chains or rules

With all that said, the iptables backend is not going away anytime soon. It will be supported for many, many releases. It’s simply just not the primary focus.

Further information

Here follows further information that may be useful for those wanting some grittier details.

Behavioral Changes

The nftables backend does bring some behavioral changes. In most scenarios these won’t affect users, but may be relevant for more advanced use cases.

Direct interface precedence

In previous versions of firewalld rules added via the direct interface were still subject to firewalld’s rules that occur early in the ruleset. Most notably is the early acceptance of packets that are part of existing connections. This has led to confusion for users, for example see github issue 44.

With the nftables backend direct rules are deliberately given a higher precedence than all other firewalld rules. Now when a user adds a direct rule to drop traffic existing connections will also be affected.

Firewalld hook priority

nftables allows multiple chains to hook into netfilter at the same point. This is in contrast to iptables which only allowed one and the concept was completely hidden from users. firewalld takes advantage of this feature to add predictability by giving firewalld’s rules slightly lower precedence than iptables and default nftables hook priority values. Without this it would be undefined if firewalld’s chains would execute before or after other iptables/nftables chains.

The main consequence for users is that firewall rules created outside of firewalld (e.g. libvirt, docker, user, etc) will take precedence over firewalld’s rules.

Only flush firewalld’s rules

Since nftables allows namespaces (via tables) firewalld no longer does a complete flush of firewall rules. It will only flush rules in the firewalld table. This avoids scenarios where custom user rules or rules installed by other tools are unexpectedly wiped out when firewalld was restarted or reloaded.

Packet accept/drop precedence

As mentioned above, nftables allows multiple chains to use the same netfilter hook. A consequence of this is that packets that are accepted are still subject to the rules of other chains hooked into the hook type. For firewalld this means packets may be accepted early by custom iptables or nftables rules, but will still be subject to firewalld’s rules. In the drop case processing always stops immediately and no other hooks will process the packet.