What is Azure Network Security Group?

If you’re considering Azure for IaaS workloads, the first aspect of cloud you will have to understand, design and deploy is networking. As with any other cloud, software defined networking is the foundation of IaaS for Azure.

You cannot deploy a workload without first deploying a Virtual Network. However, once you have a network, you then need to consider its security and specifically how you control its perimeter and access. The perimeter is something that requires its own post but for platform-native, have a look at Azure Firewall and for other topics, start by checking out the Security Center docs for an overview.

When it comes to access control on your Virtual Network, Azure offers built-in solutions for both network layer control and route control. Network Security Groups (NSG) function as the network layer control service. So, what are they and how do you use them?

NSGs filter traffic to and from resources in an Azure Virtual Network. Combining rules that allow or deny traffic for both inbound and outbound traffic, allows granular control at the network layer.

They can be viewed as a basic, stateful, packet filtering firewall, but what does that mean? First, lets note what they don’t do; there is no traffic inspection or authentication access control.

So how do they help secure your network? By combining 5 variables into a scenario which you then allow or deny, you can quickly and easily manipulate the access that is possible to your resource. For example, consider the following two rules:


Our first rule, allows RDP traffic to the resources protected by the NSG, but only from the scoped source IP. The second rule, blocks all traffic. The rules are processed in order or priority.

Source and Destination can use IPs, IP ranges, ANY or Service Tags. Service Tags really help you define simple but powerful access rules quickly. For example, consider the following change to our above rules:


We still allow RDP and we still block all traffic, however, we now also allow HTTPS traffic from any source tagged as VirtualNetwork. This includes everything in your Virtual Network, any peered Virtual Networks and any traffic originating across a VPN or ExpressRoute. A single Service Tag replaces multiple source ranges and simplifies management.

If you’re still struggling with the filtering aspect, check out this handy tutorial from Docs.

A couple of other items to note about NSGs; they can be applied to a Network Interface or a Subnet and they have some default rules. Which layer you apply an NSG to is important. Remember traffic is processed inbound and outbound in reversed layers. So traffic from a VM out hits Network Interface then Subnet. So how you scope and combine NSGs is critical to ensuring your access control is as you want it. There is a great example of this on Docs.

The default rules that exist within an NSG allow Virtual Network traffic IN and Internet traffic OUT. You can check out the full list for exact details.

As always, if you have any questions or require a steer on a specific scenario, please get in touch!

Securing Azure PaaS

When considering Azure as a platform, part of the conversation should revolve around transformation. That is, how do we transform our approach from what is viewed as traditional to something more modern. Often this could lead to redesigning how your application/service is deployed, but with some workflows, a simple change from IaaS to PaaS is viewed as a quick win.

This change isn’t suitable in all scenarios, but depending on your specific requirement it could allow for greater resiliency, a reduction in costs, and a simpler administration requirement. One service that is often considered is SQL. Azure has its own PaaS SQL offering which removes the need for you to manage the underlying infrastructure. That alone makes the transformation a worthy consideration.

However, what isn’t often immediately apparent to some administrators is that PaaS offerings are, by their nature, public facing. For Azure SQL to be as resilient as possible and scale responsively, it sits behind a public FQDN. Therefore, how this FQDN is secured must be taken into consideration as a priority to ensure your data is protected appropriately.

Thankfully, Azure SQL comes with a built in firewall service. Initially, all Transact-SQL access to your Azure SQL server is blocked by the firewall. To allow traffic, you must specify one or more server-level firewall rules that enable access. The firewall rules specify which IP address ranges from the Internet are allowed. There is also the ability to choose whether Azure applications can connect to your Azure SQL server.

The ability to grant access to just one of the databases within your Azure SQL server is also possible. You simply create a database-level rule for the required database. However, while this limits the traffic to specific IP ranges, the traffic still flows via the internet.

To communicate with Azure SQL privately, you will first need an Azure V-Net. Once in place, you must enable the service endpoint for Azure SQL, see here. This will allow communication directly between listed subnets within your v-net and Azure SQL via the Azure backbone. This traffic is more secure and possibly faster than via the internet.

Once your endpoint is enabled, you can then create a v-net firewall rule on Azure SQL for the subnet which had a service endpoint enabled. All endpoints within the subnet will have access to all databases. You can repeat these steps to add additional subnets. If adding your v-net replaces the previous IP rules, remember to remove them from your Azure SQL firewall rules.

Also worth noting is the option for “Allow all Azure Services”, the presumption here is that this somehow would only access from Azure Services within your subscription, but this is not the case. It means every single Azure service in all subscriptions, even mine! My recommendation is to avoid this whenever possible, however, there are some cases where this required and this access should be noted as a risk.

More on Azure SQL Firewall – https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/sql-database/sql-database-firewall-configure

More on Azure SQL with V-Nets – https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/sql-database/sql-database-vnet-service-endpoint-rule-overview


Virtual Network Service Endpoints

When designing an application deployment to be hosted in Azure, a design consideration that is commonly enticing is to transform a layer of the application from traditional infrastructure to something more modern. Microsoft offer several Platform-as-a-service (PAAS) options that allow this to be achieved, for example, transforming SQL server installed on a VM to Azure SQL.

While this transformation might be straight forward from an SQL Database point of view and most likely when considering the cost of running your deployment, a concern that often arises is security. As Azure SQL is PAAS, it offers a public endpoint for SQL authentication and connectivity. This is by design and there are limited options to prefix this with a security layer. If your application runs somewhere outside Azure, this makes sense and might be an acceptable and noted weak spot. However, if the rest of your application layers are hosted within Azure, having to route out to a public endpoint is less secure than it could be and simply bad design.

Thankfully, Microsoft have been making updates to virtual network functionality that allow you to route directly from your virtual network resources to several PAAS offerings. To do this, you must make use of virtual network Service Endpoints.

Endpoints extend your virtual network private address space and the identity of your VNet to specific Azure services, over a direct connection. Endpoints allow you to secure your critical Azure service resources, such as Azure SQL, to only your virtual networks. Traffic from your VNet to the Azure service always remains on the Microsoft Azure backbone network and never takes a public route. They are currently available for three PAAS offerings:

  1. Azure SQL
  2. Azure Storage
  3. Azure Data Warehouse (Preview)

Introducing an Endpoint for Azure SQL (to stick with the initial example) allows improved security as it fully removes public Internet access and allows traffic only from the virtual network.

It also optimises routing as Endpoints always take service traffic directly from your virtual network to the service itself on the Microsoft Azure backbone network. Doing this means that if your environment uses forced-tunnelling this traffic will no longer be viewed as outbound, but intra-Azure and will flow direct.

There are some considerations to be aware of:

  • Location – the virtual network and the PAAS offering must be located in the same region.
  • Outbound Network Flow – if you control outbound network flow via NSG, you can make use of the “Azure Service” tags to allow this traffic via Endpoint.
  • Connections – If you enable a service endpoint, all current TCP connections from your virtual network will drop. This is to allow a change from Public IP access to Private.

Personally, I think Endpoints should be used as widely as possible. From a security and design perspective they allow greater ease of adoption when PAAS offerings are being considered and perhaps best of all, they are free!

User Defined Routing

How traffic is routed within and between Azure networks isn’t something that is immediately apparent to the average admin. Therefore trying to increase the complexity of this for security reasons or by adding a virtual appliance can offer several challenges. As more companies begin to adopt a cloud strategy these scenarios will become more common. I’m here to tell you that with a little patience, taking full control of traffic routing in your Azure environment only takes a couple of well planned steps.

This is something you should see repeated often when reading about Azure; everything starts with the Virtual Network. When you create a Virtual Network (vnet) you must define some simple parameters, we’ll focus on two of these for this blog post, Address Space and Subnets.

If you are planning on a cloud-only environment, you can choose whatever address space you like (well, almost… any range defined in RFC1918) but, I would always recommend you plan vnets with the possibility they will be linked to your LAN. It is much easier to plan for this now than trying to resolve it later, trust me.

Choosing how to divide your address space up into several subnets also requires careful consideration. To start with, not all of the addresses in a subnet are usable, Azure reserves the first, last and three other addresses for Azure services. So you need to ensure there are enough usable addresses in each subnet for its intended use.

Once the above steps are completed, Azure creates a system routing table. This defines how traffic will route both within and out of the vnet. It is a combination of your vnet address space and Azure defined address spaces. Below are the effective routes for a demo network interface sitting in a vnet with the address space


As you can see, all of the source definitions are ‘Default’ indicating they are system generated. The entry noted with ‘next hop type’ of ‘Virtual Network’ is our vnet address space, this defines the traffic as local. The rest are added by default to cover system and internet routing, more on those here.

The above table applies to all subnets within the vnet, so if you had a requirement for an incredibly secure vnet that could not route to the internet, only local traffic, you could introduce a user defined route table to overwrite the system route.

Routing in Azure is done by longest prefix match (LPM) this means that if the system table defines a 0/16 and you define a 0/24 and traffic is bound for that address space, it will follow the 0/24 route. If the LPM is an exact match, the following order is adhered to:

  1. User defined route
  2. BGP route (when ExpressRoute is used)
  3. System route

So using our example above, we would create a UDR and define a route for traffic bound for as having a ‘next hop’ of none. This will prevent any outbound traffic, with the exception of your vnet (remember, LPM) from being able to route entirely.

The below grab of my demo VM effective routes shows how the system route is now marked as invalid and my user route has precedence.


There are many other scenarios where this can be useful, for example if you have a site-to-site VPN and would like all internet traffic to tunnel through on-premise appliances you can force tunnel traffic to the gateway.

Similarly if you have an appliance as part of your vnet within Azure, you can route all traffic to and from it as you see fit. Remember to always view the effective routes being applied to a network interface before pushing to a live production environment!

My final recommendation if using UDRs in your environment is to add a Network Watcher object. It greatly simplifies analysing and troubleshooting routing. There are multiple powershell and CLI commands you can also make use of for troubleshooting.

If you’ve any questions etc, get in touch!