I'm just wondering about the naming of these firewall behaviours. My basic understanding is that stateful filtering lets inbound traffic to return the outbound response without explicitly specifying the rule, whereas stateless requires that outbound rule to be specified.

I don't get it. Why is requiring explicit rules called stateless and the other called stateful?

  • 3
    A side-note, but you should know that stateless firewalls have historically been subject to a number of architectural vulnerabilities, especially when packet fragmentation is involved.
    – forest
    Sep 14, 2019 at 2:12
  • 3
    @forest Stateful ones have had their share of reassembly bugs, too. Sep 15, 2019 at 3:05

3 Answers 3


You are almost correct. But stateful inspection allows you to have more control above data streams going through the firewall.

A Cybrary article says:

Stateless firewalls watch network traffic and restrict or block packets based on source and destination addresses or other static values. They’re not ‘aware’ of traffic patterns or data flows. A stateless firewall uses simple rule-sets that do not account for the possibility that a packet might be received by the firewall ‘pretending’ to be something you asked for.

A stateless firewall filter, also known as an access control list (ACL), does not statefully inspect traffic. Instead, it evaluates packet contents statically and does not keep track of the state of network connections.

Stateful firewalls can watch traffic streams from end to end. They are aware of communication paths and can implement various IP Security (IPsec) functions such as tunnels and encryption. In technical terms, this means that stateful firewalls can tell what stage a TCP connection is in (open, open sent, synchronized, synchronization acknowledge or established). It can tell if the MTU has changed and whether packets have fragmented. etc.

They are named as such because they are really doing what the name means.

Stateless: don't remember any state, just filter the current packet passing through according to the rule list.

Stateful: remember the state of the data stream passed through (what happened in all previous packets) and filter based on the same list as in case of stateless, but filter also based on state information.

The state information stored in the firewall memory allows you to do exactly what you asked before and much more.

You can add a rule that allows passing of the new incoming TCP connection inside (TCP packet marked with a SYN flag) and all established / related traffic inside / outside.

In case of TCP, the client (SRC IP/SRC PORT) sends SYN packet to the server (DST IP/DST PORT) to open the TCP connection. Firewall has a rule that this packet can pass (only new TCP connections to that server). Firewall now remembers the request to open the connection was sent to server (it remembers among others src IP, src port, dst IP, dst port and state of the connection - in this case CONNECT) and now expects only SYN/ACK packet from server side. No other packets of this concrete TCP connection can pass through it (in both directions). Server then sends SYN/ACK, firewall remembers HALF-OPEN state and expects only ACK flagged packet from client. Once the client sends ACK, the state of the connection is changed to CONNECTED and only packets with flag ACK (data) FIN/ACK (close connection) can pass through now. The same is happening during the connection closing procedure - so it is possible to have complete control above the protocol passing through and filter out invalid packets.

For TCP it's a bit hard to explain and understand. ICMP is much easier. There are two basic ICMP packets - ECHO and REPLY.

In case of stateful firewall you can ensure that REPLY can pass the firewall only in case the ECHO was previously sent.

In case of stateless it is possible only to control if ECHO and REPLY can pass through so the server can send REPLY anytime even if it was not asked for it.

  • Can you pare this answer down a bit? I'm specifically just wondering why they're named as such, not what the differences between them are. There's other questions that already answer that Sep 13, 2019 at 18:08
  • see my edit above
    – Fis
    Sep 13, 2019 at 18:12
  • 7
    @kickpuncher11, the answer is meant to be useful to other people with a similar question. So the more information the better (in general). You can take the bit that's useful for you.
    – dave
    Sep 15, 2019 at 7:02
  • So, servers used to be statefull and are going stateless while firewalls used to be stateless and are going statefull? It's hard to keep up sometimes.
    – Mast
    Sep 15, 2019 at 17:36
  • @Mast in principle stateless is very desirable if it can provide all required features. With a stateless service (be it a firewall or a server) you can just reboot it or put in another one if it crashes, without any problems (since there is no state which is lost) and if you need more bandwidth you can just spin up another firewall server, and they do not need to share any state. But some things can only be done with state, so we sometimes need it.
    – Falco
    Sep 16, 2019 at 11:36

Stateless means to make a decision (drop, accept, ...) solely based on a single packet without any further context. Stateful means to maintain some context information based on previous packets and include it when deciding on what to do with a packet.

This context is about previously established connections (i.e. "real" connections like in TCP or connection-like associations as in UDP). The stored state of a connection includes source and destination IP and ports, time of last activity (for timing out states) and in case of TCP also the current sequence numbers. It gets updated when new packets matching the current state arrive. It gets removed if the connections gets explicitly closed (TCP FIN handshake) or implicitly closed (idle timeout).

Keeping such state makes it possible to match packets belonging to established connections. This allows to easily allow traffic matching connections previously initiated from inside a trusted network but to deny any connections initiated from the untrusted outside. This makes firewall configurations both simpler and more secure but at the cost of increased memory usage (for the states) and reduced performance (due to the time needed for state lookup).


Stateful firewall - A Stateful firewall is aware of the connections that pass through it. It adds and maintains information about a user's connections in a state table, referred to as a connection table. It then uses this connection table to implement the security policies for users connections. An example of the stateful firewall is PIX, ASA, Checkpoint.

Stateless firewalls - (Packet Filtering) Stateless firewalls, on the other hand, does not look at the state of connections but just at the packets themselves. An example of a packet filtering firewall is the Extended Access Control Lists on Cisco IOS Routers.

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