FortiWLC – 802.1X Authentication

802.1X Authentication

Authentication in the 802.11 standard is focused more on wireless LAN connectivity than on verifying user or station identity. For enterprise wireless security to scale to hundreds or thousands of users, an authentication framework that supports centralized user authentication must be used in addition to the WEP type specified by 802.11, or by using WPA/WPA2, which incorporates TKIP/CCMP-AES and 802.1X authentication.

The use of IEEE 802.1X offers an effective framework for authenticating and controlling user traffic to a protected network, as well as dynamically varying encryption keys if WPA/WPA2 is configured. 802.1X ties a protocol called EAP (Extensible Authentication Protocol) to both the wired and wireless LAN media and supports multiple authentication methods, such as token cards, Kerberos, one-time passwords, certificates, and public key authentication.

802.1X Components

There are three basic pieces to 802.1X authentication:

  1. Supplicant—a software client running on the wireless station
  2. Authenticator—the access point and the controller
  3. Authentication Server—an authentication database, traditionally a RADIUS server such as Cisco ACS, Steel Belt RADIUS server (Juniper), or Microsoft IAS.

Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP) is used to pass the authentication information between the supplicant (the wireless station) and the authentication server (RADIUS, MS IAS, or other). The actual authentication is defined and handled by the EAP type. The access point (and the controller in the configuration) acts as the authenticator. The authenticator is a client of the server that allows the supplicant and the authentication server to communicate.

802.1X Authentication

About the EAP Types

The EAP type you choose, and whether you choose to implement authentication in your organization, depends on the level of security you require. Some of the most commonly deployed EAP authentication types include the following, all of which are supported by the controller:

  • Cisco LEAP

EAP-TLS (Transport Layer Security) provides certificate-based mutual authentication between the client and the network. It relies on client and server certificates to provide authentication and can be used to dynamically generate user-based and session-based encryption keys to secure subsequent communications between the WLAN client and the access point. This type of authentication mechanism requires the administrator install a Certificate Server to store and distribute user and computer certificates. Each client will need the certificate to be downloaded and installed on the wireless client before attempting to use the WLAN. For a large WLAN installation, this can be a cumbersome task.

EAP-TTLS (Tunneled Transport Layer Security)

EAP-TTLS (Tunneled Transport Layer Security) was developed by Funk Software and Certicom, as an extension of EAP-TLS. This security method provides for certificate-based, mutual authentication of the client and network through an encrypted channel (or tunnel), as well as a means to derive dynamic, per-user, per-session encryption keys. Unlike EAP-TLS, EAP-TTLS requires only server-side certificates.

LEAP (Lightweight Extensible Authentication Protocol)

LEAP (Lightweight Extensible Authentication Protocol), is an EAP authentication type used primarily in Cisco Aironet WLANs. It encrypts data transmissions using dynamically generated WEP keys, and supports mutual authentication. Cisco has recently licensed LEAP to a variety of other manufacturers enabling the usage of other than Cisco adapters with LEAP.

PEAP (Protected Extensible Authentication Protocol)

PEAP (Protected Extensible Authentication Protocol) provides a method to securely transport authentication data, including legacy password-based protocols, via 802.11 wireless networks. PEAP accomplishes this by using tunneling between PEAP clients and an authentication server. Like the competing standard Tunneled Transport Layer Security (TTLS), PEAP authenticates wireless LAN clients using only server-side certificates, thus simplifying the implementation and administration of a secure wireless LAN. Microsoft, Cisco and RSA Secu-

802.1X Authentication

rity developed PEAP. Note that Cisco’s LEAP authentication server, ACS, recently added support for PEAP.

802.1X EAP Types Feature/Benefit MD5 TLS TTLS PEAP LEAP
Client certificate required no yes no no no
Server certificate required no yes yes yes no
WEP key management no yes yes yes yes
Provider Microsoft Microsoft Funk MS Cisco
Authentication Attributes One way Mutual Mutual Mutual Mutual
Deployment Difficulty Easy Difficult Moderate Moderate Moderate
Wireless Security Poorest Highest High High High

The following notes apply to the authentication mechanisms above:

  1. MD5 is not typically used as it only provides one-way authentication. MD5 does not support automatic distribution and rotation of WEP keys and therefore does nothing to relieve the administrative burden of manual WEP key maintenance.
  2. TLS, although very secure, requires the administrator to install client certificates on each wireless station. Maintaining a PKI infrastructure adds additional time and effort for the network administrator.
  3. TTLS addresses the certificate issue by tunneling TLS, and thus eliminates the need for a certificate on the client side. This often makes TTLS the preferred option. Funk Software primarily promotes TTLS and there is a charge for supplicant and authentication server software.
  4. LEAP has the longest history. Although previously proprietary to Cisco, Cisco now licenses the software. Other vendors are now beginning to support LEAP in their wireless LAN adapters.
  5. The more recent PEAP works similar to EAP-TTLS in that it does not require a certificate on the client side. PEAP is backed by Cisco and Microsoft and is available at no additional cost from Microsoft. If you want to transition from LEAP to PEAP, Cisco’s ACS authentication server runs both.

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About Mike

Michael Pruett, CISSP has a wide range of cyber-security and network engineering expertise. The plethora of vendors that resell hardware but have zero engineering knowledge resulting in the wrong hardware or configuration being deployed is a major pet peeve of Michael's. This site was started in an effort to spread information while providing the option of quality consulting services at a much lower price than Fortinet Professional Services. Owns PacketLlama.Com (Fortinet Hardware Sales) and Office Of The CISO, LLC (Cybersecurity consulting firm).

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