Resource Public Key Infrastructure (RPKI) revolves around the right to use Internet number resources, such as IP addresses and autonomous system (AS) numbers.

In this PKI, the legitimate holder of a block of IP addresses or AS numbers can obtain a resource certificate. Using the certificate, they can make authoritative, signed statements about the resources listed on it. To understand the structure of RPKI and its usage, we must first look at how Internet number resources are allocated globally.

Internet Number Resource Allocation

Before being formalised within an organisation, the allocation of Internet number resources, such as IP addresses and AS numbers, had been the responsibility of Jon Postel. At the time, he worked at the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) of the University of Southern California (USC). He performed the role of Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which is presently a function of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Jon Postel in 1994, with map of Internet top-level domains

Fig. 1 Jon Postel in 1994, with a map of Internet top-level domains

Initially, the IANA function was performed globally, but as the work volume grew due to the expansion of the Internet, Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) were established over the years to take on this responsibility on a regional level. Until the available pool of IPv4 depleted in 2011, this meant that periodically, a large block of IPv4 address space was allocated from IANA to one of the RIRs. In turn, the RIRs would allocate smaller blocks to their member organisations, and so on. IPv6 address blocks and AS numbers are allocated in the same way.

Today, there are five RIRs responsible for the allocation and registration of Internet number resources within a particular region of the world:

Service regions of the Regional Internet Registries

Fig. 2 The service regions of the five Regional Internet Registries

In the APNIC and LACNIC regions, Internet number resources are in some cases allocated to National Internet Registries (NIRs), such as in Brazil and JPNIC in Japan. NIRs allocate address space to its members or constituents, which are generally organised at a national level. In the rest of world, the RIRs allocate directly to their member organisations, typically referred to as Local Internet Registries (LIRs). Most LIRs are Internet service providers, enterprises, or academic institutions. LIRs either use the allocated IP address blocks themselves, or assign them to End User organisations.

Internet number resource allocation hierarchy

Fig. 3 Internet number resource allocation hierarchy

Mapping the Resource Allocation Hierarchy into the RPKI

As illustrated, the IANA has the authoritative registration of IPv4, IPv6 and AS number resources that are allocated to the five RIRs. Each RIR registers authoritative information on the allocations to NIRs and LIRs, and lastly, LIRs record to which End User organisation they assigned resources.

In RPKI, resource certificates attest to the allocation by the issuer of IP addresses or AS numbers to the subject. As a result, the certificate hierarchy in RPKI follows the same structure as the Internet number resource allocation hierarchy, with the exception of the IANA level. Instead, the five RIRs each run a root CA with a trust anchor from which a chain of trust for the resources they each manage is derived.

The chain of trust in RPKI starting at the five RIRs

Fig. 4 The chain of trust in RPKI, starting at the five RIRs

The IANA does not operate a single root certificate authority (CA). While this was originally a recommendation from the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) to eliminate the possibility of resource conflicts in the system, they reconsidered after operational experience in deployment had caused the RIRs to conclude that the RPKI system would be less brittle using multiple overlapping trust anchors.

X.509 PKI Considerations

The digital certificates used in RPKI are based on X.509, standardised in RFC 5280, along with extensions for IP addresses and AS identifiers described in RFC 3779. Because RPKI is used in the routing security context, a common misconception is that this is the Routing PKI. However, certificates in this PKI are called resource certificates and conform to the certificate profile described in RFC 6487.


X.509 certificates are typically used for authenticating either an individual or, for example, a website. In RPKI, certificates do not include identity information, as their only purpose is to transfer the right to use Internet number resources.

In addition to RPKI not having any identity information, there is another important difference with commonly used X.509 PKIs, such as SSL/TLS. Instead of having to rely on a vast number of root certificate authorities which come pre-installed in a browser or an operating system, RPKI relies on just five trust anchors, run by the RIRs. These are well established, openly governed, not-for-profit organisations. Each organisation that wishes to get an RPKI resource certificate already has a contractual relationship with one or more of the RIRs.

In conclusion, RPKI provides a mechanism to make strong, testable attestations about Internet number resources. In the next sections, we will look at how this can be used to make Internet routing more secure.