Set up OpenConnect VPN Server (ocserv) on Ubuntu 16.04/18.04 with Let’s Encrypt

This tutorial is going to show you how to install OpenConnect VPN server on Ubuntu 16.04/18.04. OpenConnect VPN server, aka ocserv, is an open-source implementation of Cisco AnyConnnect VPN protocol, which is popular among businesses and universities. AnyConnect is a SSL-based VPN protocol that allows individual users to connect to a remote network.

Features of OpenConnect VPN server:

  • Lightweight and fast. In my test, I can watch YouTube in 4k with OpenConnect VPN. YouTube is blocked in my country.
  • Compatible with Cisco AnyConnect client
  • Supports password authentication and certificate authentication
  • Easy to set up

I particularly like that fact that compared to other VPN technologies, it is very easy and convenient for the end-user to use OpenConnect VPN. Whenever I install a Debian-based Linux distro on my computer and want to quickly unblock websites or hide my IP address, I install OpenConnect client and connect to the server with just two lines of commands:

sudo apt install openconnect

sudo openconnect -b vpn.mydomain.com

The gnutls-bin software package provides tools to create your own CA and server certificate, but we will obtain and install Let’s Encrypt certificate. The advantage of using Let’s Encrypt certificate is that it’s free, easier to set up and trusted by VPN client software.

Prerequisites

To follow this tutorial, you will need:

  • A VPS (Virtual Private Server) that can access blocked websites freely (Outside of your country or Internet filtering system). I recommend Vultr. They offer 512M memory high performance KVM VPS for just $2.5 per month, which is perfect for your private VPN server. Once you have a VPS, install Ubuntu 16.04 or Ubuntu 18.04 on it and follow the instructions below.
  • You also need a domain name. I registered my domain name from NameCheap because the price is low and they give whois privacy protection free for life.

Installing OpenConnect VPN Server on Ubuntu 16.04/18.04

Log into your Ubuntu 16.04/18.04 server. Then use apt to install the ocserv package,which is included in Ubuntu repository since 16.04.

sudo apt install ocserv

Once installed, the OpenConnect VPN server is automatically started. You can check its status with:

systemctl status ocserv

Sample output:

 ocserv.service - OpenConnect SSL VPN server
   Loaded: loaded (/lib/systemd/system/ocserv.service; enabled; vendor preset: enabled
   Active: active (running) since Thu 2017-11-30 05:45:07 UTC; 11s ago
     Docs: man:ocserv(8)
 Main PID: 19235 (ocserv-main)
   CGroup: /system.slice/ocserv.service
           ├─19235 ocserv-main                                                  
           └─19242 ocserv-secm 

If it’s not running, then you can start it with:

sudo systemctl start ocserv

By default OpenConnect VPN server listens on TCP and UDP port 443. If it’s being used by web server, then the VPN server can’t be started. We will see how to change the port in OpenConnect VPN configuration file later.

Installing Let’s Encrypt Client (Certbot) on Ubuntu 16.04/18.04 Server

Run the following commands to install the latest version of certbot from the official PPA. software-properties-common is required if you want to install packages from PPA. It may be missing on your Ubuntu server.

sudo apt install software-properties-common

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:certbot/certbot

sudo apt update

sudo apt install certbot

To check version number, run

certbot --version

Sample output:

certbot 0.26.1

Obtaining a TLS Certificate from Let’s Encrypt

Standalone Plugin

If there’s no web server running on your Ubuntu 16.04/18.04 server and you want OpenConnect VPN server to use port 443, then you can use the standalone plugin to obtain TLS certificate from Let’s Encrypt. Run the following command. Don’t forget to set A record for your domain name.

sudo certbot certonly --standalone --preferred-challenges http --agree-tos --email your-email-address -d vpn.example.com

Explanation:

  • certonly: Obtain a certificate but don’t install it.
  • --standalone: Use the standalone plugin to obtain a certificate
  • --preferred-challenges http: Perform http-01 challenge to validate our domain, which will use port 80. By default the standalone plugin will perform tls-sni challenge, which uses port 443. Since port 443 is already used by OpenConnect VPN server, we need to change the default behavior.
  • --agree-tos: Agree to Let’s Encrypt terms of service.
  • --email: Email address is used for account registration and recovery.
  • -d: Specify your domain name.

As you can see the from the following screenshot, I successfully obtained the certificate.

install openconnect ubuntu server

Using webroot Plugin

If your Ubuntu 16.04/18.04 server has a web server listening on port 80 and 443, and you want OpenConnect VPN server to use a different port, then it’s a good idea to use the webroot plugin to obtain a certificate because the webroot plugin works with pretty much every web server and we don’t need to install the certificate in the web server.

First, you need to create a virtual host for vpn.example.com.

Apache

If you are using Apache, then

sudo nano /etc/apache2/sites-available/vpn.example.com.conf

And paste the following lines into the file.

<VirtualHost *:80>        
        ServerName vpn.example.com

        DocumentRoot /var/www/vpn.example.com
</VirtualHost>

Save and close the file. Then create the web root directory.

sudo mkdir /var/www/vpn.example.com

Set www-data (Apache user) as the owner of the web root.

sudo chown www-data:www-data /var/www/vpn.example.com -R

Enable this virtual host.

sudo a2ensite vpn.example.com

Reload Apache for the changes to take effect.

sudo systemctl reload apache2

Once virtual host is created and enabled, run the following command to obtain Let’s Encrypt certificate using webroot plugin.

sudo certbot certonly --webroot --agree-tos --email your-email-address -d vpn.example.com -w /var/www/vpn.example.com

Nginx

If you are using Nginx, then

sudo nano /etc/nginx/conf.d/vpn.example.com.conf

Paste the following lines into the file.

server {
      listen 80;
      server_name vpn.example.com;

      root /var/www/vpn.example.com/;

      location ~ /.well-known/acme-challenge {
         allow all;
      }
}

Save and close the file. Then create the web root directory.

sudo mkdir /var/www/vpn.example.com

Set www-data (Nginx user) as the owner of the web root.

sudo chown www-data:www-data /var/www/vpn.example.com -R

Reload Nginx for the changes to take effect.

sudo systemctl reload nginx

Once virtual host is created and enabled, run the following command to obtain Let’s Encrypt certificate using webroot plugin.

sudo certbot certonly --webroot --agree-tos --email your-email-address -d vpn.example.com -w /var/www/vpn.example.com

Editing OpenConnect VPN Server Configuration File

Edit ocserv configuration file.

sudo nano /etc/ocserv/ocserv.conf

First, configure password authentication. By default, password authentication through PAM (Pluggable Authentication Modules) is enabled, which allows you to use Ubuntu system accounts to login from VPN clients. This behavior can be disabled by commenting out the following line.

auth = "pam[gid-min=1000]"

If we want users to use separate VPN accounts instead of system accounts to login, we need to add the following line to enable password authentication with a password file.

auth = "plain[passwd=/etc/ocserv/ocpasswd]"

After finishing editing this config file, we will see how to use ocpasswd tool to generate the /etc/ocserv/ocpasswd file, which contains a list of usernames and encoded passwords.

Note: Ocserv supports client certificate authentication, but Let’s Encrypt does not issue client certificate. You need to set up your own CA to issue client certificate.

Next, if you don’t want ocserv to use TCP and UDP port 443, then find the following two lines and change the port number. Otherwise leave them alone.

tcp-port = 443
udp-port = 443

Then find the following two lines. We need to change them.

server-cert = /etc/ssl/certs/ssl-cert-snakeoil.pem
server-key = /etc/ssl/private/ssl-cert-snakeoil.key

Replace the default setting with the path of Let’s Encrypt server certificate and server key file.

server-cert = /etc/letsencrypt/live/vpn.example.com/fullchain.pem
server-key = /etc/letsencrypt/live/vpn.example.com/privkey.pem

Then, set the maximal number of clients. Default is 16. Set to zero for unlimited.

max-clients = 16

Set the number of devices a user is able to login from at the same time. Default is 2. Set to zero for unlimited.

max-same-clients = 2

Next, find the following line. Change false to true to enable MTU discovery, which can optimize VPN performance.

try-mtu-discovery = false

After that, set the default domain to vpn.example.com.

default-domain = vpn.example.com

The IPv4 network configuration is as follows by default. This will cause problems because most home routers also set the IPv4 network range to 192.168.1.0/24.

ipv4-network = 192.168.1.0
ipv4-netmask = 255.255.255.0

We can use another private IP address range (10.10.10.0/24) to avoid IP address collision, so change the value of ipv4-network to

ipv4-network = 10.10.10.0

Now uncomment the following line to tunnel all DNS queries via the VPN.

tunnel-all-dns = true

Change DNS server address

dns = 8.8.8.8

Then comment out all the route parameters (add # symbol at the beginning of the following four lines), which will set the server as the default gateway for the clients.

route = 10.10.10.0/255.255.255.0
route = 192.168.0.0/255.255.0.0
route = fef4:db8:1000:1001::/64

no-route = 192.168.5.0/255.255.255.0

Save and close the file  Then restart the VPN server for the changes to take effect.

sudo systemctl restart ocserv

Fixing DTLS Handshake Failure

On Ubuntu 16.04 and Ubuntu 18.04, ocserv daemon ocserv.socket does not respect “listen-host” value from configuration file, which will cause the following error when clients connect to VPN server.

DTLS handshake failed: Resource temporarily unavailable, try again.

To fix this error, we need to edit the ocserv.service file. We first copy the original file in /lib/systemd/system/ directory to /etc/systemd/system/ directory, then edit it, because we don’t want new version of ocserv package to override our modifications. (To learn more about systemd unit files, run man systemd.unit.)

sudo cp /lib/systemd/system/ocserv.service /etc/systemd/system/ocserv.service
sudo nano /etc/systemd/system/ocserv.service

Comment out the following two lines.

Requires=ocserv.socket

Also=ocserv.socket

Save and close the file. Then reload systemd

sudo systemctl daemon-reload

Stop ocserv.socket and disable it.

sudo systemctl stop ocserv.socket

sudo systemctl disable ocserv.socket

Restart ocserv service.

sudo systemctl restart ocserv.service

The ocserv systemd service won’t output any message if it fails to restart, so we need to check the status to make sure it’s actually running.

systemctl status ocserv

Creating VPN Accounts

Now use the ocpasswd tool to generate VPN accounts.

sudo ocpasswd -c /etc/ocserv/ocpasswd username

You will be asked to set a password for the user and the information will be saved to /etc/ocserv/ocpasswd file. To reset password, simply run the above command again.

Enable IP Forwarding

In order for the VPN server to route packets between VPN client and the outside world, we need to enable IP forwarding. Edit sysctl.conf file.

sudo nano /etc/sysctl.conf

Add the following line at the end of this file.

net.ipv4.ip_forward = 1

Save and close the file. Then apply the changes with the below command. The -p option will load sysctl settings from /etc/sysctl.conf file. This command will preserve our changes across system reboots.

sudo sysctl -p

Configure Firewall for IP Masquerading

Find the name of your server’s main network interface.

ip addr

As you can see, it’s named ens3 on my Ubuntu server.

openconnect ubuntu command line

Then run the following command to configure IP masquerading. Replace ens3 with your own network interface name.

sudo iptables -t nat -A POSTROUTING -o ens3 -j MASQUERADE

The above command append (-A) a rule to the end of of POSTROUTING chain of nat table. It will link your virtual private network with the Internet. And also hide your network from the outside world. So the Internet can only see your VPN server’s IP, but can’t see your VPN client’s IP, just like your home router hides your private home network.

Open Port 443 in Firewall

Run the following command to open TCP and UDP port 443. If you configured a different port for ocserv, then open your preferred port.

sudo iptables -I INPUT -p tcp --dport 443 -j ACCEPT

sudo iptables -I INPUT -p udp --dport 443 -j ACCEPT

Preserving Iptables Rules

By default, iptables ruls are lost after reboot. To preserve them, you can switch to root user and then save your rules to a file.

su -

iptables-save > /etc/iptables.rules

Then create a systemd service file so that we can restore iptables rules at boot time.

nano /etc/systemd/system/iptables-restore.service

Put the following lines into the file.

[Unit]
Description=Packet Filtering Framework
Before=network-pre.target
Wants=network-pre.target

[Service]
Type=oneshot
ExecStart=/sbin/iptables-restore /etc/iptables.rules
ExecReload=/sbin/iptables-restore /etc/iptables.rules
RemainAfterExit=yes

[Install]
WantedBy=multi-user.target

Save and close the file. Then reload systemd daemon and enable iptables-restore service.

sudo systemctl daemon-reload

sudo systemctl enable iptables-restore

Remember to save iptables rules to the file after making changes.

How to Install and Use OpenConnect VPN client on Ubuntu 16.04/18.04 Desktop

Run the following command to install OpenConnect VPN command line client on Ubuntu desktop.

sudo apt install openconnect

You can Connect to VPN from the command line like below. -b flag will make it run in the background after connection is established.

sudo openconnect -b vpn.example.com:port-number

You will be asked to enter VPN username and password. If connection is successfully established, you will see the following message.

Got CONNECT response: HTTP/1.1 200 CONNECTED
CSTP connected. DPD 90, Keepalive 32400
Connected tun0 as 192.168.1.139, using SSL
Established DTLS connection (using GnuTLS). Ciphersuite (DTLS1.2)-(RSA)-(AES-256-GCM).

To stop the connection, run:

sudo pkill openconnect

To run the client non-interactively, use the following syntax.

echo -n password | sudo openconnect -b vpn.example.com -u username --passwd-on-stdin

If you want to use Network Manager to manage VPN connection, then you also need to install these packages.

sudo apt install network-manager-openconnect network-manager-openconnect-gnome

If you are successfully connected to the VPN server, but your public IP address doesn’t change, that’s because IP forwarding or IP masquerading is not working. I once had a typo in my iptables command, which caused my computer not being able to browse the Internet.

Auto-Connect on System Startup

To let OpenConnect VPN client automatically connect to the server at boot time, we can create a systemd service unit.

sudo nano /etc/systemd/system/openconnect.service

Put the following lines to the file. Replace the red text.

[Unit]
  Description=OpenConnect VPN Client
  After=network-online.target
  Wants=network-online.target

[Service]
  Type=simple
  ExecStart=/bin/bash -c '/bin/echo -n password | /usr/sbin/openconnect vpn.example.com -u username --passwd-on-stdin'
  ExecStop=/usr/bin/pkill openconnect
  Restart=always
  RestartSec=2

[Install]
  WantedBy=multi-user.target

Save and close the file. Then enable this service so that it will start at boot time.

sudo systemctl enable openconnect.service

Explanation of the file content:

  • After=network-online.target and Wants=network-online.target make this service run after network is up.
  • In reality, this service can still run before network is up. We add Restart=always and RestartSec=2 to restart this service after 2 seconds if this service fails.
  • Systemd doesn’t recognise pipe redirection. So in the ExecStart directive, we wrap the comand in single quotes and run it with the Bash shell.
  • Since OpenConnect VPN client will run as a systemd service, which runs in the background, there’s no need to add -b flag to the openconnect command.

OpenConnect GUI Client for Windows and MacOS

They can be downloaded from OpenConnect GUI Github Page.

Speed

OpenConnect VPN is pretty fast. I can use it to watch 4k videos on YouTube.

ocserv letsencrypt

Auto-Renew Let’s Encrypt Certificate

Edit root user’s crontab file.

sudo crontab -e

Add the following line at the end of the file. It’s necessary to restart ocserv service for the VPN server to pick up new certificate and key file.

@daily certbot renew --quiet && systemctl restart ocserv

Optimization

OpenConnect by default uses TLS over UDP protocol (DTLS) to achieve faster speed, but UDP can’t provide reliable transmission. TCP is slower than UDP but can provide reliable transmission. One optimization tip I can give you is to disable DTLS, use standard TLS (over TCP), then enable TCP BBR to boost TCP speed.

To disable DTLS, comment out (add # symbol at the beginning) the following line in ocserv configuration file.

udp-port = 443

Save and close the file. Then restart ocserv service.

sudo systemctl restart ocserv.service

To enable TCP BBR, please check out the following tutorial.

In my test, standard TLS with TCP BBR enabled is two times faster than DTLS.

Troubleshooting

Note that if you are using OpenVZ VPS, make sure you enable the TUN virtual networking device in VPS control panel.

If you encounter any problem, then check OpenConnect VPN server log.

sudo journalctl -xe -u ocserv.service

I found that if I change port 443 to a different port, the great firewall of China will block this VPN connection. Sometimes the speed drops to around 1Mbps, probably due to the fact that the great firewall of China is interrupting VPN connections because if I use Shadowsocks proxy on the same server, I can watch YouTube at 50Mbps.

Let OpenConnect VPN server and web server use port 443 at the same time

Normally a port can only be used by one process. However, we can use HAproxy (High Availability Proxy) and SNI (Server Name Indication) to make ocserv and Apache/Nginx use port 443 at the same time.

First, edit ocserv configuration file.

sudo nano /etc/ocserv/ocserv.conf

Uncomment the following line. This will allow ocserv to obtain the client IP address instead of HAproxy IP address.

listen-proxy-proto = true

Then find the following line.

#listen-host = [IP|HOSTNAME]

Change it to

listen-host = 127.0.0.1

This will make ocserv listen on 127.0.0.1 because later HAproxy will need to listen on the public IP address. Save and close the file. Then restart ocserv.

sudo systemctl restart ocserv

Next, we also need to make the web server listen on localhost only, instead of listening on public IP address. If you use Nginx, edit the server block file.

sudo nano /etc/nginx/conf.d/www.example.com.conf

In the SSL server block, find the following directive.

listen 443 ssl;

Change it to

listen 127.0.0.2:443 ssl;

This time we make it listen on 127.0.0.2:443 because 127.0.0.1:443 is already taken by ocserv. Save and close the file. Then restart Nginx.

sudo systemctl restart nginx

Now install HAproxy.

sudo apt install haproxy

Edit configuration file.

sudo nano /etc/haproxy/haproxy.cfg

Copy and paste the following lines to the end of the file. Replace 12.34.56.78 with the public IP address of your server. Replace vpn.example.com with the domain name used by ocserv and www.example.com with the domain name used by your web server.

frontend https
   bind 12.34.56.78:443
   mode tcp
   tcp-request inspect-delay 5s
   tcp-request content accept if { req_ssl_hello_type 1 }

   use_backend ocserv if { req_ssl_sni -i vpn.example.com }
   use_backend nginx if { req_ssl_sni -i www.example.com }
   use_backend nginx if { req_ssl_sni -i example.com }

   default_backend ocserv

backend ocserv
   mode tcp
   option ssl-hello-chk
   server ocserv 127.0.0.1:443 send-proxy-v2

backend nginx
   mode tcp
   option ssl-hello-chk
   server nginx 127.0.0.2:443 check

Save and close the file. Then restart HAproxy.

sudo systemctl restart haproxy

In the configuration above, we utilized the SNI (Server Name Indication) feature in TLS to differentiate VPN traffic and normal HTTPS traffic.

  • When vpn.example.com is in the TLS Client Hello, HAProxy redirect traffic to the ocserv backend.
  • When www.example.com is in the TLS Client Hello, HAProxy redirect traffic to the nginx backend.
  • If the client doesn’t specify the server name in TLS Client Hello, then HAproxy will use the default backend (ocserv).

You can test this setup with the openssl tool. First, run the following command multiple times.

echo | openssl s_client -connect your-server-IP:443 | grep subject

We didn’t specify server name in the above command, so HAproxy will always pass the request to the default backend (ocserv), and its certificate will be sent to the client. Next, run the following two commands.

echo | openssl s_client -servername www.example.com -connect your-server-IP:443 | grep subject

echo | openssl s_client -servername vpn.example.com -connect your-server-IP:443 | grep subject

Now we specified the server name in the commands, so HAproxy will pass request accordingly. Note that the Cisco AnyConnect App doesn’t support TLS SNI, so it’s better to set ocserv as the default backend in HAProxy configuration file.

When renewing Let’s Encrypt certificate for your website, it’s recommended that you use the http-01 chanllenge instead of tls-sni-01 chanllege, because HAproxy is listening on port 443 of the public IP address, so it can interfere with the renew process.

sudo certbot renew --preferred-challenges http-01

Fixing HAproxy Error

If your Nginx web server doesn’t show up in your browser and you see the following messages in haproxy log (/var/log/haproxy.log)

Server nginx/nginx is DOWN, reason: Socket error, info: "Connection reset by peer

backend nginx has no server available!

Layer6 invalid response

It maybe because your backend Nginx web server is using a TLS certificate with OCSP must staple extension. Nginx doesn’t send the OCSP staple information on the first HTTP request. To make it work, be sure to add a resolver in your Nginx virtual host configuration like below.

{
     ....
     ssl_trusted_certificate /etc/letsencrypt/live/www.example/chain.pem;
     ssl_stapling on;
     ssl_stapling_verify on;

    resolver 8.8.8.8;
    ....
}

Save and close the file. Then restart Nginx.

sudo systemctl restart nginx

Also consider removing health check for the backend server in HAproxy. So change

server nginx 127.0.0.2:443 check

To

server nginx 127.0.0.2:443

Save and close the file. Then restart HAproxy.

sudo systemctl restart haproxy

Upgrading to the latest version of HAproxy can help too. Previously when I was using HAproxy 1.6 from the default Ubuntu repository, the log file didn’t show much information. To install the latest version, run the following commands:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:vbernat/haproxy-1.8

sudo apt update

sudo apt install haproxy

That’s it! I hope this tutorial helped you install and configure OpenConnect VPN on Ubuntu 16.04 and Ubuntu 18.04. As always, if you found this post useful, then subscribe to our free newsletter.

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11 Responses to “Set up OpenConnect VPN Server (ocserv) on Ubuntu 16.04/18.04 with Let’s Encrypt

  • Ramin Farmani
    6 months ago

    I follow your instruction but still receive this error on client

    DTLS handshake failed: Resource temporarily unavailable, try again.

    what else I can do

  • “I found that if I change port 443 to a different port, the Internet filtering system of my country will block this VPN connection.”
    So what is your country?

  • Ubuntu 16 has and old version of ocserv.
    It’s version (0.10.11-1build1) and there are a lot of improvements since that version in the current one (0.12.2)
    Now I’m working on compiling it to work on ubuntu, but seems like ocserv is more compatible with debian. Still I got some errors if I want to run it as service using systemctl.

    Is this the only vpn working in china? Microsoft SSTP is working? OpenVPN port 443 working?

    • I now only use self-hosted OpenConnect VPN and Shadowsocks proxy in China. They are very stable.

      I used OpenVPN before with a VPN provider. It worked but can be easily interrupted by the great firewall. I have never used Microsoft SSTP.

  • also I wanted to tell you that the email your system sends, is going to spam folder.

    • My email server complies with all legitimate email-sending practices. It takes time to build a good email reputation. Microsoft is very strict on accepting emails. Initially the emails are likely to go into spam folder. If many people mark my emails as not spam, then my emails are more likely to go to inbox.

  • Shadowsocks proxy is not blocked in China? You can make OpenVPN connects to it and then it can work without being filtered by the great firewall?

  • andrescol
    3 months ago

    Greetings, friend. great tutorial. I stayed here: sudo openconnect -b vpn.example.com:port-number. When the command is issued, the message:

    Got inappropriate HTTP CONNECT response: HTTP/1.1 401 Unauthorized
    Creating SSL connection failed

    What I can do? tks

  • reza kazemi
    1 month ago

    thank you very much

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