What Is EAP-TLS?

Written by Kelsey Kinzer on July 18, 2022

Share This Article

Network security is one of those behind-the-scenes protections that most employees don’t think about but reap the benefits of every day.

Not only does network security protect company data, it safeguards employee data and customer data 一 information that could have devastating consequences if leaked during a breach. By authenticating the right users, network security ensures that employees and contractors get access to the resources they need and only those resources.

But many companies aren’t sure how to achieve network security, especially without causing massive network congestion. So what’s the silver bullet? EAP-TLS.

In this post, we’ll define EAP-TLS, describe how it works, and outline the benefits you can expect from implementing it in your organization.

What Is EAP-TLS Authentication?

EAP-TLS stands for Extensible Authentication Protocol-Transport Layer Security. While the term is certainly a mouthful, the end goal of EAP-TLS is simply to provide enhanced network security through digital authentication. EAP-TLS locks down your network, only allowing authenticated users to access company data, resources, and applications.

Typically, EAP-TLS enables the use of X.509 digital authentication certificates, which are fairly flexible yet still optimally secure. Companies can use these digital authentication certificates to facilitate single sign-on (SSO) through a VPN or various network devices. 

We’ll touch on how EAP-TLS works in detail in the following section, but at a high level, EAP-TLS methodology is rooted in public-key cryptography. Using this approach eliminates the need to pre-share keys among authenticating parties before they attempt to enter a network.

How Does EAP-TLS Work?

As discussed above, EAP-TLS is a certificate-based mutual authentication method, meaning both the client and the server need certificates for successful authentication. Once those certificates are identified, the EAP-TLS will create session-based keys that each party can use to complete the login.

The process goes something like this:

  1. A user requests access to a network through some kind of wireless access point (AP) or authenticator app.
  2. The AP requests the user’s identity information.
  3. Once user information is received, it gets transferred from the AP to an authentication server.
  4. The authentication server requests identification verification from the AP.
  5. The AP acquires validation and sends it back to the authentication server.
  6. The user connects directly to the network.

How Secure Is EAP-TLS?

EAP-TLS is widely accepted as the most secure authentication technique and has been for over 15 years. EAP-TLS is a particularly sound way to protect 802.1X networks because of the mutual authentication requirement. 

Overall, EAP-TLS significantly reduces the possibility of cybercriminal activity, especially man-in-the-middle types of attacks. In those attacks, cybercriminals would spoof and authenticate into fake access points, which would immediately allow them to harvest users’ credentials. But because mutual authentication requires users to validate their identity, over-the-air attacks are virtually impossible.

What Are EAP-TLS Benefits?

EAP-TLS has several distinct advantages, particularly when it comes to security. As we’ve mentioned, EAP-TLS is the most robust network authentication security on the market. And today, more modern EAP-TLS systems have incorporated sophisticated features like elliptic curve cryptography (ECC) to strengthen the protocol.

At the same time, EAP-TLS ties digital certificates to specific devices, which instantly boosts network visibility. Whereas passwords can be guessed or stolen by anyone, the mutual authentication built into EAP-TLS will show exactly which device is accessing your network at any given time. And if any issues arise, they can be traced back to a specific device.

Lastly, EAP-TLS greatly enhances the end-user experience. Because certificates cannot be stripped from a device or altered in any way, users don’t have to create and memorize hundreds of separate passwords. Instead, they can authenticate straight into the network 一 an easier, faster, and more secure process.

What’s Needed for EAP-TLS Authentication?

There are hardware and software requirements for realizing all the benefits of EAP-TLS. At a minimum, you’ll need:

  • An access point
  • Public key infrastructure
  • RADIUS protocol
  • User directory

All four of these components interact to provide a seamless and secure authentication experience.

RADIUS, or Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service, is a network protocol used to authorize users attempting to connect to embedded routers, modem servers, software, and wireless apps. 

As an open-standard authentication, authorization, and accounting protocol, RADIUS determines whether or not a user can access a local or remote network, and if they can, what privileges they’re allowed on that network, and finally, it monitors user activity after establishing a connection to the network.

On an enterprise scale, RADIUS can be a lifesaver. Rather than setting up thousands of separate networking and infrastructure devices, RADIUS empowers IT and security staff to use a centralized mechanism, making it much faster to onboard new devices to Wi-Fi networks locally or remotely.

EAP-TLS with Cloud Radius

While EAP-TLS is the gold standard of network security, its implementation can be complex. Building and monitoring physical servers is both stressful and time-consuming, which is why many companies have stalled on EAP-TLS rollouts. But the good news is that it’s possible to ditch the server hassle by switching to JumpCloud’s Cloud RADIUS platform.

With Cloud RADIUS, you get the security and strength of a traditional RADIUS protocol without worrying about maintaining physical servers. JumpCloud makes it easy to authenticate users to VPNs, switches, network devices, and Wi-Fi. Moreover, Cloud RADIUS is consistently audited by industry experts and supports network segmentation via dynamic VLAN tagging without any on-premises architecture or network setup.

Kelsey Kinzer

Kelsey is a passionate storyteller and Content Writer at JumpCloud. She is particularly inspired by the people who drive innovation in B2B tech. When away from her screen, you can find her climbing mountains and (unsuccessfully) trying to quit cold brew coffee.

Continue Learning with our Newsletter