So I have a confession to make. I love Zyxel USG firewalls.
There, I said it. Feels good to finally admit it, to come out of the closet as a ZedHead, more or less.
I do not fear the judgment of the packet-pushing literati on twitter, because my little Red Zed edge device is loaded with features and packed with value. Way more value than an ASA 5505 at any rate.
And after like six months of trying to understand the damn thing, I finally get it. Let me tell you a little about RedZed.daisettalabs.net, the edge device guarding the home lab, Child Partition, Supervisor Mod spouse and me from the big bad internet.
It’s so loaded with features, it’s practically a hyperconverged play: For $200 and change, my Zyxel USG-50 Zywall is packed with features other vendors would have sharded out as separate SKUs long ago. Just take a look at the feature list here. Granted, the sexier ones are subscriptions, but Zyxel lets you take them for a test drive for 30 days, which I of course did the moment I got it. I haven’t subscribed to any since they expired, and frankly was disappointed with the BlueCoat implementation, but I’m considering the IDP subscription.
Even excepting all of the subscription programs, the Zed punches above its class with features that offer real value for a small/medium business, or even nerds guarding the LAN at home. The ones I really appreciate are listed below.
It’s PKI in a box, with some good identity integration: I like Public Key Infrastructure systems and so should you. The ZyXEL comes with one built-in. Though modest in scope (essentially you can generate/sign certs, no revocation/responder pieces) this is a nifty thing to have at this pricepoint, just the kind of value-add a small business might look for.
The Zed also capably integrates with AD directly, though in my testing it was a bit clunky & quite slow to authenticate against a 2012R2 domain. So, you can do what I did and switch to RADIUS, or LDAP if that’s your speed.
Easy WAN LBFO: With the USG-50, you get two WAN links with easy ability to failover or spillover between them.
I’m using this in the lab at home and it works quite well. Though I only have one consumer internet connection, I’ve found that my provider hands out two public, routable IP addresses if I I connect two cables to my modem. This is awesome -worth its own post really- as I’ve been able to test WAN failure on Zed.
On WAN Port 1, I’ve got my last edge firewall device, a small PFsense box with an AMD Sempron and privoxy.
On WAN Port 2, I’m cabled directly to the modem. You get quite a few options to manage failover/spillover between the links, just like when you’re making an MPIO storage policy to your array! Perfect.
Both links work (double-natting behind pfsense works too, though I only ran it like that for a short while), and failover is pretty much transparent on general web stuff, even a VPN service I run on node1 maintains connectivity during the failover.
Time for some Gifcam action:
Zyxel seems to know its target market quite well, and that market has commodity internet circuits -not private leased lines- connecting branch to HQ and branch to internet. WAN failover (no aggregation here, but I’m not sold on WAN aggregation yet) is important, and it’s huge that the Zed rocks LBFO out of the box, no licenses needed, and a few clicks to configure.
Zone-based firewall: I am not a security guy, but I understand the state of the art thinking to be less Internal/External as it used to be, and more segmentation everywhere via zones based on a sort of defense-in-depth concept; Create checkpoints or at least rules between external & internal segments of your network, in other words.
Zones come built in by default with ZyXEL, and figuring out the proper way to use them is what caused me so much pain & suffering with this device for so many months.
Now, I think I’ve got the concept down, but I’m not confident enough to talk about how well this device secures zones internally or externally, so just know this: it’s there. The firewall is ICSA certified, though reading through those docs it didn’t seem like that was much more than a rubber-stamp.
Object-Oriented ports, interfaces, zones, and VLANs: So this is the heart of USG line, more or less. It’s why some dislike working with USGs, and others, like me, warm up to and eventually appreciate it. YMMV.
So what’s this OO thing about? I like to think of it as an abstraction, just like anything else in virtualization. Let’s take a look at how the docs define Zones, for instance:
Oh. That’s not so bad, right? As long as I know the rules, I should just be able to click this thing here, hit apply on that thing there, and voila! ping my SVI…ahhh damnit!
Locked out again.
But seriously, when you go to configure this screen:
lock yourself out again, and refer back to the manual to figure out what you did wrong and you see this:
then you hop on putty post-factory default and it shows you something like this:
you feel kind of stupid and you start to hate this device, which seems to suffer from an acute case of Layer 2/Layer 3 identity disorder.
But struggle through it packeteer, because what awaits you on the other end is, if not the SDN you’ve been waiting for, then at least pretty damn flexible.
Here’s a primer to help you through:
Zone: A group of interfaces + a security context. You get three on the USG-50 line, DMZ, LAN1, LAN2
Interfaces: Software-based, not hardware. Three: LAN1, LAN2, DMZ. RENAME THESE!
Ports: The physical RJ-45; you get four
Port Groups: Hardware-based links connecting ports with each other
And the soft bits:
VLANs: VLANs exist on interfaces and cannot span multiple Zones. They act like trunked ports, and they tag outbound, and look for tags on inbound. Do you like SVIs? Well if you do then you gotta put an IP on it (required)
Bridges: A software link between interfaces at Layer 2. More or less the traditional definition of a switch, right? But you can put an IP on a bridge and -strangely- span zones with Bridges.
Vifs: As you would expect,simple vifs can be created in the contexts above. Useful.
I’m a visual person, so I made a little chart to help me get it.
The chart shows a couple of things: 1) there are three zones in the four boxe. All the things inside each box belong to those zones, but not other zones. 2) Center Circle area shows re-named port-groups. My best advice is to rename LAN 1 & LAN2 into something else, so that you don’t get mixed up as I did consistently. 3) VLANs can exist in only the same Zone but effectively span ports. 4) Bridge is all sorts of Twilight Zone as a Bridge can join a VLAN in Zone 2 with the DMZ port group in Zone DMZ (but not its VLAN). 5) Ports are really nothing, just agnostic Layer 1 interfaces, or at least you can turn them into that.
From your Cisco switch, this is great, and enabled me to finally do what I wanted to do in my lab: tagging, everywhere and always from edge to core, and out back again over the airwaves! From my Meraki (VLAN 420 is for 2.4GhZ and devices I don’t really trust, 421 is laptop net + 5ghZ) to the Zywall through my 2960s, all is tagged, all is controlled and segmented.
Was it worth the six month fight with Zed to get to this point?
Why yes, yes it was.
All around decent performance: Again, punching at or a little above its weight in firewall performance, and still offering good bang for buck value on encryption & IPS compared to the ASA 5505 ($340 retail) the other device I see everywhere in SME. Performance table based off spec-sheets below:
Item,Zed USG-50, Cisco ASA 5505
SPI Firewall throughput, up to 225mb/s, up to150mb/s
3DES/AES VPN Throughput, 90mb/s, up to 100 mb/s
IPS Throughput, 30mb/s, Upto 75mb/s
RJ-45 Ports,2xGbE WAN+ 4xGbE LAN, 8xFaE two with PoE
IPSec Tunnels (Max), 10, 10 (base)
You can buy it at Fry’s, which is how I got mine: Oh man, I am really putting myself out there by admitting to occasionally shopping at Fry’s Electronics. Visiting Fry’s usually depresses me…as a retail experience, it’s not aged well and seeing one row after another filled with discarded, rejected & returned technology items is a real downer.
But sometimes the sales are really compelling. I had my eye on the USG-50 for months at $240, but I couldn’t pull the trigger until I saw it was on sale at Fry’s one weekend for $200. So I bought it, racked/stacked it in my lab that evening, and now, six months later, I’m astounded that you can just walk in and buy a value & feature-packed device like this without talking to a VAR first.
ZyXel could probably make more money if they parsed out the features as SKUs & sold the USG through exclusively through the channel, but they don’t. They sell it in places you can find consumer/prosumer equipment and pack it with some nice features an IT guy can appreciate.
Good Update Tempo: No gripes on the amount of firmware updates ZyXel continuously pushes out for free. I watch the CVE list for vulnerabilities, and while ZyXel has a spotty record in other product lines, it looks like you have to go back to 2008 to find a CVE that applies to the USG line.
No one knows how to pronounce the goofy name, so you can nickname it: Wikipedia’s description of the origin of the ZyXEL name is fun:
When ZyXEL unveiled its first chip-design (ZyXEL was originally a modem-chip design company) back in the late 1980s, the company only had a Chinese name (pronounced Her-Chin = “people work together very hard”). So it had to come up with an English name for a trade show in Asia. The original idea was ZyTEL (“Zy” means nothing, “TEL” for telecommunications). The problem was that someone already had this name announced for the show. So they played around with the letters and came up with ZyXEL instead.
The name does not actually mean anything, although some people claim “XEL” is a word-play on “excellence”.
The next challenge was how to pronounce it (everybody in the company was Chinese at that time).
So they fed the name into an old speech synthesizer (reportedly it was an Amiga). And the synthesizer pronounced it “Zai-Cel
I gave up and call it Zed, the proper British phoentic for the letter Z.
Embrace color in your stack: Everyone’s putting some flourish & color into rack-mounted equipment, but Zed’s been Red for years.
Great, readable, dense documentation: Though I poke fun at the documentation above, it’s actually very very good at this price range. Six hundred pages good. Well-written too, with adequate diagrams, organization and scenarios.
Links at the bottom.
Don’t use it as your DG for everything: If you are using a USG line device, my advice is not to think of those LAN-side ports as a Layer 2 switch ports, and furthermore, not to use this device as the default gateway handed out to clients that need LAN performance. Why?
Simple. It’s not really a switch, and it doesn’t perform well if you use it as such at Layer 2, and especially at Layer 3. Remember the zones above? Well they are security contexts, which means that your packets must gate through them, which will -mark my words- slow them down.
Simple example: using Red Zed as DG on my LAN, I tested large (4GB) SMB 3 file copies to my storage box. I peaked at about 180 megabits/second, a truly pathetic number, but within the the performance spec listed for the inspection engine looking at packets flowing between zones. Even within the same Zone (same port-group, so effectively switching @ layer2) I couldn’t hit above 45 megabytes/second, far less than the 260MB/s transfers I can achieve wtih my switch & LACP.
If you need performance but you like the Zone model, I recommend you use your switch as DG for servers and make the USG the gateway of last resort on the switch. Assuming your packets are tagged, you stay in your VLAN context throughout.
For untrusted or clients that don’t need wired performance, use the USG-50 as DG.
The Ugly & Conclusion
I can’t find anything ‘ugly’ about the USG. It’s a great device with a ton of functionality and neat features that make it a superb value against a more traditional ASA 5505.