RADIUS?Remote Access Dial-In User Service

Although RADIUS is not specifically part of the IEEE 802.11i standard, many practical corporate implementations use it to communicate between the access point and the authentication server. Small office or home installations are very unlikely to use RADIUS because the authentication server is probably inside the access point. So what exactly is RADIUS? Is it a protocol or type of product? You will often hear the term RADIUS server. Is this something you can buy, or can you go to your PC shop and say, "I'd like to buy a RADIUS server please"?

The exact definition of a RADIUS server is a source of confusion. There are companies that make and sell authentication servers. You can make your own authentication server by installing a commercial software package on a conventional PC. However, there is no standard definition for the features of such servers. Some authentication servers are dedicated to specific authentication methods. Others may have special capabilities such as redundant or distributed operation. A redundant server has standby units that take over seamlessly if the primary server fails, and a distributed server has many servers operating in different locations while it keeps a common authentication database updated and consistent between all sites.

RADIUS defines two things. First, it defines a set of functionality that should be common across authentication servers. Second, it defines a protocol that allows other devices to access those capabilities. When we talk about a RADIUS server, we are talking about that subpart of the authentication server that supports the RADIUS capabilities; and when we talk about RADIUS, we are generally referring to the protocol used to talk to the server.

RADIUS is specified by the IETF and is designed for use with TCP/IP type networks; it assumes that devices use an IP network to talk to a RADIUS server. As with many aspects of the Internet, the capabilities and needs of systems are continuously evolving, and RADIUS has been stretched and bent by various additions over the years. Therefore, when you buy an authentication server that includes RADIUS capability, you need to ensure that it supports any new bells and whistles that you might need. For example, EAP over RADIUS (RFC 2869) is needed for IEEE 802.11i RSN security, but it was not included in the original RADIUS specification (RFC 2865). RADIUS allows the definition of vendor-specific attributes for special features that the server might provide. One such special feature, Microsoft's MS-CHAPv1/v2 authentication method, is used widely and has almost become a standard requirement.

The first RADIUS RFC (specification) was RFC2058, issued in 1997, although this was superceded almost immediately by RFC2138. In 2000 RFC2138 was further updated and replaced by RFC2865. As noted at the start of the chapter, one motivation behind RADIUS was the support of dial-in modem pools. An ISP might want to provide dial-up access over a substantial area or even nationwide. Customers don't want to pay long-distance phone call charges, so the ISP has to set up a modem pool in each local phone area so users can connect cheaply (or for free). At each modem pool site is a dial-in server that answers the calls, authenticates that the user is a valid customer, and then runs the PPP to allow connection to the Internet. The problem is that each modem pool server needs to know all possible valid users in order to perform the authentication step. The motivation for RADIUS is to have a central authentication server that knows all the customers and allows the modem-pool servers to forward the authentication information to the central site for checking. In RADIUS terms, the modem pool server is the NAS (network access server) and the authentication server (AS) is the RADIUS server.

The analogy with a Wi-Fi LAN is clear. In our case the access point is like the NAS. There may be many of them dotted about the place, and we don't want each one to have to know the authentication database. We can use the RADIUS server, as was intended, to provide centralization of the authentication decisions. If you want to read the specifications, the ones that are relevant to WPA/RSN are:

  • RFC2865: Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service (RADIUS)

  • RFC 2866: RADIUS Accounting

  • RFC 2867: RADIUS Accounting for Tunneling

  • RFC 2868: RADIUS Authentication for Tunneling

  • RFC2869: RADIUS Extensions

  • RFC 3162: RADIUS over IP6

  • RFC 2548: Microsoft Vendor-Specific RADIUS Attributes

RFC2869 is relevant because it contains information on how to use EAP over RADIUS. Note also that at the time of this writing, there is a draft RFC potentially updating RFC2869 This draft is called Draft-aboba-radius-rfc2869bis-10: RADIUS Support for Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP). This draft update recognizes that EAP is now also used in IEEE 802.1X applications in addition to PPP dial-up modems. The original RFC gives examples based on PPP, but this has been generalized in the update.

RADIUS Mechanics

This section reviews how RADIUS works at the protocol level. The basic message set for RADIUS is deceptively simple. Most of the complexity lies with messages called attributes.

Core Messages

The core protocol of RADIUS is very simple. There are just four relevant messages:

  • Access-Request (NAS AS)

  • Access-Challenge (NAS AS)

  • Access-Accept (NAS AS)

  • Access-Reject (NAS AS)

In the WPA/RSN case, the access point is the equivalent of the NAS and AS is the RADIUS authentication server.

These four messages reflect the fact that PPP, the dial-in modem protocol, has two options for authentication: PAP and CHAP. PAP is a simple user name/password approach. CHAP requires that the server send random data called a challenge, which the dial-in system must encrypt and return for checking. Let's consider how this works with dial-in.

First we'll tackle the PAP case, as shown in Figure 8.11: The user dials in and the NAS answers and indicates that it is using PAP authentication. The user's system then responds by sending the user name and password for the account. The NAS now sends an Access-Request message to the RADIUS server containing the user name and password information.[9] The RADIUS server responds with either Access-Accept or Access-Reject and the NAS acts accordingly. This is a very simple approach and, of course, it is subject to a wide range of attacks. The worst part is that the password is sent unencrypted over the phone link so anyone monitoring the link can copy it. It is about as secure as one of those little padlocks that come with cheap suitcases?just pretend security, really.[10]

[9] Actually, it sends an encrypted version using the "hiding" algorithm in RFC2865.

[10] In defense of PAP, the threat model for PPP assumed that the telco wire was secure. This is generally a pretty good supposition, in which case there is nothing so bad about passwords in the clear.

Figure 8.11. PAP Operation


CHAP is a little better, and makes an attempt at secure authentication, as shown in Figure 8.12. Rather than sending the password unencrypted across the phone link, the user sends only its user name to the NAS. The NAS now needs to respond with a challenge. To get the challenge data, the NAS could send the user name to the server using an Access-Request, whereupon the server would send the challenge data using Access-Challenge. However, in most implementations the NAS avoids disturbing the server and generates the challenge by itself, as shown in Figure 8.12. The challenge is passed back to the dial-in user's system, which is required to encrypt the challenge with the password and send it back. Finally the NAS is able to send the challenge, response, and identity to the AS, indicating that it is using CHAP.

Figure 8.12. CHAP Operation


This approach means that the password is not sent unencrypted; it also provides some liveness because the challenge changes on each access attempt. However, it is still subject to dictionary attack because both the unencrypted and encrypted versions of the challenge are accessible to an attacker.

Partly because of the dictionary attack weakness, Microsoft implemented a modified version of CHAP called MS-CHAP that is now used widely in corporate dial-up pools. Microsoft "standardized" their attribute definitions through RFC2548, Microsoft Vendor-Specific RADIUS Attributes.

RADIUS was specifically designed with two PPP authentication scenarios in mind: simple password request PAP and challenge response CHAP. In WPA/RSN, we need to use RADIUS in conjunction with a security protocol that is state of the art?far more complex (and secure) than the simple PAP and CHAP methods. To do this, we need to change the purpose of some of the messages in RADIUS. For example, to support EAP we will use the access-challenge method, not as a challenge, but as a way to send EAP requests and responses. The good news is that RADIUS is flexible enough to accommodate these changes. One of the reasons it is flexible is because of its use of attributes.

Core Message Format and Attributes

Although essentially only four messages are used for authentication via RADIUS, the meaning of the messages can be changed extensively through different message attributes. Figures 8.11 and 8.12 show how the Access-Request message can mean three different things at different times. The attributes the message carries are different in each case. The main body of the RADIUS message is composed of a series of attributes; each is a self-contained package of information that (hopefully) has meaning to both communicating parties.

Every RADIUS message has the same basic format, as shown in Figure 8.13. We will work through each field to explain its use and meaning.

Figure 8.13. Basic Format of RADIUS Message


The Code byte indicates the type of message:

  • Access-Request: 1

  • Access-Accept: 2

  • Access-Reject: 3

  • Access-Challenge: 11

The Identifier is an arbitrary number used to match up requests and replies, and the Length word indicates the total number of bytes in the message. The Authenticator is much more interesting because is has a bearing on security. The Authenticator is 16 bytes (128 bits) long and its use depends on the type of message:

In the Access-Request message, the authenticator contains a 16-byte nonce value. A nonce is a number whose value is never used twice in two different requests. In RADIUS, the nonce is used for two purposes. First, if the Access-Request message is sending a password value in an attribute, the password value is encrypted using a combination of a secret key and this nonce. Second, reply messages use the nonce value in deriving an integrity check value, as described in the next paragraph.

One of three messages?Access-Accept, Access-Reject, and Access-Challenge?is sent in response to an Access-Request message. It is important to check that the reply came from the legitimate RADIUS server and has not been modified in transit. To accomplish this, an integrity check value (16 bytes) is computed and inserted into the Authenticator field of the reply.

The NAS and the RADIUS server share a secret key between them. To create the check value, the RADIUS server combines the entire reply message with the secret key. Before the computation, it inserts the nonce from the request message into the Authenticator position of the reply message and when the integrity check value has been computed, it overwrites the nonce to form a new Authenticator value. It is not practical to forge a reply that will match the request message without knowing the secret key and the use of the nonce reduces[11] the opportunity to replay an old message.

[11] We say "reduces" rather than "eliminates" because the creation of the nonce is implementation dependent and cannot be guaranteed to be unique in the true meaning of the word "nonce."


The useful information carried in RADIUS messages is contained within attributes. Each message can carry one or more attributes and each is a self-contained package of information. It will come as no surprise that the ability to extend RADIUS depends on the ability to define and support new attributes. For a RADIUS server to be useful to you, it must support the attributes you need in your application (and the services accessed through the attributes). This is where an industry definition like WPA is useful because you can simply ask the vendor if the server conforms to the requirements of WPA. Because WPA has been designed around some common existing attributes (albeit proprietary extensions), this should not be a problem in practice, providing your RADIUS server has the required support.

Each attribute has the same format:

  • A 1-byte Type field to identify the attribute

  • A 1-byte Length field that indicates the number of bytes in the whole attribute

  • Attribute specific data (if any)

Table 8.1. Examples of RADIUS Attributes

Attribute Type Value





The identification name or user name of the user.



Contains the login password. The password data is encrypted using a shared secret and the nonce value from the Authenticator field of the Access-Request.



During CHAP, the user encrypts the challenge and returns a value. The value is forwarded from the NAS to the RADIUS server in this attribute.



The IP address of the NAS to which the RADIUS server should respond.


Reply Message

This sends text that can be displayed to the user to indicate some event or needed action.



This attribute allows vendors to implement and communicate special features relevant only to their equipment. Interestingly, if they choose to make their vendor-specific attributes public, other vendors can support the features, forming a sort of nested standards process. Microsoft has done this for MS-CHAP.

There are many possible attributes. Some of the more common ones are listed in Table 8.1.


Because EAP was designed to extend authentication via dial-in modems, and given that so many modem pools use RADIUS, a method was needed to carry EAP over RADIUS. Extensions to RADIUS that accomplish this are described in RFC2869. These extensions are relevant to Wi-Fi LAN because WPA and RSN also use EAP. Several RADIUS extensions are defined in RFC2869. RFC2869 also has some updated procedures for sending accounting information, and it describes how to support Apple Computer's ARAP for dial-in support of Apple machines. We focus only on the section dealing with EAP over RADIUS.

In the early RADIUS standard, only two messages were available for sending authentication information between parties: Access-Request to send data from the NAS to the RADIUS server, and Access-Challenge to send data from the RADIUS server to the NAS. As the name suggests, Access-Challenge has a particular purpose similar to the challenge used in CHAP. However, RFC2869 uses this message in a more general way to pass information back from the RADIUS server. Thus EAP messages are sent to the authentication messages inside an Access-Request message and responses are returned inside an Access-Challenge message.

The EAP message itself is sent inside one or more special attributes that have a type value of 79. All the usual EAP messages can be sent. There are a few rules to help existing RADIUS implementations map the requests to the existing conventions. For example, the identity of the dial-in user is usually sent in an EAP-Response/Identity message. This message is forwarded to the RADIUS server in an EAP attribute, but the identity information should also be copied into a User-Name attribute (type 1) and included so that RADIUS servers, including older versions, can still understand and maybe forward the message to the right place.

Recall that EAPOL includes a message called EAPOL-Start designed to kick the authenticator into action when a new device arrives and wants to get connected. RFC2869 defines a similar message called EAP-Start, which is an EAP attribute with no data. The attribute is just two bytes?a type field of 79 indicating the EAP-Message attribute and a length byte of value 2. This can be used by the NAS to get the RADIUS server started, as shown in Figure 8.14.

Figure 8.14. Authentication Exchange Using EAP over RADIUS


In Figure 8.14 we have shown the access point in place of the dial-up NAS, although the principles are just the same. The access point also contains an IEEE 802.1X authenticator, which talks EAP to the new client (supplicant). EAP messages that the IEEE 802.1X authenticator wants to pass back to the authentication server are packaged in RADIUS and sent to the RADIUS server. Let's step through the sequence of events.

First the new device sends an EAPOL-Start to the access point authenticator. If the access point knows that the RADIUS server supports EAP, it can go ahead and issue the EAP-Request/Identity message to the client device and send the response to the server directly. If, however, it is unsure about the server's capability, it can ask the RADIUS server to initiate the EAP exchange by sending the RADIUS server an EAP-Start message in an Access-Request message. If the server doesn't support EAP, it replays with a reject message (this is not a good idea for every exchange because the RADIUS server could be deluged with messages). If the server is EAP enabled, it sends the EAP-Request/Identity message in a RADIUS Access-Challenge message. Figure 8.14 provides an example in which the authentication method is TLS. At the end of the exchange, an EAP-Success or EAP-Fail signifies the result.

Use of RADIUS in WPA and RSN

As shown in Figure 8.14, the way RADIUS and EAP over RADIUS work fits very well with Wi-Fi WPA/RSN architecture. However, there is one important difference between the Wi-Fi and the dial-up case: For dial-up, the concern is only initial authentication, whereas WPA/RSN is concerned with establishing a lasting security context. In the dial-up case, it is only necessary to determine whether the user should be admitted to the system. Because of the nature of phone lines, an attacker is unlikely to hijack a dial-in modem once it has connected (although such an approach is theoretically possible). Therefore, once authentication is complete, there is a tendency for the NAS to sit back and assume a good guy is connected. However, as we have seen, with Wi-Fi LAN it is trivially easy to hijack an established connection just by stealing a legitimate MAC address.

Protection against session hijacking is provided by per-packet authentication and integrity protection. To provide this protection, the authentication server must pass a secret master key down to the access point. This process of generating and passing the keys is covered in great detail in Chapter 10. Earlier RADIUS servers based on RFC2865?2869 did not provide the ability to send keys from the authentication server to the NAS. The RFC assumes that the password is sent the other way for validation. However, one vendor, Microsoft, has solved this problem for another security protocol. Microsoft helped create an RFC covering their proprietary extensions to RADIUS (RFC2548: Microsoft Vendor-Specific RADIUS Attributes). These extensions contain an attribute called MS-MPPE-Recv-Key, which is specifically intended to deliver key information to the NAS. In fact the description in the RFC says:

The MS-MPPE-Recv-Key Attribute contains a session key for use by the Microsoft Point-to-Point Encryption Protocol (MPPE). As the name implies, this key is intended for encrypting packets received by the NAS from the remote host. This attribute is only included in Access-Accept packets.

In the IEEE 802.11i context, "MPPE" becomes "WPA" or "RSN," "NAS" becomes "access point," and "remote host" becomes "mobile device." At Microsoft's suggestion, this attribute was adopted into WPA as the recommended way to pass the master key information from the RADIUS server to the access point. It almost goes without saying that this attribute supports (and requires) encryption of the key material prior to transmission and therefore provides a more secure key delivery mechanism. Whether this attribute will make it into 802.11i is another story. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has requested that it be deprecated in favor of a standard attribute using a key wrap algorithm.

Now we have all the pieces for using WPA/RSN in conjunction with RADIUS. The requirements are that the access point should support RADIUS, including the extensions for EAP and at least the Microsoft key delivery attribute. Also, the RADIUS server must not only support these protocols but must also understand that it is required to send the pairwise master key (PMK) to the access point (see Chapter 10). It is not mandatory under RSN to use RADIUS, although it is under WPA. Therefore, it is likely that this approach will become popular and that the RADIUS server vendors will ensure that their software provides support.

    Part II: The Design of Wi-Fi Security