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Zero to IPSec in 4 minutes 

Feb 28, 2006 02:00 AM

by Dragos Ruiu

This short article looks at how to get a fully functional IPSec VPN up and running between two fresh OpenBSD installations in about four minutes flat.

Until recently, setting up an open-source IPSec solution has been woefully complex and involved wading through an alphabet soup of committee-designed protocols. Many people give up on IPSec after their first peek at the horrible and complex software documentation, opting instead to install some sort of commercial SSL VPN which seems much simpler. For those who have been through this exercise, a jumble of SAs, ESPs, AHs, SPIs, CAs, certs, FIFOs, IKEs and policy jargon inside RFCs is enough to give anyone a headache. However, there is good new on the IPSec front: it has all finally been covered up with a nice, simple way to set it up under OpenBSD.

In this short article we'll look at how to get a fully functional IPSec VPN up and running between two fresh OpenBSD machines in about four minutes flat. The goal here certainly isn't to give an exhaustive overview of all the option available in IPSec or OpenBSD, but rather just how quickly and easily we can be up and running when others take days or weeks to do the same thing.

Introducing ipsecctl in OpenBSD

You might not have noticed it, but a new command has sneaked into OpenBSD, starting with version 3.8: ipsecctl. And it's truly wonderful. It provides a much needed layer of abstraction to all the highly flexible, but horribly intricate details of IPSec. In reality, most people don't need half the configuration and protocol options that IPSec provides, so this abstraction layer is sorely needed.

If all one wants to do is set up a simple encrypted Virtual Private Network (VPN) between two sites, the configuration steps one would have to go through otherwise were always truly ugly, and a bottle of aspirin was a mandatory accessory. No more! Now with ipsecctl, a simple VPN can be setup by editing one simple configuration file on OpenBSD: /etc/ipsec.conf.

As a test, my colleague Sean Comeau and I took two freshly installed OpenBSD firewalls, in their default configurations, and edited three files. We changed a total of seven lines of configuration on each system - and had an IPSec VPN exchanging packets between our two sites within four minutes of the first boot.

Those who haven't installed OpenBSD before will find the installation process surprisingly easy. The two most popular ways of installing are via CD-ROM (an inexpensive option, but it must be purchased from the OpenBSD team), or via a simple FTP install using a floppy or CD-ROM boot media. With a broadband connection, a complete FTP install of a default system can easily be completed in under ten minutes. For the purpose of this article, we'll assume you have two fresh installs of OpenBSD ready to go. Note that if you follow the CVS builds of either OpenBSD 3.8-stable or OpenBSD 3.8-current, both machines in your VPN should be running the same snapshot.

An IPSec example

To illustrate just how simple IPSec is to setup in OpenBSD, let's start with an example. First, let's quickly review our goals. We want to network two remote subnets via a fully encrypted, standard IPSec Virtual Private Network (VPN). Both our subnets will have OpenBSD Network Address Translation (NAT) firewalls.

Network A:

External IP address: Internal IP address block:

Network B:

External IP address: Internal IP address block:

The configuration of pf, which is our firewall and provides NAT, is found /etc/pf.conf. On both systems in this example, pf.conf should look as follows:


ext_if="fxp0" int_if="fxp1" set skip on { lo $int_if } nat on $ext_if from !($ext_if) -> ($ext_if:0) block in pass out keep state

Both systems have had IP forwarding turned on by uncommenting the "net.inet.ip.forwarding=1" line in the /etc/sysctl.conf file. IP forwarding is turned off by default, but is required for NAT. Now that we understand our objectives and have two fully functional base systems, what do we have to do to link our two internal subnets together with a VPN? As you will see, the configuration is surprisingly simple.

Step 1. Configure IPSec

First, add the following lines to Firewall A in /etc/ipsec.conf:


ike esp from to peer ike esp from to peer ike esp from to

Next, add the following lines to Firewall B's /etc/ipsec.conf:


ike passive esp from to peer ike passive esp from to peer ike passive esp from to

The passive modifier in the configuration denotes that Firewall A will initiate the connection and Firewall B will listen for it.

Step 2. Allow IPSec through the firewall

Now, add the following line to /etc/pf.conf to configure the firewall on Firewall A:


pass quick on $ext_if from

and change the "set skip" line from:


set skip on { lo $int_if }



set skip on { lo $int_if enc0 }

This adds the encapsulated enc0 interface to the list.

Now let's move on to Firewall B. In this /etc/pf.conf, add the following lines:


pass quick on $ext_if  from set skip on { lo $int_if enc0 }

We're done with both the firewall/NAT and IPSec configiguration, so let's move on to the next step - copying the keys.

Step 3. Copy the isakmpd keys to each system

On Firewall A (, copy /etc/isakmpd/private/local.pub from Firewall B into /etc/isakmpd/pubkeys/ipv4/

Similarly, on Firewall B ( copy /etc/isakmpd/private/local.pub from Firewall A into /etc/isakmpd/pubkeys/ipv4/

The reader should note that while this configuration uses numeric IP addresses, the configuration can also be done with fully qualified domain names. To use domain names, simply copy the keys into the /etc/isakmpd/pubkeys/fqdn directory, and use srcid and dstid keywords in you /etc/ipsec.conf flow specifications.

Step 4. Start the VPN

To start the VPN, use the following commands on both systems:


isakmpd -K ipsecctl -f /etc/ipsec.conf

Congratualtions! You've just set up an IPSec VPN. You should be pleased to know that the ipsecctl command has automatically configured isakmpd and all its horrible config files, and it has chosen nice, sensible, and secure defaults for you.

The -K option tells isakmpd to skip the intricate and rarely needed policy configurations that would otherwise be required.

Now let's test the VPN. You should be able to ping nodes on 10.2.2.* from nodes on 10.1.1.* and vice versa. If this doesn't work, try starting up isakmpd with the debug option "isakmpd -K -d" to get more diagnostics.

Step 5. Set this up to start automatically at reboot

The default startup daemons on OpenBSD are found in the standard rc.conf file. Edit /etc/rc.conf and change the isakmpd line to:



Also ensure that 'PF=YES' in rc.conf as well, so that your pf firewall/NAT is started at the next boot. Now we also want to ensure that ipsecctl is started automatically. To the /etc/rc.local file, add the following line:


ipsecctl -f /etc/ipsec.conf

Finally, you may wish to edit your /etc/changelist on both Firewall A and B to ensure that your new /etc/ipsec.conf configuration file is listed. While this step is entirely optional, it ensures that any changes to your IPSec configuration be tracked and emailed to the administrator on a daily basis, as part of the daily mail script. For this to work, you must have configured /etc/mail/aliases and have given the root alias your own email address, and then run 'newaliases' to commit the changes.

And there you have it. Isn't that nice and simple? If you are familiar with pf and pfctl, ipsecctl will seem very easy and provides a very similar interface. In other words, you can get the status of the ipsec flows and associations with:


ipsecctl -sa

And so on. Amazingly, it took more than a decade for someone to finally provide a simple, straightforward configuration interface to IPSec. It's now simple enough that we are finally able to recommend IPSec to novice people so they can easily setup an IPSec VPN.


In this short article we looked at how easy it is to setup an IPSec VPN between two fresh OpenBSD installations. We started with two default installations and changed a total of seven configuration lines. Instead of taking days or weeks to get an IPSec VPN up and running, ours was running in about four minutes.

Thanks Theo and the OpenBSD team for this, as we believe this is truly a huge step forward for users everywhere who want to use IPSec. Ipsecctl is what we have long needed.

As a personal note, I'd like to see other *BSD committers port this to many other systems. Ipsecctl was specified by Matt Sauve-Frankel, and coded by Hans-Joerg Hoexer. While ipsecctl doesn't appear to work fully with IPv6 yet, support for this should be on the way. Also note that there may be differences with how ipsecctl works on the CVS versions of 3.8-current and 3.8-stable, and therefore it is recommended that both firewalls in your IPSec configuration run the same version of OpenBSD.

This article originally appeared on SecurityFocus.com -- reproduction in whole or in part is not allowed without expressed written consent.

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