OpenVPN cryptographic layer

This is a technical overview of OpenVPN's cryptographic layer, and assumes a prior understanding of modern cryptographic concepts. For additional discussion on OpenVPN security, see this FAQ item.

OpenVPN has two authentication modes:

  • Static Key -- Use a pre-shared static key
  • TLS -- Use SSL/TLS + certificates for authentication and key exchange

In static key mode, a pre-shared key is generated and shared between both OpenVPN peers before the tunnel is started. This static key contains 4 independent keys: HMAC send, HMAC receive, encrypt, and decrypt. By default in static key mode, both hosts will use the same HMAC key and the same encrypt/decrypt key. However, using the direction parameter to --secret, it is possible to use all 4 keys independently.

In SSL/TLS mode, an SSL session is established with bidirectional authentication (i.e. each side of the connection must present its own certificate). If the SSL/TLS authentication succeeds, encryption/decryption and HMAC key source material is then randomly generated by OpenSSL's RAND_bytes function and exchanged over the SSL/TLS connection. Both sides of the connection contribute random source material. This mode never uses any key bidirectionally, so each peer has a distinct send HMAC, receive HMAC, packet encrypt, and packet decrypt key. If --key-method 2 is used, the actual keys are generated from the random source material using the TLS PRF function. If --key-method 1 is used, the keys are generated directly from the OpenSSL RAND_bytes function. --key-method 2 was introduced with OpenVPN 1.5.0 and will be made the default in OpenVPN 2.0.

During SSL/TLS rekeying, there is a transition-window parameter that permits overlap between old and new key usage, so there is no time pressure or latency bottleneck during SSL/TLS renegotiations.

Because SSL/TLS is designed to operate over a reliable transport, OpenVPN provides a reliable transport layer on top of UDP (see diagram below).

Once each peer has its set of keys, the tunnel forwarding operation commences.

The encrypted packet is formatted as follows:

HMAC(explicit IV, encrypted envelope)
Explicit IV
Encrypted Envelope

The plaintext of the encrypted envelope is formatted as follows:

64 bit sequence number
payload data, i.e. IP packet or Ethernet frame

The HMAC and explicit IV are outside of the encrypted envelope.

The per-packet IV is randomized using a nonce-based PRNG that is initially seeded from the OpenSSL RAND_bytes function.

HMAC, encryption, and decryption functions are provided by the OpenSSL EVP interface and allows the user to select an arbitrary cipher, key size, and message digest for HMAC. BlowFish? is the default cipher and SHA1 is the default message digest. The OpenSSL EVP interface handles padding to an even multiple of block size using PKCS#5 padding. CBC-mode cipher usage is encouraged but not required.

One notable security improvement that OpenVPN provides over vanilla TLS is that it gives the user the opportunity to use a pre-shared passphrase (or static key) in conjunction with the --tls-auth directive to generate an HMAC key to authenticate the packets that are themselves part of the TLS handshake sequence. This protects against buffer overflows in the OpenSSL TLS implementation, because an attacker cannot even initiate a TLS handshake without being able to generate packets with the currect HMAC signature.

OpenVPN multiplexes the SSL/TLS session used for authentication and key exchange with the actual encrypted tunnel data stream. OpenVPN provides the SSL/TLS connection with a reliable transport layer (as it is designed to operate over). The actual IP packets, after being encrypted and signed with an HMAC, are tunnelled over UDP without any reliability layer. So if --proto udp is used, no IP packets are tunneled over a reliable transport, eliminating the problem of reliability-layer collisions -- Of course, if you are tunneling a TCP session over OpenVPN running in UDP mode, the TCP protocol itself will provide the reliability layer.

SSL/TLS -> Reliability Layer -> \
           --tls-auth HMAC       \
                                   > Multiplexer ----> UDP
                                  /                    Transport
IP        Encrypt and HMAC       /
Tunnel -> using OpenSSL EVP --> /
Packets   interface.

This model has the benefit that SSL/TLS sees a reliable transport layer while the IP packet forwarder sees an unreliable transport layer -- exactly what both components want to see. The reliability and authentication layers are completely independent of one another, i.e. the sequence number is embedded inside the HMAC-signed envelope and is not used for authentication purposes.

OpenVPN Protocol

 * OpenVPN Protocol, taken from ssl.h in OpenVPN source code.
 * TCP/UDP Packet:  This represents the top-level encapsulation.
 * TCP/UDP packet format:
 *   Packet length (16 bits, unsigned) -- TCP only, always sent as
 *       plaintext.  Since TCP is a stream protocol, the packet
 *       length words define the packetization of the stream.
 *   Packet opcode/key_id (8 bits) -- TLS only, not used in
 *       pre-shared secret mode.
 *            packet message type, a P_* constant (high 5 bits)
 *            key_id (low 3 bits, see key_id in struct tls_session
 *              below for comment).  The key_id refers to an
 *              already negotiated TLS session.  OpenVPN seamlessly
 *              renegotiates the TLS session by using a new key_id
 *              for the new session.  Overlap (controlled by
 *              user definable parameters) between old and new TLS
 *              sessions is allowed, providing a seamless transition
 *              during tunnel operation.
 *   Payload (n bytes), which may be a P_CONTROL, P_ACK, or P_DATA
 *       message.
 * Message types:
 *  P_CONTROL_HARD_RESET_CLIENT_V1 -- Key method 1, initial key from
 *    client, forget previous state.
 *  P_CONTROL_HARD_RESET_SERVER_V1 -- Key method 1, initial key
 *    from server, forget previous state.
 *  P_CONTROL_SOFT_RESET_V1 -- New key, with a graceful transition
 *    from old to new key in the sense that a transition window
 *    exists where both the old or new key_id can be used.  OpenVPN
 *    uses two different forms of key_id.  The first form is 64 bits
 *    and is used for all P_CONTROL messages.  P_DATA messages on the
 *    other hand use a shortened key_id of 3 bits for efficiency
 *    reasons since the vast majority of OpenVPN packets in an
 *    active tunnel will be P_DATA messages.  The 64 bit form
 *    is referred to as a session_id, while the 3 bit form is
 *    referred to as a key_id.
 *  P_CONTROL_V1 -- Control channel packet (usually TLS ciphertext).
 *  P_ACK_V1 -- Acknowledgement for P_CONTROL packets received.
 *  P_DATA_V1 -- Data channel packet containing actual tunnel data
 *    ciphertext.
 *  P_CONTROL_HARD_RESET_CLIENT_V2 -- Key method 2, initial key from
 *   client, forget previous state.
 *  P_CONTROL_HARD_RESET_SERVER_V2 -- Key method 2, initial key from
 *   server, forget previous state.
 * P_CONTROL* and P_ACK Payload:  The P_CONTROL message type
 * indicates a TLS ciphertext packet which has been encapsulated
 * inside of a reliability layer.  The reliability layer is
 * implemented as a straightforward ACK and retransmit model.
 * P_CONTROL message format:
 *   local session_id (random 64 bit value to identify TLS session).
 *   HMAC signature of entire encapsulation header for integrity
 *       check if --tls-auth is specified (usually 16 or 20 bytes).
 *   packet-id for replay protection (4 or 8 bytes, includes
 *       sequence number and optional time_t timestamp).
 *   P_ACK packet_id array length (1 byte).
 *   P_ACK packet-id array (if length > 0).
 *   P_ACK remote session_id (if length > 0).
 *   message packet-id (4 bytes).
 *   TLS payload ciphertext (n bytes) (only for P_CONTROL).
 * Once the TLS session has been initialized and authenticated,
 * the TLS channel is used to exchange random key material for
 * bidirectional cipher and HMAC keys which will be
 * used to secure actual tunnel packets.  OpenVPN currently
 * implements two key methods.  Key method 1 directly
 * derives keys using random bits obtained from the RAND_bytes
 * OpenSSL function.  Key method 2 mixes random key material
 * from both sides of the connection using the TLS PRF mixing
 * function.  Key method 2 is the preferred method and is the default
 * for OpenVPN 2.0.
 * TLS plaintext content:
 * TLS plaintext packet (if key_method == 1):
 *   Cipher key length in bytes (1 byte).
 *   Cipher key (n bytes).
 *   HMAC key length in bytes (1 byte).
 *   HMAC key (n bytes).
 *   Options string (n bytes, null terminated, client/server options
 *       string should match).
 * TLS plaintext packet (if key_method == 2):
 *   Literal 0 (4 bytes).
 *   key_method type (1 byte).
 *   key_source structure (pre_master only defined for client ->
 *       server).
 *   options_string_length, including null (2 bytes).
 *   Options string (n bytes, null terminated, client/server options
 *       string must match).
 *   [The username/password data below is optional, record can end
 *       at this point.]
 *   username_string_length, including null (2 bytes).
 *   Username string (n bytes, null terminated).
 *   password_string_length, including null (2 bytes).
 *   Password string (n bytes, null terminated).
 * The P_DATA payload represents encrypted, encapsulated tunnel
 * packets which tend to be either IP packets or Ethernet frames.
 * This is essentially the "payload" of the VPN.
 * P_DATA message content:
 *   HMAC of ciphertext IV + ciphertext (if not disabled by
 *       --auth none).
 *   Ciphertext IV (size is cipher-dependent, if not disabled by
 *       --no-iv).
 *   Tunnel packet ciphertext.
 * P_DATA plaintext
 *   packet_id (4 or 8 bytes, if not disabled by --no-replay).
 *       In SSL/TLS mode, 4 bytes are used because the implementation
 *       can force a TLS renegotation before 2^32 packets are sent.
 *       In pre-shared key mode, 8 bytes are used (sequence number
 *       and time_t value) to allow long-term key usage without
 *       packet_id collisions.
 *   User plaintext (n bytes).
 * Notes:
 *   (1) ACK messages can be encoded in either the dedicated
 *       P_ACK record or they can be prepended to a P_CONTROL message.
 *   (2) P_DATA and P_CONTROL/P_ACK use independent packet-id
 *       sequences because P_DATA is an unreliable channel while
 *       P_CONTROL/P_ACK is a reliable channel.  Each use their
 *       own independent HMAC keys.
 *   (3) Note that when --tls-auth is used, all message types are
 *       protected with an HMAC signature, even the initial packets
 *       of the TLS handshake.  This makes it easy for OpenVPN to
 *       throw away bogus packets quickly, without wasting resources
 *       on attempting a TLS handshake which will ultimately fail.
Last modified 10 years ago Last modified on 07/24/14 12:11:31