Bridges are devices which can be installed in a network without any reconfiguration. A network switch is basically a many-port bridge. A bridge is often a 2-port switch. Linux does however support multiple interfaces in a bridge, making it a true switch.
Bridges are often deployed when confronted with a broken network that needs to be fixed without any alterations. Because the bridge is a layer-2 device, one layer below IP, routers and servers are not aware of its existence. This means that you can transparently block or modify certain packets, or do shaping.
Another good thing is that a bridge can often be replaced by a cross cable or a hub, should it break down.
The bad news is that a bridge can cause great confusion unless it is very well documented. It does not appear in traceroutes, but somehow packets disappear or get changed from point A to point B. You should also wonder if an organization that 'does not want to change anything' is doing the right thing.
The Linux 2.4/2.5 bridge is documented on
As of Linux 2.4.14, bridging and iptables do not 'see' each other without help. If you bridge packets from eth0 to eth1, they do not 'pass' by iptables. This means that you cannot do filtering, or NAT or mangling or whatever.
There are several projects going on to fix this, the truly right one is by the author of the Linux 2.4 bridging code, Lennert Buytenhek. He recently informed us that as of bridge-nf 0.0.2 (see the url above), the code is stable and usable in production environments. He is now asking the kernel people if and how the patch can be merged, stay tuned!
This does work as advertised. Be sure to figure out which side each interface is on, otherwise you might be shaping outbound traffic in your internal interface, which won't work. Use tcpdump if needed.
If you just want to implement a Pseudo-bridge, skip down a few sections to 'Implementing it', but it is wise to read a bit about how it works in practice.
A Pseudo-bridge works a bit differently. By default, a bridge passes packets unaltered from one interface to the other. It only looks at the hardware address of packets to determine what goes where. This in turn means that you can bridge traffic that Linux does not understand, as long as it has an hardware address it does.
A 'Pseudo-bridge' works differently and looks more like a hidden router than a bridge, but like a bridge, it has little impact on network design.
An advantage of the fact that it is not a brige lies in the fact that packets really pass through the kernel, and can be filtered, changed, redirected or rerouted.
A real bridge can also be made to perform these feats, but it needs special code, like the Ethernet Frame Diverter, or the above mentioned patch.
Another advantage of a pseudo-bridge is that it does not pass packets it does not understand - thus cleaning your network of a lot of cruft. In cases where you need this cruft (like SAP packets, or Netbeui), use a real bridge.
When a host wants to talk to another host on the same physical network segment, it sends out an Address Resolution Protocol packet, which, somewhat simplified, reads like this 'who has 10.0.0.1, tell 10.0.0.7'. In response to this, 10.0.0.1 replies with a short 'here' packet.
10.0.0.7 then sends packets to the hardware address mentioned in the 'here' packet. It caches this hardware address for a relatively long time, and after the cache expires, it reasks the question.
When building a Pseudo-bridge, we instruct the bridge to reply to these ARP packets, which causes the hosts in the network to send its packets to the bridge. The brige then processes these packets, and sends them to the relevant interface.
So, in short, whenever a host on one side of the bridge asks for the hardware address of a host on the other, the bridge replies with a packet that says 'hand it to me'.
This way, all data traffic gets transmitted to the right place, and always passes through the bridge.
In the bad old days, it used to be possible to instruct the Linux Kernel to perform 'proxy-ARP' for just any subnet. So, to configure a pseudo-bridge, you would have to specify both the proper routes to both sides of the bridge AND create matching proxy-ARP rules. This is bad in that it requires a lot of typing, but also because it easily allows you to make mistakes which make your bridge respond to ARP queries for networks it does not know how to route.
With Linux 2.4/2.5 (and possibly 2.2), this possibility has been withdrawn and has been replaced by a flag in the /proc directory, called 'proxy_arp'. The procedure for building a pseudo-bridge is then:
Also, do not forget to turn on the ip_forwarding flag! When converting from a true bridge, you may find that this flag was turned off as it is not needed when bridging.
Another thing you might note when converting is that you need to clear the arp cache of computers in the network - the arp cache might contain old pre-bridge hardware addresses which are no longer correct.
On a Cisco, this is done using the command 'clear arp-cache', under Linux, use 'arp -d ip.address'. You can also wait for the cache to expire manually, which can take rather long.