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IPSec Overview Part Two: Modes and Transforms

Contents

  1. Tunnel and Transport Modes
  2. IPSec Transforms

Article Description

In part 2 of his five-part series on the Cisco implementation of IPSec, Andrew Mason describes tunnel and transport modes and briefly explains transforms.

Tunnel and Transport Modes

IPSec can be run in either tunnel mode or transport mode. Each of these modes has its own particular uses and care should be taken to ensure that the correct one is selected for the solution:

  • Tunnel mode is most commonly used between gateways, or at an end-station to a gateway, the gateway acting as a proxy for the hosts behind it.

  • Transport mode is used between end-stations or between an end-station and a gateway, if the gateway is being treated as a host—for example, an encrypted Telnet session from a workstation to a router, in which the router is the actual destination.

As Figure 1 shows, basically transport mode should be used for end-to-end sessions and tunnel mode should be used for everything else. (Refer to the figure for the following discussion.)

Figure 1 Tunnel and transport modes in IPSec.

Figure 1 displays some examples of when to use tunnel versus transport mode:

  • Tunnel mode is most commonly used to encrypt traffic between secure IPSec gateways, such as between the Cisco router and PIX Firewall (as shown in example A in Figure 1). The IPSec gateways proxy IPSec for the devices behind them, such as Alice's PC and the HR servers in Figure 1. In example A, Alice connects to the HR servers securely through the IPSec tunnel set up between the gateways.

  • Tunnel mode is also used to connect an end-station running IPSec software, such as the Cisco Secure VPN Client, to an IPSec gateway, as shown in example B.

  • In example C, tunnel mode is used to set up an IPSec tunnel between the Cisco router and a server running IPSec software. Note that Cisco IOS software and the PIX Firewall sets tunnel mode as the default IPSec mode.

  • Transport mode is used between end-stations supporting IPSec, or between an end-station and a gateway, if the gateway is being treated as a host. In example D, transport mode is used to set up an encrypted Telnet session from Alice's PC running Cisco Secure VPN Client software to terminate at the PIX Firewall, enabling Alice to remotely configure the PIX Firewall securely.

AH Tunnel Versus Transport Mode

Figure 2 shows the differences that the IPSec mode makes to AH. In transport mode, AH services protect the external IP header along with the data payload. AH services protect all the fields in the header that don't change in transport. The header goes after the IP header and before the ESP header, if present, and other higher-layer protocols.

In tunnel mode, the entire original header is authenticated, a new IP header is built, and the new IP header is protected in the same way as the IP header in transport mode.

Figure 2 AH tunnel versus transport mode.

AH is incompatible with Network Address Translation (NAT) because NAT changes the source IP address, which breaks the AH header and causes the packets to be rejected by the IPSec peer.

ESP Tunnel Versus Transport Mode

Figure 3 shows the differences that the IPSec mode makes to ESP. In transport mode, the IP payload is encrypted and the original headers are left intact. The ESP header is inserted after the IP header and before the upper-layer protocol header. The upper-layer protocols are encrypted and authenticated along with the ESP header. ESP doesn't authenticate the IP header itself.

NOTE

Higher-layer information is not available because it's part of the encrypted payload.

When ESP is used in tunnel mode, the original IP header is well protected because the entire original IP datagram is encrypted. With an ESP authentication mechanism, the original IP datagram and the ESP header are included; however, the new IP header is not included in the authentication.

When both authentication and encryption are selected, encryption is performed first, before authentication. One reason for this order of processing is that it facilitates rapid detection and rejection of replayed or bogus packets by the receiving node. Prior to decrypting the packet, the receiver can detect the problem and potentially reduce the impact of denial-of-service attacks.

Figure 3 ESP tunnel versus transport mode.

ESP can also provide packet authentication with an optional field for authentication. Cisco IOS software and the PIX Firewall refer to this service as ESP hashed message authentication code (HMAC). Authentication is calculated after the encryption is done. The current IPSec standard specifies SHA-1 and MD5 as the mandatory HMAC algorithms.

The main difference between the authentication provided by ESP and AH is the extent of the coverage. Specifically, ESP doesn't protect any IP header fields unless those fields are encapsulated by ESP (tunnel mode). Figure 4 illustrates the fields protected by ESP HMAC.

Figure 4 ESP encryption with a keyed HMAC.

2. IPSec Transforms | Next Section