Route-based VPN

Generally IPsec processing is based on policies. After regular route lookups are done the OS kernel consults its SPD (Security Policy Database) for a matching policy and if one is found that is associated with an IPsec SA (Security Association) the packet is processed (e.g. encrypted and sent as ESP packet).

Depending on the operating system it is also possible to configure route-based VPNs. Here IPsec processing does not (only) depend on negotiated policies but may e.g. be controlled by routing packets to a specific interface.

Most of these approaches also allow an easy capture of plaintext traffic, which depending on the operating system might not be that straight-forward with policy-based VPNs, see Traffic Dumps. Another advantage this approach could have is that the MTU can be specified for the tunneling devices, allowing to fragment packets before tunneling them, in case PMTU discovery does not work properly.

VTI Devices on Linux

VTI devices are supported since the Linux 3.6 kernel but some important changes were added later (3.15+). The information below might not be accurate for older kernel versions. On newer kernels (4.19+), XFRM interfaces provide a better solution than VTI devices, see below for details.

VTI devices act like a wrapper around existing IPsec policies. This means you can’t just route arbitrary packets to a VTI device to get them tunneled, the established IPsec policies have to match, too. However, you can negotiate traffic selectors on both ends to allow tunneling any traffic that is routed via the VTI device.

To make this work, i.e. to prevent packets not routed via the VTI device from matching the policies (if is used every packet would match), marks are used. Only packets that are marked accordingly will match the policies and get tunneled. For other packets the policies are ignored. Whenever a packet is routed to a VTI device it automatically gets the configured mark applied, so it will match the policy and get tunneled.

It’s important to note that VTI tunnel devices are a local feature, no additional encapsulation (like with GRE, see below) is added, so the other end does not have to be aware that VTI devices are used in addition to regular IPsec policies.

VTI Device Management

A VTI device may be created with the following command:

ip tunnel add <name> local <local IP> remote <remote IP> mode vti key <mark>

<name> can be any valid device name (e.g. ipsec0, vti0 etc.). But note that the ip command treats names starting with vti special in some instances (e.g. when retrieving device statistics). The IP addresses are the endpoints of the IPsec tunnel. <mark> has to match the mark configured for the connection. It is also possible to configure different marks for in- and outbound traffic using ikey <mark> and okey <mark>, but that is usually not required.

After creating the device, it has to be enabled (ip link set <name> up) and then routes may be installed (routing protocols may also be used). To avoid duplicate policy lookups it is also recommended to set

sysctl -w net.ipv4.conf.<name>.disable_policy=1

All of this also works for IPv6.

Example: Creation of two VTI Devices (vti0 and ipsec0)

ip tunnel add vti0   local remote mode vti key 42
ip tunnel add ipsec0 local remote mode vti key 0x01000201
sysctl -w net.ipv4.conf.vti0.disable_policy=1
ip link set vti0 up
ip route add dev vti0
sysctl -w net.ipv4.conf.ipsec0.disable_policy=1
ip link set ipsec0 up
ip route add dev ipsec0
ip route add dev ipsec0

Statistics on VTI devices may be displayed with

ip -s tunnel show [<name>]

Note that specifying a name will not show any statistics if the device name starts with vti.

A VTI device may be removed again with

ip tunnel del <name>


First the route installation by the IKE daemon must be disabled. To do this, set in strongswan.conf:

charon.install_routes = 0

Then configure a regular site-to-site connection, either with the traffic selectors set to on both ends

local_ts  =
remote_ts =

in swanctl.conf or set to specific subnets. As mentioned above, only traffic that matches these traffic selectors will then actually be forwarded. Other packets routed to the VTI device will be rejected with an ICMP error message (destination unreachable/destination host unreachable).

The most important configuration optiona are mark_in and mark_out in swanctl.conf. After applying the optional mask (default is 0xffffffff) to the mark that’s set on the VTI device and it applied to the routed packets, the value has to match the configured mark.

Referring to the example above, to match the mark on vti0, configure mark_in = mark_out = 42 and to match the mark on ipsec0, set the value to 0x01000201 (but something like 0x00000200/0x00000f00 would also work).


Figure 1. strongSwan example showing the use of VTI devices

Sharing VTI Devices

VTI devices may be shared by multiple IPsec SAs (e.g. in roadwarrior scenarios, to capture traffic or lower the MTU) by setting the remote endpoint of the VTI device to For instance:

ip tunnel add ipsec0 local remote mode vti key 42

Then assuming virtual IP addresses for roadwarriors are assigned from the subnet a matching route may be installed with

ip route add dev ipsec0
Only one such device with the same local IP may be created.


Figure 2. strongSwan example showing the use of shared VTI devices

Connection-specific VTI Devices

With a custom updown script it is also possible to set up connection-specific VTI devices. For instance, to create a VTI device on a roadwarrrior client that receives a dynamic virtual IP address (courtesy of Endre Szabó):

Example Script for Roadwarriors


# set charon.install_virtual_ip = no to prevent the daemon from also installing the VIP

set -o nounset
set -o errexit


case "${PLUTO_VERB}" in
        ip tunnel add "${VTI_IF}" local "${PLUTO_ME}" remote "${PLUTO_PEER}" mode vti \
            key "${PLUTO_MARK_OUT%%/*}"
        ip link set "${VTI_IF}" up
        ip addr add "${PLUTO_MY_SOURCEIP}" dev "${VTI_IF}"
        ip route add "${PLUTO_PEER_CLIENT}" dev "${VTI_IF}"
        sysctl -w "net.ipv4.conf.${VTI_IF}.disable_policy=1"
        ip tunnel del "${VTI_IF}"

If there is more than one subnet in the remote traffic selector this might cause conflicts as the updown script will be called for each combination of local and remote subnet.

Dynamically creating such devices on the server could be problematic if two roadwarriors are connected from the same IP. The kernel rejects the creation of a VTI device if the remote and local addresses are already in use by another VTI device.

In the following script, it is assumed that only the roadwarrior’s assigned IPv4 IP is supposed to be reachable over the assigned tunnel.

Example Script for Gateways


# set charon.install_virtual_ip = no to prevent the daemon from also installing the VIP

set -o nounset
set -o errexit


case "${PLUTO_VERB}" in
        ip tunnel add "${VTI_IF}" local "${PLUTO_ME}" remote "${PLUTO_PEER}" mode vti \
            key "${PLUTO_MARK_OUT%%/*}"
        ip link set "${VTI_IF}" up
        ip route add "${PLUTO_PEER_SOURCEIP}" dev "${VTI_IF}"
        sysctl -w "net.ipv4.conf.${VTI_IF}.disable_policy=1"
        ip tunnel del "${VTI_IF}"
Using PLUTO_UNIQUEID might not be a good idea if IKE_SAs may be rekeyed, as the unique ID will change with each rekeying (i.e. the script won’t be able to delete the device anymore). Using some other identifier (e.g. parts of the virtual IP or the mark if it is unique) might be better.

XFRM Interfaces on Linux

strongSwan supports XFRM interfaces since version 5.8.0. They are supported by the Linux kernel since 4.19 and iproute2 version 5.1.0+.

XFRM interfaces are similar to VTI devices in their basic functionality (see above for details) but offer several advantages:

  • No tunnel endpoint addresses have to be configured on the interfaces. Compared to VTIs, which are layer 3 tunnel devices with mandatory endpoints, this resolves issues with wildcard addresses (only one VTI with wildcard endpoints is supported), avoids a 1:1 mapping between SAs and interfaces and easily allows SAs with multiple peers to share the same interface.

  • Because there are no endpoint addresses, IPv4 and IPv6 SAs are supported on the same interface (VTI devices only support one address family).

  • IPsec modes other than tunnel are supported (VTI devices only support tunnel mode).

  • No awkward configuration via GRE keys and XFRM marks. Instead, a new identifier (XFRM interface ID) links policies and SAs with XFRM interfaces.

As mentioned above, the policies and SAs are linked to XFRM interface via a new identifier (interface ID). Like XFRM marks they are part of the policy selector. That is, policies will only match traffic if it was routed via an XFRM interface with a matching interface ID and duplicate policies are allowed as long as the interface ID is different. So as with VTI devices it’s possible to negotiate as traffic selector on both ends (to tunnel arbitrary traffic) for multiple CHILD_SAs as long as the interface IDs are different.

Traffic that’s routed to an XFRM interface, while no policies and SAs with matching interface ID exist, will be dropped by the kernel. Likewise, as long as no interface with a matching interface ID exists, the policies and SAs will not be operational (i.e. outbound traffic bypasses the policies and inbound traffic is dropped). So it’s possible to create interfaces before SAs are created or afterwards (e.g. via vici events or updown scripts which both receive configured or optionally dynamically generated interface IDs).

Using trap policies to dynamically create IPsec SAs based on matching traffic that has been routed to an XFRM interface is also an option.

It’s possible to use separate interfaces for in- and outbound traffic, which is why interface IDs may be configured for in- and outbound policies/SAs separately (see below).

XFRM Interface Management

With iproute2 5.1.0 and newer an XFRM interface can be created as such:

ip link add <name> type xfrm dev <underlying interface> if_id <interface ID>

strongSwan also comes with a utility (called xfrmi) to create XFRM interfaces if iproute2 can not create the interface.

/usr/local/libexec/ipsec/xfrmi --name <name> --id <interface ID> --dev <underlying interface>

<name> can be any valid device name (e.g. ipsec0, xfrm0, etc.). <interface ID> is a decimal or hex (0x prefix) 32-bit number. The underlying interface currently is mandatory, but doesn’t really matter (it only does if an interface is configured on the outbound policy - and it might with hardware IPsec offloading, but that has not been tested by us), so it could be anything, even lo.

The interface can afterwards be managed via iproute2. So to activate it, use

ip link set <name> up

Addresses, if necessary, can be added with ip addr and the interface may eventually be deleted with

ip link del <name>

Example: Create XFRM Interface (ipsec0)

ip link add ipsec0 type xfrm dev eth0 if_id 42
# or if not supported by iproute2 yet:
/usr/local/libexec/ipsec/xfrmi --name ipsec0 --id 42 --dev eth0

ip link set ipsec0 up
ip route add dev ipsec0
ip route add dev ipsec0

Statistics are available via

ip -s link show [<name>]

The xfrmi command provides a --list option to list existing XFRM interfaces if using older versions of iproute2 does not list the interface ID of XFRM interfaces yet with ip -d link.


By default, the daemon will not install any routes for CHILD_SAs with outbound interface ID, so it’s not necessary to disable the route installation globally. Since version 5.9.10 strongSwan optionally installs routes automatically (see below)

Keep in mind that traffic routed to XFRM interfaces has to match the negotiated IPsec policies. Therefore, connections are configured as they would if no interfaces were to be used. However, since policies won’t affect traffic that’s not routed via XFRM interfaces, it’s possible to negotiate or ::/0 as traffic selector on both ends to tunnel arbitrary traffic.

The most important connection configuration option in swanctl.conf is the interface ID if_id_in and if_id_out. To use a single interface for in- and outbound traffic set them to the same value (or %unique to generate a unique ID for each CHILD_SA). To use separate interfaces for each direction, configure distinct values (or %unique-dir to generate unique IDs for each CHILD_SA and direction). It’s also possible to use an XFRM interface only in one direction by setting only one of the two settings.

When setting the options on the connection-level, all CHILD_SAs for which the settings are not set will inherit the interface IDs of the IKE_SA (use %unique or %unique-dir to allocate unique IDs for each IKE_SA/direction that are inherited by all CHILD_SAs created under the IKE_SA).

It’s possible to use transport mode for host-to-host connections between two peers.

Since version 5.9.10, strongSwan optionally installs routes via XFRM interfaces if the charon.plugins.kernel-netlink.install_routes_xfrmi option is enabled. A route is only installed if an interface with the ID configured in if_id_out exists when the corresponding CHILD_SA is installed.

Avoid Routing Loops with IKE/ESP Traffic

If the negotiated traffic selectors include the IKE/ESP traffic to the peer, enabling install_routes_xfrmi (see above) requires special care to avoid routing loops (i.e. routing IKE and ESP packets into the XFRM interface). The same applies if routes that conflict with the IKE/ESP traffic (e.g. a default route) are installed manually via an XFRM interface.

Assuming the routes via XFRM interface are installed in routing table 220, which is what the mentioned option does, by default, there are basically two options:

  • Set marks on the IKE packets (globally via charon.plugins.socket-default.fwmark=<mark>) and the ESP packets (via <child>.set_mark_out=<mark>), and then exclude such packets from routing table 220 by adding a negative mark on the routing rule (via charon.plugins.kernel-netlink.fwmark=!<mark>). <mark> is an arbitrary value, but preferably one that’s not already used for something else on the system.

  • Alternatively, e.g. if the kernel doesn’t support set_mark_out, install an explicit route to the peer’s IP address, either via a physical interface instead of the XFRM interface, or, for instance, a throw route in table 220, so the other routes in that table are ignored for packets addressed to the peer and the next and eventually the main routing table will be used (e.g. ip route add throw <peer ip> table 220).

The first option should be preferred as it only affects IKE and ESP traffic and protects all other traffic addressed to the peer’s IP address, and it has the advantage of not requiring a route for each peer and continues to work if a peer’s IP address changes.


Figure 3. strongSwan example showing the use of XFRM interfaces

Sharing XFRM Interfaces

Because no endpoint addresses are configured on the interfaces they can easily be shared by multiple SAs as long as the policies don’t conflict. Just configure the same interface ID for the CHILD_SAs (this also works automatically for roadwarrior connections where each client gets an individual IP address assigned - just route the subnets used for virtual IPs to the XFRM interface).


Figure 4. strongSwan example showing the use of shared XFRM interfaces

Connection-specific XFRM Interfaces

Using custom vici or updown scripts allows creating connection-specific XFRM interfaces. The interface ID (in particular if %unique[-dir] is used) is available in the scripts to create the XFRM interface dynamically.

Note that updown scripts are called for each combination of of local and remote subnet, so this might cause conflicts if more than one subnet is negotiated in the traffic selectors (i.e. this requires some kind of refcounting). The child-updown vici event, however is only triggered once per CHILD_SA. To create connection-level XFRM interfaces with dynamic interface IDs, use the ike-updown vici event.

Network Namespaces

XFRM interfaces can be moved to network namespaces to provide the processes there access to IPsec SAs/policies that were created in a different network namespace. For instance, this allows a single IKE daemon to provide IPsec connections for processes in different network namespaces (or full containers) without them having access to the keys of the SAs (the SAs won’t be visible in the other network namespaces, only the XFRM interface).

XFRM interfaces in VRFs

XFRM interfaces can be associated to a VRF layer 3 master device, so any tunnel terminated by an XFRM interface implicitly is bound to that VRF domain. For example, this allows multi-tenancy setups where traffic from different tunnels can be separated and routed over different interfaces.

Due to a limitation in XFRM interfaces, inbound traffic fails policy checking in kernels prior to version 5.1.

Netfilter IPsec Policy Match with XFRM Interfaces

Due to a limitation in the Netfilter IPsec policy match, output traffic forwarded over an XFRM interface does not match (inbound it matches, though). policy matching is not really required anymore when using XFRM interfaces, as the Netfilter rules can just match on the interface. So the work-around is to filter just on XFRM interface names instead of IPsec policy matches.

Marks on Linux

One of the core features of VTI devices or XFRM interfaces, dynamically specifying which traffic to tunnel can actually be replicated directly with marks and firewall rules. By configuring connections with marks and then selectively marking packets directly with Netfilter rules via MARK target in the PREROUTING or FORWARD chains only specific traffic will get tunneled.

This may also be used to create multiple identical tunnels for which firewall rules dynamically decide which traffic is tunneled through which IPsec SA.


Figure 5. strongSwan example showing the use of marks for QoS/DiffServ

GRE Tunnels

Another alternative is to use GRE (Generic Routing Encapsulation) which is a generic point-to-point tunneling protocol that adds an additional encapsulation layer (at least 4 bytes). But it provides a portable way of creating route-based VPNs (running a routing protocol on-top is also easy).

While VTI devices depend on site-to-site IPsec connections in tunnel mode (XFRM interfaces are more flexible), GRE uses a host-to-host connection that can also be run in transport mode (avoiding additional overhead). But while VTI devices and XFRM interfaces may be used by only one of the peers, GRE must be used by both of them.

GRE Tunnel Management

Creating a GRE tunnel on Linux can be done as follows:

ip tunnel add <name> local <local IP> remote <remote IP> mode gre

<name> can be any valid interface name (e.g. ipsec0, gre0, etc.). But note that the ip command treats names starting with gre special in some instances (e.g. when retrieving device statistics). The IPs are the endpoints of the IPsec tunnel.

After creating the interface it has to be enabled with

ip link set <name> up

and then routes may be installed.

Example: Creation of GRE Tunnel (ipsec0)

ip tunnel add ipsec0 local remote mode gre
ip link set ipsec0 up
ip route add dev ipsec0
ip route add dev ipsec0

Statistics on GRE devices may be displayed with

ip -s tunnel show [<name>]

Note that specifying a name will not show any statistics if the device name starts with gre.

A GRE device may be removed again with

ip tunnel del <name>


As mentioned above, a host-to-host IPsec connection in transport mode can be used. The traffic selectors may even be limited to just the GRE protocol (local_ts|remote_ts = dynamic[gre] in swanctl.conf.


Figure 6. strongSwan example showing the use of GRE tunnels


Setting up and configuration of GRE tunnels can be automated using systemd units (templates) and a custom updown script to set the correct IP address for remote peers using GRE tunnels.

The following files outline fully functional examples for implementing that:

systemd Unit

Description=GRE Tunnel service

ExecStart=sh -c '/sbin/ip link add name "$TUNNEL_NAME" type gre key "$KEY" ttl 64 remote "$UNBOUND" dev "$DEVICE"'
ExecStart=/sbin/ip link set mtu 1350 dev "$TUNNEL_NAME"
ExecStart=/sbin/ip link set multicast on dev "$TUNNEL_NAME"
ExecStart=/sbin/ip link set up dev "$TUNNEL_NAME"
# ExecStart=/sbin/ip addr add "${LOCALSRCIP}/30" dev "$TUNNEL_NAME"
ExecStart=/sbin/ip addr add "${LOCALSRCIP}/32" dev "$TUNNEL_NAME"
ExecStop=/sbin/ip link delete dev "$TUNNEL_NAME"
ExecStopPost=/sbin/ip link delete dev "$TUNNEL_NAME"


updown Script


PROG="$(basename $0)"

  logger -i -t "$PROG" ip "$@"
  ip "$@"

logger -i -t "$PROG" "$0 $@"

case "$PLUTO_VERB" in


  _ip link set "$TUNNEL_NAME" type gre local "$LOCAL" remote "$REMOTE"

  # disable martian filtering on unnumbered links; Required for doing OSPF over unnumbered links.
  sysctl -q -w "net.ipv4.conf.$TUNNEL_NAME.rp_filter=0"



exit 0

gre config File

config file under /etc/conf.d/, matches the glob /etc/conf.d/gre-*.conf

# this is the gre key; It should be unique per GRE tunnel; Maybe generate it by sha256'ing the ip addresses of the peers involved.
# local IP address of GRE tunnel; It will be the source IP of the GRE packets sent by the host to the remote IP
# remote peer's IP address of the GRE tunnel

libipsec and TUN Devices

Based on our own userland IPsec implementation and the kernel-libipsec plugin it is possible to create route-based VPNs with TUN devices. Similar to VTI devices or XFRM interfaces the negotiated IPsec policies have to match the traffic routed via TUN device. In particular because packets have to be copied between kernel and userland it is not as efficient as the solutions above (also read the notes on kernel-libipsec).


Make sure to disable the connmark plugin when running a VTI interface. Otherwise, it will insert Netfilter rules into the mangle table that prevent the VTI from working.