I’ve long been interested in using a VPN to access out-of-country content as well as to secure whatever nefarious activities that I may be up to. Not that I have anything to hide but it’s no one’s business what I do.
I’d toyed with Tor back when I installed Google Voice. It works but is dog slow. My interest in this subject was recently rekindled when I read this article. I found myself drawn to Private Internet Access (PIA) and it’s promises of low cost and unlimited bandwidth coupled with no throttling. I signed up for a monthly plan with the intention of either canceling it if I didn’t like it or switching to a full-year subscription if I did.
Signing up with PIA was easy enough. You can download client software that runs on your individual machines if you wish, but since I have a pfSense firewall, I knew I should be able to channel all traffic through PIA over VPN so I wouldn’t have to install any additional software. Here are the config steps for pfSense 2.0.1.
To start with though, make note of your current IP address as evidenced by http://ipchicken.com. We want to confirm that your IP actually changes when we’re all done.
pfSense Config Files
SSH to your pfSense server and cd to /etc. Create a file “openvpn-password.txt” with two lines, one for your PIA userid, the other for your password.
You also need to download this file from PIA and extract its ca.crt to /etc.
Set 0600 permissions on both of these files e.g. “chmod 0600 /etc/ca.crt”. You can exit SSH at this point.
In pfSense’s webConfigurator, go to System and select Cert Manager. Add a new CA, call it something like “Internal CA” using method “Create an internal Certificate Authority”. Fill in the Distinguished Name pieces below as you see fit.
Now click on Certificates and add a new certificate using “Create an internal certificate”. Call it something like “OpenVPN” and select type “Certificate Authority”.
Go to VPN, select OpenVPN and click the Client tab. Add a new client. Leave all defaults except the following:
- Server host or address: enter your desired PIA host e.g. us-texas.privateinternetaccess.com
- Check “Infinitely resolve server”
- Give it a meaningful name e.g. “Private Internet Access OpenVPN”
- Clear “TLS Authentication” check box
- Make sure the CA and Cert you created are selected
- Select “BF-CBC (128-bit)” for the encryption algorithm
- Check “Compress tunnel packets using the LZO algorithm”
- Enter the following for Advanced at the bottom:
auth-user-pass /etc/openvpn-password.txt ca /etc/ca.crt
Click Save to write your config and the OpenVPN service should start. You can click the blue “S” just under the Help menu to confirm that its status is “up”. Also check the log (blue “L”) to make sure there aren’t any errors.
Go to Interfaces and select (assign). Click the add button. A new entry called OPTn should appear with “ovpnc1” as the port. Click Save. Now you can enable your new interface. Go to Interfaces and select OPTn. Simply click Enable and Save. Note that you can rename the interface if you want to something like “VPN” but it’s not necessary.
Restart the OpenVPN service so everything is in sync. Go to Status and select Services, then click the restart button beside the OpenVPN service. Ensure that the OPTn gateway has an IP. Go to System: Routing and make sure the Gateway has an IP address.
At this point the OpenVPN service is running but you aren’t using it. You may not even be able to access the Internet in this state. While there’s a lot you can do to tailor your firewall access, here’s a quick way to route all your outgoing traffic through your new VPN connection.
Go to Firewall and select NAT, then click the Outbound tab. Select any existing rules and delete them. Select the “Automatic” option at the top and click Save, then select “Manual” and click Save. You should see a new set of rules which you can activate by clicking Apply Changes.
There’s lots more that could be done to pfSense to tighten up your security but this is a starting point.
One client of mine requires me to log in to their Cisco VPN. Unfortunately this does not work through the VPN connection I just set up. It’s easy to force connections to their VPN server over the WAN interface, bypassing our VPN, by defining a new route as follows:
- Go to System and select Routing. Click Routes and create a new route.
- Enter the IP address of the remote host, in this case my client’s VPN IP address. Make sure the WAN gateway is selected and enter an appropriate name.
- Click Save then Apply Changes.
Attempts to connect to this IP address from any device on your network will bypass the VPN and go directly to that IP address. Too easy!
At this point you should have all your traffic going through the PIA VPN. You can confirm this by refreshing your ipchicken screen which should now show a different IP address.
The biggest concern I had with using a VPN like this was the performance penalty. I used http://speedtest.net before and after and there’s certainly a considerable penalty to be paid, but it’s not as bad as I had feared. I have 100-megabit service and without the VPN connection realize a max throughput of about 93 Mbps. Running the same test WITH the VPN enabled cut that in half. Fortunately, 40+ Mbps is still plenty fast for most of my needs. I have to wonder if the fact that my pfSense is running as a virtual machine plays much of a role here since there’s a whole lot of encryption going on. Perhaps I’d be better off using dedicated hardware, but that’s an experiment for another day.
I may give a few other services a try to see if they offer improved throughput. So far though I am impressed with Private Internet Access.
NOTE: These instructions are for pfSense 1.2.3. For 2.X versions, please see the additional requirements in this article, specifically relating to a bug in older versions of pfSense. Please see the first quote there for more information.