IPsec vs. SSL

Instructor: Martin Gibbs

Martin has 16 years experience in Human Resources Information Systems and has a PhD in Information Technology Management. He is an adjunct professor of computer science and computer programming.

This lesson will cover two encryption methods used to secure data: IPSec and SSL. These methods are mainly used to allow connections to secure networks from otherwise insecure sources.

Making a Secure Connection

When you need to connect to your company network, but want to do it while enjoying a latte at the local coffee shop, you need an option to connect to a secure network from an unsecured one. This lesson will discuss two encryption methods that are used to make that secure connection possible: IPSec and SSL.

IPSec: Internet Protocol Security

IPSec, or Internet Protocol Security, secures the packets of data being sent. Data is sent over the internet (and internal networks) in small bundles called packets; each packet has a header, much like the address on a traditional snail-mail envelope. IPSec secures those packets. It can secure both the data inside the packets, as well as the header information. To secure the packets, it encrypts this data, then on the other side of the transmission, the receiver decrypts the packet.

For any of this to work, both sender and receiver must have access to a public key, allowing the receiver to authenticate the sender using something called a digital certificate. The certificate basically confirms that the sender is who they claim to be, and that the data is encrypted.

SSL: Secure Sockets Layer

SSL, or Secure Sockets Layer, uses two keys: both a public key (known to everyone) and a private key (known only to the receiver of the data). SSL is quite common when transmitting confidential information; you've seen it in action whenever the https:// is used in a web address instead of plain http://.

When a connection is attempted using SSL, the browser will ask that the web server identify itself. The server then sends a certificate and the certificate is checked to make sure it is trusted; if so, then the sending server responds back and an SSL-encrypted session is started. This works over the web as well as in VPN (as we will discuss below), because it creates a tunnel between the client and server, which shouldn't be viewable by any hacker or unscrupulous individual.

SSL Connection
SSL connection

Comparing IPSec to SSL

We will compare these two encryption methods in the context of a real-world example: a VPN, or Virtual Private Network.


Before we get into the head-to-head comparison for these tools, let's briefly explain VPN. It's the most common method for connecting to secure networks from other sources, like a Wi-Fi connection in a coffee shop.

A VPN allows a secure/encrypted connection over a connection that may not be as secure. Let's return to the coffee shop example. You need to connect to the corporate network, but can't necessarily trust the Wi-Fi you're using. A VPN provides a secure method for you to connect over the internet. In order to secure the connection, the VPN uses either IPSec or SSL methods to encrypt the connection.

IPSec vs. SSL

IPSec is designed to support a permanent connection between locations. It does not need to rely on any specific application: it provides the authentication, authorization, and encryption.

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