Route-based VPNs » History » Version 6

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Tobias Brunner, 04.04.2019 12:23
XFRM interfaces documented

Route-based VPNs

Generally IPsec processing is based on policies. After regular route lookups are done, the OS kernel consults its SPD for a matching policy and if one is found that is associated with an IPsec SA, the packet is processed (e.g. encrypted and sent as ESP packet). Refer to IPsecDocumentation for details.

Depending on the operating system it is also possible to configure route-based VPNs. Here IPsec processing does not (only) depend on negotiated policies but may e.g. be controlled by routing packets to a specific interface.

Most of these approaches also allow easy capture of plaintext traffic, which, depending on the operating system, might not be that straight-forward with policy-based VPNs (see CorrectTrafficDump). Another advantage this approach could have is that the MTU can be specified for the tunneling devices allowing to fragment packets before tunneling them in case PMTUD does not work properly.

VTI Devices on Linux

Disclaimer: VTI devices are supported since the Linux 3.6 kernel, but some important changes were added later (3.15+). The information below might not be accurate for older kernel versions.

Note: On newer kernels (4.19+), XFRM interfaces provide a better solution than VTI devices, see below for details.

VTI devices act like a wrapper around existing IPsec policies. This means you can't just route arbitrary packets to a VTI device to get them tunneled, the established IPsec policies have to match too. However, you can negotiate traffic selectors on both ends to allow tunneling anything that's routed via VTI device.

To make this work, that is, to prevent packets not routed via VTI device from matching the policies (if is used every packet would match) marks are used. Only packets that are marked accordingly will match the policies and get tunneled. For other packets the policies are ignored. Whenever a packet is routed to a VTI device it automatically gets the configured mark applied so it will match the policy and get tunneled.

It's important to note that VTI tunnel devices are a local feature, no additional encapsulation (like with GRE, see below) is added, so the other end does not have to be aware that VTI devices are used in addition to regular IPsec policies.

A VTI device may be created with the following command:

ip tunnel add <name> local <local IP> remote <remote IP> mode vti key <number equaling the mark>

<name> can be any valid device name (e.g. ipsec0, vti0 etc.). But note that the ip command treats names starting with vti special in some instances (e.g. when retrieving device statistics). The IPs are the endpoints of the IPsec tunnel. The number at the end has to match the mark configured for the connection. It is also possible to configure different marks for in- and outbound traffic using ikey/okey <mark>, but that is usually not required.

After creating the device it has to be enabled (ip link set <name> up) and then routes may be installed (routing protocols may also be used). To avoid duplicate policy lookups it is also recommended to set sysctl -w net.ipv4.conf.<name>.disable_policy=1. All of this also works for IPv6.

Statistics on VTI devices may be displayed with ip -s tunnel show [<name>]. Note that specifying a name will not show any statistics if the device name starts with vti.

A VTI device may be removed again with ip tunnel del <name>.


First, the route installation by the IKE daemon must be disabled. To do this, set charon.install_routes=0 in strongswan.conf.

Then configure a regular site-to-site connection, either with the traffic selectors set to on both ends (local|remote_ts= in swanctl.conf or left|rightsubnet= in ipsec.conf), or set to specific subnets. As mentioned above, only traffic that matches these traffic selectors will then actually be forwarded, other packets routed to the VTI device will be rejected with an ICMP error message (destination unreachable/destination host unreachable).

The most important configuration option is the mark (mark_in|out in swanctl.conf, mark in ipsec.conf). After applying the optional mask (default is 0xffffffff) to the mark that's set on the VTI device and it applied to the routed packets, the value has to match the configured mark.
So referring to the example above, to match the mark on vti0 configure mark_in = mark_out = 42 and to match the mark on ipsec0 set the value to 0x01000201 (but something like 0x00000200/0x00000f00 would also work).

Sharing VTI Devices

VTI devices may be shared by multiple IPsec SAs (e.g. in roadwarrior scenarios, to capture traffic or lower the MTU) by setting the remote endpoint of the VTI device to For instance:

ip tunnel add ipsec0 local remote mode vti key 42

Then assuming virtual IPs for roadwarriors are assigned from the subnet a matching route may be installed with ip route add dev ipsec0.

Note: Only one such device with the same local IP may be created.

Connection-specific VTI Devices

With a custom updown script it is also possible to setup connection-specific VTI devices.

For instance, to create a VTI device on a roadwarrrior client that receives a dynamic virtual IP (courtesy of Endre Szabó):

If there is more than one subnet in the remote traffic selector this might cause conflicts as the updown script will be called for each combination of local and remote subnet.

Dynamically creating such devices on the server could be problematic if two roadwarriors are connected from the same IP. The kernel rejects the creation of a VTI device if the remote and local addresses are already in use by another VTI device.

In the following script, it is assumed that only the roadwarrior's assigned IPv4 VIP is supposed to be reachable over the assigned tunnel.

Note: Using PLUTO_UNIQUEID might not be a good idea if IKE_SAs may be rekeyed as the unique ID will change with each rekeying (i.e. the script won't be able to delete the device anymore). Using some other identifier (e.g. parts of the virtual IP, or the mark, if it is unique) might be better.

XFRM Interfaces on Linux

Disclaimer: strongSwan supports XFRM interfaces since 5.8.0. They are supported by the Linux kernel since 4.19, however, iproute2 currently has no support to create such interfaces via ip link. So they have to be created directly via Netlink. strongSwan currently provides a small utility to create and list such interfaces (iproute2 can be used for other operations).

XFRM interfaces are similar to VTI devices in their basic functionality (see above for details) but offer several advantages:

  • No tunnel endpoint addresses have to be configured on the interfaces. Compared to VTIs, which are layer 3 tunnel devices with mandatory endpoints, this resolves issues with wildcard addresses (only one VTI with wildcard endpoints is supported), avoids a 1:1 mapping between SAs and interfaces, and easily allows SAs with multiple peers to share the same interface.
  • Because there are no endpoint addresses, IPv4 and IPv6 SAs are supported on the same interface (VTI devices only support one address family).
  • IPsec modes other than tunnel are supported (VTI devices only support tunnel mode).
  • No awkward configuration via GRE keys and XFRM marks. Instead, a new identifier (XFRM interface ID) links policies and SAs with XFRM interfaces.

As mentioned above, the policies and SAs are linked to XFRM interface via a new identifier (interface ID). Like XFRM marks they are part of the policy selector. That is, policies will only match traffic if it was routed via an XFRM interface with a matching interface ID, and duplicate policies are allowed as long as the interface ID is different. So as with VTI devices it's possible to negotiate as traffic selector on both ends (to tunnel arbitrary traffic) for multiple CHILD_SAs as long as the interface IDs are different.

Traffic that's routed to an XFRM interface, while no policies and SAs with matching interface ID exist, will be dropped by the kernel. Likewise, as long as no interface with a matching interface ID exists, the policies and SAs will not be operational (i.e. outbound traffic bypasses the policies and inbound traffic is dropped). So it's possible to create interfaces before SAs are created or afterwards (e.g. via vici events or updown scripts, which both receive configured or, optionally, dynamically generated interface IDs).

Using trap policies to dynamically create IPsec SAs based on matching traffic that has been routed to an XFRM interface is also an option.

It's possible to use separate interfaces for in- and outbound traffic, which is why interface IDs may be configured for in- and outbound policies/SAs separately (see below).

As mentioned in the disclaimer above, to create an XFRM interface it is currently necessary to use strongSwan's xfrmi utility:

/usr/local/libexec/ipsec/xfrmi --name <name> --id <interface ID> --dev <underlying interface>

<name> can be any valid device name (e.g. ipsec0, xfrm0 etc.). <interface ID> is a decimal or hex (0x prefix) 32-bit number. The underlying interface currently is mandatory, but doesn't really matter (it only does if an interface is configured on the outbound policy - and it might with hardware IPsec offloading, but that has not been tested by us), so it could be anything, even lo.

The interface can afterwards be managed via iproute2. So to activate it, use ip link set <name> up. Addresses, if necessary, can be added with ip addr and the interface may eventually be deleted with ip link del <name>.

Statistics are available via ip -s link show [<name>].

Since ip link currently does not list the interface ID of XFRM interfaces, xfrmi provides a --list option to list existing XFRM interfaces.


The daemon will not install any routes for CHILD_SAs with outbound interface ID, so it's not necessary to disable the route installation globally.

Keep in mind that traffic routed to XFRM interfaces has to match the negotiated IPsec policies. Therefore, connections are configured as they would if no interfaces were to be used. However, since policies won't affect traffic that's not routed via XFRM interfaces, it's possible to negotiate or ::/0 as traffic selector on both ends to tunnel arbitrary traffic.

The most important configuration option is the interface ID (if_id_in|out in swanctl.conf). To use a single interface for in- and outbound traffic set them to the same value (or %unique to generate a unique ID for each CHILD_SA), to use separate interfaces for each direction, configure distinct values (or %unique-dir to generate unique IDs for each CHILD_SA and direction). It's also possible to use an XFRM interface only in one direction by setting only one of the two settings.

When setting the options on the connection-level, all CHILD_SAs, for which the settings are not set, will inherit the interface IDs of the IKE_SA (use %unique or %unique-dir to allocate unique IDs for each IKE_SA/direction that are inherited by all CHILD_SAs created under the IKE_SA).

It's possible to use transport mode for host-to-host connections between two peers.

Sharing XFRM Interfaces

Because no endpoint addresses are configured on the interfaces they can easily be shared by multiple SAs, as long as the policies don't conflict. Just configure the same interface ID for the CHILD_SAs (this also works automatically for roadwarrior connections where each client gets an individual IP address assigned - just route the subnets used for virtual IPs to the XFRM interface).

Connection-specific XFRM Interfaces

Using custom vici or updown scripts allows creating connection-specific VTI devices. The interface ID (in particular if %unique[-dir] is used) is available in the scripts to create the XFRM interface dynamically.

Note that updown scripts are called for each combination of of local and remote subnet, so this might cause conflicts if more than one subnet is negotiated in the traffic selectors (i.e. this requires some kind of refcounting). The child-udpown vici event, however, is only triggered once per CHILD_SA. To create connection-level XFRM interfaces with dynamic interface IDs, use the ike-updown vici event.

Network Namespaces

XFRM interfaces can be moved to network namespaces to provide the processes there access to IPsec SAs/policies that were created in a different network namespace. For instance, this allows a single IKE daemon to provide IPsec connections for processes in different network namespaces (or full containers) without them having access to the keys of the SAs (the SAs won't be visible in the other network namespaces, only the XFRM interface).

There was a bug in kernels prior to 5.0. So using this feature with 4.20 kernels requires a kernel patch, see #2845-9. Because 4.19 is a longterm kernel, the fix was backported and is available since 4.19.31.

Marks on Linux

One of the core features of VTI devices or XFRM interfaces, dynamically specifying which traffic to tunnel, can actually be replicated directly with marks and firewall rules. By configuring connections with marks and then selectively marking packets directly with Netfilter rules via MARK target in the PREROUTING or FORWARD chains only specific traffic will get tunneled.

This may also be used to create multiple identical tunnels for which firewall rules dynamically decide which traffic is tunneled though which IPsec SA (e.g. for QoS/DiffServ).


Another alternative is to use GRE, which is a generic point-to-point tunneling protocol that adds an additional encapsulation layer (at least 4 bytes). But it provides a portable way of creating route-based VPNs (running a routing protocol on-top is also easy).

While VTI devices depend on site-to-site IPsec connections in tunnel mode (XFRM interfaces are more flexible), GRE uses a host-to-host connection that can also be run in transport mode (avoiding additional overhead). But while VTI devices and XFRM interfaces may be used by only one of the peers, GRE must be used by both of them.

Creating a GRE tunnel on Linux can be done as follows:

ip tunnel add <name> local <local IP> remote <remote IP> mode gre

<name> can be any valid interface name (e.g. ipsec0, gre0 etc.). But note that the ip command treats names starting with gre special in some instances (e.g. when retrieving device statistics). The IPs are the endpoints of the IPsec tunnel.

After creating the device it has to be enabled (ip link set <name> up) and then routes may be installed.

Statistics on GRE devices may be displayed with ip -s tunnel show [<name>]. Note that specifying a name will not show any statistics if the device name starts with gre.

A GRE device may be removed again with ip tunnel del <name>.


As mentioned above, a host-to-host IPsec connection in transport mode can be used. The traffic selectors may even be limited to just the GRE protocol (local|remote_ts=dynamic[gre] in swanctl.conf or left|rightsubnet=%dynamic[gre] in ipsec.conf).

libipsec And TUN Devices

Based on our own userland IPsec implementation and the kernel-libipsec plugin it is possible to create route-based VPNs with TUN devices. Similar to VTI devices or XFRM interfaces, the negotiated IPsec policies have to match the traffic routed via TUN device.
In particular because packets have to be copied between kernel and userland it is not as efficient as the solutions above (also read the notes on kernel-libipsec).


Make sure to disable the connmark plugin when running a VTI. Otherwise, it will insert Netfilter rules into the *mangle table that prevent the VTI from working.