IPsec architectures and implementation methods

In this excerpt of The TCP/IP Guide, author Charles M. Kozierok explains the three different implementation architectures defined for IPsec: integrated, bump in the stack (BITS) and bump in the wire (WITW).

The TCP/IP Guide

By Charles M. Kozierok
No Starch Press, 1,616 Pages; $79.95

 

In this excerpt of Chapter 29 of The TCP/IP Guide, author Charles M. Kozierok explains the three different implementation architectures defined for IPsec.


The main reason that IPsec is so powerful is that it provides security to IP, which is the basis for all other TCP/IP protocols. In protecting IP, you are protecting pretty much everything else in TCP/IP as well. An important issue, then, is how exactly do you get IPsec into IP? There are several implementation methods for deploying IPsec. These represent different ways that IPsec may modify the overall layer architecture of TCP/IP.

Three different implementation architectures are defined for IPsec in RFC 2401. The one you use depends on various factors, including the version of IP used (IPv4 or IPv6), the requirements of the application and other factors. These, in turn, rest on a primary implementation decision: Should IPsec be programmed into all hosts on a network, or just into certain routers or other intermediate devices? This is a design decision that must be based on the requirements of the network:

KEY CONCEPT
Three different architectures or implementation models are defined for IPsec. The best is integrated architecture, in which IPsec is built into the IP layer of devices directly. The other two are bump in the stack (BITS) and bump in the wire (BITW), which are ways of layering IPsec underneath regular IP, using software and hardware solutions, respectively. 

End-host implementation

Putting IPsec into all host devices provides the most flexibility and security. It enables end-to-end security between any two devices on the network. However, there are many hosts on a typical network, so this means far more work than just implementing IPsec in routers.

Router implementation

This option is much less work because it means you make changes to only a few routers instead of hundreds or thousands of clients. It provides protection only between pairs of routers that implement IPsec, but this may be sufficient for certain applications such as VPNs. The routers can be used to provide protection for just the portion of the route that datagrams take outside the organization, thereby leaving connections between routers and local hosts unsecured (or possibly, secured by other means).

Three different architectures are defined that describe methods for how to get IPsec into the TCP/IP protocol stack: integrated, bump in the stack and bump in the wire.

Integrated architecture

Under ideal circumstances, we would integrate IPsec's protocols and capabilities directly into IP itself. This is the most elegant solution, because it allows all IPsec security modes and capabilities to be provided just as easily as regular IP. No extra hardware or architectural layers are needed.

IPv6 was designed to support IPsec. Thus, it's a viable option for hosts or routers. With IPv4, integration would require making changes to the IP implementation on each device, which is often impractical (to say the least!).

Bump-in-the-stack (BITS) architecture

In the bump-in-the-stack (BITS) technique, IPsec is made a separate architectural layer between IP and the data link layer. The cute name refers to the fact that IPsec is an extra element in the networking protocol stack, as you can see in Figure 29-2 in the full chapter download. IPsec intercepts IP datagrams as they are passed down the protocol stack, provides security, and passes them to the data link layer.

The advantage of this technique is that IPsec can be retrofitted to any IP device, since the IPsec functionality is separate from IP. The disadvantage is that there is a duplication of effort compared to the integrated architecture. BITS is generally used for IPv4 hosts.

Bump-in-the-wire (BITW) architecture

In the bump-in-the-wire (BITW) method, we add a hardware device that provides IPsec services. For example, suppose we have a company with two sites. Each has a network that connects to the Internet using a router that is not capable of IPsec functions. We can interpose a special IPsec device between the router and the Internet at both sites, as shown in Figure 29-3 in the full chapter download. These devices will then intercept outgoing datagrams, add IPsec protection to them, and strip it off incoming datagrams.

Just as BITS lets you add IPsec to legacy hosts, BITW can retrofit non-IPsec routers to provide security benefits. The disadvantages are complexity and cost. As you will see in the next section, the choice of architecture has an important impact on which of the two IPsec modes can be used. Incidentally, even though BITS and BITW seem quite different, they are actually do the same thing. In the case of BITS, we have an extra software layer that adds security to existing IP datagrams; in BITW, distinct hardware devices do this same job. In both cases, the result is the same, and the implications on the choice of IPsec mode is likewise the same.

As you will see in the next section, the choice of architecture has an important impact on which of the two IPsec modes can be used. Incidentally, even though BITS and BITW seem quite different, they are actually do the same thing. In the case of BITS, we have an extra software layer that adds security to existing IP datagrams; in BITW, distinct hardware devices do this same job. In both cases, the result is the same, and the implications on the choice of IPsec mode is likewise the same.

Read Chapter 29, IP Security Protocols

This content previously appeared on SearchSecurity.com.

This was first published in December 2005

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