Internet Key Exchange (IKE) is a key management protocol that establishes secure communication channels between two devices over the Internet. It has two versions—IKEv1 and IKEv2. IKEv2 is the preferred version as it is more secure and flexible.

IKE plays a crucial role in enabling virtual private networks (VPN) usage and securing communication between devices on different networks.

Imagine you want to send an important message over the Internet to a colleague working from home but you don’t want anyone else to intercept it. That’s where IKE comes in. It’s like a secret handshake that two devices (like your computer and your coworker’s) can use to create a secure tunnel for your message to travel through.

Read More about Internet Key Exchange

When using a VPN or sending a file over the Internet, you may be using IKE. Find out what that means and other details about this protocol.

What Does Internet Key Exchange Do?

The primary function of IKE is to establish secure communication between two Internet-connected devices. 

IKE doesn’t directly encrypt data but acts as a facilitator for creating a secure tunnel through which encrypted information can flow. Here’s a breakdown of how that occurs.

What does Internet Key Exchange do?
  • IKE acts as a middleman: It helps you and your coworker agree on a secret key (like a special handshake) that only you know. This key is like a password used to scramble and unscramble your message.
  • IKE helps verify identities: It makes sure you’re actually talking to your colleague and not someone pretending to be him, just like checking IDs at a gate. It prevents unauthorized access to your messages.
  • IKE creates a secure tunnel: Once everything is confirmed, IKE creates a private tunnel between your and your coworker’s devices. This tunnel is invisible to everyone else, but you and your colleague can send messages back and forth securely through it.

How Does Internet Key Exchange Work?

Two devices attempting to communicate using IKE go through a series of steps to establish a secure tunnel.

  1. Negotiation: The two devices exchange information about their capabilities, such as supported encryption algorithms and authentication methods.
  1. Authentication: They verify each other’s identities using methods like preshared keys, digital certificates, or public key cryptography.
  1. Key generation: Once authentication succeeds, IKE generates a shared secret key to encrypt and decrypt communications between devices, ensuring confidentiality.

Only after these three steps are finished can the two devices communicate securely. The process may sound complicated but, in reality, it only happens within seconds.

How Do IKEv1 and IKEv2 Differ?

IKE has two versions—IKEv1 and IKEv2. The first version dates back to 1998 and is considered outdated since it already has known vulnerabilities.

IKEv2 was released in 2005. It has better security features and performance and mobile device support. IKEv2 is the preferred version by most VPNs today. The specific differences between IKEv1 and IKEv2 are listed below.

  • Security: IKEv1 uses Message-Digest Algorithm 5 (MD5) and Secure Hash Algorithm 1 (SHA1) cryptography that are no longer considered secure since they have existing vulnerabilities that have been repeatedly exploited. IKEv2 uses more robust algorithms, such as SHA-256 and Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). These more modern cryptography standards are harder to compromise.
  • Performance: The negotiation phase in IKEv1 takes longer than in IKEv2 since IKEv1 requires more messages to be exchanged.
  • Mobility support: IKEv1 does not have built-in support for devices that frequently switch networks like mobile phones. Meanwhile, IKEv2 includes built-in mobile support, allowing such devices to maintain secure connections even when changing networks or using cellular data.
  • Flexibility: IKEv1 supports a limited number of authentication and key exchange methods, while IKEv2 can accept digital certificates, preshared keys, and other authentication methods.

IKEv2 is the recommended and more widely used option due to its enhanced security, improved performance, better mobile device support, and additional features. While IKEv1 may still be used by older VPN implementations, it’s generally considered outdated and less secure.

IKE is widely used by applications that require secure Internet communication. It may be working in the background while you upload files to the cloud, attend a Google Meet or Zoom meeting, access your work computer remotely, or connect to a VPN. IKE ensures the data you transmit remains confidential and protected from attackers.

Key Takeaways