EC2: Stateful Statelessness



While studying for an AWS certification, I rediscovered a fiddly networking detail: although ICMP’s ping is stateless, EC2 security groups will pass return ping traffic even when only one direction is defined in their rules. I wanted to see this in action, so I built a lab.

If you just asked, “Wat❓”, keep reading. Skip to the next section if you just want the code.


Network hosts using stateful protocols (like TCP) distinguish between packets that are part of an established connection and packets that are new. For example, when I SSH (which runs on TCP) from A to B:

  1. A asks B to start a new connection.
  2. B agrees.
  3. A and B exchange bunches of packets that are part of the connection they agreed to.
  4. A and B agree to close the connection.

There’s a difference between a new packet and a packet that’s part of an ongoing connection. That means the connection, and its packets, have state (e.g. new vs established). Stateful firewalls (vs stateless) are aware of this:

  1. A ask B to start a new connection.
  2. Firewalls in between allow these packets if there is an explicit rule allowing traffic from A to B.
  3. A and B exchange bunches of packets.
  4. Firewalls in between allow the packets from A to B because of the explicit rule above. However, they allow the return traffic from B to A even if there is no explicit rule to allow it. Since B agreed to the connection the firewall assumes that packets in that connection should be allowed.

In EC2, this is why you only need an outgoing rule on A’s Security Group (SG) and an incoming rule on B’s Security Group to SSH from A to B. EC2 SGs are stateful, and allow the return traffic implicitly.

Ok, here’s the gnarly bit. ICMP (the protocol behind ping) is stateless. Hosts don’t have a negotiation phase where the agree to establish a connection. They just send packets and hope. So, doesn’t that mean I need to write explicit firewall rules in the SGs to allow the return traffic? If the firewall can’t see the state of the connection, it won’t be able to implicitly figure out to allow that traffic, right?

Nope, they infer state based on timeouts and packet types. ICMP pings are ECHO requests answered by ECHO replies. If the SG has seen a request within the timeout, it makes the educated guess that replies are essentially part of “established” connections and allows them. This is what I wanted to see in action.

The Lab

I setup a VPC with two hosts, A ( and B ( They’re in different subnets but the ACLs allow all traffic so they don’t influence the test. Here are the SG rules for A ( covers the entire VPC):


And the rules for B:


A allows outgoing ICMP to B, and B allows incoming ICMP from A. The return traffic is not allowed by any rules.

The Test Script

I didn’t find a way to send just replies without requests in Linux, so I bodged together a Python script:

This is a stripped-down version of ping that allows you to send a reply without responding a request. This was needed
to test the details of how Amazon EC2 security groups handle state with ICMP traffic. You shouldn't use this for normal

The ping implementation was based on Samuel Stauffer's python-ping: (which only
works with Python 2).

This must be run as root.
You must tell the Linux kernel to ignore ICMP before you run this or it'll eat some of the traffic:
    echo 1 > /proc/sys/net/ipv4/icmp_echo_ignore_all

import argparse, socket, struct, time

def get_arguments():
    parser = argparse.ArgumentParser(formatter_class=argparse.ArgumentDefaultsHelpFormatter)
    parser.add_argument('--send-request', metavar='IP_ADDRESS', type=str, help='IP address to send ECHO request.')
    parser.add_argument('--receive', action='store_true', help='Wait for a reply.')
    parser.add_argument('--send-reply', metavar='IP_ADDRESS', type=str, help='IP address to send ECHO reply.')
    return parser.parse_args()

def receive(my_socket):
    while True:
        recPacket, addr = my_socket.recvfrom(1024)
        icmpHeader = recPacket[20:28]
        icmp_type, code, checksum, packetID, sequence = struct.unpack("bbHHh", icmpHeader)
        print('Received type {}.'.format(icmp_type))

def ping(my_socket, dest_addr, icmp_type):
    dest_addr = socket.gethostbyname(dest_addr)
    bytesInDouble = struct.calcsize("d")
    data = (192 - bytesInDouble) * "Q"
    data = struct.pack("d", time.time()) + data
    dummy_checksum = 1 & 0xffff
    dummy_id = 1 & 0xFFFF
    # Header is type (8), code (8), checksum (16), id (16), sequence (16)
    header = struct.pack("bbHHh", icmp_type, 0, socket.htons(dummy_checksum), dummy_id, 1)
    packet = header + data
    my_socket.sendto(packet, (dest_addr, 1))

if __name__ == '__main__':
    args = get_arguments()
    icmp = socket.getprotobyname("icmp")
    my_socket = socket.socket(socket.AF_INET, socket.SOCK_RAW, icmp)
    if args.send_request:
        ping(my_socket, args.send_request, icmp_type=8)  # Type 8 is ECHO request.
    if args.receive:
    if args.send_reply:
        ping(my_socket, args.send_reply, icmp_type=0)  # Type 0 is ECHO reply.

You can skip reading the code, the important thing is that we can individually choose to listen for packets, send ECHO requests, or send ECHO replies:

python --help
usage: [-h] [--send-request IP_ADDRESS] [--receive]
               [--send-reply IP_ADDRESS]

optional arguments:
  -h, --help            show this help message and exit
  --send-request IP_ADDRESS
                        IP address to send ECHO request. (default: None)
  --receive             Wait for a reply. (default: False)
  --send-reply IP_ADDRESS
                        IP address to send ECHO reply. (default: None)<span 				data-mce-type="bookmark" 				id="mce_SELREST_start" 				data-mce-style="overflow:hidden;line-height:0" 				style="overflow:hidden;line-height:0" 			></span>

The Experiment

SSH to each host and tell Linux to ignore ICMP traffic so I can use the script to capture it (see docstring in the script above):

sudo su -
echo 1 > /proc/sys/net/ipv4/icmp_echo_ignore_all

Normal Ping

I send a request from A to B and expect the reply from B to A to be allowed. Here’s what happened:

Remember A is and B is


Ok, nothing surprising. I sent a request from A to B and started listening on A, a little later I send a reply from B to A and it was allowed. You can do this test with the normal Linux ping command (but not until you tell the kernel to stop ignoring ICMP traffic). This test just validates that my bodged Python actually works.

Reply Only

First we wait a bit. The previous test sent a request from A to B, which started a timer in the SG. Until that timer expires, reply traffic will be allowed. We need to wait for that expiration before this next test is valid.


Boom! I start listening on A, without sending a request. On B I send a reply to A but it never arrives. The Security Group didn’t allow it. This demonstrates that EC2 Security Groups are inferring the state of ICMP pings by reading their type.

Other Tests

I also tried a couple other things that I’ll leave to you to reproduce in your own lab if you want to see them.

  • Start out like the normal test. Send a request from A to B and start listening on A. Then send several replies from B to A. They’re all allowed. This shows that the SG isn’t counting to ensure it only allows one reply for each request; if it has seen just one request within the timeout it allows replies even if there are multiple.
  • Edit the script above to set the hardcoded ID to be different on A than it is on B. Then nothing works at all. I’m not actually sure what causes this. Could be that the SG is looking at more than just the type, but it could also be in the kernel or the network drivers or somewhere else I haven’t thought of. If you figure it out, message me!


I had free time over the holidays this year! Realistically, understanding this demo isn’t a priority for doing good work on AWS. I just enjoy unwrapping black boxes to see how the parts move.

Be well!


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