VPNs are necessary because communications between sites using a public
network (like the Internet) are vulnerable to an eavesdropping (or snooping)
attack. The risk of this happening depends on the importance the transmitted
information holds for someone who has the ability to intercept it.
VPNs allow a corporation, at key gateways or communication points, to
ensure that all network traffic is private. Network communication, over
the Internet for example, is vulnerable to “snooping” — electronic eavesdropping.
Armed with a PC, a network interface card for the PC, and access to the
communications flow, a hacker or corporate spy can copy all information
flowing between one site and another: e-mail, terminal sessions, anything.
Setting up a VPN between two points guarantees private communication between
If a VPN is set up between site A and site B, all traffic between those
sites will be encrypted. All traffic between either of these sites and
other sites on the Internet, for example, with which no VPN relationship
exists will be sent “in the clear.”
VPNs also can represent a terrific cost saving over private networks.
The March 1996 issue of US Computer reported that using encrypted “tunnels”
over the Internet to connect LANs and WANs can reduce costs 23-50%.
Data Communications had a sidebar in the May 21, 1997 with this information:
Hypothetical network with 3 fully meshed sites in LA, Houston, and
Boston, plus a transatlantic link to London, at 64 kbits/s. Charges based
on AT&T and include local access circuits of 5 km to the nearest POP.
Leased-line and frame relay figures come from Lynx Technologies, Inc. (Fairfield,
NJ). Internet access based on average monthly ISP charges in the US.
TOTAL COST YEAR 1:
Frame Relay VPN
TOTAL COST YEAR 1:
Four VPN encrypting devices
TOTAL COST YEAR 1:
Firewalls and VPNs
Many firewalls have some kind of VPNs — encrypted firewall-to-firewall
tunnels. All traffic between one firewall and another is encrypted, stuck
inside of another IP packet, and sent over the Internet. At the remote
site, the firewall pulls the encrypted payload out of the IP packet and
decrypts it to get the original IP packet, which is forwarded to the final
Firewall-to-Firewall With Controlled Access
As VPNs become more widespread on the Internet, and VPN establishment more
automatic, most VPNs will be for privacy between sites, without a complete
trust relationship between those sites. By “complete trust relationship,”
we mean the relationship that exists between business partners, suppliers
and consumers, providers and customers. Privacy for the communications
may be desirable or needed, but an Internet firewall can be used to control
or prohibit access to the internal, private network.
As an example let us say XYZ company has 100 resellers. XYZ could set
up VPNs between XYZ’s Internet gateway and each of those 100 resellers.
All e-mail, file transfers, everything, would go over an encrypted channel.
Any TCP/IP traffic to other systems on the Internet would be sent, as usual,
in the clear. Further, we could allow limited access through the corporate
firewall to selected servers inside our network security perimeter for
our resellers (to our sales support web pages for example).
Firewall-to-Firewall With Open Access
A common configuration for VPNs between Internet Firewalls currently is
in a trust relationship between offices of the same company. For example
let’s look at the XYZ corporate network.
XYZ has two offices in Maryland, one in Virginia, two in California,
one in London, and one in Munich. The Internet is used as the XYZ corporate
backbone. Without a VPN, all traffic between XYZ offices would be vulnerable
to disclosure as it flowed over the Internet. Further, using less secure
TCP/IP services (such as file and directory sharing) would leave the XYZ
corporate network vulnerable to attack using those services.
With VPN connectivity using VPN-enabled Internet Firewalls between the
sites, all traffic is encrypted, and so private. Additionally, when we
add the trust derived from all sites being administered by the same organization,
all having the same security policy implemented, and all being under the
same management organization, we can, over this VPN, allow all network
services. In this way we are virtually going around the firewall, though
actually the communications flow is still under the protection of the firewalls.
In this way we extend the network security perimeter to include
those other offices. All sites are now virtually on the same LAN,
with a virtual network perimeter.
The same sort of VPN technology can be used between a firewall and a single
site. Often this is used to allow private access to a corporate from mobile
users, working at a customer site, or connected in from home or a hotel.
As with firewall-to-firewall VPNs, these can be set up with controlled
or open access. Controlled access is useful for clients, customers, and
partners needing access to particular systems on the inside of the security
perimeter for particular services at particular hours of the day. Open
access is useful for employees on the road who need to get access to shared
files, printers, etc. on the inside of the network security perimeter.
With a VPN they can do this securely.
Various technologies are used to implement VPNs. The basics of cryptography
and a discussion of general encryption standards and methods are beyond
the scope of this paper. For the remainder of this paper we will concentrate
on established and emerging standards being used by vendors to implement
The Need for Standardization
Many commercial firewalls today support VPN functionality. Two VPN-enabled
firewalls can be used to establish a VPN. When this technology was first
developed, there were no standards. Consequently, vendors established their
own ways of implementing IP encryption. Some vendors went with a mechanism
called swIPe (for Software IP Encryption). This was freely available in
source code form with no licensing restrictions, so it was attractive because
1) it was already written (although it needed to be ported to platforms
other than SunOS) and 2) it was the only mechanism approaching a standard,
albeit “de facto,” that existed. Still, one vendor’s VPN using swIPe didn’t
work with others and it was not possible to establish an inter-vendor VPN.
In order for VPNs to become widely and routinely used, sites using differing
encryption products need to be able to communicate.
In 1995, RSA formed an interoperability group called S/WAN (Secure Wide
Area Network). Its purpose was to support the emerging IPSEC standard being
developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and to provide
a framework for inter-vendor interoperability testing. Many vendors now
interoperate using the emerging IPSEC standards. See the web page http://www.rsa.com/rsa/SWAN/
for up-to-date information about interoperability testing.
The IETF’s IP Security (IPSEC) Working Group is developing standards for
IP-layer security mechanisms for both IPv4 (the version use on the Internet
at the time of this writing) and IPv6 (the next generation of TCP/IP).
The IPSEC architecture includes authentication (how to know if the site
communicating to your site really is who it claims to be) and encryption.
These mechanisms can be used together or independently.
As described in RFC 1826,
The Authentication Header is a mechanism for providing strong integrity
and authentication for IP datagrams. It might also provide non-repudiation,
depending on which cryptographic algorithm is used and how keying is performed.
For example, use of an asymmetric digital signature algorithm, such as
RSA, could provide non-repudiation.
The IP Authentication Header seeks to provide security by adding authentication
information to an IP datagram. This authentication information is calculated
using all of the fields in the IP datagram (including not only the IP Header
but also other headers and the user data) which do not change in transit.
Fields or options which need to change in transit (e.g., “hop count”, “time
to live”, “ident”, “fragment offset”, or “routing pointer”) are considered
to be zero for the calculation of the authentication data. This provides
significantly more security than is currently present in IPv4 and might
be sufficient for the needs of many users.
Encapsulating Security Payload (ESP)
As described in RFC 1847,
ESP is a mechanism for providing integrity and confidentiality to
IP datagrams. In some circumstances it can also provide authentication
to IP datagrams. The mechanism works with both IPv4 and IPv6.
ESP is a mechanism for providing integrity and confidentiality to IP
datagrams. It may also provide authentication, depending on which algorithm
and algorithm mode are used. … The IP Authentication Header may be used
in conjunction with ESP to provide authentication. Users desiring integrity
and authentication without confidentiality should use the IP Authentication
Header (AH) instead of ESP.
ESP in IPSEC can be used to encrypt the entire IP datagram or just information
at the transport layer (TCP, UDP, etc.).
Again quoting from the RFC,
In Tunnel-mode ESP, the original IP datagram is placed in the encrypted
portion of the Encapsulating Security Payload and that entire ESP frame
is placed within a datagram having unencrypted IP headers. The information
in the unencrypted IP headers is used to route the secure datagram from
origin to destination. An unencrypted IP Routing Header might be included
between the IP Header and the Encapsulating Security Payload.
In Transport-mode ESP, the ESP header is inserted into the IP datagram
immediately prior to the transport-layer protocol header (e.g., TCP, UDP,
or ICMP). In this mode bandwidth is conserved because there are no encrypted
IP headers or IP options.
Key Management: The Challenge and the Emerging Standards
Key exchange mechanisms — how to decide on and communicate what cryptographic
keys to use to secure the cryptographic communication — and keeping that
exchange secure (private) is critical to private communications and the
establishment of VPNs. Most implementations of VPNs up until the date of
this writing used a manual key exchange mechanism with out of band communication.
This often meant, software run manually to come up with a random key for
communication, communicated over encrypted e-mail, the telephone, or via
floppy disk. It should be clear that this mechanism does not scale.
There are frameworks and mechanisms being developed to do this work.
The IPSEC effort is focusing on ISAKMP and Oakley.
The Internet Security Association & Key Management Protocol (ISAKMP)
provides a framework for Internet key management. It also defines the protocol
for the negotiation of security attributes (algorithm to use, length of
The Oakley Key Determination Protocol uses a hybrid Diffie-Hellman (a public
key) technique to establish session keys.
ISAKMP and Oakley Combined
As stated above, both private key exchange and a mechanism for negotiating
keys, algorithms, etc. are required for automatic establishment of VPNs.
Combining ISAKMP and Oakley provides this.
As described in the IETF draft entitled The resolution of ISAKMP
Oakley defines a method to establish an authenticated key exchange.
This includes how payloads are constructed, the information they carry,
the order in which they are processed and how they are used.
While Oakley defines “modes”, ISAKMP defines “phases”. The relationship
between the two is very straightforward. ISAKMP’s phase 1 is where the
two ISAKMP peers establish a secure, authenticated channel with which to
communicate. This is called the ISAKMP Security Association (SA). …
Phase 2 is where Security Associations are negotiated on behalf of services
such as IPSEC or any other service which needs key material and/or parameter
This was developed originally as an extension to PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol)
used for TCP/IP of serial lines (dial-up modem connections), by Microsoft
in collaboration with others. PPTP “tunnels” or encapsulates IP, IPX, or
NetBEUI protocols within IP packets. Supported by Microsoft and NT servers,
this could become the standard protocol for setting up a VPN from remote
system to a corporate private network.
Conceptually, there is no difference between using PPTP for client to
firewall communications, and using an IPSEC enabled IP stack on the client
to talk to the firewall and establish a VPN. PPTP does support tunneling
of non-IP protocols. But, as of the time of this writing, PPTP was only
supported on NT servers. In order to support this, a site must be running
an NT-based firewall or must provide a hole through the firewall to allow
PPTP traffic through. The latter mean forgoing any firewall control over
what is permitted over that PPTP session (i.e., it means VPNs with complete
access and no VPNs with controlled access). PPTP has not yet been widely
Because of the growth of business use of the Internet, and the rise in
reported Internet attacks and break-ins, security is no longer a forgotten
requirement as in the past. Internet firewalls are now on everyone’s checklist
when considering Internet connectivity. Virtual Private Networks are also
starting to be considered “must haves.” VPNs are not yet in wide use, but
with the move to standards such as IPSEC with ISAKMP and Oakley, and the
automation in VPN establishment they should provide, we expect to see a
dramatic growth in VPN use in the next year. Some issues, beyond the firming
up of the above-mentioned standards, still need to be considered.
Global Virtual Private Networks
The Internet is a worldwide network. Companies cross international boundaries,
partnerships cross international boundaries, and privacy in business transactions
is critical to success. As we have described, network communications privacy
means employing encryption. This encryption must be useable and available
globally, and so we have coined the term Global Virtual Private Network,
or GVPN. By this we mean a VPN that is useable globally. Additionally,
it must use strong cryptography (meaning at least 56 bit DES, maybe 3DES,
128 bit RC2, etc.) and be platform independent (Macintosh, Microsoft Windows,
Do Firewalls Go Away?
Firewalls do not go away, even when (if) IPSEC is found on all computers
in an organization. Internet firewalls enforce an enterprise network security
policy and are part of a perimeter defense. IPSEC on every desktop provides
for privacy and authentication, but does not ensure that the corporate
network security policy is enforced (what services are allowed, when to
force virus scanning, etc.). Firewalls will be able to enforce a policy
that requires private links between networks (sites) even if desktop users
cannot or do not use an encrypted connection.
Establishing VPNs require agreement in four different areas: the mechanism
for encryption, the algorithm for encryption (and key size to use), the
mechanism for key exchange negotiation, and the algorithm to use for key
exchange. Standards of one sort and another exist in all of these area:
Mechanism for encryption
swIPe, IPSEC, PPTP
Algorithm for encryption
RC2, RC4, DES, 3DES, IDEA, CAST
Mechanism to negotiate encryption and key exchange
Algorithm for encrypting key exchange information
All of these need to be coordinated and communicated. The technologies
that exist today, and are being implemented in firewall-based VPNs, provide
these mechanisms and will allow a growth in deployment and use of VPNs
in the near future.