Overview of the IPsec Protocol Suite
The IP security protocol, more commonly known as IPsec, provides security at the network layer. IPsec secures IP datagrams between any two network-layer entities, including hosts and routers. As we will soon describe, many institutions (corporations, government branches, non-profit organizations, and so on) use IPsec to create Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that run over the public Internet.
In the IPsec Protocol Suite, there are two principal protocols: the Authentication Header (AH) protocol and the Encapsulation Security Payload (ESP) protocol.
When a source IPsec entity (typically a host or a router) sends secure datagrams to a destination entity (also a host or a router), it does so with either the AH protocol or the ESP protocol.
The AH protocol provides source authentication and data integrity but does not provide confidentiality. The ESP protocol provides source authentication, data integrity, and confidentiality.
Because confidentiality is often critical for VPN and other IPsec applications, the ESP protocol is much more widely used than the AH protocol. In order to de-mystify IPsec and avoid much of its complication, we will henceforth focus exclusively on the ESP protocol. Readers wanting to learn also about the AH protocol are encouraged to explore the RFCs and other online resources.