Thursday, September 30, 2010

IPSec Key Exchange (IKE)

Posted by OurTech Team | Thursday, September 30, 2010 | Category: |

IPSec, like many secure networking protocol sets, is based on the concept of a “shared secret”. Two devices that want to send information securely encode and decode it using a piece of information that only they know. Anyone who isn't “in” on the secret is able to intercept the information but is prevented either from reading it (if ESP is used to encrypt the payload) or from tampering with it undetected (if AH is used). Before either AH or ESP can be used, however, it is necessary for the two devices to exchange the “secret” that the security protocols themselves will use. The primary support protocol used for this purpose in IPSec is called Internet Key Exchange (IKE).
IKE is defined in RFC 2409, and is one of the more complicated of the IPSec protocols to comprehend. In fact, it is simply impossible to truly understand more than a real simplification of its operation without significant background in cryptography. I don't have a background in cryptography and I must assume that you, my reader, do not either. So rather than fill this topic with baffling acronyms and unexplained concepts, I will just provide a brief outline of IKE and how it is used.
IKE Overview and Relationship to Other Key Exchange Methods
The purpose of IKE is to allow devices to exchange information required for secure communication. As the title suggests, this includes cryptographic keys used for encoding authentication information and performing payload encryption. IKE works by allowing IPSec-capable devices to exchange security associations (SAs), to populate their security association databases (SADs). These are then used for the actual exchange of secured datagrams with the AH and ESP protocols.
IKE is considered a “hybrid” protocol because it combines (and supplements) the functions of three other protocols. The first of these is the Internet Security Association and Key Management Protocol (ISAKMP). This protocol provides a framework for exchanging encryption keys and security association information. It operates by allowing security associations to be negotiated through a series of phases.
ISAKMP is a generic protocol that supports many different key exchange methods. In IKE, the ISAKMP framework is used as the basis for a specific key exchange method that combines features from two key exchange protocols:
  • OAKLEY: Describes a specific mechanism for exchanging keys through the definition of various key exchange “modes”. Most of the IKE key exchange process is based on OAKLEY.
  • SKEME: Describes a different key exchange mechanism than OAKLEY. IKE uses some features from SKEME, including its method of public key encryption and its fast re-keying feature.

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