Like most network engineers I was raised on Cisco's literature and read through plenty of their whitepapers such as this one comparing RADIUS and TACACS+. This document is full of useful facts such as "RADIUS does not allow users to control which commands can be executed on a router and which cannot" (no, Cisco, because for some reason you notched out the ability to do so in IOS) and that RFC compliance doesn't guarantee interoperability. One of the parts I always remembered and believed, in the olden days at least, was the part that says that far beyond the argument of TCP being better than UDP, TACACS+ is more secure than RADIUS due to the way it encrypts the entire message body. I suspect most people just swallow that without chewing, I know I did. Encryption is good, so more encryption must be better.
RADIUS, by comparison, uses CHAP for secure password authentication but makes no attempt to encrypt the parameters within requests and responses. To be fair, these can just be read in plain text straight off the wire. The shared key used when configuring RADIUS is purely an authentication measure - it guards against arbitrary spoofed requests and tampering but does not offer any kind of privacy.
In reality the biggest part of the decision when choosing one or the other will be a "horses for courses" argument. Want to authenticate PPP subscribers with a nice wholesale / retail proxy model? Use RADIUS. Want to authenticate logins to infrastructure devices and authorise specific commands down to the parameter level? Use TACACS+.
A Slightly More Balanced ComparisonLet's compare the relative merits, security wise of each protocol.
Message EncryptionTACACS+, as previously mentioned, encrypts the entire message body using a pre-shared key. It only leaves the header in the clear, so without the key it is only really possible to determine who is client and who is server, plus what kind of messages are being passed (authentication or authorisation, query or response).
RADIUS uses a pre-shared key to authenticate messages going back and forth, but the messages themselves are unencrypted and can easily be read straight off the wire.
CredentialsRADIUS relies on CHAP for user credential validation. The NAS sends a "random" challenge to the user, who produces a one-way hash of the challenge data and password (plus some other stuff) and returns that to the NAS. The NAS then sends the challenge and response off to the RADIUS, meaning that the credentials are never sent over the wire in any reversible way. In order to get the password an attacker must capture the challenge and response data then run a dictionary or brute force attack. On the down side, the RADIUS server itself must have a plaintext copy of the password available in order to verify that a response is correct given the challenge. Clearly if the RADIUS server's password database is compromised then things get quite sticky. For proxy RADIUS, the proxy does not need access to plaintext passwords. In summary, passwords are safe in flight but exposed at rest.
TACACS+ relies on the pre-shared key to encrypt everything, including password information. No form of CHAP or similar system is used, so credentials are passed in a reversible form over the wire. It's encrypted, though, so don't worry - unless an attacker knows the key it's all just gibberish. On the positive side of this, the TACACS+ server does not need to store plaintext passwords for the end users and can instead keep one-way hashes on disk meaning that a compromised database is arguably less of an issue. Safe at rest and safe in flight.
Or is it? Think about the typical use case again. TACACS+ is more-or-less always used to authenticate CLI users logging into routers and switches. The key used to encrypt the TACACS+ communications is stored in the device config, either completely in plain text or using (trivially) reversible type 7 encryption. Virtually all devices are left with the password recovery mechanism enabled. Most of the time the key is re-used across every device in the estate since it makes administration easy and, what's the risk anyway?
A Really Easy AttackI'd like to point out I'm not suggesting or endorsing any kind of illegal or immoral behaviour. Even as a joke :)
The thought occurs that many TACACS+ managed devices are in remote locations - far flung or sparsely populated offices, in accessible wiring closets, even (*shudder*) customer sites. Given physical access to a device, it's very possible to make a terminal emulator script to perform a password recovery, dump out the config then reset the config register to its original value within only a couple of seconds more than it takes to double-reboot the device. I know this because I did it many moons ago (I don't have it any more - it was pretty easy to write, though).
If I were an evil adversary who wanted to get some credentials, perhaps a good way would be:
- Feign a power cut, on-site work or some other convincing reason for a device to go down
- Take the device off the network (to avoid it phoning home by syslog / SNMP) and perform a quick password recovery / config dump before putting it back to its original condition:
- Stick a sniffer inline between the device and wherever its administrators are
- Call in a fault saying that since the power cut / whatever nothing attached to that router / switch is able to see the network - perhaps leave the LAN side disconnected for authenticity
- Capture TACACS+ packets as the administrators log in to investigate
- Come up with some compelling reason for comms to go down again while the sniffer is taken out
Readonly ROMMON initialized
program load complete, entry point: 0x8000f000, size: 0xcb80
monitor: command "boot" aborted due to user interrupt
rommon 1 > confreg 0x2142
You must reset or power cycle for new config to take effect
rommon 2 > reset
Would you like to enter the initial configuration dialog? [yes/no]: no
Press RETURN to get started!
Router#show startup-config | include tacacs
aaa authentication login default group tacacs+ local
aaa authorization exec default group tacacs+ none
aaa authorization configuration default group tacacs+
tacacs-server host 10.4.4.10
tacacs-server key supersecret
Enter configuration commands, one per line. End with CNTL/Z.
System configuration has been modified. Save? [yes/no]: no
Proceed with reload? [confirm]
|Viewing the Decrypted Payload|
Now you have the administrator username(s) and password(s) in plain text!
Are you sure you still want to run TACACS on that remote box?