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Passive monitoring of sockets on Linux

26 July 2013

A project I have worked on lately required me to passively monitor the state of a large number of TCP sockets. There are different ways of achieving this. One can for example parse the content of /proc/net/tcp, or work some tcpdump/libpcap-magic to get close to real-time information.

My only requirement was to collect a snapshot of the state of the sockets every X second, so using libpcap and somehow track the each TCP connection would have been overkill. Parsing text was also not very tempting, it is after all C we are talking about, so I decided to use Netlink and the NETLINK_INET_DIAG socket-family. This is similar to what the convenient ss-utility does.

Netlink is used to transfer information between kernel and user-space, and provides user-space applications with a socket-based interface. Netlink allows for easy access to several parts of the Linux-kernel and is one of my favourite Linux-features. For example, the Multi Network Manager uses Netlink and the NETLINK_ROUTE-family to detect new network interfaces and configure the network subsystem. A good introduction to Netlink and how the messages are build is this LinuxJournal-article.

In order to better follow the rest of the post, you should have the source code of my INET_DIAG example-application open. It can be found [here] ( Please note that I have chosen to do all the Netlink-message handling manually to avoid adding dependencies to the example. Normally, you should use a library like libmnl to handle Netlink-messages.

##Creating a socket

The first step for getting socket information is to create the Netlink-socket and specify the correct netlink familiy. It can be done as follows:

if((nl_sock = socket(AF_NETLINK, SOCK_DGRAM, NETLINK_INET_DIAG)) == -1){
    perror("socket: ");
    return EXIT_FAILURE;

##Generating a request

After the socket is created, you request information about the sockets you are interested in by creating a netlink message. The netlink message has to contain a request-struct specifying information about the sockets you are interested in. For internet sockets (TCP, UDP, …), as used in the example, this struct is called inet_diag_req_v2.

First, you specify which address family and protocol your are interested in (IPv4 and TCP in the example):

conn_req.sdiag_family = AF_INET;
conn_req.sdiag_protocol = IPPROTO_TCP;

Second, you have to specify the states you are interested in. For TCP, the states are defined in /include/net/tcp_states.h. I have requested to receive sockets in every state but three:

conn_req.idiag_states = TCPF_ALL & 

Finally, in order to receive addition information, you have to set the bitmask idiag_ext (for inet sockets). The possible values are listed in linux/inet_diag.h. Here, I only want the additional socket information (which is the tcp_info-struct for TCP sockets).

conn_req.idiag_ext |= (1 << (INET_DIAG_INFO - 1));

After having filled out the required netlink-information (see source code), the message is ready to be sent.

##Parsing a message

An INET_DIAG netlink message is split into multiple parts or messages, where each message contains information about one socket. The example application loops through the messages, only stopping when the last message (marked by type set to NLMSG_DONE) has been found,

Each INET_DIAG message starts with a inet_diag_msg-struct, which is followed by the INET_DIAG_MEMINFO-extension and then any extensions you requested. The inet_diag_msg-struct contains generic information like source and destination port and address. The example application outputs some of this information, as well as some from the tcp_info-struct (contained in the INET_DIAG_INFO-extension).


INET_DIAG provides a powerful filtering component that allows for quite advanced matching. You can for example match ports between a range. The easiest way to understand this is (unfortunately?) to look in the source code. However, it is easier than it looks:

The example application contains one example of how to filter on ports.

##Useful links

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