Selecting an 802.1X EAP Method: Access Point Considerations

by Hojung posted Apr 22, 2015


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Selecting an 802.1X EAP Method: Access Point Considerations

In the last RADIUS server blog posting, we embarked on the daunting task of securing access to a wireless network with a RADIUS server.  This led us to 802.1X and the Extensible Authentication Protocol, EAP, which is at the heart of best practices for wireless network access management.Because of EAP’s extensible nature, we discussed that there are not only several network components to consider in securing the wireless network, but also many EAP Methods (protocols) from which to choose and configure in your clients and RADIUS server.  In evaluating the currently available EAP Methods, we are examining factors involving each component of the wireless network.  Because they provide the wireless connectivity, Access Points (APs) are the first and primary component that most enterprises evaluate.  We will follow suit by looking at access point issues related to supporting wireless network access management using EAP.

802.1x Support

The most important AP feature necessary for wireless access management is support for 802.1x.  This should be a requirement for enterprise wireless networks.  One cannot take this feature for granted since it is generally not available on low cost consumer access points.  802.1x is the IEEE standard for Port Based Network Access Control Included in this specification is the use of EAP for authentication.  If an Access Point supports 802.1x, then it supports EAP.

WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is another term frequently found on AP datasheets.  While WEP based encryption is found often on APs using 802.1x, by itself it is not sufficient indication that EAP is supported.  Many implementations authenticate by configuring static WEP keys.  If the workstation can communicate by virtue of having the correct key, then it is authenticated.  802.1x was designed to overcome the numerous shortcomings of WEP key based authentication by authenticating user access through a RADIUS server.  Additionally, WPA/TKIP has been developed to solve the problems of WEP’s poor encryption and data integrity.

Some Access Point datasheets will mention support for RADIUS.  While RADIUS is used to transport EAP between the Access Point and the Authentication Server, it does not necessarily mean that the AP supports EAP.  Some APs perform MAC address authentication with a RADIUS server.This form of authentication falls short of EAP’s ability to provide mutual authentication, authentication of the actual user, and session encryption keys with a RADIUS server.

Once it is determined that the AP supports 802.1x, then the next question is which EAP Methods are supported.  The EAP authentication is conducted between the Supplicant (wireless device) and the RADIUS Server (Authentication Server).  It is carried over EAPOL on the wireless side of the AP and over RADIUS on the network side of the AP.  The AP only serves to relay the EAP packets, not to participate in the protocol.  Therefore, any AP that supports 802.1x should be able to support all EAP methods.  In practice, this is generally true.  There have been exceptions found during interoperability tests, but these have been determined to be bugs that the AP vendors are expected to fix.

Proprietary EAP Methods

The one exception to the rule of thumb that all EAP Methods should be supported by all 802.1x APs is Cisco’s proprietary EAP-LEAP (Lightweight Extensible Authentication Protocol).  It is only supported by APs, supplicants, and authentication servers that have licensed Cisco’s technology.  LEAP makes use of Cisco’s vendor-specific attributes (VSAs) to distribute key material.  The access point must support the Cisco VSAs and the LEAP algorithm for generating session keys from the key material.Because Cisco is a networking leader, LEAP has gained acceptance.  Other vendor’s supplicants and authentication servers support LEAP – but if an enterprise wants to standardize on LEAP, then it must use Cisco APs.

Accounting Support

Although it is not a requirement for EAP, it should be noted that some access points do not support RADIUS accounting.  This is an issue for ISPs and Wi-Fi hotspot venfors and less of an issue for enterprises that aren’t invoicing for wireless network access. However, all users might still want to implement audit trails and policies which require RADIUS accounting messages to mark the beginning and end of sessions.

Configuring EAP in the Access Point

Configuring EAP in an access point consists of four straightforward steps:

1.  Enabling 802.1x, often by checking a box on a web form

2.  Entering the authentication server’s IP address

3.  Entering the authentication server’s port number (usually 1812)

4.  Entering the secret shared with the authentication server

In conclusion, beyond the need to support 802.1x, the access point does not need to be a determining factor in which EAP Method to choose.  The key is recognizing which access points support 802.1x.  From there, enabling 802.1x and configuring communication with the authentication server is fairly straightforward.  There is no need to configure a specific EAP method within the access point.

Choosing and configuring an EAP Method becomes more involved as we look at the supplicant and RADIUS server (authentication server in upcoming blog posts.

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