AWS Network ACLs and ephemeral port ranges

In this post, I discuss a problem (and its solution) I encountered while working with AWS (Amazon Web Services) Network ACLs, docker containers and ephemeral port ranges.

Infrastructure setup

A Linux EC2 instance with docker engine running in a VPC with inbound and outbound traffic controlled by Network ACLs. I was connecting to another hosted service running on a separate VM, service1 running on port 10001 inside the same subnet with security groups allowing traffic from the host IP (via CIDR).

Symptoms of the problem

I could connect to the service from the host as well as from inside the docker container, but occasionally connectivity from the same docker container would fail. It would also manifest as working in one container, but fail in another container. The connection attempt would just timeout. I thought, may be the container has lost its ability to talk to external hosts, but basic tests didn’t reveal a problem there. Then, I thought may be security group is the issue, but of course that is not since I am using docker bridge network which by default will use the IP of the host as the source IP.

So..what is going on?

Solution - Background

Ephermal ports

Communication over IP network sockets involves two parties - usually referred to as a client and a server with each end happening over a socket. A socket is composed of a pair - IP address and a port. The port for the server side is fixed - either one of the well known port numbers or an internally chosen port number for your services. What about the client side port? The client side port is chosen dynamically at run time and are referred to as ephemeral port.

Operating systems set a configurable range from which this ephemeral port will be chosen. This brings us to AWS Network ACLs.

AWS Network ACLs

AWS Network ACLs allow controlling/regulating traffic flow to and from subnets. Our topic of interest is the outbound rules via which we can specify source ports for our allow/deny rules.

In other words, if our docker container above is selecting a ephemeral port which is not in the allowed list of the outbound rules, the request is not going to go through. This can happen when the Network ACLs range is different from the default range of your operating system.

Docker networks

I mentioned in the symptoms above that I am using docker’s default docker0 which by default works in a NAT mode and hence any outgoing traffic from a docker container will have it’s source IP as the host’s IP. For example:

ubuntu@ip-172-34-59-184:~$ sudo tcpdump -i eth0 port 10001
07:32:49.696954 IP ip-172-34-59-184.51990 > Flags [S], seq 238158991, win 29200, options [mss 1460,sackOK,TS val 2420016438 ecr 0,nop,wscale 7], length 0

ip-172-34-59-184.51990 is the source hostname and 51990 is the ephemeral port that has been chosen to talk to my service which is running on port 10001.


Once I saw the source port via tcpdump, everything clicked. The source port hadn’t even been in my radar when I was running my tests inside the container since i had fixed the same issue on the underlying VM instance just a day back. NAT was as expected just masking the container IP address, the source port was still being preserved however and wasn’t one in the list of allowed ranges in the Network ACL. This port was not in the list of allowed outbound rules (Note that, the above port specifically is not the problem, another port was).


The solution is to basically set the ephemeral range so that it matches the one allowed in the network ACL.

Set the ephemeral port range on a Linux VM

We will add an entry to sysctl.conf:

$ echo 'net.ipv4.ip_local_port_range=49152 65535' | sudo tee --append /etc/sysctl.conf

To effect the above change on a running system, $sudo sysctl -p.

Set the ephemeral port range in a Linux docker container

Pass it at docker run time:

$ docker run --sysctl net.ipv4.ip_local_port_range="49152 65535" ...

Learn more about sysctl for docker.

Set the ephemeral port range on Windows

Use the netsh command:

PS C:\> netsh int ipv4 show dynamicport tcp

Protocol tcp Dynamic Port Range
Start Port      : 49152
Number of Ports : 16384

PS C:\> netsh int ipv4 set dynamicport tcp start=50000 num=1000

PS C:\> netsh int ipv4 show dynamicport tcp

Protocol tcp Dynamic Port Range
Start Port      : 50000
Number of Ports : 1000

The above works inside a Windows container as well. At this stage, there is no way to set this via docker run. So, I imagine, we will need do it either an entry point of the container or during build.


This problem may come up when working with Network ACLs in a hybrid Operating System enviorment as it did for me. I can’t help but feel thankful to the problem as it allowed me to dig into some networking basics. Who would have thought ephemeral ports can have any impact on your life?

Learn more

A very interesting post if you are on Linux is Bind before connect. Learn all about AWS Network ACLs here. Learn all about netsh here and a lot about sysctl here.

While trying to figure out what’s going wrong, I went into a bit of a rabbit hole and learned a few other things as well: