IP mobility vs. session mobility for wireless VPNs

Because Internet Protocol (IP) VPN solutions are inherently limited when it comes to wireless communication, a session-level VPN presents a powerful and attractive alternative.

July 27, 2004

11 Min Read
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As mobile computing becomes increasingly popular, so does the demand for virtual private network (VPN) access from mobile clients. But because Internet Protocol (IP) VPN solutions are inherently limited when it comes to wireless communication, a session-level VPN presents a powerful and attractive alternative. That said, the biggest challenge is to handle movement between different networks without losing the VPN connection, achieving what's called seamless network roaming. To facilitate such roaming, two new concepts must be explored: IP mobility and session mobility.

The obvious IP-level approach for the construction of a wireless VPN is to implement Internet Protocol Secure (IPSec) support along with mobile IP. The strategy is to provide transparency to the transport layer. Mobile IP effectively hides IP address changes, allowing transport-level connections to survive a network handover. This said, an IP-level approach leaves the responsibility for flow control and session recovery to the transport protocol used, normally TCP. The use of IPSec introduces other problems as well, among which the network address translation (NAT) problem is the most serious.

A session-level solution implements VPN and mobility functions at the session layer, as the name suggests. No attempts are made at keeping transport-level connections alive during network roaming. Instead, the solution relies on recovery mechanisms at the session layer for fast transport connection reestablishment. A schematic overview of where in the protocol stack VPN and roaming functionality is implemented in an IP VPN and session-level VPN, respectively, is shown (see figure).

Session and IP comparison

A wireless VPN must provide at least the same level of security as traditional wireline VPNs. Sensitive data is transmitted over public, insecure networks, which are fully accessible by third parties. Enterprise VPN solutions rely on their security mechanisms to provide privacy, data integrity and authentication. If any of these mechanisms fail, the VPN is vulnerable to attacks.IPSec has become the de facto security standard for IP VPNs. Since IPSec is a network-level protocol, its security mechanisms are tightly connected to the IP address of the connecting host; an unfortunate characteristic that prevents smooth operation in a wireless environment with different networks hosted by different operators.

An alternative solution is to use Wireless Transport Layer Security, which is a wireless adaptation of the TLS protocol. At a first glance, IPSec and WTLS present very similar services, such as strong encryption, authentication, signing and hashing. However, there are at least two important differences between the protocols.

WTLS can be used to enforce strong end-to-end security on an application-to-application level, which means that encryption is maintained past any corporate firewall or gateway all the way to the application, if needed. If end-to-end security is not required, WTLS encryption can be terminated in a border gateway as is normally the case with IP VPN solutions. With end-to-end security, an application is able to differentiate its services depending on the security policy used by the accessing device. In a corporate e-mail application for example, e-mails may be labeled for different levels of sensitivity. Only devices that use the strongest security mechanisms are allowed to download e-mails labeled confidential, while devices using weaker security may download e-mails with normal sensitivity.

IPSec is unable to maintain encryption past ordinary firewalls, gateways and NATs without a large-scale network upgrade. This is because traditional NAT servers expect transport-level information rather than IPSec headers following the IP header. The so-called NAT problem has been attracting a lot of attention within the IETF community, but so far no standardized solutions are at hand.

Session resumeSecure connection establishment is a process that requires heavy computations and many messages need to be sent between the two communicating peers. If the communication device is a PDA with limited processing power, a session setup may take several minutes to perform. Therefore it is of paramount importance that the session be able to survive periods during which network services are unavailable.

To address these issues, WTLS supports mechanisms for convenient and fast reestablishment of lost connections. The session-resume functionality allows for long-lived WTLS sessions that are able to survive network failures. If a connection is lost, a new connection can be set up without any complex computations, at a fraction of the original setup time. Since the reconnection is performed in the background, no user interaction is required, so the user does not have to log back on after a session resume.

IPSec and WTLS perform very similar setup operations, normally called a handshake, but as IPSec lacks the session-resume functionality, a full-scale handshake including key exchange mechanisms and capability negotiations must be performed each time the client reconnects. As connection instabilities are quite common in wireless communication, the user experience is dramatically improved with session-resume functionality.

Transaction recovery

One of the effects of implementing a wireless VPN at the session level is the possibility of implementing a transaction recovery mechanism, providing reliable and seamless data transactions in a network environment with intermittent connectivity. For example, if a file transfer or an e-mail download is in progress when the user enters an area without radio coverage, the transaction recovery mechanism can resume the transaction from where it was interrupted, without losing any previously transmitted data, as soon as the network is available.A VPN solution based on IPSec has no inherent support for transaction recovery. In the scenario described above, the transaction must start all over again, losing all previously transmitted data. The only way to prevent data loss is to have every application implement its own recovery mechanism. IP-based solutions thus fail to provide an acceptable level of network transparency to the application layer.

Network roaming

The proposed technology for providing network roaming in an IP VPN is called mobile IP. The idea is to prevent TCP sessions from breaking down during network handover. Network roaming often results in a change of the device's IP address, which in turn causes the TCP connections to fail. Mobile IP uses IP tunnels to transparently route data to the wireless device, regardless of its current point of attachment. By using the combination of a care-of address (provided by the visited domain) and a home address (provided by the home network), network roaming is made transparent to TCP.

In reality, a TCP session is unlikely to survive a network handover between different types of networks. A movement from a fast network, such as wireless LAN or Bluetooth, to a slow network, such as General Packet Radio Service, will trigger multiple TCP timeouts from which the TCP connection may be unable to recover. When acting in a fragmented network environment with different types of networks interoperating, IP-layer mechanisms fail to provide seamless roaming with continuity of services.

A different approach is to utilize the session-resume functionality implemented in WTLS for network roaming. There is no point trying to keep the TCP sessions open when TCP itself is so vulnerable to the changing link environment. By using the session-resume mechanism in WTLS, a new TCP session is opened and secured very quickly. Since all application connections are terminated locally on the computer, the establishment of the new TCP session is made totally transparent to the applications.Performance

One of the primary reasons for using IP VPN technology is the transparency to the upper layers, as this gives flexibility and applications do not have to be rewritten for wireless communication. This is also true for session-level VPN solutions. By placing the VPN functionality underneath the operating system's socket API, all applications are wireless-enabled by default. The difference between IP-based solutions and session-level solutions is that transparency in an IP VPN is achieved at the expense of performance while a session-level solution is able to provide a high level of transparency and at the same time provide maximum performance.

In the reality of wireless communication, radio resources will always be scarce. This motivates the efforts for implementing wireless optimizations and compression.


Compression is an optimization technique that has been widely used in most communication modems for many years. For all types of compression algorithms, it is true that compressing encrypted data has no effect, since the algorithms take advantage of structures in the data " something good encryption removes completely. Because of this it is vital to compress data before encryption if the data compression is to be effective. In general, more information about the data to be encrypted provides for better compression results. In a session-level solution, compression and data reduction are performed close to the application layer, ensuring high compression ratios.IPSec implements compression mechanisms that may be applied to the data before encryption, but only on a packet-by-packet basis. First, there is no way of finding out the nature of the data, which makes it impossible to use stateful compression techniques. Second, since every IP datagram is compressed separately, compression cannot be applied on a large stream of data. Because of this, structural recurrence cannot be used in an effective way to increase compression efficiency.

Enhanced flow control

TCP recovery and flow-control mechanisms are designed for a wireline environment with small delay variations, and where data loss is due to congestion in the network. Wireless communication however, presents a totally different environment, with low throughput and large delay variations, and data loss occurs mainly because of intermittent connectivity. When data is lost for reasons other than congestion, TCP flow-control mechanisms result in an unnecessary reduction in end-to-end throughput and hence, in suboptimal performance.

During network roaming it is extremely important that the flow-control mechanisms be able to respond quickly to changes in link-layer capacity. When moving from a fast network to a slow network, the flow control must respond immediately by decreasing its sending rate. Failure to do so will cause multiple TCP timeouts. Similarly, when moving from a slow network to a fast network, the flow-control mechanism should react quickly for optimized link utilization.

Even though the end-to-end semantic of TCP is attractive when it comes to reliability, it presents a number of problems when used in a wireless setting. It is not possible to implement efficient wireless optimizations since part of the communication is actually taking place over a wireline network.In a session-level VPN, the end-to-end TCP connection can be split into two connections, one over the wireline network and one over the wireless network. The flow-control and recovery mechanisms can now be optimized for the specific environment in which the TCP implementation is used. Wireless optimizations are implemented on the wireless TCP connection, while the wireline connection is optimized for wireline communication. Even when using standard TCP implementations for both connections, there is a notable increase in performance. This is due to the fact that the connections can adapt their data flows independently of each other.

A split TCP solution is possible in a session-level VPN since encryption is done at the session layer. IP VPNs on the other hand, do not allow for split TCP solutions since encryption is carried out at the network layer, making TCP optimizations infeasible. Furthermore, session-level VPNs rely on session-layer mechanisms for loss recovery during network roaming and during periods of intermittent connectivity, while IP-based VPNs must rely on the recovery and flow-control mechanisms implemented in TCP, resulting in instability and low reliability.

By implementing session-layer management, the underlying transport protocol may be separated from the application protocols. Session management provides a channel to the application layer by multiplexing virtual connections on top of a reliable stream-oriented transport protocol, for example, TCP. By only having to maintain one TCP session, overhead and redundant retransmissions can be drastically reduced.

IPSec does not interoperate well with existing NAT server solutions. Since most operators will be forced to use address translations, running mobile IP without foreign agents (FAs) will not be possible. Instead, every operator and service provider must operate FAs inside their domains. This means maintaining a large number of security associations between home agents and FAs. Furthermore, mobile IP requires FAs close to the radio access networks due to routing issues, leading to poor scalability and complex administration. When the FA detunnels packets destined for a mobile terminal, a topologically incorrect destination address will be exposed, preventing normal IP routing. Forwarding data to the destination must therefore involve link-layer mechanisms.

A session-level VPN performs all its functions above the network layer, providing maximum interoperability with existing network infrastructure. A successful wireless VPN must be easily integrated into existing corporate solutions, extending rather than replacing them.The main reason behind the problems with IP-level solutions is the fact that they rely on IPSec and TCP for handling flow-control and session management. Both IPSec and TCP have been designed for a wireline environment: something that strongly affects their usefulness in a wireless setting. A session-based architecture combines seamless network roaming with an exceptional user experience in terms of security, performance and convenience.

Fredrik Sallstrom ([email protected]) is senior technical engineer at Columbitech (Stockholm, Sweden).

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