PKI for Network Engineers Ep 10: Cisco IOS CA introduction

Greetings programs!

In the next few PKI for network engineers posts, I’m going to cover Cisco IOS CA. If you’re studying for the CCIE security lab or you’re operating a DMVPN or FlexVPN network, and you’d like to use Digital certificates for authentication, then this series could be very useful for you.

Introduction

IOS-CA is the Certification Authority that is built into Cisco IOS. While not a full featured enterprise PKI, for the purposes of issuing certificates to routers and firewalls for authenticating VPN connections it’s a fine solution. It’s very easy to configure and supports a variety of deployment options.

Key points

  • Comes with Cisco IOS
  • Supports enrollment over SCEP (Simple Certificate Enrollment Protocol)
  • RSA based certificates only
  • Easy to configure
  • Network team maintains control over the CA
  • Solution can scale from tiny to very large networks

Deployment Options

IOS-CA has the flexibility to support a wide variety of designs and requirements. The main factors to consider are the size of the network, what kind of transport is involved, how the network is dispersed geographically, and the security needs of the organization. Let’s briefly touch on a few common scenarios to explore the options.

Single issuing Root CA

For a smaller network with a single datacenter or a active/passive datacenter design, a single issuing root may make the most sense. It’s the most basic configuration and it’s easy to administer.

This solution would be appropriate when the sole purpose of the CA is to issue certificates for the purpose of authenticating VPN tunnels for a smaller network of approximately a hundred routers or less. Depending on the precautions taken and the amount of instrumentation on the network, the blast radius of this CA compromise would be relatively small and you could spin up a new CA an enroll the routers to it fairly quickly.

The primary consideration for this option is CA placement. A good choice would be a virtual machine on a protected network with access control lists limiting who can attempt to enroll. The CA is relatively safe from being probed and scanned, and it’s easily backed up.


Fig 1. Single issuing root

Offline Root plus Issuing Subordinate CAs

For a network that has multiple datacenters and/or across multiple continents it would make more sense to create a Root CA, then place a subordinate Issuing CA each datacenter that contains VPN hubs. By Default IOS trusts a subordinate CA, meaning the root CA’s certificate and CRL need not be made available to the endpoints to prevent chaining failure.

As in the case with any online/Issuing CA, steps should be taken to use access controls to limit access to HTTP/SCEP

Fig 2. Offline Root

Issuing Root with Registration Authority

Fig 3. Single root with Registration authority

In this design, there is still a single issuing root, however the enrollment requests are handled by an RA (Registration Authority). An RA acts as a proxy between the CA and the endpoint. This allows for the CA to have strict access controls yet still be able to process enrollment requests and CRL downloads.


Offline Root & Issuing Subordinate CAs w/RA

The final variation is a multi-level PKI that uses the RA to process enrollment and CRL downloads. This design provides the best combination of security, scaling, and flexibility, but it is also the most complex.

Bootstrapping remote routers

Consider a situation where you’re turning up a remote router and you need to bring up your transport tunnel to the Datacenter. The Certification authority lives in the Datacenter on a limited access network behind a firewall. In order for the remote router to enroll in-band using SCEP, it would need a VPN connection. But our VPN uses digital certificates.

There are three options for solving this:

Sideband tunnel w/pre-shared key

This method involves setting up a separate VPN tunnel that uses a pre-shared key in order to provide connectivity for enrollment. This could be a temporary tunnel that’s removed when enrollment is complete, or it could be shut down and left in place for use at a later time for other management tasks.

A sideband tunnel for performing management tasks that may bring down the production tunnel(s) is useful, making this a good option. It’s main drawback is the amount of configuration work required on the remote router. It also depends on some expertise on the part of the installer, a shortcoming shared with the manual enrollment method.

Registration Authority

A Registration Authority is a proxy that relays requests between the Certification Authority and the device requesting enrollment. In this method an RA is enabled on the untrusted network for long enough to process the enrollment request. Once the remote router has been enrolled the the transport tunnels will come up and bootstrapping is complete.

Using a proxy allows in-band enrollment with a minimum amount of configuration on the remote router, making it less burdensome for the on-site field technician. The tradeoff is we’re shifting some of that work to the head end. Because the hub site staff is likely to possess more expertise, this is an attractive trade-off.

Manual/Terminal enrollment

In this method, the endpoint produces a Enrollment request on the terminal formatted as base64 PEM (Privacy Encrypted Mail) Blob. The text is copied and pasted into the terminal of the CA. The CA processes the request and outputs the certificate as a PEM file, which is then pasted into the terminal of the Client router.

While this does have the advantage of not requiring network connectivity between the CA and the enrolling router, it does have a couple of drawbacks. Besides being labor intensive and not straightforward for a field technician to work with, endpoints enrolled with the terminal method cannot use the auto-rollover feature, which allows the routers to renew certificates automatically prior to expiration. The author regards this is an option of last resort.

CRL download on spokes problem

The issue here is when the spoke router needs to download the certificate revocation list (CRL) but the CA that has the CRL is reachable only over a VPN tunnel, that cannot come up because the spoke can’t talk to the CA to download a unexpired copy of the CRL in order to validate the certificate of the head end router.

This is actually a pretty easy problem to solve. Disable CRL checking on the spoke routers, but leave it enabled on the hub routers. This way the administrator can revoke a router certificate and that router will not be allowed to join the network because the hub router will see that it’s certificate has been revoked.

Wrap-up

Ok, so there are the basics. In the next installment, we’ll step through a minimum working configuration.


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