How to set up an OpenVPN server

Vincent Danen shows you how to set up OpenVPN and takes you through some of the tricky configuration steps to get you up and running quickly.

Having a virtual private network affords a lot of convenience, particularly for those who want or need to access a remote network from a different location, such as connecting to a work network from home, or vice versa. With the availability of 3G on the road, or wireless hotspots everywhere, being able to connect, securely, to a remote private network from anywhere is ideal.

OpenVPN is one of the most reliable VPN setups around. It's fully open source, it's supported on Linux, Windows, and OS X, it's robust, and it's secure. Unfortunately, configuration can be a bit of a pain, so in a series of upcoming tips, I aim to get you up and running quickly.

To begin, you will need to have OpenVPN installed on the server or system you wish to use as a VPN end-point. Most distributions include OpenVPN; for the server setup, I am using OpenVPN 2.0.9 as provided by the RPMForge repository for CentOS 5.

The first part of this series concentrates on the server, while the second and third parts will concentrate on the configuration of Linux and OS X clients, respectively. So without further ado, let's get our hands dirty.

To begin with, you need to copy some files from the OpenVPN docs directory (typically provided in /usr/share/doc/openvpn-[version]) to create certificates:

# cd /usr/share/doc/openvpn-2.0.9
# cp -av easy-rsa /etc/openvpn/
# cd /etc/openvpn/easy-rsa/
# vim vars

In the vars file, edit the KEY_* entries at the bottom of the file, such as KEY_COUNTRY, KEY_ORG, KEY_EMAIL, etc. These will be used to build the OpenSSL certificates. Next, it's time to initialize the PKI:

# . ./vars
# sh clean-all
# sh build-ca
# sh build-key-server server

For the above, and the below client certificates, you can enter pretty much anything for the "Common Name" field, however there is a certain logic to use: "OpenVPN-CA" when generating the Certificate Authority, "server" when generating the server certificate, and "client" or the name of the specific client system for the client certificates. Those certificates are generated with:

# sh build-key client1
# sh build-key client2

The next step is to generate the Diffie Hellman parameters for the server:

# sh build-dh

When this is done, you will have a number of files in the keys/ subdirectory. At this point, for the clients, you want to copy the appropriate files to them securely (i.e., via SSH or on a USB stick); the files the clients need are ca.crt, client1.crt, and client1.key (or whatever you named the files when you generated them with the build-key script).

Next, create the OpenVPN server configuration file. To get up and running quickly, copy one of the example config files:

# cd /etc/openvpn/
# cp /usr/share/doc/openvpn-2.0.9/sample-config-files/server.conf .
# vim server.conf

The aim here is to get this going right away, so we won't examine each of the options in detail. The primary things you want to do are to uncomment the "user" and "group" directives, to make the openvpn process run as the unprivileged "nobody" user. You may also want to change the "local" directive to make it listen to one specific IP address. This would be the IP to which your firewall is forwarding UDP port 1194. As well, you will want to set the "client-to-client" directive to enable it, and also set the "push" directives for route and DNS options. What follows is a comment-stripped server.conf, as an example:

port 1194
proto udp
dev tun
ca ca.crt
cert server.crt
key server.key  # This file should be kept secret
dh dh1024.pem
ifconfig-pool-persist ipp.txt
push "route"
push "dhcp-option DNS"
push "dhcp-option DOMAIN"
keepalive 10 120
user nobody
group nobody
status openvpn-status.log
verb 3

Finally, copy the required keys and certificates that you previously generated:

# cd  /etc/openvpn/
# cp easy-rsa/keys/ca.crt .
# cp easy-rsa/keys/server.{key,crt} .
# cp easy-rsa/keys/dh1024.pem  .

And, finally, start the OpenVPN server:

# /etc/init.d/openvpn start

To get routing set up properly on the server so that remote clients, when they connect, can reach more than just the server itself, you will need to enable IP forwarding. This can be done by the following:

# echo 1 > /proc/sys/net/ipv4/ip_forward

You can also do it by editing /etc/sysctl.conf and adding the following (this is a good thing to do as it will ensure that packet-forwarding persists across reboots):

net.ipv4.ip_forward = 1

You also want to ensure that packets going back to the client system are routed properly. This can be done by changing the route on the gateway of the server's network to route packets to the client network ( through the OpenVPN server (if the server happens to be the gateway as well, you don't have to do anything additional to accomplish this). How this is done largely depends on the operating system of the gateway.

Once this is done, you should be able to ping any machine on the server's LAN from the client, and be able to ping the client from any machine on the server's LAN. For instance, from a machine on the server LAN (not the server):

% traceroute
traceroute to (, 64 hops max, 52 byte packets
 1  fw (  0.848 ms  0.342 ms  0.249 ms
 2  server (  0.214 ms  0.231 ms  0.243 ms
 3  server (  0.199 ms !Z  0.443 ms !Z  0.396 ms !Z
% ping
PING ( 56 data bytes
64 bytes from icmp_seq=0 ttl=63 time=17.540 ms

And from the client:

# traceroute
traceroute to (, 30 hops max, 40 byte packets
 1 (  22.963 ms  27.311 ms  27.317 ms
 2 (  27.297 ms !X  27.294 ms !X  27.269 ms !X
# ping
PING ( 56(84) bytes of data.
64 bytes from icmp_seq=1 ttl=62 time=515 ms

The setting up of OpenVPN clients will be the subject of two tips in the next week. I've made the assumption that the client is correctly configured here, simply to illustrate how it should look when it all works together, but in the next parts of this series we will get into more depth with the client configuration.

Download the PDF, "How to set up OpenVPN server and create Linux and Mac OS X clients."


Vincent Danen works on the Red Hat Security Response Team and lives in Canada. He has been writing about and developing on Linux for over 10 years and is a veteran Mac user.


I still prefer VPN apps after having my own OpenVPN setup because they are simpler d easier to manage. I found a good provider through and it works just as well.


... for the highly useful post and the ensuing comments that proved just as well. Outdoor Garden Lights|Outdoor Lights|Portable Flood Lights


open vpn are not working. i need help & how to start online vpn store/business live?


While running sh clean-all it's throwing the error you must define KEY_DIR


Thanks for the article, Vincent! We've been having trouble getting our linux users connected to our Cisco small business "all-in-one" FW, router, VPN. So I was tackling a project to stand up an OpenVPN server in our DMZ. Couple of quick noob questions: 1. I assume the OpenVPN server would not need two NIC's (ie. one on the DMZ, one on the Corp LAN), and that once a client establishes a tunnel, it routes via that tunnel to the Corp LAN (assuming FW rules between the DMZ port and Private port are established). 2. I plan this to be a single purpose, stand alone box running OpenVPN. Is there a thin, secure distro you'd recommend? (Yes, I know you work for RedHat :> )

Marc Erickson
Marc Erickson

Starting with "To begin with, you need to copy some files from the OpenVPN docs directory (typically provided in /usr/share/doc/openvpn-[version]) to create certificates:" This article assumes a level of familiarity with Linux that many readers here will not have - this being a Windows-centric site. How about explaing it for absolute newbies to Linux?


We've been using it for about 5 years to allow our Windows/Mac/Linux clients to connect to the LAN over the internet. It's pretty much rock-solid and has required very, very little maintenance as far as I can remember. We run it as a VM on Ubuntu Server LTS, it requires little in the way of memory or disk resources. It takes a little setting up but once it's working you rarely need to touch it except to set up new users. For anyone wanting a totally free VPN solution I heartily recommend it. The only thing I would add is that I believe it can be set up on a Windows server as well as Linux although I haven't tried that.


Excellent Article, looking for help in setting up Open source VPN server and the article published at just the right time. Thank you for sharing. Rakesh Dhyani


I have openvpn running behind a verizon fios router. Remotely, I can access the network resources just fine, but if I push the redirect-gateway option and DNS servers in order to route my entire connection through the VPN, with the routing set up on the Fios router, I cannot get to the Internet. So all I can get working is split-tunneling. Anyone else have any experience with Verizon Fios and openvpn?


A topology view would be very helpful for this. It is one thing to have the text statements like you do, which I feel are good. Adding a drawing makes it visual and far more helpful to many of us.' Thank you. R, -Joe Wulf


And it is a nifty vpn solution. A while back I tested site-to-site with openvpn and ipsec on openbsd and, using the same encryption algorithms, ipsec outperformed it with regards to latency. However, it didn't blow it out of the water. I still use the baked in ipsec on openbsd for site-to-site but all road warrior vpn's are openvpn. I've never trusted all the appliances available. Call it paranoia but I always have that nagging, "What might they be up to" feeling.


The free Untangle Firewall/UTM has Open VPN built into it. Even if that's the only thing you use Untangle for, it's pretty simple. Just add a user and email them the OpenVPN executable or the key config file. I know there are a few other firewall distros like pfSense that also have OpenVPN built in.


I run in it the DMZ and just just static routes to route through to the LAN side. And I run it on the server edition of Ubuntu LTS but any distro of your choice will do, it shouldn't make any difference unless you're particularly into extra security.


You need to get familiar with Linux first. It's not actually that hard if you know a bit about how the command line works on Windows, or even better if you can use a Mac. Try downloading the client version of Ubuntu and have a play around. Alternatively there is a detailed' how to' on the OpenVPN website: Finally, you could also start by downloading a VM appliance to get started:


I am in the midst of replacing a brand new RV120W Cisco Small Business router because it is failing on all levels of reliability. One of the main reasons why I purchased it was the Quick VPN client that came with it. Untangle can also be used as a router correct? And does it configure the Open VPN exe for you based on your pre-defined settings? Would it be just as easy to setup for the end user as the Quick VPN client was?


I now use Teamviewer, I've changed to it recently just because it has zero setup and it has vpn/remote/presentation and its secure. Open ssh/vpn and cygwin are kings at what they do, but only if you have patience and some knowledge at what you are doing. Whereas Teamviewer just runs from an exe without even installing it in seconds. Take a look at the program and you will get what i mean.


OpenVPN is pre-installed in OpenVPN and Endian Firewall. You can also use OpenVPN on TCP port 443 so that it passes through most Corporate Firewall rules. You can also set it up on UDP 53 if you want to pass through most WiFi hot spots...


This works very well and is easy to setup.