A Comprehensive Guide to pfSense Security Monitoring - zenarmor.com (2024)

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In today's digital landscape, where cyber threats are constantly evolving and data breaches seem like daily occurrences, securing your network has become more critical than ever. pfSense® software emerges as a powerful guardian for your network security, offering a reliable and feature-rich firewall and router operating system. This free, open-source solution is a popular choice for homes, businesses, and organizations of all sizes due to its versatility and robust security capabilities.

pfSense software acts as a comprehensive shield, defending your network from unauthorized access, malware intrusion, denial-of-service attacks (DoS/DDoS), and other malicious activities. By deploying pfSense software, you gain a powerful tool to safeguard your valuable data, user privacy, and overall network integrity. pfSense software, being a security-focused firewall and router operating system, places a strong emphasis on security monitoring.

In this article, we will discuss how to monitor the security of your network using pfSense software firewall. Tools and best practices will be defined and explained throughout. Let us start with the distinction between network security monitoring and network monitoring.

What are the Differences Between Network Monitoring and Security Monitoring?

Network monitoring is the continuous process of observing and analyzing the performance, health, and availability of a computer network. Network monitoring involves collecting data on various network elements, such as routers, switches, firewalls, and servers. This data can include metrics like bandwidth usage, latency (delay), packet loss, and device uptime. Network monitoring primarily focuses on ensuring the smooth operation and efficient resource utilization of a network. It helps identify bottlenecks, troubleshoot connectivity issues, and optimize network performance for overall network stability.

Security monitoring is a specialized subset of network monitoring that focuses on detecting and mitigating security threats. It involves analyzing network traffic, system logs, and security events to identify suspicious activity, potential vulnerabilities, and ongoing attacks. Security monitoring aims to protect your network from unauthorized access, malware, intrusions, and other malicious activities. It helps identify and respond to security incidents before they escalate into major breaches.

What are the Benefits of Proactive Network Security Monitoring?

Proactive network security monitoring is crucial for maintaining the integrity, confidentiality, and availability of an organization's network infrastructure. The main advantages of proactive network security monitoring are listed below:

  • Early Detection and Prevention: Traditional security measures like firewalls act as a shield, but they can't always prevent every threat. Proactive monitoring with pfSense allows you to be vigilant. You can spot suspicious behavior or potential vulnerabilities before attackers exploit them by continuously analyzing network activity, security logs, and firewall events. This empowers you to take timely action, such as adjusting firewall rules, patching software, or isolating infected devices, effectively preventing security incidents from escalating into major breaches.
  • Maintaining Network Stability and Performance: Network security isn't just about external threats. Internal issues, like misconfigured devices or unusual traffic patterns, can disrupt your network's stability and performance. Proactive monitoring with pfSense helps you identify these anomalies and troubleshoot them before they cause downtime or performance degradation.
  • Informed Decision Making: Security monitoring with pfSense provides valuable insights into your network's overall health and security posture. By analyzing trends in firewall rule hits, intrusion attempts, and resource usage, you can make informed decisions about strengthening your security posture, optimizing resource allocation, and prioritizing security updates.

Understanding pfSense Security Monitoring

Maintaining a secure network requires constant vigilance. pfSense offers a powerful toolkit to monitor your network's security posture and identify potential threats.

This guide will delve into all aspects of pfSense security monitoring:

  • Rule Logging and Analysis: We'll explore how to log and analyze firewall rules to ensure they function effectively and identify any suspicious activity.
  • Security Logs and Patch Management: Learn how to leverage security logs to gain insights into potential vulnerabilities and keep your pfSense installation and security packages up-to-date with the latest patches.
  • Firewall Logs, System Logs, and VPN Logs: Discover how to analyze different types of logs generated by pfSense to identify suspicious activity across various network components.
  • pfSense Updates and Package Management: This section emphasizes the importance of keeping your pfSense software and security packages updated to address newly discovered vulnerabilities.
  • Vulnerability Scans (optional): While not a built-in feature, we'll discuss the benefits of running vulnerability scans to identify potential weaknesses in your network configuration.
  • Real-time Alerts and Notifications: Learn how to configure pfSense to send real-time alerts for security events, allowing you to react promptly to potential threats.

Rule Logging and Analysis

Firewall rule logging and analysis provide a window into the inner workings of your pfSense firewall. By actively monitoring and analyzing these logs, you gain a deeper understanding of your network traffic and can proactively identify and mitigate potential security threats. Here's why rule logging and analysis are important for pfSense security monitoring.

  • Visibility into Security Events: Security rules define actions taken on network traffic (allow, block, etc.). Logging these firewall rule triggers provides detailed information about what's happening on your network.
  • Identifying Threats and Anomalies: By analyzing firewall rule logs, you can identify suspicious activity that might indicate security threats. For example, a sudden spike in blocked traffic attempts could suggest a port scan or denial-of-service attack.
  • Investigating Incidents: Logs from security rules provide vital evidence during security incident investigations. They help pinpoint the origin and nature of the attack, aiding in faster resolution.
  • Compliance Requirements: Many security regulations mandate logging and analysis of security events. Rule logs can demonstrate compliance with these regulations.

To enable logging and analyzing firewall rules in pfSense, you may follow the steps given below:

  1. Navigate to Firewall Rules: Go to "Firewall" and then "Rules" in the pfSense web interface.
  2. Edit Firewall Rules: Find and edit the firewall rules that you want to monitor. Enable logging for these rules.
  3. Review Firewall Logs: Go to "Status" > "System Logs" > "Firewall" to access the firewall logs. Here, you can analyze the events that have been logged.
  4. Analyze Logged Events: Look for any unexpected or suspicious traffic patterns in the firewall logs. This could include repeated connection attempts, traffic from unauthorized sources, or any other anomalies that may indicate a security threat.

By following these steps, you can effectively monitor and analyze firewall rule activity in pfSense, helping to identify and respond to potential security issues.

Security Logs and Patch Management

pfSense generates various security logs, including firewall logs, system logs with security-related entries, and VPN logs if applicable. These logs provide valuable insights into network activity and security events, enabling administrators to detect and respond to potential threats.

Firewall Logs

Firewall logs keep track of all the traffic coming in and going out of a network, helping admins keep an eye on what's happening and spot any strange or unauthorized attempts to access the network. Log management tools like ManageEngine's pfSense Firewall Log Analyzer or SolarWinds' pfSense Firewall Log Analyzer & Reporting Tool can help make sense of these logs. They offer features like real-time correlation, detailed analysis, and automatic responses to potential threats.

System Logs

System logs contain security-related entries, such as login attempts, configuration changes, and system events. These logs help administrators track user activity, detect unauthorized access, and troubleshoot system issues.

VPN Logs

VPN (Virtual Private Network) logs, if applicable, record all VPN-related activity, including VPN connections, disconnections, and data transfers. These logs are essential for monitoring VPN usage and ensuring the security of remote connections.

pfSense Updates and Package Management (security patches)

Besides analyzing logs, keeping your system safe means regularly updating it with patches. pfSense has a handy tool called the System Patches package. It makes getting and applying official security patches and bug fixes from Netgate easier. With this package, admins can try out and apply their own custom changes. This patch management feature helps ensure that your pfSense system stays current and safe from threats.

Vulnerability Scans (optional)

Vulnerability scans are optional but recommended for identifying potential security weaknesses in the network. These scans can be performed using various tools, including open-source solutions like Nessus, OpenVAS, or Nexpose, which can help administrators identify and remediate vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.

Real-time Alerts and Notifications

Setting up real-time alerts and notifications for security events in pfSense is crucial for enabling timely responses to potential security threats. Here are the methods available for setting up these notifications.

  1. GUI Notifications: The firewall can display alerts in the menu bar, indicated by the fa-bell icon. This provides a visual indication of important events and errors directly within the pfSense interface.
  2. Local Notifications via LED Indicators: On supported hardware, pfSense can provide local notifications using LED indicators. While not configurable, these indicators can still alert administrators to important events without requiring them to constantly monitor the interface.
  3. Local Notifications via Sounds: Another local notification method is through sounds using a PC speaker. This provides an audible alert for events, ensuring that administrators are notified even if they are not actively looking at the interface.
  4. Remote Notifications via Email: pfSense supports remote notifications via email using SMTP. This allows administrators to receive alerts directly in their email inbox, enabling them to stay informed even when they are not actively monitoring the firewall interface.
  5. Remote Notifications via Telegram Notification API: Administrators can receive remote notifications via the Telegram notification API. This integrates with Telegram messenger, providing real-time alerts on mobile devices or desktop applications.
  6. Remote Notifications via Pushover Notification API: Pushover notification API integration allows administrators to receive alerts on their mobile devices through the Pushover app. This ensures that critical security events are promptly communicated to administrators, even when they are on the go.
  7. Remote Notifications via Slack Notification API: Lastly, pfSense supports remote notifications via the Slack notification API. This allows alerts to be sent directly to Slack channels or users, enabling teams to collaborate and respond to security events effectively.

Overall, these notification methods play a vital role in enabling administrators to promptly respond to security threats by ensuring that they are promptly notified of important events, whether they are monitoring the firewall interface or not.

Troubleshooting and Diagnostics (Security Focus)

pfSense offers a robust set of tools and techniques to help you troubleshoot and diagnose security issues on your network. These troubleshooting tools empower you to identify potential threats, investigate suspicious activity, and take corrective measures to mitigate risks. Here's a breakdown of some key features and how pfSense Diagnostic tools aid in security.

Packet Capture

pfSense allows capturing network traffic at specific interfaces for later analysis. Tools like " Diagnostics > Packet Capture" in the web interface or the tcpdump command-line utility help you record raw network packets.

Analyzing captured packets can reveal suspicious activity, malware communication attempts, unauthorized access attempts, or vulnerabilities in network protocols. By inspecting the contents of packets, you can identify potential threats and take action to block them.

Log Analysis

pfSense provides comprehensive logging functionality. System logs, firewall logs, and other services record events and activities on your firewall. You can access logs through the web interface or utilize tools like tail and grep on the command line to filter and analyze specific logs.

Analyzing logs is crucial for identifying security incidents. Logs record firewall rules being triggered, failed login attempts, dropped packets, and other events. By monitoring and analyzing logs, you can detect suspicious activity, diagnose firewall rule issues, and identify potential security breaches.

Additional Tools and Techniques

pfSense offers real-time and historical traffic graphs that visualize network activity across interfaces. This helps identify unusual traffic patterns, potential denial-of-service attacks, or unauthorized data exfiltration attempts.

pfSense can be configured to send email or syslog alerts for specific events like failed firewall rules, high CPU usage, or suspicious login attempts. These alerts provide timely notifications of potential security issues requiring immediate attention.

pfSense allows installing additional security packages like Snort (intrusion detection system) or pfBlockerNG (ad blocking and DNS filtering) to enhance network security and identify malicious traffic patterns.

pfSense provides a solid foundation for network security monitoring, but its capabilities can be significantly expanded by integrating with a variety of third-party tools. Here's an overview of some popular options and how they can help improve your pfSense security posture.


Integrating Zenarmor® with pfSense enhances your network's defensive capabilities. The robust features of pfSense are combined with the additional layer of protection offered by Zenarmor against web-based threats. This synergy between the two solutions creates a powerful partnership, bolstering the security and resilience of your network infrastructure.

Zenarmor in pfSense provides users with advanced network security features and functionalities, offering compatibility with pfSense Community Edition. Here's how Zenarmor helps pfSense with network security monitoring.

  1. Comprehensive Security: Zenarmor acts as a next-generation firewall, offering comprehensive protection against a wide range of online threats, including malicious websites and sophisticated attacks.

  2. Advanced Filtering: It comes with advanced filtering capabilities, allowing users to control access to specific content and enhance overall web security. This feature enables administrators to create custom policies tailored to their organization's needs.

  3. Threat Intelligence: Zenarmor employs AI-based systems to classify and update web categories in real time. This real-time threat intelligence enhances network security by automatically identifying and blocking new and sophisticated threats as they emerge.

  4. Deployment Flexibility: Zenarmor can be deployed on various platforms with network access, including bare-metal servers, virtual machines, on-premise, or in the cloud. This flexibility allows organizations to integrate Zenarmor seamlessly into their existing network infrastructure.

  5. User-Friendly Interface: The Zenarmor dashboard provides a user-friendly interface for managing security policies, viewing reports, and monitoring network activity. Administrators can easily configure settings, monitor traffic, and analyze security events from a centralized dashboard.

    Figure 1. Zenarmor Web UI

Overall, Zenarmor complements pfSense by adding advanced security features, threat intelligence, and ease of management, making it an indispensable tool for enhancing network security.


Ntopng is a powerful tool for real-time traffic analysis that integrates well with pfSense. It captures and analyzes network traffic data, providing valuable insights into your network activity. pfSense offers robust firewall capabilities, but ntopng adds another layer of visibility by providing detailed information about the traffic flowing through your network.How can ntopng be utilized to monitor security in pfsense? Here are some tips for security monitoring in pfSense.

  • Real-time Traffic Visualization: See live network traffic flows, including source and destination IP addresses, protocols used, and packet sizes. This helps identify potential bottlenecks or suspicious activity.

  • Traffic Analysis by Protocol: Analyze the distribution of traffic across different protocols (e.g., HTTP, FTP, etc.) to understand how your network is being used. NtopNG can monitor both Layer 7 (application layer) and Layer 4 (transport layer) protocols. This means it can analyze traffic based on the applications generating it (e.g., HTTP, HTTPS, SSH) as well as the underlying transport protocols (e.g., TCP, UDP).

  • Top Talkers Identification: Identify devices on your network consuming the most bandwidth, allowing you to optimize resource allocation or investigate potential misuse.

  • Network Performance Monitoring: Monitor network performance metrics like latency and packet loss to troubleshoot network issues or identify potential bottlenecks.

    Figure 2. NtopNG UI

  • Built-in Graphical Interface: NtopNG comes with a user-friendly web-based interface, making it accessible and easy to use. Administrators can visualize network data through graphs, charts, and tables, facilitating data analysis and decision-making.

NtopNG is accessible from port number 3000, making it easy to integrate with pfSense firewall. Administrators can access the NtopNG interface directly from their web browsers, simplifying the monitoring process.

Overall, NtopNG enhances pfSense monitoring by providing comprehensive visibility into network traffic, analyzing protocols and flows, monitoring bandwidth usage, and offering a user-friendly interface for data visualization and analysis.

Telegraf and Grafana

Telegraf and Grafana can be a powerful combination for security monitoring in pfSense, although they don't directly provide security alerts themselves. Telegraf is an open-source agent that collects data from various sources, including pfSense. It can be installed as a package on pfSense and configured to collect relevant security-related metrics.

Telegraf offers plugins for pfSense that can collect data on;

  • Firewall logs (e.g., blocked traffic, allowed connections)
  • System health (e.g., CPU usage, memory utilization)
  • Interface traffic (bandwidth usage)
  • Intrusion detection systems (IDS) like Snort (if installed)
  • Other pfSense services (depending on plugins available)

Grafana is a web-based platform for visualizing time-series data. It can be installed on a separate machine and configured to receive data from Telegraf running on pfSense.

Using Telegraf data, you can create custom dashboards in Grafana to visualize security-related metrics for pfSense. These dashboards can include the above widgets.

  • Firewall rule activity (blocked vs. allowed traffic)
  • System resource utilization (CPU, memory)
  • Network traffic trends
  • IDS alerts (if using Snort)
  • Combined visualizations for a comprehensive security overview
Advantages of using Telegraf and Grafana

Some of the benefits of using Telegraf and Grafana are shared below.

  • Centralized Monitoring: View security-related data from pfSense alongside data from other sources (if Telegraf is used on other devices) in a single platform.
  • Customization: Create custom dashboards tailored to your specific security monitoring needs.
  • Real-time Visualization: Monitor security metrics in real-time to identify potential threats quickly.
  • Improved Security Awareness: Visualizations can help you gain a better understanding of your network activity and identify potential security risks.

Security Onion

Security Onion is a comprehensive open-source platform designed for network security monitoring and log analysis. It integrates various tools and technologies to help organizations detect, analyze, and respond to security threats effectively. Here's how Security Onion helps with pfSense monitoring:

  • Centralized Log Management: Security Onion provides a centralized platform for collecting, storing, and analyzing logs from various sources, including pfSense firewalls. By integrating pfSense logs into Security Onion, organizations can consolidate their log data in one location for easier monitoring and analysis.
  • Elastic Integration: Security Onion's Elastic Integration capabilities enable seamless ingestion and parsing of pfSense logs. By adding the pfSense integration to Security Onion's Fleet, administrators can configure agents to accept and process pfSense log traffic, ensuring that all relevant data is captured for analysis.
  • Visualization and Analysis: Security Onion offers built-in dashboards and visualization tools that make it easy to monitor and analyze pfSense logs. Administrators can use these tools to gain insights into network traffic, identify security incidents, and investigate potential threats.
  • Detection and Response: Security Onion's monitoring capabilities help organizations detect suspicious activities and security events within their network, including those originating from pfSense firewalls. By monitoring pfSense logs in real time and applying detection rules and analytics, Security Onion enables proactive threat detection and response.
  • Community Support and Documentation: Security Onion provides extensive documentation and training resources to help users set up, configure, and optimize their deployments. Additionally, the Security Onion community forum offers a platform for users to seek assistance, share best practices, and troubleshoot issues related to pfSense monitoring and security operations.


In pfSense, intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDS/IPS) like Snort and Suricata provide advanced capabilities to detect and prevent network attacks. Snort is an intrusion detection and prevention system (IDS/IPS) that plays a crucial role in security monitoring on pfSense. Here's why it's needed and how Snort helps to monitor your network security in pfSense:

  • Intrusion Detection and Prevention: Snort is designed to analyze network traffic in real-time to detect and prevent potential threats and attacks. It examines packets of data flowing through the network and compares them against a database of known attack signatures or patterns.
  • Enhanced Security Monitoring: pfSense, being a powerful open-source firewall and router software, provides robust network security. However, adding Snort enhances security monitoring capabilities by providing an additional layer of defense against intrusions and malicious activities.
  • Rule-Based Detection: Snort operates based on predefined rulesets, which can be tailored to match specific security requirements. These rulesets define patterns of malicious behavior, such as known malware signatures, suspicious network traffic, or unauthorized access attempts.
  • Customizable Configuration: Users can customize Snort's configuration to suit their network environment and security needs. This includes selecting which rules to enable, tuning sensitivity levels, and adjusting blocking options based on organizational policies.
  • Real-Time Alerting: Snort generates alerts in real time when it detects suspicious or potentially malicious activity. These alerts provide network administrators with immediate notification of security incidents, allowing them to respond promptly and mitigate risks.
  • Continuous Monitoring and Analysis: Snort continuously monitors network traffic, providing ongoing visibility into the network's security posture. By analyzing alerts and logging detailed information, administrators can identify trends, patterns, and emerging threats for proactive security measures.

Overall, Snort serves as a critical component of security monitoring in pfSense by offering intrusion detection and prevention capabilities, customizable rule-based configuration, real-time alerting, and continuous network traffic analysis to enhance overall security posture and protect against cyber threats.


Suricata is an open-source network intrusion detection and prevention system (NIDS/NIPS). It's utilized within pfSense to enhance security monitoring capabilities. Here's a breakdown of why Suricata is needed in pfSense and how it helps.

  • Intrusion Detection and Prevention: Suricata provides real-time monitoring of network traffic for malicious activity, such as viruses, malware, or various types of attacks. It can detect and respond to threats by alerting administrators or taking actions like blocking IP addresses or dropping packets.

  • Enhanced Security Monitoring: With the increasing trend of encrypting network and internet traffic, traditional intrusion detection methods have become less effective. Suricata, however, remains valuable in network security by analyzing encrypted traffic and detecting threats, even though it cannot inspect encrypted data for malware or viruses.

  • Flexible Rule Configuration: Suricata allows administrators to configure rule sets tailored to their specific security needs. Users can select from various rule categories, enabling or disabling rules based on their requirements. This flexibility ensures that Suricata adapts to the network's unique security posture.

  • Granular Control: Suricata provides granular control over the rules and actions taken upon detection of malicious activity. Administrators can fine-tune rule sets to minimize false positives and optimize the detection of genuine threats. This granular control ensures that security measures are effective without overly disrupting legitimate network traffic.

  • Inline Mode for Intrusion Prevention: Suricata's inline mode enables it to actively prevent threats by dropping malicious packets in real time. This mode ensures that potential security risks are mitigated proactively, enhancing the overall security posture of the network.

  • Integration with pfSense: Suricata seamlessly integrates with pfSense. This integration allows users to manage Suricata directly from the pfSense web interface, simplifying configuration, monitoring, and maintenance tasks.

    Figure 3. Suricata UI

In summary, Suricata plays a crucial role in enhancing security monitoring capabilities within pfSense by providing real-time threat detection, proactive prevention measures, and granular control over security rules. Its flexibility, effectiveness, and seamless integration with pfSense make it an indispensable tool for safeguarding networks against evolving cybersecurity threats.

Best Practices for pfSense Security Monitoring

To ensure the robustness and effectiveness of your pfSense security measures, it's imperative to implement a comprehensive set of best practices. By following these guidelines, you can fortify your pfSense firewall against potential threats and vulnerabilities, mitigate risks, and maintain the integrity and confidentiality of your network communications. Let's explore some key best practices to enhance the security posture of your pfSense firewall.

  • Comprehensive Logging: Enable logging for all relevant pfSense components and review logs regularly.
  • Intrusion Detection: Utilize IDS/IPS systems like Suricata or Snort to monitor for suspicious network activity.
  • Network Traffic Analysis: Leverage tools like ntopng or Zenarmor to analyze traffic patterns and identify anomalies.
  • Centralized Logging: Send logs to a central server or SIEM for better analysis and correlation.
  • Software Updates: Keep pfSense and packages updated with the latest security patches.
  • Access Control: Implement strong authentication for pfSense access and VPN connections.
  • Secure Protocols: Use secure protocols like SSH for remote management and strong encryption for VPNs.
  • VPN Monitoring: Monitor VPN connections for suspicious activities.
  • Security Audits: Conduct regular security audits to identify vulnerabilities and misconfigurations.
  • Alerting Strategies:
    • Define thresholds and triggers for generating alerts.
    • Configure real-time alerts for critical security events.
    • Set up email/SMS notifications for alerts.
    • Develop escalation procedures for handling alerts.
    • Test alerting mechanisms regularly.
  • Documentation Practices:
    • Document security policies, configurations, and best practices.
    • Develop incident response plans.
    • Implement change management for pfSense configurations.
    • Provide security awareness training for personnel.
    • Regularly review and update the documentation.

By following these best practices, you can strengthen your pfSense security posture and proactively identify potential threats.

A Comprehensive Guide to pfSense Security Monitoring - zenarmor.com (2024)


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