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IPSEC(4) Device Drivers Manual IPSEC(4)


ipsecIP Security Protocol


IPsec is a pair of protocols, Encapsulating Security Payload (ESP) and Authentication Header (AH), which provide security services for IP datagrams.
Both protocols may be enabled or disabled using the following sysctl(3) variables in /etc/sysctl.conf. By default, both protocols are enabled:
Enable the ESP IPsec protocol
Enable the AH IPsec protocol
There are four main security properties provided by IPsec:
- Ensure it is hard for anyone but the receiver to understand what data has been communicated. For example, ensuring the secrecy of passwords when logging into a remote machine over the Internet.
- Guarantee that the data does not get changed in transit. If you are on a line carrying invoicing data you probably want to know that the amounts and account numbers are correct and have not been modified by a third party.
- Sign your data so that others can see that it is really you that sent it. It is clearly nice to know that documents are not forged.
Replay protection
- We need ways to ensure a datagram is processed only once, regardless of how many times it is received. That is, it should not be possible for an attacker to record a transaction (such as a bank account withdrawal), and then by replaying it verbatim cause the peer to think a new message (withdrawal request) had been received. WARNING: as per the standard's specification, replay protection is not performed when using manual-keyed IPsec (e.g. when using ipsecctl(8)).

IPsec Protocols

IPsec provides these services using two new protocols: Authentication Header (AH), and Encapsulating Security Payload (ESP).
ESP can provide the properties authentication, integrity, replay protection, and confidentiality of the data (it secures everything in the packet that follows the IP header). Replay protection requires authentication and integrity (these two always go together). Confidentiality (encryption) can be used with or without authentication/integrity. Similarly, one could use authentication/integrity with or without confidentiality.
AH provides authentication, integrity, and replay protection (but not confidentiality). The main difference between the authentication features of AH and ESP is that AH also authenticates portions of the IP header of the packet (such as the source/destination addresses). ESP authenticates only the packet payload.

Authentication Header (AH)

AH works by computing a value that depends on all of the payload data, some of the IP header data, and a certain secret value (the authentication key). This value is then sent with the rest of each packet. The receiver performs the same computation, and if the value matches, he knows no one tampered with the data (integrity), the address information (authenticity) or a sequence number (replay protection). He knows this because the secret authentication key makes sure no active attacker (man-in-the-middle) can recompute the correct value after altering the packet. The algorithms used to compute these values are called hash algorithms and are parameters in the SA, just like the authentication key.

Encapsulating Security Payload (ESP)

ESP optionally does almost everything that AH does except that it does not protect the outer IP header but furthermore it encrypts the payload data with an encryption algorithm using a secret encryption key. Only the ones knowing this key can decrypt the data, thus providing confidentiality. Both the algorithm and the encryption key are parameters of the SA.

Security Associations (SAs)

These protocols require certain parameters for each connection, describing exactly how the desired protection will be achieved. These parameters are collected in an entity called a security association, or SA for short. Typical SA parameters include encryption algorithm, hash algorithm, encryption key, and authentication key, to name a few. When two peers have established matching SAs (one at each end), packets protected with one end's SA may be verified and/or decrypted using the information in the other end's SA. The only issue remaining is to ensure that both ends have matching SAs. This may be done manually, or automatically using a key management daemon.
Further information on manual SA establishment is described in ipsec.conf(5). Information on automated key management for IKEv1 can be found in isakmpd(8) and for IKEv2 in iked.conf(5).

Security Parameter Indexes (SPIs)

In order to identify an SA we need to have a unique name for it. This name is a triplet, consisting of the destination address, security parameter index (aka SPI) and the security protocol (ESP or AH). Since the destination address is part of the name, an SA is necessarily a unidirectional construct. For a bidirectional communication channel, two SAs are required, one outgoing and one incoming, where the destination address is our local IP address. The SPI is just a number that helps us make the name unique; it can be arbitrarily chosen in the range 0x100 - 0xffffffff. The security protocol number should be 50 for ESP and 51 for AH, as these are the protocol numbers assigned by IANA.

Modes of Operation

IPsec can operate in two modes, either tunnel or transport mode. In transport mode the ordinary IP header is used to deliver the packets to their endpoint; in tunnel mode the ordinary IP header just tells us the address of a security gateway which knows how to verify/decrypt the payload and forward the packet to a destination given by another IP header contained in the protected payload. Tunnel mode can be used for establishing virtual private networks (VPNs), where parts of the networks can be spread out over an unsafe public network, but security gateways at each subnet are responsible for encrypting and decrypting the data passing over the public net. An SA will contain information specifying whether it is a tunnel or transport mode SA, and for tunnels it will contain values to fill in into the outer IP header.


The SA also holds a couple of other parameters, especially useful for automatic keying, called lifetimes, which puts a limit on how much we can use an SA for protecting our data. These limits can be in wall-clock time or in volume of our data.

IPsec Examples

To better illustrate how IPsec works, consider a typical TCP packet:
[IP header] [TCP header] [data...]
If we apply ESP in transport mode to the above packet, we will get:
[IP header] [ESP header] [TCP header] [data...]
Everything after the ESP header is protected by whatever services of ESP we are using (authentication/integrity, replay protection, confidentiality). This means the IP header itself is not protected.
If we apply ESP in tunnel mode to the original packet, we would get:
[IP header] [ESP header] [IP header] [TCP header] [data...]
Again, everything after the ESP header is cryptographically protected. Notice the insertion of an IP header between the ESP and TCP header. This mode of operation allows us to hide who the true source and destination addresses of a packet are (since the protected and the unprotected IP headers don't have to be exactly the same). A typical application of this is in Virtual Private Networks (or VPNs), where two firewalls use IPsec to secure the traffic of all the hosts behind them. For example:
Net A <----> Firewall 1 <--- Internet ---> Firewall 2 <----> Net B
Firewall 1 and Firewall 2 can protect all communications between Net A and Net B by using IPsec in tunnel mode, as illustrated above.
This implementation makes use of a virtual interface, enc0, which can be used in packet filters to specify those packets that have been or will be processed by IPsec.
NAT can also be applied to enc# interfaces, but special care should be taken because of the interactions between NAT and the IPsec flow matching, especially on the packet output path. Inside the TCP/IP stack, packets go through the following stages:
UL/R -> [X] -> PF/NAT(enc0) -> IPsec -> PF/NAT(IF) -> IF 
UL/R <-------- PF/NAT(enc0) <- IPsec <- PF/NAT(IF) <- IF
With IF being the real interface and UL/R the Upper Layer or Routing code. The [X] stage on the output path represents the point where the packet is matched against the IPsec flow database (SPD) to determine if and how the packet has to be IPsec-processed. If, at this point, it is determined that the packet should be IPsec-processed, it is processed by the PF/NAT code. Unless PF drops the packet, it will then be IPsec-processed, even if the packet has been modified by NAT.
Security Associations can be set up manually with ipsecctl(8) or automatically with the isakmpd(8) or iked(8) key management daemons.

Additional Variables

A number of sysctl(8) variables are relevant to ipsec. These are generally net.inet.ah.*, net.inet.esp.*, net.inet.ip.forwarding, net.inet6.ip6.forwarding, and net.inet.ip.ipsec-*. Full explanations can be found in sysctl(3), and variables can be set using the sysctl(8) interface.
A number of kernel options are also relevant to ipsec. See options(4) for further information.

API Details

The following IP-level setsockopt(2) and getsockopt(2) options are specific to ipsec. A socket can specify security levels for three different categories:
Specifies the use of authentication for packets sent or received by the socket.
Specifies the use of encryption in transport mode for packets sent or received by the socket.
Specifies the use of encryption in tunnel mode.
For each of the categories there are five possible levels which specify the security policy to use in that category:
Bypass the default system security policy. This option can only be used by privileged processes. This level is necessary for the key management daemon, isakmpd(8).
If a Security Association is available it will be used for sending packets by that socket.
Use IP Security for sending packets but still accept packets which are not secured.
Use IP Security for sending packets and also require IP Security for received data.
The outbound Security Association will only be used by this socket.
When a new socket is created, it is assigned the default system security level in each category. These levels can be queried with getsockopt(2). Only a privileged process can lower the security level with a setsockopt(2) call.
For example, a server process might want to accept only authenticated connections to prevent session hijacking. It would issue the following setsockopt(2) call:
error = setsockopt(s, IPPROTO_IP, IP_AUTH_LEVEL, &level, sizeof(int));
The system does guarantee that it will succeed at establishing the required security associations. In any case a properly configured key management daemon is required which listens to messages from the kernel.
A list of all security associations in the kernel tables can be obtained using the ipsecctl(8) command.


A socket operation may fail with one of the following errors returned:
An attempt was made to lower the security level below the system default by a non-privileged process.
The length of option field did not match or an unknown security level was given.
netstat(1) can be used to obtain some statistics about AH and ESP usage, using the -p flag. Using the -r flag, netstat(1) displays information about IPsec flows.
vmstat(8) displays information about memory use by IPsec with the -m flag (look for “tdb” and “xform” allocations).


enc(4), options(4), ipsec.conf(5), iked(8), ipsecctl(8), isakmpd(8), sysctl(8)


IPsec was originally designed to provide security services for Internet Protocol IPv6. It has since been engineered to provide those services for the original Internet Protocol, IPv4.
The IPsec protocol design process was started in 1992 by John Ioannidis, Phil Karn, and William Allen Simpson. In 1995, the former wrote an implementation for BSD/OS. Angelos D. Keromytis ported it to OpenBSD and NetBSD. The latest transforms and new features were implemented by Angelos D. Keromytis and Niels Provos.


The authors of the IPsec code proper are John Ioannidis, Angelos D. Keromytis, and Niels Provos.
Niklas Hallqvist and Niels Provos are the authors of isakmpd(8).
Eric Young's libdeslite was used in this implementation for the DES algorithm.
Steve Reid's SHA-1 code was also used.
The setsockopt(2)/getsockopt(2) interface follows somewhat loosely the draft-mcdonald-simple-ipsec-api (since expired, but still available from ftp://ftp.kame.net/pub/internet-drafts/).


There's a lot more to be said on this subject. This is just a beginning. At the moment the socket options are not fully implemented.
March 18, 2016 OpenBSD-current