Paranoid Penguin - Linux VPN Technologies

Which virtual private network is right for you? Mick runs down the options and comes up with some winners and some warnings.

Virtual private networks, or VPNs, are useful and convenient things. Road warriors use them to connect to their home networks securely while traveling; geographically dispersed organizations use them to encrypt WAN links that use public bandwidth; and wireless LAN users use them to add a layer of security to their WLAN connections.

A number of VPN packages are available for Linux: FreeS/WAN, OpenS/WAN, PoPToP, OpenVPN and tinc, just to name a few. But how do you choose the right one for a given job? I show you how in this month's column.

VPN Architecture

VPNs generally address two different needs. The first is the need to allow users to connect to a private network with an encrypted connection through some untrusted medium, such as the Internet or a wireless LAN (WLAN). Figure 1 illustrates the remote-access scenario.

Figure 1. Remote-access VPNs allow one remote system to connect to a network.

In Figure 1, the dashed-blue data flow implies access to the entire corporate LAN. In practice, a remote-access VPN tunnel can limit that access through access control lists (ACLs) or firewall rules. Access can even, in the case of SSL-VPN, be limited to a single application on a single host (I'll explain SSL-VPN shortly).

For simplicity's sake, Figure 1 shows a single client; however, this scenario nearly always involves many clients. In other words, the remote-access scenario requires a client-server architecture in which a single VPN server or concentrator can build tunnels with hundreds or even thousands of remote users. (In this article I'm using the term client-server in a very broad sense, not in the specific software development sense.)

Although Figure 1 shows a VPN server acting as the corporate LAN's VPN endpoint, the firewall also could be used for this—both commercial and free firewalls, including Linux iptables/Netfilter, support VPN protocols.

Important: in this article when I say tunnel, I mean encrypted tunnel. Yes, technically the term tunnel simply means one data stream encapsulated into another. But the whole point of VPNs is encryption, so in this context, tunnel equals encryption.

The second VPN need is to create an encrypted point-to-point connection between two different networks over some untrusted medium. Whereas remote-access VPNs use a client-server model, point-to-point tunnels use a peer-to-peer model. Figure 2 shows a point-to-point VPN architecture.

Figure 2. Point-to-point VPNs connect two networks.

Routers often are used in the point-to-point VPN scenario. Cisco's IOS router operating system, for example, supports several different VPN protocols. Firewalls and dedicated VPN concentrators/servers, however, also can be used as VPN endpoints.

Those are the two problems that VPN architectures address. Two more architectural considerations are worth mentioning, network address translation (NAT) and performance.

With most VPN protocols, NAT can be problematic. That is, your VPN servers generally can't have translated addresses. This is why, in both Figures 1 and 2, none of the VPN endpoints are in corporate LANs, except for the remote client in Figure 1—remote-access clients are the exception to this rule.

Using your firewall as a VPN server is one way to get around the NAT problem, but that brings us to the second consideration: VPN tunnels can be CPU-intensive. Unless your firewall has a crypto-accelerator card or doesn't need to support many concurrent VPN tunnels, you're probably better off using a dedicated VPN server than you are using your firewall for VPNs.

Now that we've covered the basics, let's look at specific VPN software for Linux.

FreeS/WAN and OpenS/WAN

The IPSec protocol, which really is a set of security headers in the Internet Protocol (IP) v6 back-ported to IPv4, is the most open, powerful and secure VPN protocol. It's also the most ubiquitous. IPSec support is now part of virtually all important computer and network-device operating systems. On Linux, it's provided by FreeS/WAN and OpenS/WAN.

I covered FreeS/WAN in depth in “An Introduction to FreeS/WAN”, Parts I and II [in the January and February 2003 issues of LJ, respectively]. In a nutshell, FreeS/WAN adds a couple of kernel modules and user-space commands to your Linux system. Because the IP protocol is part of your kernel, it follows that extensions to the IP protocol also must be incorporated into your kernel.

The Linux 2.6 kernel includes these IPSec modules, called the 26sec modules. The Linux 2.4 kernels included with Red Hat Enterprise Linux do as well—they contain backported versions of the 26sec modules. If you already have IPSec kernel modules, you need install only FreeS/WAN's user-space commands.

FreeS/WAN may be included with your Linux distribution of choice (SuSE, which is mine, includes it). However, the FreeS/WAN Project recently folded, so if your distribution doesn't include FreeS/WAN and you need to compile it from source, you're better off using OpenS/WAN.

OpenS/WAN was started by a group of FreeS/WAN developers who were unhappy with how things were going with the FreeS/WAN Project. Thus, when FreeS/WAN ended, OpenS/WAN succeeded it. Eventually, we can expect the major Linux distributors to replace their FreeS/WAN packages with OpenS/WAN. In the meantime, you can obtain the latest OpenS/WAN source code from the OpenS/WAN Web site (see the on-line Resources).

Advantages of FreeS/WAN and OpenS/WAN include:

  • Maturity: this is one of the older Linux VPN technologies.

  • Security: IPSec is a robust, powerful and well-designed protocol.

  • Interoperability: client systems running other OSes probably have IPSec client software that interoperates with Free/OpenS/WAN.

  • Flexibility: IPSec is ideal for both remote-access and point-to-point VPNs.

Disadvantages include:

  • Complexity: IPSec is not easy to understand, and it requires digital certificates.

  • Power: if all you need to do is provide remote users with access to one application running on one internal system, IPSec may be overkill. IPSec is designed to connect entire networks to each other.

Having said that, if after reading this entire article you're still confused as to which VPN solution is best for you, I recommend that you default to FreeS/WAN or OpenS/WAN. IPSec is by far the most mature and secure VPN technology for Linux. In my opinion, these advantages outweigh the disadvantage of being complex. See the FreeS/WAN and OpenS/WAN Web sites for more information on configuring and using these packages.



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If you love blogging then I

spascho's picture

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It's Openswan, not OpenS/WAN

Jacco de Leeuw's picture

It's Openswan, not OpenS/WAN. Says Michael Richardson, a member of the Openswan team.

It's also not IPSec but IPsec, according to RFC 2401.

Another option for those who wish to support Windows and Mac VPN clients is L2TP/IPsec. For end-users it is almost as easy to use as PPTP but much more secure because it is based on IPsec.

Opensource SSL-VPN

wayne's picture

Hey, there is an opensource SSL-VPN. Check this


what about IPSEC and racoon/k

Anonymous's picture

what about IPSEC and racoon/kame?