Network Working Group M. Sethi
Internet-Draft J. Mattsson
Intended status: Informational Ericsson
Expires: December 17, 2020 S. Turner
June 15, 2020

Handling Large Certificates and Long Certificate Chains in TLS‑based EAP Methods


EAP-TLS and other TLS-based EAP methods are widely deployed and used for network access authentication. Large certificates and long certificate chains combined with authenticators that drop an EAP session after only 40 - 50 round-trips is a major deployment problem. This document looks at the this problem in detail and describes the potential solutions available.

Status of This Memo

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This Internet-Draft will expire on December 17, 2020.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

The Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP), defined in [RFC3748], provides a standard mechanism for support of multiple authentication methods. EAP-Transport Layer Security (EAP-TLS) [RFC5216] [I-D.ietf-emu-eap-tls13] relies on TLS [RFC8446] to provide strong mutual authentication with certificates [RFC5280] and is widely deployed and often used for network access authentication. There are also many other TLS-based EAP methods, such as Flexible Authentication via Secure Tunneling (EAP-FAST) [RFC4851], Tunneled Transport Layer Security (EAP-TTLS) [RFC5281], Tunnel Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP-TEAP) [RFC7170], and possibly many vendor specific EAP methods.

Certificates in EAP deployments can be relatively large, and the certificate chains can be long. Unlike the use of TLS on the web, where typically only the TLS server is authenticated; EAP-TLS deployments typically authenticates both the EAP peer and the EAP server. Also, from deployment experience, EAP peers typically have longer certificate chains than servers. This is because EAP peers often follow organizational hierarchies and tend to have many intermediate certificates. Thus, EAP-TLS authentication usually involves significantly more octets than when TLS is used as part of HTTPS.

Section 3.1 of [RFC3748] states that EAP implementations can assume a MTU of at least 1020 octets from lower layers. The EAP fragment size in typical deployments is just 1020 - 1500 octets (since the maximum Ethernet frame size is ~ 1500 bytes). Thus, EAP-TLS authentication needs to be fragmented into many smaller packets for transportation over the lower layers. Such fragmentation can not only negatively affect the latency, but also results in other challenges. For example, some EAP authenticator (access point) implementations will drop an EAP session if it has not finished after 40 - 50 round-trips. This is a major problem and means that in many situations, the EAP peer cannot perform network access authentication even though both the sides have valid credentials for successful authentication and key derivation.

Not all EAP deployments are constrained by the MTU of the lower layer. For example, some implementations support EAP over Ethernet "Jumbo" frames that can easily allow very large EAP packets. Larger packets will naturally help lower the number of round trips required for successful EAP-TLS authentication. However, deployment experience has shown that these jumbo frames are not always implemented correctly. Additionally, EAP fragment size is also restricted by protocols such as RADIUS [RFC2865] which are responsible for transporting EAP messages between an authenticator and an EAP server. RADIUS can generally transport only about 4000 octets of EAP in a single message (the maximum length of RADIUS packet is restricted to 4096 octets in [RFC2865]).

This document looks at related work and potential tools available for overcoming the deployment challenges induced by large certificates and long certificate chains. It then discusses the solutions available to overcome these challenges.

2. Terminology

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "NOT RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in BCP 14 [RFC2119] [RFC8174] when, and only when, they appear in all capitals, as shown here.

Readers are expected to be familiar with the terms and concepts used in EAP [RFC3748], EAP-TLS [RFC5216], and TLS [RFC8446]. In particular, this document frequently uses the following terms as they have been defined in [RFC5216]: [RFC5280].

The entity initiating EAP authentication. Typically implemented as part of a network switch or a wireless access point.
EAP peer
The entity that responds to the authenticator. In [IEEE-802.1X], this entity is known as the supplicant. In EAP-TLS, the EAP peer implements the TLS client role.
EAP server
The entity that terminates the EAP authentication method with the peer. In the case where no backend authentication server is used, the EAP server is part of the authenticator. In the case where the authenticator operates in pass-through mode, the EAP server is located on the backend authentication server. In EAP-TLS, the EAP server implements the TLS server role.

The document additionally uses the terms trust anchor and certification path defined in

3. Experience with Deployments

As stated earlier, the EAP fragment size in typical deployments is just 1020 - 1500 octets. Certificate sizes can however be large for a number of reasons:

A certificate chain (called a certification path in [RFC5280]) can have 2 - 6 intermediate certificates between the end-entity certificate and the trust anchor.

Many access point implementations drop EAP sessions that do not complete within 50 round-trips. This means that if the chain is larger than ~ 60 kB, EAP-TLS authentication cannot complete successfully in most deployments.

4. Handling of Large Certificates and Long Certificate Chains

This section discusses some possible alternatives for overcoming the challenge of large certificates and long certificate chains in EAP-TLS authentication. In Section 4.1 we look at recommendations that require an update of the certificates or certificate chains that are used for EAP-TLS authentication without requiring changes to the existing EAP-TLS code base. We also provide some guidelines when issuing certificates for use with EAP-TLS. In Section 4.2 we look at recommendations that rely on updates to the EAP-TLS implementations which can be deployed with existing certificates. In Section 4.3 we shortly discuss the solution to update or reconfigure authenticator which can be deployed without changes to existing certificates or EAP-TLS code.

4.1. Updating Certificates and Certificate Chains

Many IETF protocols now use elliptic curve cryptography (ECC) [RFC6090] for the underlying cryptographic operations. The use of ECC can reduce the size of certificates and signatures. For example, at a 128-bit security level, the size of public keys with traditional RSA is about 384 bytes, while the size of public keys with ECC is only 32-64 bytes. Similarly, the size of digital signatures with traditional RSA is 384 bytes, while the size is only 64 bytes with elliptic curve digital signature algorithm (ECDSA) and Edwards-curve digital signature algorithm (EdDSA) [RFC8032]. Using certificates that use ECC can reduce the number of messages in EAP-TLS authentication which can alleviate the problem of authenticators dropping an EAP session because of too many round-trips. In the absence of a standard application profile specifying otherwise, TLS 1.3 [RFC8446] requires implementations to support ECC. New cipher suites that use ECC are also specified for TLS 1.2 [RFC5289]. Using ECC based cipher suites with existing code can significantly reduce the number of messages in a single EAP session.

4.1.1. Guidelines for Certificates

The general guideline of keeping the certificate size small by not populating fields with excessive information can help avert the problems of failed EAP-TLS authentication. More specific recommendations for certificates used with EAP-TLS is as follows:

4.1.2. Pre-distributing and Omitting CA certificates

The TLS Certificate message conveys the sending endpoint's certificate chain. TLS allows endpoints to reduce the size of the Certificate message by omitting certificates that the other endpoint is known to possess. When using TLS 1.3, all certificates that specify a trust anchor known by the other endpoint may be omitted (see Section 4.4.2 of [RFC8446]). When using TLS 1.2 or earlier, only the self-signed certificate that specifies the root certificate authority may be omitted (see Section 7.4.2 of [RFC5246] Therefore, updating TLS implementations to version 1.3 can help to significantly reduce the number of messages exchanged for EAP-TLS authentication. The omitted certificates need to be pre-distributed independently of TLS and the TLS implementations need to be configured to omit these pre-distributed certificates.

4.1.3. Using Fewer Intermediate Certificates

The EAP peer certificate chain does not have to mirror the organizational hierarchy. For successful EAP-TLS authentication, certificate chains SHOULD NOT contain more than 2-4 intermediate certificates.

Administrators responsible for deployments using TLS-based EAP methods can examine the certificate chains and make rough calculations about the number of round trips required for successful authentication. For example, dividing the total size of all the certificates in the peer and server certificate chain by 1020 will indicate the minimum number of round trips required. If this number exceeds 50, then, administrators can expect failures with many common authenticator implementations.

4.2. Updating TLS and EAP-TLS Code

This section discusses how the fragmentation problem can be avoided by updating the underlying TLS or EAP-TLS implementation. Note that in many cases the new feature may already be implemented in the underlying library and simply needs to be taken into use.

4.2.1. URLs for Client Certificates

[RFC6066] defines the "client_certificate_url" extension which allows TLS clients to send a sequence of Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) instead of the client certificate. URLs can refer to a single certificate or a certificate chain. Using this extension can curtail the amount of fragmentation in EAP deployments thereby allowing EAP sessions to successfully complete.

4.2.2. Caching Certificates

The TLS Cached Information Extension [RFC7924] specifies an extension where a server can exclude transmission of certificate information cached in an earlier TLS handshake. The client and the server would first execute the full TLS handshake. The client would then cache the certificate provided by the server. When the TLS client later connects to the same TLS server without using session resumption, it can attach the "cached_info" extension to the ClientHello message. This would allow the client to indicate that it has cached the certificate. The client would also include a fingerprint of the server certificate chain. If the server's certificate has not changed, then the server does not need to send its certificate and the corresponding certificate chain again. In case information has changed, which can be seen from the fingerprint provided by the client, the certificate payload is transmitted to the client to allow the client to update the cache. The extension however necessitates a successful full handshake before any caching. This extension can be useful when, for example, when a successful authentication between an EAP peer and EAP server has occurred in the home network. If authenticators in a roaming network are more strict at dropping long EAP sessions, an EAP peer can use the Cached Information Extension to reduce the total number of messages.

However, if all authenticators drop the EAP session for a given EAP peer and EAP server combination, a successful full handshake is not possible. An option in such a scenario would be to cache validated certificate chains even if the EAP-TLS exchange fails, but this is currently not allowed according to [RFC7924].

4.2.3. Compressing Certificates

The TLS working group is also working on an extension for TLS 1.3 [I-D.ietf-tls-certificate-compression] that allows compression of certificates and certificate chains during full handshakes. The client can indicate support for compressed server certificates by including this extension in the ClientHello message. Similarly, the server can indicate support for compression of client certificates by including this extension in the CertificateRequest message. While such an extension can alleviate the problem of excessive fragmentation in EAP-TLS, it can only be used with TLS version 1.3 and higher. Deployments that rely on older versions of TLS cannot benefit from this extension.

4.2.4. Compact TLS 1.3

[I-D.ietf-tls-ctls] defines a "compact" version of TLS 1.3 and reduces the message size of the protocol by removing obsolete material and using more efficient encoding. It also defines a compression profile with which either side can define dictionary of "known certificates". Thus, cTLS can provide another mechanism for EAP-TLS deployments to reduce the size of messages and avoid excessive fragmentation.

4.2.5. Suppressing Intermediate Certificates

For a client that has all intermediates, having the server send intermediates in the TLS handshake increases the size of the handshake unnecessarily. The TLS working group is working on an extension for TLS 1.3 [I-D.thomson-tls-sic] that allows a TLS client that has access to the complete set of published intermediate certificates to inform servers of this fact so that the server can avoid sending intermediates, reducing the size of the TLS handshake. The mechanism is intended to be complementary with certificate compression.

4.2.6. Raw Public Keys

[RFC7250] defines a new certificate type and TLS extensions to enable the use of raw public keys for authentication. Raw public keys use only a subset of information found in typical certificates and are therefore much smaller in size. However, raw public keys require an out-of-band mechanism to bind the public key with the entity presenting the key. Using raw public keys will obviously avoid the fragmentation problems resulting from large certificates and long certificate chains. Deployments can consider their use as long as an appropriate out-of-band mechanism for binding public keys with identifiers is in place.

4.2.7. New Certificate Types and Compression Algorithms

There is ongoing work to specify new certificate types and compression algorithms. For example, [I-D.mattsson-tls-cbor-cert-compress] defines a compression algorithm for certificates that relies on Concise Binary Object Representation (CBOR) [RFC7049]. [I-D.tschofenig-tls-cwt] registers a new TLS Certificate type which would enable TLS implementations to use CBOR Web Tokens (CWTs) [RFC8392] as certificates. While these are early initiatives, future EAP-TLS deployments can consider the use of these new certificate types and compression algorithms to avoid large message sizes.

4.3. Updating Authenticators

There are several legitimate reasons that authenticators may want to limit the number of round-trips/packets/octets that can be sent. The main reason has been to work around issues where the EAP peer and EAP server end up in an infinite loop ACKing their messages. Another second reason is that unlimited communication from an unauthenticated device as EAP could otherwise be use for bulk data transfer. A third reason is to prevent denial-of-service attacks.

Updating the millions of already deployed access points and switches is in many cases not realistic. Vendors may be out of business or do no longer support the products and administrators may have lost the login information to the devices. For practical purposes the EAP infrastructure is ossified for the time being.

Vendors making new authenticators should consider increasing the number of round-trips allowed to 100 before denying the EAP authentication to complete. At the same time, administrators responsible for EAP deployments should ensure that this 100 roundtrip limit is not exceeded in practice.

5. IANA Considerations

This document includes no request to IANA.

6. Security Considerations

Updating implementations to TLS version 1.3 allows omitting all certificates with a trust anchor known by the other endpoint. TLS 1.3 additionally provides improved security, privacy, and reduced latency for EAP-TLS [I-D.ietf-emu-eap-tls13].

When compressing certificates, the underlying compression algorithm MUST output the same data that was provided as input by. After decompression, the Certificate message MUST be processed as if it were encoded without being compressed. Additional security considerations when compressing certificates are specified in [I-D.ietf-tls-certificate-compression]

As noted in [I-D.thomson-tls-sic], suppressing intermediate certificates creates an unencrypted signal that might be used to identify which clients believe that they have all intermediates. This might also allow more effective fingerprinting and tracking of clients.

7. References

7.1. Normative References

[I-D.ietf-emu-eap-tls13] Mattsson, J. and M. Sethi, "Using EAP-TLS with TLS 1.3", Internet-Draft draft-ietf-emu-eap-tls13-10, June 2020.
[RFC2119] Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, March 1997.
[RFC3748] Aboba, B., Blunk, L., Vollbrecht, J., Carlson, J. and H. Levkowetz, "Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP)", RFC 3748, DOI 10.17487/RFC3748, June 2004.
[RFC4851] Cam-Winget, N., McGrew, D., Salowey, J. and H. Zhou, "The Flexible Authentication via Secure Tunneling Extensible Authentication Protocol Method (EAP-FAST)", RFC 4851, DOI 10.17487/RFC4851, May 2007.
[RFC5216] Simon, D., Aboba, B. and R. Hurst, "The EAP-TLS Authentication Protocol", RFC 5216, DOI 10.17487/RFC5216, March 2008.
[RFC5280] Cooper, D., Santesson, S., Farrell, S., Boeyen, S., Housley, R. and W. Polk, "Internet X.509 Public Key Infrastructure Certificate and Certificate Revocation List (CRL) Profile", RFC 5280, DOI 10.17487/RFC5280, May 2008.
[RFC5281] Funk, P. and S. Blake-Wilson, "Extensible Authentication Protocol Tunneled Transport Layer Security Authenticated Protocol Version 0 (EAP-TTLSv0)", RFC 5281, DOI 10.17487/RFC5281, August 2008.
[RFC7170] Zhou, H., Cam-Winget, N., Salowey, J. and S. Hanna, "Tunnel Extensible Authentication Protocol (TEAP) Version 1", RFC 7170, DOI 10.17487/RFC7170, May 2014.
[RFC8174] Leiba, B., "Ambiguity of Uppercase vs Lowercase in RFC 2119 Key Words", BCP 14, RFC 8174, DOI 10.17487/RFC8174, May 2017.

7.2. Informative References

[I-D.ietf-tls-certificate-compression] Ghedini, A. and V. Vasiliev, "TLS Certificate Compression", Internet-Draft draft-ietf-tls-certificate-compression-10, January 2020.
[I-D.ietf-tls-ctls] Rescorla, E., Barnes, R. and H. Tschofenig, "Compact TLS 1.3", Internet-Draft draft-ietf-tls-ctls-00, April 2020.
[I-D.mattsson-tls-cbor-cert-compress] Mattsson, J., Selander, G., Raza, S., Hoglund, J. and M. Furuhed, "CBOR Certificate Algorithm for TLS Certificate Compression", Internet-Draft draft-mattsson-tls-cbor-cert-compress-00, March 2020.
[I-D.thomson-tls-sic] Thomson, M., "Suppressing Intermediate Certificates in TLS", Internet-Draft draft-thomson-tls-sic-00, March 2019.
[I-D.tschofenig-tls-cwt] Tschofenig, H. and M. Brossard, "Using CBOR Web Tokens (CWTs) in Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Datagram Transport Layer Security (DTLS)", Internet-Draft draft-tschofenig-tls-cwt-01, November 2019.
[IEEE-802.1X] Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, "IEEE Standard for Local and metropolitan area networks -- Port-Based Network Access Control", IEEE Standard 802.1X-2010 , February 2010.
[RFC2865] Rigney, C., Willens, S., Rubens, A. and W. Simpson, "Remote Authentication Dial In User Service (RADIUS)", RFC 2865, DOI 10.17487/RFC2865, June 2000.
[RFC5246] Dierks, T. and E. Rescorla, "The Transport Layer Security (TLS) Protocol Version 1.2", RFC 5246, DOI 10.17487/RFC5246, August 2008.
[RFC5289] Rescorla, E., "TLS Elliptic Curve Cipher Suites with SHA-256/384 and AES Galois Counter Mode (GCM)", RFC 5289, DOI 10.17487/RFC5289, August 2008.
[RFC6066] Eastlake 3rd, D., "Transport Layer Security (TLS) Extensions: Extension Definitions", RFC 6066, DOI 10.17487/RFC6066, January 2011.
[RFC6090] McGrew, D., Igoe, K. and M. Salter, "Fundamental Elliptic Curve Cryptography Algorithms", RFC 6090, DOI 10.17487/RFC6090, February 2011.
[RFC7049] Bormann, C. and P. Hoffman, "Concise Binary Object Representation (CBOR)", RFC 7049, DOI 10.17487/RFC7049, October 2013.
[RFC7250] Wouters, P., Tschofenig, H., Gilmore, J., Weiler, S. and T. Kivinen, "Using Raw Public Keys in Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Datagram Transport Layer Security (DTLS)", RFC 7250, DOI 10.17487/RFC7250, June 2014.
[RFC7924] Santesson, S. and H. Tschofenig, "Transport Layer Security (TLS) Cached Information Extension", RFC 7924, DOI 10.17487/RFC7924, July 2016.
[RFC8032] Josefsson, S. and I. Liusvaara, "Edwards-Curve Digital Signature Algorithm (EdDSA)", RFC 8032, DOI 10.17487/RFC8032, January 2017.
[RFC8392] Jones, M., Wahlstroem, E., Erdtman, S. and H. Tschofenig, "CBOR Web Token (CWT)", RFC 8392, DOI 10.17487/RFC8392, May 2018.
[RFC8446] Rescorla, E., "The Transport Layer Security (TLS) Protocol Version 1.3", RFC 8446, DOI 10.17487/RFC8446, August 2018.


This draft is a result of several useful discussions with Alan DeKok, Bernard Aboba, Jari Arkko, Jouni Malinen, Darshak Thakore, and Hannes Tschofening.

Authors' Addresses

Mohit Sethi Ericsson Jorvas, 02420 Finland EMail:
John Mattsson Ericsson Kista, Sweden EMail:
Sean Turner sn3rd EMail: