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IPsec is a suite of protocols for securing network connections, but the details and many variations quickly become overwhelming. This is particularly the case when trying to interoperate between disparate systems, causing more than one engineer to just mindlessly turn the knobs when attempting to bring up a new connection.
This Tech Tip means to give bottom-up coverage of the low-level protocols used in an IPv4 context (we provide no coverage of IPv6). This is not a deployment guide or best-practices document — we're looking at it strictly at the protocol level on up, rather than from the big picture on down.
NOTE: originally this was to be a pair of papers, with the second covering Key Exchange and the like, but it appears that this was not meant to be. Sorry.
One of the first things that one notices when trying to set up IPsec is that there are so many knobs and settings: even a pair of entirely standards-conforming implementations sports a bewildering number of ways to impede a successful connection. It's just an astonishingly-complex suite of protocols.
One cause of the complexity is that IPsec provides mechanism, not policy: rather than define such-and-such encryption algorithm or a certain authentication function, it provides a framework that allows an implementation to provide nearly anything that both ends agree upon.
In this section, we'll touch on some of the items in the form of a glossary, with a compare-and-contrast to show which terms relate to which other terms. This is not even remotely complete.
We'll certainly face more options as we unwrap IPsec.
Since we're looking at IPsec from the bottom up, we must first take a brief detour to revisit the IP Header itself, which carries all of the traffic we'll be considering. Note that we are not trying to provide comprehensive coverage to the IP header — there are other excellent resources for that (the best being TCP/IP Illustrated, vol 1).
These proto codes are defined by IANA — the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority — and there are many more than would ever be used by any single installation, but most will ring a bell with a network-savvy technician. These representative types are taken from the IANA website listing protocols:
|1||ICMP — Internet Control Message Protocol|
|2||IGMP — Internet Group Management Protocol|
|4||IP within IP (a kind of encapsulation)|
|6||TCP — Transmission Control Protocol|
|17||UDP — User Datagram Protocol|
|41||IPv6 — next-generation TCP/IP|
|47||GRE — Generic Router Encapsulation (used by PPTP)|
|50||IPsec: ESP — Encapsulating Security Payload|
|51||IPsec: AH — Authentication Header|
We'll be studying the last two in detail.
AH is used to authenticate — but not encrypt — IP traffic, and this serves the treble purpose of ensuring that we're really talking to who we think we are, detecting alteration of data while in transit, and (optionally) to guard against replay by attackers who capture data from the wire and attempt to re-inject that data back onto the wire at a later date.
Authentication is performed by computing a cryptographic hash-based message authentication code over nearly all the fields of the IP packet (excluding those which might be modified in transit, such as TTL or the header checksum), and stores this in a newly-added AH header and sent to the other end.
This AH header contains just five interesting fields, and it's injected between the original IP header and the payload. We'll touch on each of the fields here, though their utility may not be fully apparent until we see how they're used in the larger picture.
The easiest mode to understand is Transport Mode, which is used to protect an end-to-end conversation between two hosts. This protection is either authentication or encryption (or both), but it is not a tunneling protocol. It has nothing to do with a traditional VPN: it's simply a secured IP connection.
In AH Transport Mode, the IP packet is modified only slightly to include the new AH header between the IP header and the protocol payload (TCP, UDP, etc.), and there is a shuffling of the protocol code that links the various headers together.
This protocol shuffling is required to allow the original IP packet to be reconstituted at the other end: after the IPsec headers have been validated upon receipt, they're stripped off, and the original protocol type (TCP, UDP, etc.) is stored back in the IP header. We'll see this chain of next header fields again and again as we examine IPsec.
When the packet arrives at its destination and passes the authentication check, the AH header is removed and the Proto=AH field in the IP header is replaced with the saved "Next Protocol". This puts the IP datagram back to its original state, and it can be delivered to the waiting process.
Tunnel Mode forms the more familiar VPN functionality, where entire IP packets are encapsulated inside another and delivered to the destination.
Like Transport mode, the packet is sealed with an Integrity Check Value to authenticate the sender and to prevent modification in transit. But unlike Transport mode, it encapsulates the full IP header as well as the payload, and this allows the source and destination addresses to be different from those of the encompassing packet: This allows formation of a tunnel.
When a Tunnel-mode packet arrives at its destination, it goes through the same authentication check as any AH-type packet, and those passing the check have their entire IP and AH headers stripped off. This effectively reconstitutes the original IP datagram, which is then injected into the usual routing process.
Most implementations treat the Tunnel-mode endpoint as a virtual network interface — just like an Ethernet interface or localhost — and the traffic entering or leaving it is subject to all the ordinary routing decisions.
The reconstituted packet could be delivered to the local machine or routed elsewhere (according to the destination IP address found in the encapsulated packet), though in any case is no longer subject to the protections of IPsec. At this point, it's just a regular IP datagram.
Though Transport mode is used strictly to secure an end-to-end connection between two computers, Tunnel mode is more typically used between gateways (routers, firewalls, or standalone VPN devices) to provide a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
Curiously, there is no explicit "Mode" field in IPsec: what distinguishes Transport mode from Tunnel mode is the next header field in the AH header.
When the next-header value is IP, it means that this packet encapsulates an entire IP datagram (including the independent source and destination IP addresses that allow separate routing after de-encapsulation). This is Tunnel mode.
Any other value (TCP, UDP, ICMP, etc.) means that it's Transport mode and is securing an endpoint-to-endpoint connection.
The top-level of the IP datagram is structured the same way regardless of mode, and intermediate routers treat all flavors IPsec/AH traffic identically without deeper inspection.
We'll note that a host — as opposed to a gateway — is required to support both Transport and Tunnel modes, but when creating a host-to-host connection, it seems a little superfluous to use Tunnel mode.
Furthermore, a gateway (router, firewall, etc.) is only required to support Tunnel mode, though supporting Transport mode is useful only when creating an endpoint to the gateway itself, as in the case of network management functions.
AH carries an Integrity Check Value in the Authentication Data portion of the header, and it's typically (but not always) built on top of standard cryptographic hash algorithms such as MD5 or SHA-1.
Rather than use a straight checksum, which would provide no real security against intentional tampering, it uses a Hashed Message Authentication Code (HMAC) which incorporates a secret value while creating the ICV. Though an attacker can easily recompute a hash, without the secret value he won't be able to recreate the proper ICV.
HMAC is described by RFC 2104, and this illustration shows how the message data and secret contribute to the final Integrity Check Value:
We'll note that IPsec/AH doesn't define what the authentication function must be, it instead provides a framework which allows any reasonable implementation agreed to by both ends to use. It's possible to use other authentication functions, such as a digital signature or an encryption function as long as both sides provide for it.
Though AH provides very strong protection of a packet's contents because it covers everything that can be possibly considered immutable, this protection comes at a cost: AH is incompatible with NAT (Network Address Translation).
NAT is used to map a range of private addresses (say, 192.168.1.X) to and from a (usually) smaller set of public address, thereby reducing the demand for routable, public IP space. In this process, the IP header is actually modified on the fly by the NAT device to change the source and/or destination IP address.
When the appropriate source or header IP address is changed, it forces a recalculation of the header checksum. This has to be done anyway, because the NAT device typically serves as one "hop" in the path from source to destination, and this requires the decrement of the TTL (Time To Live) field.
Because the TTL and header checksum fields are always modified in flight, AH knows to excludes them from coverage, but this does not apply to the IP addresses. These are included in the Integrity Check Value, and any modification will cause the check to fail when verified by the recipient. Because the ICV incorporates a secret key which is unknown by intermediate parties, the NAT router is not able to recompute the ICV.
This same difficulty also applies to PAT (Port Address Translation), which maps multiple private IP addresses into a single external IP address. Not only are the IP addresses modified on the fly, but the UDP and TCP port numbers (and sometimes even to payload). This requires much more intelligence on the part of the NAT device, and more extensive modifications to the whole IP datagram.
For this reason, AH — whether in Tunnel or Transport mode — is entirely incompatible with NAT, and it may only be employed when the source and destination networks are reachable without translation.
We'll note that this particular difficulty doesn't apply to ESP, as its authentication and encryption do not incorporate the IP header being modified by NAT. Nevertheless, NAT does impose some challenges even on ESP.
NAT translates IP addresses on the fly — but it has to keep track of which connections are flowing through it so that replies can be properly associated with sources. When using TCP or UDP, this is commonly done with port numbers (whether rewritten on the fly or not), but IPsec provides no hook to allow this.
At first one might suspect the SPI, which appears to be a useful identifier, but because the SPI is different in both directions, the NAT device has no way to associate the returning packet with the outgoing connection.
Addressing this requires special facilities for NAT traversal, something not covered in this paper.
Adding encryption makes ESP a bit more complicated because the encapsulation surrounds the payload rather than precedes it as with AH: ESP includes header and trailer fields to support the encryption and optional authentication. It also provides Tunnel and Transport modes which are used in by-now familiar ways.
The IPsec RFCs don't insist upon any particular encryption algorithms, but we find DES, triple-DES, AES, and Blowfish in common use to shield the payload from prying eyes. The algorithm used for a particular connection is specified by the Security Association (covered in a later section), and this SA includes not only the algorithm, but the key used.
Unlike AH, which provides a small header before the payload, ESP surrounds the payload it's protecting. The Security Parameters Index and Sequence Number serve the same purpose as in AH, but we find padding, the next header, and the optional Authentication Data at the end, in the ESP Trailer.
It's possible to use ESP without any actual encryption (to use a NULL algorithm), which nonetheless structures the packet the same way. This provides no confidentiality, and it only makes sense if combined with ESP authentication. It's pointless to use ESP without either encryption or authentication (unless one is simply doing protocol testing).
Padding is provided to allow block-oriented encryption algorithms room for multiples of their blocksize, and the length of that padding is provided in the pad len field. The next hdr field gives the type (IP, TCP, UDP, etc.) of the payload in the usual way, though it can be thought of as pointing "backwards" into the packet rather than forward as we've seen in AH.
In addition to encryption, ESP can also optionally provide authentication, with the same HMAC as found in AH. Unlike AH, however, this authentication is only for the ESP header and encrypted payload: it does not cover the full IP packet. Surprisingly, this does not substantially weaken the security of the authentication, but it does provide some important benefits.
When an outsider examines an IP packet containing ESP data, it's essentially impossible to make any real guesses about what's inside save for the usual data found in the IP header (particularly the source and destination IP addresses). The attacker will certainly know that it's ESP data — that's also in the header — but the type of the payload is encrypted with the payload.
Even the presence or absence of Authentication Data can't be determined by looking at the packet itself (this determination is made by using the Security Parameters Index to reference the preshared set of parameters and algorithms for this connection).
However, it should be noted that sometimes the envelope provides hints that the payload does not. With more people sending VoIP inside ESP over the internet, the QoS taggings are in the outside header and is fairly obvious what traffic is VoIP signaling (IP precedence 3) and what is RTP traffic (IP precedence 5). It's not a sure thing, but it might be enough of a clue to matter in some circumstances.
As with AH, Transport Mode encapsulates just the datagram's payload and is designed strictly for host-to-host communications. The original IP header is left in place (except for the shuffled Protocol field), and it means that — among other things — the source and destination IP addresses are unchanged.
Our final look of standalone ESP is in Tunnel mode, which encapsulates an entire IP datagram inside the encrypted shell:
Providing an encrypted Tunnel Mode connection is getting very close to the traditional VPN that springs to mind when most of us think about IPsec, but we have to add authentication of one type or another to complete the picture: this is covered in the following section.
Unlike AH, where an onlooker can easily tell whether traffic is in Tunnel or Transport mode, this information is unavailable here: the fact that this is Tunnel mode (via next=IP) is part of the encrypted payload, and is simply not visible to one unable to decrypt the packet.
With coverage of the Authenticating Header and Encapsulating Security Payload complete, we're ready to enable both encryption and authentication to build a real VPN. The whole purpose of a Virtual Private Network is to join two trusted networks across an untrusted intermediate network, as is by stringing a very long Ethernet cable between the two. This is commonly used to connect branch offices with company headquarters, allowing all users to share sensitive resources without fear of interception.
Clearly, a secure VPN requires both authentication and encryption. We know that ESP is the only way to provide encryption, but ESP and AH both can provide authentication: which one do we use?
The obvious solution of wrapping ESP inside of AH is technically possible, but in practice is not commonly used because of AH's limitations with respect to Network Address Translation. By using AH+ESP, this tunnel could never successfully traverse a NAT'ed device.
Instead, ESP+Auth is used in Tunnel mode to fully encapsulate the traffic on its way across an untrusted network, protected by both encryption and authentication in the same thing.
Traffic protected in this manner yields nearly no useful information to an interloper save for the fact that the two sites are connected by a VPN. This information might help an attacker understand trust relationships, but nothing about the actual traffic itself is revealed. Even the type of encapsulated protocol — TCP, UDP, or ICMP — is hidden from outsiders.
What's particularly nice about this mode of operation is that the end-user hosts generally know nothing about the VPN or other security measures in place. Since a VPN implemented by a gateway device treats the VPN as yet another interface, traffic destined for the other end is routed normally.
This packet-in-a-packet can actually be nested yet more levels: Host A and Host B can establish their own authenticated connection (via AH), and have this routed over the VPN. This would put an AH inner packet inside an enclosing ESP+Auth packet.
Update - it's important to use authentication even if encryption is used, because encrypt-only implementations are subject to effective attack as described in the paper Cryptography in Theory and Practice: The Case of Encryption in IPsec; see the Resources section for more information.
IPsec is a very complex suite of protocols, and this Tech Tip cannot possibly give proper justice to more than a small part of it. In this section we'll mention a few areas that beg for more coverage.
It seems self-evident that if two endpoints or gateways are going to establish a secure connection, some kind of shared secret is required to seed the authentication function and/or key the encryption algorithm. The matter of just how these are secrets are established is a substantial topic to be addressed elsewhere, and for the purposes of this discussion we shall just assume that the keys have magically landed where they belong.
When an IPsec datagram — either AH or ESP — arrives at an interface, just how does the interface know which set of parameters (key, algorithm, and policies) to use? Any host could have many ongoing conversations, each with a different set of keys and algorithms, and something must be able to direct this processing.
It's been pointed out that the SADB only uses the protocol type and SPI to select an entry, not the partner IP address; we simply don't know.
This might depend on whether the association is configured with main mode or aggressive mode, but we welcome clarifications.
This is specified by the Security Association (SA), a collection of connection-specific parameters, and each partner can have one or more Security Associations. When a datagram arrives, three pieces of data are used to locate the correct SA inside the Security Associations Database (SADB):
In many ways this triple can be likened to an IP socket, which is uniquely denoted by the remote IP address, protocol, and port number.
Security Associations are one way, so a two-way connection (the typical case) requires at least two. Furthermore, each protocol (ESP/AH) has its own SA in each direction, so a full AH+ESP VPN requires four Security Associations. These are all kept in the Security Associations Database.
A tremendous amount of information is kept in the SADB, and we can only touch on a few of them:
Some implementations maintain the SPD (Security Policy Database) with command-line tools, others with a GUI, while others provide a web-based interface over the network. The amount of detail maintained by any particular implementation depends on the facilities offered, as well as whether it's operating in Host or Gateway mode (or both).
Finally, we briefly visit the very complex matter of key management. This area includes several protocols and many options, and the bulk of this will be covered in a future paper. This section is necessarily highly incomplete.
IPsec would be nearly useless without the cryptographic facilities of authentication and encryption, and these require the use of secret keys known to the participants but not to anyone else.
The most obvious and straightforward way to establish these secrets is via manual configuration: one party generates a set of secrets, and conveys them to all the partners. All parties install these secrets in their appropriate Security Associations in the SPD.
But this process does not scale well, nor is it always terribly secure: the mere act of conveying the secrets to another site's SPD may well expose them in transit. In a larger installation with many devices using the same preshared key, compromise of that key makes for a very disruptive re-deployment of new keys.
IKE — Internet Key Exchange — exists to allow two endpoints to properly set up their Security Associations, including the secrets to be used. IKE uses the ISAKMP (Internet Security Association Key Management Protocol) as a framework to support establishment of a security association compatible with both ends.
Multiple key-exchange protocols themselves are supported, with Oakley being the most widely used. We'll note that IPsec key exchange typically takes place over port 500/udp.
The Internet has a great many resources surrounding IPsec, some better than others. The starting point, of course, is always with the RFCs (Requests for Comment) that form the Internet standards defining the protocols. These are the main reference works upon which all other documentation — including this one — is based.
Update: In December 2005, a whole new set of RFCs was issued by IETF, and the 43xx series largely obsoleted the 24xx series. We included references to all the RFCs (old and new) below, though this document has not really been updated for the new ones.
N.B. — We are not IPsec experts, and though we've spent a great deal of time researching these matters, we may have some details wrong. Feedback and corrections are very much welcome. We're particularly grateful for the extensive technical feedback provided by IPsec architects at Sun and Microsoft.
These original figures were produced by the author using Adobe Illustrator.
First published: 2005-08-24