SSL Orchestrator Advanced Use Cases: Inbound Authentication


In your many adventures as an IT pro, you've undoubtedly come across the term "Swiss Army Knife" when describing the F5 BIG-IP. You don't have to be an expert at F5 products...or Swiss Army understand what this means. The term itself ubiquitously describes the idea of versatility, the ability to solve any problem with one of many tools included in a single shiny package. Now of course the naysayers will argue that this versatility breeds complexity. And while there's no argument that a BIG-IP can be complex, just take a look at your current network and security architectures and count how many different tools are used to solve a single set of challenges. The subtle reality is that there's really no such thing as "one-size-fits-all". Homogenizing technologies like the various public cloud offerings will give you "good enough" capabilities, but then you have to ask yourself, is my competitor's good enough the same as my good enough? Do we really have the same exact challenges? This is where versatility can be a critical advantage. Versatility, for example, can help to stop zero-day attacks before your security products have a chance to roll out their own solutions. Versatility can solve complex software issues that might otherwise require a multitude of expensive vendor tools. And versatility can very often create capabilities (application, authentication, security, etc.), where no formal vendor solution exists.

In this article I'll be addressing a specific set of BIG-IP (versatility) characteristics: authentication and orchestration. And in doing so, I will also be showing you some powerful capabilities that you probably didn't know were there. Let's get started!

SSL Orchestrator Use Case: Inbound Authentication

The basic premise of this use case is that an SSL Orchestrator security policy is built on top of a set of "stateless" Access per-session and per-request policies. Access Policy Manager (APM) is the module you use on a BIG-IP to perform client authentication, and this requires "stateful" per-session and per-request policies. Therefore, as an application virtual server can only contain ONE access policy, the APM and SSL Orchestrator policies cannot coexist. In other words, you cannot add APM authentication to an SSL Orchestrator virtual server (or SSL Orchestrator security policy to an APM virtual server). SSL Orchestrator technically allows for authentication in outbound (forward proxy) topologies, because the explicit or transparent forward proxy authentication policy does not sit on the same virtual server as the SSL Orchestrator security policy. What we're focusing on here, though, is inbound (reverse proxy) authentication where there's generally just the one application virtual.

There are fundamentally two ways to address this challenge:

  • Layering virtual servers - often referred to as "VIP targeting", or "VIP-target-VIP", this is where one (external) virtual server uses an iRule command to push traffic to another internal virtual server. This is the simple approach. You put your authentication policy and client-side SSL offload on the external virtual, and an iRule to do the VIP targeting. The targeted internal virtual contains the SSL Orchestrator security policies, the application server pool, and optionally server SSL if you need to re-encrypt.

figure: apm-sslo-vip-target

  • Connector profile - a connector profile is a proxy element that was added to BIG-IP in 14.1, and that inserts itself in the client-side proxy flow after layer 5/6 (SSL decryption) and before layer 7 (HTTP). The connector is flow-based, so can be assigned once at flow initiation. Essentially, the connector can "tee" traffic out of the original proxy flow, and then back. The connector itself points to an internal virtual server that can perform any number of functions before returning back to the original proxy flow.

figure: apm-sslo-connector

For those of you that have spent any time digging around in the guts of an SSL Orchestrator configuration, you may recognize the connector profile. The connector was specifically created for SSL Orchestrator to handle third-party security service insertion. This is the thing that tees decrypted traffic off to the security devices. The connector is fundamentally an LTM object, but with LTM you can attach a single connector to a virtual server. In other words, you can attach a single security device to an LTM virtual server. SSL Orchestrator gives you dynamic assignment of multiple connectors (the service chain), a robust security policy (that attaches the flow to the server chain), dynamic decryption, and a guided configuration user interface to build all of this coolness. In the context of this use case, we'll attach a connector profile to the APM application virtual that points to an internal virtual, and that internal virtual will contain the SSL Orchestrator security policy.

It is important to note here that the following solutions will minimally require:

  • LTM base + APM add-on
  • SSL Orchestrator

You will be using the SSL Orchestrator "Existing Application" topology option here. This creates the security policy, services and service chain, without also creating the virtual servers and SSL. We'll leave application traffic management and decryption to the APM virtual server.

Before I dig into each of these options, let's understand why you would select one over the other as both have pros and cons.

The VIP target solution is fundamentally easy. It's two virtual servers and a simple VIP target iRule. However, there's a tiny bit of overhead in a VIP target as you engage the TCP proxy twice. And with multiple applications, a VIP target isn't really re-usable. You have to create a separate virtual server pair for each application. The frontend virtual contains the client-facing destination IP, VLAN, client SSL, and iRule. The internal virtual contains the SSL Orchestrator security policy, application pool, and optional server SSL.

The connector solution is re-usable. You simply attach the same connector profile to each application virtual server. It's also going to be slightly more efficient than the VIP target. However, the connector configuration is going to be more complex.

Inbound Authentication through VIP targeting

We will start with the easiest option first. Before doing anything else, navigate to SSL Orchestrator and create an "Existing Application" topology. Here you'll define the security services, service chain(s), and a security policy. On completion you'll have two "stateless" access policies that will get attached to one of the virtual servers.

  • Create a client SSL profile - assuming you're building an HTTPS site, you'll need a client SSL profile to perform HTTPS decryption.

  • Optionally create a server SSL profile - if you're going to re-encrypt to the application servers, you can either create a custom server SSL profile, or just use the built-in "serverssl" profile.

  • Create the application pool - this is the pool that sends traffic to the application servers.

  • Create the internal virtual server - this is the virtual server that will contain the SSL Orchestrator security policy and application pool.
  • Type: Standard
  • Source:
  • Destination:
  • Port: *
  • SSL Profile (Server): optional server SSL profile
  • VLAN and Tunnel Traffic: enabled on (empty)
  • Source Address Translation: SNAT as required
  • Address/Port Translation: enabled
  • Access Profile: SSL Orchestrator base policy (ssloDefault_accessProfile)
  • Per-Request Policy: select the SSL Orchestrator security policy
  • Default Pool: select the application pool

  • Create the VIP target iRule - the iRule will pass the flow from the external to the internal virtual server:
      ## Enter the full name and path of the internal virtual server here
      virtual "/Common/internal-vip"

  • Create the authentication per-session access policy - this is a standard APM authentication per-session access policy, and can be anything you need.

  • Create the client-facing external virtual server - this is the application virtual server that the client will communicate with directly.
  • Type: Standard
  • Source:
  • Destination: enter the IP address clients will use to access the application
  • Port: enter the port for this application
  • SSL Profile (Client): select the client SSL profile
  • VLAN and Tunnel Traffic: enabled on the client-facing VLAN
  • Address/Port Translation: disabled
  • Access Profile: APM authentication policy
  • iRule: select the VIP target iRule

That's it. Client traffic will arrive via HTTPS to the external virtual server, get decrypted by the client SSL profile, and then pass to the authentication access profile. The client authenticates, and then the iRule passes the flow to the internal virtual server. The internal virtual server contains the SSL Orchestrator security policy, so decrypted traffic flows to the security services, returns to the BIG-IP, and then flows out to the application servers.

Inbound Authentication through a Connector

The connector profile is at the heart of SSL Orchestrator and how it drives traffic to security devices. But we're going to use a connector here in a novel way. We're going to create a connector that points to an internal virtual server, and that virtual server will contain the SSL Orchestrator security policy (see image above). It is effectively "tee-ing" the traffic out of the original proxy flow, across the security stack, and then back into the flow. The beauty here is that, aside from being slightly more efficient than a VIP target, the connector is re-usable across multiple APM application virtual servers.

It's worth noting here that the traffic to the SSL Orchestrator security policy will have already been decrypted at the APM virtual, so the security policy should not contain rules specific to TLS handling (i.e. SSL bypass). But as we're talking about inbound traffic, it's very likely you won't be needing any of that complexity in the security policy anyway. The objective of the security policy here is to pass decrypted traffic to a service chain of security devices. As with the VIP target approach, first create an SSL Orchestrator "Existing Application" topology. This creates the security policy, services and service chain, without also creating the virtual servers and SSL. Let's build the connector configuration, which includes three things:

  • Create a Service profile - a Service profile essentially defines the type of connector, and how traffic is processed. Here we will be using the F5 Module service. Navigate to Local Traffic :: Profiles :: Other :: Service, and click create. Give it a name and select F5 Module as the Type.

  • Create the internal virtual server - the internal virtual server will host the SSL Orchestrator security policy:
  • Type: Internal
  • HTTP Profile (client): http
  • Service Profile: select the service profile
  • Access Profile: select the SSL Orchestrator profile (ssloDefault_accessProfile)
  • Per-Request Policy: select the SSL Orchestrator security policy

  • Create the connector profile - navigate to Local Traffic :: Profiles :: Other :: Connector, and click create. Simply select the internal virtual server here.

To make all of the above slightly easier, you can simply run the following commands in a BIG-IP shell:

tmsh create ltm profile service sslo-service type f5-module
tmsh create ltm virtual sslo-internal-vip internal profiles add { http sslo-service }
tmsh create ltm profile connector sslo-connector entry-virtual-server sslo-internal-vip

Note that prior to BIG-IP 16.0, the Access Profile selection won't be available in the UI for Internal virtual servers, but you can still add via TMSH:

tmsh create ltm virtual sslo-internal-vip internal profiles add { http sslo-service ssloDefault_accessProfile } per-flow-request-access-policy [name of policy]


tmsh create ltm virtual sslo-internal-vip internal profiles add { http sslo-service ssloDefault_accessProfile } per-flow-request-access-policy

Now just create your APM application virtual server as usual, including client-facing destination IP/port, VLAN, client (and optional server) SSL, APM authentication policy, SNAT (as required), and the application pool. On top of that, attach the connector profile in the field labeled Connector Profile. For each additional APM application virtual server, you can re-use this same connector profile. Client traffic will arrive via HTTPS to the APM virtual server, get decrypted by the client SSL profile, pass through the connector, and then to the authentication profile.

Note that there's one other subtle difference between these methods that I didn't touch on earlier, and that's the order of events. In the VIP target option, authentication is attempted and completed before any traffic passes to the SSL Orchestrator security policy. So the security devices only see application traffic flows. In the connector option, authentication is engaged after the connector, so the security policy and devices see the entire authentication process. In this case, they will see the APM /my.policy redirects and the APM session cookies.


The connector profile presents a lot of really interesting capabilities, even beyond what we've seen here. For example, anywhere that you may have some mutual exclusivity, like APM and ASM policies on a virtual server, you could potentially use the connector attached to an APM virtual to pass traffic to a WAF policy. The connector basically gives you a single "tee" for free in LTM. For multiple connectors, dynamic connector assignment, dynamic decryption, and a robust policy to handle that assignment, you'd use the SSL Orchestrator. In either case, whether using the VIP target or connector approach to inbound authentication with SSL Orchestrator, hopefully you can see some of the immense versatility at your command.

Published Aug 02, 2021
Version 1.0

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