Introduction to authentication

Introduction to authentication

Identifying users and other computers—authentication—is a key part of network security. This section describes some basic elements and concepts of authentication.

The following topics are included in this section:

  • What is authentication?
  • Methods of authentication
  • Types of authentication
  • User’s view of authentication
  • FortiGate administrator’s view of authentication

 

What is authentication?

Businesses need to authenticate people who have access to company resources. In the physical world this may be a swipe card to enter the building, or a code to enter a locked door. If a person has this swipe card or code, they have been authenticated as someone allowed in that building or room.

Authentication is the act of confirming the identity of a person or other entity. In the context of a private computer network, the identities of users or host computers must be established to ensure that only authorized parties can access the network. The FortiGate unit enables controlled network access and applies authentication to users of security policies and VPN clients.

 

Methods of authentication

FortiGate unit authentication is divided into three basic types: password authentication for people, certificate authentication for hosts or endpoints, and two-factor authentication for additional security beyond just passwords. An exception to this is that FortiGate units in an HA cluster and FortiManager units use password authentication.

Password authentication verifies individual user identities, but access to network resources is based on membership in user groups. For example, a security policy can be configured to permit access only to the members of one or more user groups. Any user who attempts to access the network through that policy is then authenticated through a request for their username and password.

Methods of authentication include:

  • Local password authentication
  • Server-based password authentication
  • Certificate-based authentication
  • Two-factor authentication

 

Local password authentication

The simplest authentication is based on user accounts stored locally on the FortiGate unit. For each account, a username and password is stored. The account also has a disable option so that you can suspend the account without deleting it.

Local user accounts work well for a single-FortiGate installation. If your network has multiple FortiGate units that will use the same accounts, the use of an external authentication server can simplify account configuration and maintenance.

You can create local user accounts in the web-based manager under User & Device > User >User Definition. This page is also used to create accounts where an external authentication server stores and verifies the password.

 

Serverbased password authentication

Using external authentication servers is desirable when multiple FortiGate units need to authenticate the same users, or where the FortiGate unit is added to a network that already contains an authentication server. FortiOS supports the use of LDAP, RADIUS, TACACS+, AD or POP3 servers for authentication.

When you use an external authentication server to authenticate users, the FortiGate unit sends the user’s entered credentials to the external server. The password is encrypted. The server’s response indicates whether the supplied credentials are valid or not.

You must configure the FortiGate unit to access the external authentication servers that you want to use. The configuration includes the parameters that authenticate the FortiGate unit to the authentication server.

You can use external authentication servers in two ways:

  • Create user accounts on the FortiGate unit, but instead of storing each user’s password, specify the server used to authenticate that user. As with accounts that store the password locally, you add these users to appropriate user groups.
  • Add the authentication server to user groups. Any user who has an account on the server can be authenticated and have the access privileges of the FortiGate user group. Optionally, when an LDAP server is a FortiGate user group member, you can limit access to users who belong to specific groups defined on the LDAP server.

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