Internet Security Protocol (IPSec)

The Internet Protocol Security (IPSec) protocol suite provides a method of setting up a secure channel for protected data exchange between two devices. The devices that share this secure channel can be two servers, two routers, a workstation and a server, or two gateways between different networks. IPSec is a widely accepted standard for providing network layer protection.

IPSec can work in one of two modes: transport mode, in which the payload of the message is protected, and tunnel mode, in which the payload and the routing and header information are protected. ESP in transport mode encrypts the actual message information so it cannot be sniffed and uncovered by an unauthorized entity. Tunnel mode provides a higher level of protection by also protecting the header and trailer data an attacker may find useful. (This is what IAPS uses)

IPSec has strong encryption and authentication methods, and although it can be used to enable tunneled communication between two computers, it is usually employed to establish virtual private networks (VPNs) among networks across the Internet.

IPSec is not a strict protocol that dictates the type of algorithm, keys, and authentication method to use. Rather, it is an open, modular framework that provides a lot of flexibility for companies when they choose to use this type of technology. IPSec uses two basic security protocols: Authentication Header (AH) and Encapsulating Security Payload (ESP). AH is the authenticating protocol, and ESP is an authenticating and encrypting protocol that uses cryptographic mechanisms to provide source authentication, confidentiality, and message integrity.

Each device will have at least one security association (SA) for each VPN it uses. The SA, which is critical to the IPSec architecture, is a record of the configurations the device needs to support an IPSec connection. When two devices complete their handshaking process, which means they have agreed upon a long list of parameters they will use to communicate, these data must be recorded and stored somewhere, which is in the SA.

The SA can contain the authentication and encryption keys, the agreed-upon algorithms, the key lifetime, and the source IP address. When a device receives a packet via the IPSec protocol, it is the SA that tells the device what to do with the packet. So if device B receives a packet from device C via IPSec, device B will look to the corresponding SA to tell it how to decrypt the packet, how to properly authenticate the source of the packet, which key to use, and how to reply to the message if necessary.

SAs are directional, so a device will have one SA for outbound traffic and a different SA for inbound traffic for each individual communication channel. If a device is connecting to three devices, it will have at least six SAs, one for each inbound and outbound connection per remote device. So how can a device keep all of these SAs organized and ensure that the right SA is invoked for the right connection? With the mighty security parameter index (SPI), that’s how. Each device has an SPI that keeps track of the different SAs and tells the device which one is appropriate to invoke for the different packets it receives. The SPI value is in the header of an IPSec packet, and the device reads this value to tell it which SA to consult.

IPSec can authenticate the sending devices of the packet by using MAC. The ESP protocol can provide authentication, integrity, and confidentiality if the devices are configured for this type of functionality.

So if a company just needs to make sure it knows the source of the sender and must be assured of the integrity of the packets, it would choose to use AH. If the company would like to use these services and also have confidentiality, it would use the ESP protocol because it provides encryption functionality. In most cases, the reason ESP is employed is because the company must set up a secure VPN connection.

It may seem odd to have two different protocols that provide overlapping functionality. AH provides authentication and integrity, and ESP can provide those two functions and confidentiality. Why even bother with AH then? In most cases, the reason has to do with whether the environment is using network address translation (NAT). IPSec will generate an integrity check value (ICV), which is really the same thing as a MAC value, over a portion of the packet. Remember that the sender and receiver generate their own values. In IPSec, it is called an ICV value. The receiver compares her ICV value with the one sent by the sender. If the values match, the receiver can be assured the packet has not been modified during transmission. If the values are different, the packet has been altered and the receiver discards the packet.

The AH protocol calculates this ICV over the data payload, transport, and network headers. If the packet then goes through a NAT device, the NAT device changes the IP address of the packet. That is its job. This means a portion of the data (network header) that was included to calculate the ICV value has now changed, and the receiver will generate an ICV value that is different from the one sent with the packet, which means the packet will be discarded automatically.

The ESP protocol follows similar steps, except it does not include the network header portion when calculating its ICV value. When the NAT device changes the IP address, it will not affect the receiver’s ICV value because it does not include the network header when calculating the ICV.

Because IPSec is a framework, it does not dictate which hashing and encryption algorithms are to be used or how keys are to be exchanged between devices. Key management can be handled manually or automated by a key management protocol. The de facto standard for IPSec is to use Internet Key Exchange (IKE), which is a combination of the ISAKMP and OAKLEY protocols.

As you can see, setting up and managing virtual private networks (VPN Services) are not the easiest things in the world.


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