Traffic Visibility inside ESP

Use of Encapsulating Security Payload (ESP) within IPsec specifies how ESP packet encapsulation is performed.  It also specifies that ESP can use NULL encryption while preserving data integrity and authenticity.  The exact encapsulation and algorithms employed are negotiated out-of-band using, for example, IKEv2 and based on policy.

Enterprise environments typically employ numerous security policies (and tools for enforcing them), as related to access control, content screening, firewalls, network monitoring functions, deep packet inspection, Intrusion Detection and Prevention Systems (IDS and IPS), scanning and detection of viruses and worms, etc.  In order to enforce these policies, network tools and intermediate devices require visibility into packets, ranging from simple packet header inspection to deeper payload examination.  Network security protocols which encrypt the data in transit prevent these network tools from performing the aforementioned functions.

When employing IPsec within an enterprise environment, it is desirable to employ ESP instead of AH [RFC4302], as AH does not work in NAT environments. Furthermore, in order to preserve the above network monitoring functions, it is desirable to use ESP-NULL. In a mixed mode environment some packets containing sensitive data employ a given encryption cipher suite, while other packets employ ESP-NULL. For an intermediate device to unambiguously distinguish which packets are leveraging ESP-NULL, they would require knowledge of all the policies being employed for each protected session. This is clearly not practical. Heuristic-based methods can be employed to parse the packets, but these can be very expensive, containing numerous rules based on each different protocol and payload.  Even then, the parsing may not be robust in cases where fields within a given encrypted packet happen to resemble the fields for a given protocol or heuristic rule.

This is even more problematic when different length Initialization Vectors (IVs), Integrity Check Values (ICVs) and padding are used for different security associations, making it difficult to determine the start and end of the payload data, let alone attempting any further parsing. Furthermore, storage, lookup and cross-checking a set of comprehensive rules against every packet adds cost to hardware implementations and degrades performance. In cases where the packets may be encrypted, it is also wasteful to check against heuristics-based rules, when a simple exception policy (e.g., allow, drop or redirect) can be employed to handle the encrypted packets. Because of the non-deterministic nature of heuristics-based rules for disambiguating between encrypted and non-  encrypted data, an alternative method for enabling intermediate devices to function in encrypted data environments needs to be defined. Additionally there are many types and classes of network devices employed within a given network and a deterministic approach would provide a simple solution for all these devices. Enterprise environments typically use both stateful and stateless packet inspection mechanisms. The previous considerations weigh particularly heavy on stateless mechanisms such as router ACLs and NetFlow exporters. Nevertheless, a deterministic approach provides a simple solution for the myriad types of devices employed within a network, regardless of their stateful or stateless nature.

We have published an IETF standard RFC5840 to provide additional information in relevant IPsec packets so intermediate devices can efficiently and deterministically disambiguate encrypted ESP packets from ESP packets with NULL encryption.


About Manav Bhatia

Manav Bhatia is a SDN/NFV dataplane architect at Ionos Networks and has co-authored several IETF standards on routing protocols, BFD, IPv6, security, etc. He is also a member of IETF Routing Area Directorate where he helps the Area Directors review the IETF standards for their impact on the Routing Area. View all posts by Manav Bhatia

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