A look at traffic encryption options

Given a post highlighting the cost effectiveness of deploying network taps, it would make sense to look at the other side; encryption.


It is commonly accepted to use TLS when accessing services over the internet, whether they are based on HTTP, SMTP, IMAP, POP, FTP or any number of other protocols.

It is also commonly accepted to terminate those TLS connections on the edge, handling all internal communications in plain text. This is for a number of reasons around scalability, performance and trust.

As technology stacks have matured, a number of security standards have been created, including those for card handling (PCI DDS); many of these still contain phrasing such as ‘encrypt transmission of cardholder data across open, public networks’, with the definitions being open to interpretation.

Pause for a moment and consider if these scenarios are ‘across open, public networks’:

  • A point to point circuit provided over an external ‘dark fibre’ (DWDM or similar) network
  • A point to point wireless link between 2 buildings provided by a 3rd party
  • Cross connections between 2 suites within a datacenter, via the meet me room

I imagine most people would argue these are private:

  • All services are dedicated to you
  • Traffic is isolated from other customers
  • You control both ends of the connection

However, there are also risks, as they all pass through physical assets you don’t control:

  • Traffic interception; it has been widely published that data from the likes of Google has been intercepted and used for profiling activities
  • Network access; As with a physical intrusion to your rack/office, it may be possible to gain network access via a cross-connect, or inter-site link, depending on topology
  • Redundancy; A targeted attack on physical infrastructure could place your business operations at risk

Thankfully, most providers and many ISO standards have well defined physical access controls, which limit the possibilities of the above however that isn’t very effective against a nation-state, or a cyber-based attack on a provider.

Many businesses have a wealth of information useful to a nation-state, from habits and preferences to medical or travel data. It might be paranoia until they’re out to get you.

Ultimately this comes down to risk management and if you want to be ‘compliant’ or ‘secure’ in regards to your customer’s data.

Assuming we want to encrypt data end-to-end, let’s look at the technologies available.


As briefly noted above, the standard for encryption in the public network space is Transport Layer Security (TLS).

There are multiple implementations of TLS, with 1.2 currently being the standard (1.3 is in draft), the version and associated cryptographic ciphers are usually associated with the support requirements; many older browsers and SSL libraries don’t support the most secure choices.

A good starting point is the excellent cipherli.st site, highlighting secure configs for most platforms.

The results should then be checked, either using openssl s_client, ssllabs.com or similar.

Generally, user-facing TLS is simple to deploy, with the potential for small compatibility issues (including breaking certain browsers).

The direction for Google Chrome and others is to start displaying HTTP sites in the same manner as invalid SSL is currently shown (red bars or similar), so it’s highly advisable even if you don’t transmit any ‘sensitive info’ (sensitive here includes tracking data, such as cookies).

What about the cost? Platforms such as Lets Encrypt provide free SSL certs, trusted by all major browsers. For dedicated extended validation certificates, a few hundred dollars is a small cost for most online businesses.

TLS internally

Historically concerns about the performance of TLS have stunted the deployment internally, modern versions of the libraries combined with the current generations of CPUs mean TLS is not slow! (mostly).

The excellent istlsfastyet.com goes into detail about the current state of TLS performance. The key takeaway is, when configured correctly, TLS at the scale of Facebook and Google performs fast enough with minimal CPU overhead.

Using the most secure cipher suites (ECDHE) are a little more costly, but with mitigations in place (HTTP keepalives, session resumption etc), the performance overhead is negligible.

Depending on your environment, you may purchase or use CA-signed certificates as is the case with external traffic however at a certain scale an internal certificate authority makes sense.

There is a certain level of complexity in deploying and maintaining a secure internal certificate authority and many tools exist to help with this.

Another advantage of an internal CA is being able to use certificate-based authentication for clients, enabling devices to prove their identity.


Depending on your environment, encrypting all inter-device traffic with TLS may be possible.

Given a small load balanced LAMP stack this should be relatively easy:

  • TLS from the user to the load balancer
  • TLS from the load balancer to the web server
  • TLS from PHP to MySQL

However, the number of services can easily spiral, given the example above we could easily have:

  • SMTP relays
  • Memcache/Redis caching
  • NFS based storage
  • Monitoring agents

You may also have services which don’t support TLS:

  • Windows Distributed File Shares
  • Access control / CCTV systems designed for closed networks

There are 2 areas to consider here:

  • Traffic passing over your network (Physical access restrictions in place)
  • Traffic passing over external infrastructure

For the first case:

  • I strongly suggest to deploy TLS where possible, at worst, it is another layer of defence should a malicious device get into the network.
  • For protocols lacking encryption support, their risk is likely low
    • If their risk is not low, I’d suggest re-evaluating the technology choice
    • Inline encryption is possible but complicated to scale at this level

For the second, we have a number of options described below.

Layer 1 encryption

There are a number of ‘black box’ solutions, which sit in-line to the network.

The general principle is un-encrypted data comes in one end, encrypted data comes out the other; the reverse then happens to give you un-encrypted data on the other end.

layer 1 encryption digraph "layer 1 encryption" { rankdir=LR; subgraph cluster_SiteA { label = "Site A"; color = black; "Router A"; } subgraph cluster_EncryptedNet { label = "Encrypted Network"; color = red; "Device A"; "Device B"; } subgraph cluster_SiteB { label = "Site B"; color = black; "Router B"; } "Router A" -> "Device A" "Device A" -> "Device B" "Device B" -> "Router B" } layer 1 encryption cluster_SiteA Site A cluster_EncryptedNet Encrypted Network cluster_SiteB Site B Router A Router A Device A Device A Router A->Device A Device B Device B Device A->Device B Router B Router B Device B->Router B

These are generally expensive appliances, licensed by port or bandwidth capability. They are also generally completely closed boxes, operating strictly at layer 1.

Deployed across DWDM or similar networks, these devices should ‘just work’ and provide full encryption (layer 1 to 7). They are limited to ‘point to point’ links.

A side effect of the point to point encryption is the prevention of unauthorised traffic.

IEEE 802.1AE (MacSec)

A more open and industry standard approach would be to deploy MacSec.

MacSec provides encryption of the layer 2 header and up, but leaves the src/dest mac addresses exposed.

It operates similar to an Ethernet frame within a layer 2 network, with the packets containing 4 fields

macsec header digraph "macsec header" { subgraph cluster { rankdir=LR; height=1.5; "Destination MAC" [shape=square, height=1.5]; "Source MAC" [shape=square, height=1.5]; "Security TAG" [shape=square, height=1.5]; "Encrypted Data" [shape=square, height=1.5]; "ICV" [shape=square, height=1.5]; } } macsec header cluster Destination MAC Destination MAC Source MAC Source MAC Security TAG Security TAG Encrypted Data Encrypted Data ICV ICV

Any layer 2 data outside of the mac addresses (VLAN tag, LLDP etc) is contained within the encrypted data.

The security tag and ICV are used internally for MacSec, with the mac addresses being used for forwarding.

There is a hardware dependency associated with MacSec, as the encryption is done in hardware to achieve line rate speeds. This varies between vendors but can be in the form of dedicated line cards or whole products.

It is possible to offload the encryption to MacSec capable switches, allowing routers and line cards to remain, with the switch sitting inline.

macsec encryption digraph "macsec encryption" { rankdir=LR; subgraph cluster_SiteA { label = "Site A"; color = black; "Router A"; } subgraph cluster_EncryptedNet { label = "Encrypted Network"; color = red; "Switch A"; "Switch B"; } subgraph cluster_SiteB { label = "Site B"; color = black; "Router B"; } "Router A" -> "Switch A" "Switch A" -> "Switch B" "Switch B" -> "Router B" } macsec encryption cluster_SiteA Site A cluster_EncryptedNet Encrypted Network cluster_SiteB Site B Router A Router A Switch A Switch A Router A->Switch A Switch B Switch B Switch A->Switch B Router B Router B Switch B->Router B

It may not be desirable to put a layer 2 device in your path, though it is likely that the path will already be using BFD or similar to account for any provider interruptions, which don’t result in an interface flap.

There are also some implementation considerations:

  • Additional header size needs to be accounted for in downstream MTUs
  • Certain providers filter layer 2 traffic, they may filter the MacSec control messages!

As with Layer 1 encryption, this prevents unauthorised traffic entering the network, as well as protecting against interception.


It may be desirable in some cases to form a software-based VPN mesh over your existing network, providing encryption between 2 or more points.

This could be in the form of a single IPsec tunnel, or a complex hub-spoke DMVPN network. These could be deployed on dedicated devices or end-user devices.

For high traffic applications, these approaches are likely not applicable, due to line rate speeds being desirable, but in branch or remote worker applications they can be powerful options in your toolbox.

vpn mesh encryption digraph "vpn mesh encryption" { rankdir=LR; "Device A" -> "Device B" "Device A" -> "Device C" "Device A" -> "Device D" "Device A" -> "Device E" "Device A" -> "Device F" "Device B" -> "Device C" "Device B" -> "Device D" "Device B" -> "Device E" "Device B" -> "Device F" "Device C" -> "Device D" "Device C" -> "Device E" "Device C" -> "Device F" "Device D" -> "Device E" "Device D" -> "Device F" "Device E" -> "Device F" } vpn mesh encryption Device A Device A Device B Device B Device A->Device B Device C Device C Device A->Device C Device D Device D Device A->Device D Device E Device E Device A->Device E Device F Device F Device A->Device F Device B->Device C Device B->Device D Device B->Device E Device B->Device F Device C->Device D Device C->Device E Device C->Device F Device D->Device E Device D->Device F Device E->Device F


There is not a 1 solution fits all. It is very dependent upon your environment and more specifically the applications within it.

My advice is to look at the risk in each area, design an appropriate solution and test it.

A targeted approach keeps things simple to start, but personally, I look to provide end-to-end encryption everywhere… trusting no one.

If you have no clear areas of risk, start with everywhere you touch the outside world, either via a public interface or provider managed services.