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Learn about FreeRADIUS

What is FreeRADIUS?

FreeRADIUS is an application which determines whether an end-user device should be allowed access to a network (authentication) and particular network services (authorisation). It can also be used to collect data on a user/device’s usage of a network and its services (accounting). An application which carries out these functions is often referred to as an ‘AAA’ server.

The first version of FreeRADIUS was released in 1999. GovWifi uses version 3 and this document refers to version 3 unless explicitly stated otherwise.

FreeRADIUS is open source and can be found on Github.

What is RADIUS?

RADIUS stands for Remote Authentication Dial In User Service. It is a network protocol for communicating between devices and designed specifically for sending authentication, authorisation and accounting requests and responses. It also specifies how such messages should be handled and is therefore more than simply a communications protocol.

RADIUS was introduced in 1991 to allow internet service providers to authenticate network access requests centrally.

RADIUS is a binary protocol. This means that interpreting messages requires a dictionary file to give meaning to each data item. This is in contrast to e.g. JSON where field names/keys (as well as data) are transmitted in plain text.

FreeRADIUS implements the RADIUS protocol.

The ITEF ‘standards track’ RFC for the RADIUS protocol is 2856. There are many other RFCs covering extensions to the RADIUS protocol - a list can be found here

How does FreeRADIUS work?

FreeRADIUS does not communicate directly with end-user devices. Devices seeking network access do so via a Network Access Server (NAS) which in turn sends a combination of data provided by the end-user device (e.g. credentials or a certificate) and data held by the NAS itself (e.g. its MAC address, a shared secret). In the case of GovWifi the ‘NAS’ can be a WiFi access point or a server managing several access points. GovWifi does not supprt other types of non-wifi network access, though FreeRADIUS supports many.

FreeRADIUS is a highly mature, sophisticated piece of software but what it does in principle is simple. It processes messages in line with policies.

For example, a mobile phone seeks to access GovWifi via an access point. The access point transmits an ‘Access-Request’ message, the format of which is determined by the RADIUS specification. FreeRADIUS passess the message data through a set of stages, called ‘sections’. In each section, it carries out one of more actions - determined by ‘policies’ - which may change the data. Simultaneously, it begins building up data to include in a response message.

One all the stages are complete FreeRADIUS discards the incoming message data and sends the final, complete response message back to the NAS. In the example of a mobile phone seeking authentication, the response message will either be an ‘Access-Accept’ or ‘Access-Reject’ message.

It is then up to the NAS to act on any response messages. FreeRADIUS does not enforce accept/reject messages or even check whether they have been given effect. It has no knowledge of the state of any connection between an end user device and the NAS.

FreeRADIUS is highly flexible. It can be configured to carry out a large range of actions as part of each of its sections, for example checking whether the credentials sent in an Access-Request message are in a database or directory, logging all or part of the request/response messages, writing accounting information to a database or running external programs. This activity is determined by policies. The result of any of this activity is always the creation or updating of message data as it flows through the sections. It’s input is always a message and its output is always a message. It’s up to a NAS or other hardware/software to do something useful with the response message.

The FreeRADIUS technical guide provides a more complete summary of what the server does.

FreeRADIUS is (mostly) stateless

The RADIUS protocol also specifies an ‘Accept-Challenge’ message - i.e. “I need more information”. These are an integral part of the EAP-MSCHAPv2/PEAPv0 authentication method used by GovWifi, which involves the shuttling of several messages back and forth while a TLS-based connection is negotiated.

With the exception of this brief exchange of messages, the server is stateless. Even then, incoming request messages are discarded each time a response is sent, with some required data needed throughout the whole exchange kept in a special ‘session-state’ data structure.

The term used in the context of FreeRADIUS for its internal data structures such as ‘session-state’ is ‘attribute lists’

Once the whole exchange has been completed and a final Access-Accept or Access-Reject message is sent, the data in the session-state attribute list is discarded.

Processing Sections

There are ten stages or ‘sections’ through which messages flow within the FreeRADIUS application but GovWifi is concerned with just three:

  • authorize
  • authenticate
  • post-auth

A request message does not necessarily pass through all three sections. For example, if it is determined that a request should be rejected in one section an Access-Reject message could be sent immediately, without further processing.

Messages will in some cases pass through the remaining seven sections (session, preacct, accounting, pre-proxy, post-proxy, recv-coa and send-coa) but GovWifi’s FreeRADIUS servers are configured to take no action in each of these sections.

The work carried out in each processing section is specified in a block sharing the name of the relevant section either in the ‘root’ of the main config file or a ‘server’ section in that file, if using virtual servers (see below).

The authorize Section

The name ‘authorize’ for the first section is historical - it is the first part of the authentication process and the FreeRADIUS technical guide says it is better described as ‘pre-authentication’.

Passwords are retrieved from any database, directory or file in the authorize section.

This section also determines the authentication type being attempted and adds this to the ‘control’ attribute list.

The authenticate Section

The authenticate section is broken down into a number of subsections. Only one subsection is executed per request, determined by the Auth-Type attrribute found in the control attribute list.

Like processing sections, these subsections call one or more modules to handle authentication.

The post-auth Section

The post-auth stage takes place once any other processing is complete, making it a useful place to log any information about the request/response.

The post-auth section is run before any response message is sent.

Care must be taken when calling modules or external programs within the post-auth section. If one of these fails and the error is not explicitly caught using a redundant block, an Access-Reject message will be sent regardless of the validity of the request being handled.

More on processing sections

More information on processing sections can be found on the Network Radius Wiki.


Each processing section calls one or more modules. For example, the authorize section can call any of several modules which look for the credentials provided in the request message in a database or directory. In the case of GovWifi, the REST module is called, which communicates with the GovWifi authentication API. This, in turn, checks the credentials against the users database and sends a response to FreeRADIUS.

As each module is called it may (or may not) create or update message data before providing a return code to the processing section. Depending on the return code the section might carry on processing (by calling another module), hand off to the next section or trigger transmission of the response message.

Each module has its own configuration file in the ‘sites-available’ directory and can be enabled by creating a symlink to that file in the ‘sites-enabled’ directory. The modules are thoroughly documented through comments in the the default configuration files. Online documentation, including the wiki is a bit more hit and miss.

FreeRADIUS 3.0 comes with over 60 modules, each of which can be called by one or sometimes several processing sections. Additional modules can be installed separately.

When a module can be called by more than one processing section, the work it carries out on behalf of that section is specified in a block with the same name. E.g. the REST module file has (amongst others) an ‘authorize’ block and a ‘post-auth’ block.

Attribute Lists

As each section and module does its work, several ‘lists’ of attributes are created or modified. These contain data from the incoming message and data which is used to populate the outgoing message. They might also contain temporary data used to manage the work of the server. There are four lists useful in the context of GovWifi:

  • request: Contains attributes that were received in the request.
  • reply: Contains the attributes that will be sent in any reply.
  • control: Contains internal attributes that are used by the server as a temporary storage area. None of these attributes are sent in a request or reply.
  • session-state: the more complex authentication methods - such as EAP-MSCHAPv2 used by GovWifi - involve the exchange of several messages between FreeRADIUS and the NAS before a final Access-Accept or Access-Request message is sent. This list contains temporary data which is needed throughout the whole exchange process. This is an exception to the general principle that FreeRADIUS does not maintain state between requests.

While the FreeRADIUS documentation refers to these as ‘lists’ they have more in common with a hash/dictionary/struct than a list or array.

For a full explanation of attribute lists see the FreeRADIUS technical guide.

The contents of all attribute lists can be printed to the terminal when the server is run in debugging mode by adding debug_all to the post-auth section of either the main config or the config for a virtual server server section.

Virtual Servers

FreeRADIUS 2 introduced the concept of ‘vitual servers’. From a configuration point of view, virtual servers simply represent separate sets of policies. For example, a FreeRADIUS configuration could specify two virtual servers, each of which handles messages from different IP addresses/ranges and applies different sets of policies.

Each virtual server is configured in a ‘server’ block. All server blocks can be included in the main configuration file or in separate files which the main config file imports with an $INCLUDE directive. Each server block has its own set of authorize, authenticate (etc) blocks which confgure the processing sections for that server.

GovWifi makes use of two virtual servers, in line with the default FreeRADIUS configuration: ‘default’ and ‘inner-tunnel’. The latter handles requests which have been encrypted in a TLS tunnel using an EAP tunnel, in the case of GovWifi EAP-MSCHAPv2 (also known as PEAPv0 or PEAP-MSCHAPv2).

The main configuration file is radiusd.conf, in the root of the configuration directory.

The configuration directory is /etc/raddb for all Linux distributions with the exception of Debian and its derivatives, where it is /etc/freeradius/.

The entire configuration can be put in this file and that was the way FreeRADIUS 1 was designed to work. Since version 2, the configuration is by default split across separate files for virtual servers, modules and important configuration elements such as allowed IP addresses (clients.conf). All of these are imported into the main configuration file with an $INCLUDE directive.

Individual config files or whole directories of config files can be imported with $INCLUDE. In either case, using $INCLUDE is equivalent to copying and pasting the contents of the included file(s) at the point where it is used.

The FreeRADIUS config directory contains the following sub-directories:

  • certs: contains any certificates used as part of TLS/EAP based authentication
  • mods-available: contains the main configuration files for all installed modules. Much of the FreeRADIUS documentation refers to these files as ‘modules’ themselves though in reality they specify the work each module will undertake
  • mods-config: additional configuration files for modules. Not all modules needs or have them. >The directory structure within mods-config reflects the namespacing used within FreeRADIUS’s main config, e.g. mods-config/files/authorize includes configuration for the ‘files’ module which is used in that module’s ‘authorize’ block.
  • mods-enabled: contains symlinks to files in mods-available. The existence of a symlink is what enables the module. Around 30 of the modules in mods-available have symlinks in mods-enabled by default (and are therefore enabled by default). The entire contents of the directory are imported into the main config with an $INCLUDE directive. >Instead of creating a symlink to a module you want enabled, you can replace the symlink of the relevant module with a fresh configuration file. This is useful when trying things out because it avoids replacing the default files in ‘mods-available’. These contain useful documentation but can be a headache to edit because of the sheer number of comments.
  • policy.d: contains policies, described using Unlang, which determine how the server processes messages. For example, policy.d/debug determines what information to print to the terminal when the server is run in debug mode. >It’s important to note that the policy.d directory is not the only place containing policies. Policies are anything written in Unlang, throughout the configuration files, which describes how data should be processed as it flows through the processing sections.
  • sites-available: contains configuration files for virtual servers. By default, a separate file is used for each virtual server, though this isn’t essential. FreeRADIUS 3 comes with configurations for around 25 virtual servers.
  • sites-enabled: contains symlinks to one or more of the files in sites-available. As with the module files, it’s the existence of a symlink which enables the virtual server. The default FreeRADIUS 3 configuration enables the default and inner-tunnel virtual servers which are also the main two used by GovWifi. > The GovWifi FreeRADIUS configuration also enables the status virtual server. A NAS can use a status request to check that a FreeRADIUS server is ready to handle access requests and the status virtual server responds to these.

Policies and Unlang

‘Policies’ determine how attribute lists, and therefore messages, are processed as they flow through the server’s processing sections.

Policies are written in ‘Unlang’ which has some features of a progamming language but is intentionally designed not to be a substitute for a full, general-purpose language (hence the name). The Unlang man page has more detail.

Attributes in Unlang

Data relating to particular incoming/outgoing messages is stored in ‘attributes’ which are the closest thing Unlang has to runtime variables. ‘Variables’ (see below) relate only to configuration data and are read only once, when the server starts.

Unlang can retrieve and update attributes in attribute lists as well as perform simple logic, such as testing conditions. Attributes cannot be created at runtime and must exist in the server’s dictionary file.

Attributes can be retrieved using %{…} notation. Attribute lists are referenced with “&” E.g. "%{&request:User-Name}" will retrieve the User-Name attribute from the request list.

The RADIUS protocol only allows one byte for each attribute key, meaning a total of 256 possible attributes. The small number of available attributes means arbitrary attributes cannot simply be created in Unlang as one would do in a general purpose language.

Local attributes - attributes which are never transmitted between FreeRADIUS and a NAS - can be used if they are added to the dictionary file and given a key value of greater than 255. By convention a key value of >= 3000 is used. See comments in the default FreeRADIUS dictionary file. The dictionary file is read once, when the server starts, so this does not eliminate the restriction that attributes/variables cannot be declared at runtime (only assigned).

Care should be taken with strings. Strings in single quotes, double quotes, backticks and no quotes are allowed but behave differently (e.g. use of double quotes and backticks allows variable expansion/string interpolation but single quotes and unquoted strings do not.

If a string is included in backticks it is treated as a shell command, with the output treated as a string. This can be very useful for debugging, e.g. calling echo and passing it an attribute.

Variables in Unlang

Variables hold configuration data, not data relating to access requests or responses. They play a similar role to #define directives or constants in general purpose languages. More information can be found here.

Freeradius variables are references with "${...}" notation. Environment variables can be referenced with "$ENV{...}" notation, which can be helpful for debugging.

A (very) basic FreeRADIUS configuration

It is possible to configure FreeRADIUS using a single file (radiusd.conf) rather than using $INCLUDE directives to import additional configuration from other files.

The following is an example of an extremely basic FreeRADIUS configuration including the key components virtual servers, processing sections and modules.

# IP addresses from which the server will accept requests and a shared
# secret which must be provided by the NAS for any request to be accepted
# Normally included from a separate clients.conf file

client default {
  ipaddr = ""
  secret = "testsecret"

# Configuration for any modules used by the server. By default each module
# has its own configuration file, included in bulk from the mods-enabled/
# directory

modules {
  files { # Block containing config for the 'files' module
    filename = "${confdir}/files/authorize" # A file with user details

  # PAP is the most basic auth type supported by FreeRADIUS
  # An empty block, so use the default config

  pap {

  rest { # Contains all config for the REST module

    # Tells the REST module what to do when called by the post-auth
    # processing section

    post-auth {
        uri = ""
        method = 'post'
        data = "{ \
          \"user_name\": \"%{User-Name}\", \
          \"client_ip_address\": \"%{Client-IP-Address}\" \
        body = 'json'

# The configuration for the default virtual server

server default {
  listen {
    type   = "auth"
    ipv4addr = ""

  # The authorize processing section
  # Calls the files module and the PAP module
  # The files module will check if the provided user name is in the users
  # file specified in the modules block above. In the real world this
  # would check a database or directory. The PAP module will determine
  # if the request is a PAP request and, if so, set the Auth-Type to 'PAP'

  authorize {

  # The authenticate processing section
  # If the Auth-Type has been set to 'PAP' in the previous section it
  # calls the PAP module again to handle aunthentication.

  authenticate {
    Auth-Type PAP {

  # The authenticate processing section. Runs after the authentication has
  # succeeded/failed but before a response message is sent. This calls
  # the REST module which carries out the work specified in the modules
  # block. Wrapping the call to the REST module in a redundant block,
  # and specifying an 'ok' return code stops the whole authentication
  # attempt failing if the REST module returns an error

  post-auth {
    redundant {

Further Reading

The perceived quality of the documentation is a somewhat controversial subject on the FreeRADIUS users mailing list. However, it is hard to argue that there are no weaknesses in the documentation.

  • The configuration and module files (sites-available/*) are documented with comments. While this documentation is very thorough, the use of comments can make the configuration files hard to read and edit (it’s usually best to create fresh ones)
  • Each of the configuration directories has a helpful README.rst file. The readme in the config root directory has some helpful information on upgrading to FreeRADIUS 3, which can help when adapting documentation written with earlier versions in mind.
  • The FreeRADIUS technical guide is a useful resource. It is based on version 2 which was released in 2008. However, in places it seems to be referring to v3. It contradicts itself in places (are there nine processing sections or ten) and includes material errors in others. Some care needs to be taken when using it.
  • The FreeRADIUS wiki includes a large amount of information but it is not always clear which version is being referred to and can be unintuitive to navigate. The Getting Started, Basic Configuration and FAQ pages are good places to start. > One poorly documented change in v3 is that test users are created in mods-config/files/authorize, not the users.conf referred to in most of the wiki. The users.conf file still exists in v3 however, which can be confusing.
  • The FreeRADIUS wiki has a good page on setting up EAP-based authentication as part of a basic Eduroam config.
  • The Network Radius wiki has probably the best online reference for the various configuration options but has some significant gaps, e.g. not all the modules are documented and the page for the mods-config directory is somewhat sparse. It has detail on Unlang not found in the Unlang man page, however.
  • You can get help from the FreeRADIUS community by asking questions on their user mailing list. Be sure to read the guidelines here before posting questions on the mailing list or you can expect a stern response. In particular, make sure to have read the FAQ.
This page was last reviewed on 22 November 2022. It needs to be reviewed again on 22 May 2023 by the page owner #govwifi .
This page was set to be reviewed before 22 May 2023 by the page owner #govwifi. This might mean the content is out of date.