Deep dive on Cisco ASA resource modules

July 1, 2020 by Sumit Jaiswal

Recently, we published our thoughts on resource modules applied to the use cases targeted by the Ansible security automation initiative. The principle is well known from the network automation space and we follow the established path. While the last blog post covered a few basic examples, we’d like to show more detailed use cases and how those can be solved with resource modules.

This blog post goes in depth into the new Cisco ASA Content Collection, which was already introduced in the previous article. We will walk through several examples and describe the use cases and how we envision the Collection being used in real world scenarios.

 

The Cisco ASA Certified Content Collection: what is it about?

The Cisco ASA Content Collection provides means to automate the Cisco Adaptive Security Appliance family of security devices - short Cisco ASA, hence the name. With a focus on firewall and network security they are well known in the market.

The aim of the Collection is to integrate the Cisco ASA devices into automated security workflows. For this, the Collection provides modules to automate generic commands and config interaction with the devices as well as resource oriented automation of access control lists (ACLs) and object groups (OGs).

 

How to install the Cisco ASA Certified Ansible Content Collection

The Cisco ASA Collection is available to Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform customers at Automation Hub, our software as a service offering on cloud.redhat.com and a place for Red Hat subscribers to quickly find and use content that is supported by Red Hat and our technology partners.

Read more about Automation Hub in the blog post “Getting Started with Automation Hub”. There you will also learn how to configure your Ansible command line tools to access Automation Hub for collection downloads.

Once that is done, the Collection is easily installed:

ansible-galaxy collection install cisco.asa

Alternatively you can also find the collection in Ansible Galaxy, our open source hub for sharing content in the community.

 

What’s in the Cisco ASA Content Collection?

The focus of the Collection is on the mentioned modules (and the plugins supporting them): there are three modules for basic interaction, asa_facts, asa_cli and asa_config. If you are familiar with other networking and firewall Collections and modules of Ansible you will recognize this pattern: these three modules provide the most simple way of interacting with networking and firewall solutions. Using those, general data can be received, arbitrary commands can be sent and configuration sections can be managed.

While these modules already provide a great value for environments where the devices are not automated at all, the focus of this blog article is on the other modules in the Collection: the resource modules asa_ogs and asa_acls. Being resource modules they have a limited scope, but enable users of the Collection to focus on that particular resource without being disturbed by other content or configuration items. They also enable a simpler cross-product automation since other Collections follow the same pattern.

If you take a closer look, you will find two more modules: asa_ogs and asa_acls. As mentioned in our first blog post about security automation resource modules, those are deprecated modules, which previously were used to configure ACLs and OGs. They are superseded by the resource modules.

 

Connect to Cisco ASA, the Collection way

The Collection supports network_cli as a connection type. Together with the network OS cisco.asa.asa, a username and a password, you are good to go. To get started quickly, you can simply provide these details as part of the variables in the inventory:

[asa01]
host_asa.example.com

[asa01:vars]
ansible_user=admin
ansible_ssh_pass=password
ansible_become=true
ansible_become_method=ansible.netcommon.enable
ansible_become_pass=become_password
ansible_connection=ansible.netcommon.network_cli
ansible_network_os=cisco.asa.asa
ansible_python_interpreter=python

Note that in a productive environment those variables should be supported in a secure way, for example, with the help of Ansible Tower credentials.

 

Use Case: ACLs

After all this is setup, we are now ready to dive into the actual Collections and how they can be used. For the first use case, we want to look at managing ACLs within ASA. Before we dive into Ansible Playbook examples, let’s quickly discuss what ASA ACLs are and what an automation practitioner should be aware of.

ASA Access-lists are created globally and are then applied with the access-group “command”. They can either be applied inbound or outbound. There are few things users should be aware with respect to access-lists on the Cisco ASA firewall:

  • When a user creates an ACL for higher to lower security level i.e. outbound traffic then the source IP address is the address of the host or the network (not the NAT translated one).
  • When a user creates an ACL for lower to higher security level i.e. inbound traffic then the destination IP address has to be either of the below two:
    • The translated address for any ASA version before 8.3.
    • The address for ASA 8.3 and newer.
  • The access-list is always checked before NAT translation.

Additionally, changing ACLs can become very complex quickly. It is not only about the configuration itself, but also the intent of the automation practitioner: should a new ACL just be added to the existing configuration? Or should it replace it? And what about merging them?

The answer to these questions usually depends on the environment and situation the change is deployed in. The different ways of changing ACLs are noted here and in the Cisco ASA Content Collection as “states”: different ways to deploy changes to ACLs.

The ACLs module knows the following states:

  • Gathered
  • Merged
  • Overridden
  • Replaced
  • Deleted
  • Rendered
  • Parsed

In this use case discussion, we will have a look at all of them, though not always in full detail. However, we will provide links to full code listings for the interested readers.

Please note that while we usually use network addresses for the source and destination examples, other values like network object-groups are also possible.

 

State Gathered: Populating an inventory with configuration data

Given that resource modules allow to read-in existing network configuration and convert that into structured data models, the state “gathered” is the equivalent for gathering Ansible Facts for this specific resource. That is helpful if specific configuration pieces should be reused as variables later on. Another use case is to read-in the existing network configuration and store it as a flat-file. This flat file can be committed to a git repository on a scheduled base, effectively tracking the current configuration and changes of your security tooling.

To showcase how to store existing configuration as a flat file, let’s take the following device configuration:

ciscoasa# sh access-list
access-list cached ACL log flows: total 0, denied 0 (deny-flow-max 4096)
            alert-interval 300
access-list test_access; 2 elements; name hash: 0x96b5d78b
access-list test_access line 1 extended deny tcp 192.0.2.0 255.255.255.0 192.0.3.0 255.255.255.0 eq www log default (hitcnt=0) 0xdc46eb6e
access-list test_access line 2 extended deny icmp 198.51.100.0 255.255.255.0 198.51.110.0 255.255.255.0 alternate-address log errors interval 300 (hitcnt=0) 0x68f0b1cd
access-list test_R1_traffic; 1 elements; name hash: 0x2c20a0c
access-list test_R1_traffic line 1 extended deny tcp 2001:db8:0:3::/64 eq www 2001:fc8:0:4::/64 eq telnet (hitcnt=0) 0x11821a52

To gather and store the content as mentioned above, we need to first gather the data from each device, then create a directory structure mapping our devices and then store the configuration there, in our case as YAML files. The following playbook does exactly that. Note the parameter state: gathered in the first task.

---
- name: convert interface to structured data
  hosts: asa
  gather_facts: false
  tasks:


    - name: Gather facts
       cisco.asa.asa_acls:
         state: gathered
       register: gather

    - name: Create inventory directory
      become: true
      delegate_to: localhost
      file:
       path: "{{ inventory_dir }}/host_vars/{{ inventory_hostname }}"
       state: directory

    - name: Write each resource to a file
      become: true
      delegate_to: localhost
      copy:
        content: "{{ gather[‘gathered’][0] | to_nice_yaml }}"
        dest: "{{ inventory_dir }}/host_vars/{{ inventory_hostname }}/acls.yaml"

The state “gathered” only collects existing data. In contrast to most other states, it does not change any configuration. The resulting data structure from reading in a brownfield configuration can be seen below:

$ cat lab_inventory/host_vars/ciscoasa/acls.yaml
- acls:
   - aces:
       - destination:
           address: 192.0.3.0
           netmask: 255.255.255.0
           port_protocol:
                 eq: www
         grant: deny
         line: 1
         log: default
         protocol: tcp
         protocol_options:
           tcp: true
         source:
           address: 192.0.2.0
           netmask: 255.255.255.0
...

You can the full detailed listing of all the commands and outputs of the example in the state: gathered reference gist.

 

State Merged: Add/Update configuration

After the first, non-changing state we now have a look at a state which changes the target configuration: “merged”. This state is also the default state for any of the available resource modules - because it just adds or updates the configuration provided by the user. Plain and simple.

For example, let’s take the following existing device configuration:

ciscoasa# sh access-list
access-list cached ACL log flows: total 0, denied 0 (deny-flow-max 4096)
            alert-interval 300
access-list test_access; 1 elements; name hash: 0x96b5d78b
access-list test_access line 1 extended deny tcp 192.0.2.0 255.255.255.0 192.0.3.0 255.255.255.0 eq www log debugging interval 300 (hitcnt=0) 0xdc46eb6e

Let us assume we want to deploy the configuration which we stored as a flat-file in the gathered example. Note that the content of the flat file is basically one variable called “acls”. Given this flat file and the variable name, we can use the following playbook to deploy the configuration on a device:

---
- name: Merged state play
  hosts: cisco
  gather_facts: false
  collections:
   - cisco.asa

  tasks:
    - name: Merge ACLs config with device existing ACLs config
      asa_acls:
        state: merged
        config: "{{ acls }}"

Once we run this merge play all of the provided parameters will be pushed and configured on the Cisco ASA appliance.

Afterwards, the network device configuration is changed:

ciscoasa# sh access-list
access-list cached ACL log flows: total 0, denied 0 (deny-flow-max 4096)
            alert-interval 300
ccess-list test_access; 2 elements; name hash: 0x96b5d78b
access-list test_access line 1 extended deny tcp 192.0.2.0 255.255.255.0 192.0.3.0 255.255.255.0 eq www log default (hitcnt=0) 0xdc46eb6e
access-list test_access line 2 extended deny icmp 198.51.100.0 255.255.255.0 198.51.110.0 255.255.255.0 alternate-address log errors interval 300 (hitcnt=0) 0x68f0b1cd
access-list test_R1_traffic; 1 elements; name hash: 0x2c20a0c
access-list test_R1_traffic line 1 extended deny tcp 2001:db8:0:3::/64 eq www 2001:fc8:0:4::/64 eq telnet (hitcnt=0) 0x11821a52

All the changes we described in the playbook with the resource modules are now in place in the device configuration.

If we dig slightly into the device output there are following observations:

  • The merge play configured 2 ACLs:
    • test_access, configured with 2 Access Control Entries (ACEs) 
    • test_R1_traffic with only 1 ACEs
  • test_access is an IPV4 ACL where for the first ACE we have specified the line number as 1 while for the second ACE we only specified the name which is the only required parameter. All the other parameters are optional and can be chosen depending on the particular ACE policies . Note however that it is considered best practice to configure the line number if we want to avoid an ACE to be configured as the last in an ACL.
  • test_R1_traffic is an IPV6 ACL 
  • As there weren’t any pre-existing ACLs on this device, all the play configurations have been added. If we had any  pre-existing ACLs and the play also had the same ACL with either different ACEs or same ACEs with different configurations, the merge operation would have updated the existing ACL configuration with the new provided ACL configuration.

Another benefit of automation shows when we run the respective merge play a second time: Ansible’s charm of idempotency comes into the picture! The play run results in “changed=False” which confirms to the user that all of the provided configurations in the play are already configured on the Cisco ASA device.

You can the full detailed listing of all the commands and outputs of the example in the state: merged reference gist.

 

State Replaced: Old out, new in

Another typical situation is when a device is already configured with an ACL with existing ACEs, and the automation practitioner wants to update the ACL with a new set of ACEs while entirely discarding all the already configured ones.

In this scenario the state “replaced” is an ideal choice: as the name suggests, the replaced state will replace ACL existing ACEs with a new set of ACEs given as input by the user. If a user tries to configure any new ACLs that are not already pre-configured on the device it’ll act as a merge state and the asa_acls module will try to configure the ACL ACEs given as input by the user inside the replace play.

Let’s take the following brown field configuration:

ciscoasa# sh access-list
access-list cached ACL log flows: total 0, denied 0 (deny-flow-max 4096)
            alert-interval 300
access-list test_access; 2 elements; name hash: 0x96b5d78b
access-list test_access line 1 extended deny tcp 192.0.2.0 255.255.255.0 192.0.3.0 255.255.255.0 eq www log default (hitcnt=0) 0xdc46eb6e
access-list test_access line 2 extended deny icmp 198.51.100.0 255.255.255.0 198.51.110.0 255.255.255.0 alternate-address log errors interval 300 (hitcnt=0) 0x68f0b1cd
access-list test_R1_traffic; 1 elements; name hash: 0x2c20a0c
access-list test_R1_traffic line 1 extended deny tcp 2001:db8:0:3::/64 eq www 2001:fc8:0:4::/64 eq telnet (hitcnt=0) 0x11821a52

Now we assume we want to configure a new ACL named “test_global_access”, and we want to replace the already existing “test_access” ACL configuration with a new source and destination IP. The corresponding ACL configuration for our new desired state is:

- acls:
   - name: test_access
     acl_type: extended
     aces:
       - grant: deny
         line: 1
         protocol: tcp
         protocol_options:
           tcp: true
         source:
           address: 192.0.3.0
           netmask: 255.255.255.0
         destination:
           address: 192.0.4.0
           netmask: 255.255.255.0
           port_protocol:
             eq: www
         log: default
   - name: test_global_access
     acl_type: extended
     aces:
       - grant: deny
         line: 1
         protocol_options:
           tcp: true
         source:
           address: 192.0.4.0
           netmask: 255.255.255.0
           port_protocol:
             eq: telnet
         destination:
           address: 192.0.5.0
           netmask: 255.255.255.0
           port_protocol:
             eq: www

Note that the definition is again effectively contained in the variable “acls” - which we can reference as a value for the “config” parameter of the asa_acls module just as we did in the last example. Only the value for the state parameter is different this time:

---
- name: Replaced state play
  hosts: cisco
  gather_facts: false
  collections:
   - cisco.asa

  tasks:
    - name: Replace ACLs config with device existing ACLs config
      asa_acls:
        state: replaced
        config: "{{ acls }}"

After running the playbook, the network device configuration has changed as intended: the old configuration was replaced with the new one. In cases where there was no corresponding configuration in place to be replaced, the new one was added:

ciscoasa# sh access-list
access-list cached ACL log flows: total 0, denied 0 (deny-flow-max 4096)
            alert-interval 300
access-list test_access; 1 elements; name hash: 0x96b5d78b
access-list test_access line 1 extended deny tcp 192.0.3.0 255.255.255.0 192.0.4.0 255.255.255.0 eq www log default (hitcnt=0) 0x7ab83be2
access-list test_R1_traffic; 1 elements; name hash: 0x2c20a0c
access-list test_R1_traffic line 1 extended deny tcp 2001:db8:0:3::/64 eq www 2001:fc8:0:4::/64 eq telnet (hitcnt=0) 0x11821a52
access-list test_global_access; 1 elements; name hash: 0xaa83124c
access-list test_global_access line 1 extended deny tcp 192.0.4.0 255.255.255.0 eq telnet 192.0.5.0 255.255.255.0 eq www (hitcnt=0) 0x243cead5

Note that the ACL test_R1_traffic was not modified or removed in this example!

You can the full detailed listing of all the commands and outputs of the example in the state: replaced reference gist.

 

State Overridden: Drop what is not needed

As noted in the last example, ACLs which are not explicitly mentioned in the definition remain untouched. But what if there is the need to reconfigure all existing and pre-configured ACLs with the input ACL ACEs configuration - and also affect those that are not mentioned? This is where the state “overridden” comes into play.

If you take the same brown field environment from the last example and deploy the same ACL definition against it, but this time switch the state to “overridden”, the resulting configuration of the device looks quite different:

Brownfield device configuration before deploying the ACLs:

ciscoasa# sh access-list
access-list cached ACL log flows: total 0, denied 0 (deny-flow-max 4096)
            alert-interval 300
access-list test_access; 2 elements; name hash: 0x96b5d78b
access-list test_access line 1 extended deny tcp 192.0.2.0 255.255.255.0 192.0.3.0 255.255.255.0 eq www log default (hitcnt=0) 0xdc46eb6e
access-list test_access line 2 extended deny icmp 198.51.100.0 255.255.255.0 198.51.110.0 255.255.255.0 alternate-address log errors interval 300 (hitcnt=0) 0x68f0b1cd
access-list test_R1_traffic; 1 elements; name hash: 0x2c20a0c
access-list test_R1_traffic line 1 extended deny tcp 2001:db8:0:3::/64 eq www 2001:fc8:0:4::/64 eq telnet (hitcnt=0) 0x11821a52

Device configuration after deploying the ACLs via the resource module just list last time, but this time with state “overridden”:

ciscoasa# sh access-list
access-list cached ACL log flows: total 0, denied 0 (deny-flow-max 4096)
            alert-interval 300
access-list test_access; 1 elements; name hash: 0x96b5d78b
access-list test_access line 1 extended deny tcp 192.0.3.0 255.255.255.0 192.0.4.0 255.255.255.0 eq www log default (hitcnt=0) 0x7ab83be2
access-list test_global_access; 1 elements; name hash: 0xaa83124c
access-list test_global_access line 1 extended deny tcp 192.0.4.0 255.255.255.0 eq telnet 192.0.5.0 255.255.255.0 eq www (hitcnt=0) 0x243cead5

Note that this time the listing is considerably shorter - the ACL test_R1_traffic was dropped since it was not explicitly mentioned in the ACL definition which was deployed. This showcases the difference between “replaced” and “overridden” state.

You can the full detailed listing of all the commands and outputs of the example in the state: overridden reference gist.

 

State Deleted: Remove what is not wanted

Another more obvious use case is the deletion of existing ACLs on the device, which is implemented in the “deleted” state. In that case the input is the ACL name to be deleted and the corresponding delete operation will delete the entry of the particular ACL by deleting all of the ACEs configured under the respective ACL.

As an example, let’s take our brown field configuration already used in the other examples. To delete the ACL test_access we name it in the input variable:

- acls:
   - name: test_access

The playbook looks just like the one in the other examples, just with the parameter and value state: deleted. After executing it, the configuration of the device is:

ciscoasa# sh access-list
access-list cached ACL log flows: total 0, denied 0 (deny-flow-max 4096)
            alert-interval 300
access-list test_R1_traffic; 1 elements; name hash: 0x2c20a0c
access-list test_R1_traffic line 1 extended deny tcp 2001:db8:0:3::/64 eq www 2001:fc8:0:4::/64 eq telnet (hitcnt=0) 0x11821a52

The output is clearly shorter than the previous configuration since an entire ACL is missing.

You can the full detailed listing of all the commands and outputs of the example in the state: deleted reference gist.

 

State Rendered and State Parsed: For development and offline work

There are two more states currently available : “rendered” and “parsed”. Both are special in that they are not meant to be used in production environments, but during development of your playbooks and device configuration. They do not change the device configuration - instead they output what would be changed in different formats.

The state “rendered” returns a listing of the commands that would be executed to apply the provided configuration. The content of the returned values given the above used configuration against our brown field device configuration:

"rendered": [
   "access-list test_access line 1 extended deny tcp 192.0.2.0 255.255.255.0 192.0.3.0 255.255.255.0 eq www log default",
   "access-list test_access line 2 extended deny icmp 198.51.100.0 255.255.255.0 198.51.110.0 255.255.255.0 alternate-address log errors",
   "access-list test_R1_traffic line 1 extended deny tcp 2001:db8:0:3::/64 eq www 2001:fc8:0:4::/64 eq telnet"
]

You can the full detailed listing of all the commands and outputs of the example in the state: rendered reference gist.

State “parsed” acts similar, but instead of returning the commands that would be executed, it returns the configuration as a JSON structure, which can be reused in subsequent automation tasks or by other programs. See our full detailed listing of all the commands and outputs of the parsed example in the state: parsed reference gist.

 

Use Case: OGs

As mentioned before, the Ansible Content Collection does support a second resource: object groups. Think of networks, users, security groups, protocols, services and the like. The resource module can be used to define them or alter their definition. Much like the ACLs resource module, the basic workflow defines them via a variable structure and then deploys them in a way identified by a state parameter. The states are basically the same as the ACLs resource module understands.

Due to this similarity, we will not go into further details here but instead refer to the different state examples mentioned above.

From a security perspective however, the object group resource module is crucial: in a modern IT environment, communication relations are not only defined by IP addresses, but can also be defined by the types of objects that are in focus: it is crucial for security practitioners to be able to abstract those types in object groups and address their communication relations in ACLs later on.

This also explains why we picked these two resource modules to start with: they work closely hand in hand and together pave the way for an automated security approach using the family of Cisco ASA devices.

 

Takeaways and going forward

The Cisco ASA Content Collection can be of great use to security practitioners in need of automation and unification of their operational workflows around the family of Cisco ASA devices. The resource modules help as building blocks in standardizing automation actions, even more when products of other vendors are part of the IT security environment.

If you want to follow up on this topic, here are some next  steps:

 

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Topics:
Security Automation


 

Sumit Jaiswal

Sumit Jaiswal is a Senior Software Engineer for Red Hat Ansible Automation.


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