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End-to-end encrypted IPv6 networking to connect worlds

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Bringing Yggdrasil to more platforms

20 July 2018 by Neil Alexander

Write once…

When I first joined the Yggdrasil project, it only targeted a single platform - Linux. For proving a concept, this is fine, but it was never going to be reasonable to expect everyone who may want to run Yggdrasil to also run Linux.

Yggdrasil is a project which cares very deeply about scale. Born out of the lack of scalability in cjdns, the routing scheme is designed to work well even on very large networks with lots of users or nodes, but testing this without real users is actually very difficult. Of course we can run simulations and model the sorts of behaviour we might expect, but ideally we need to be able to examine how the routing scheme behaves in the wild - with real people, on real computers over real networks. We need to meet our users where they are.

… Run anywhere?

I made it my mission to bring Yggdrasil to as many platforms as possible. It started with macOS support because I wanted to be able to run Yggdrasil on my own computers at home. From there I branched out to OpenBSD, FreeBSD and NetBSD, and even to Windows. I even spent some time trying to simplify the installation process on Debian Linux by producing Debian packages. Since then we’ve been able to convert those same packages to RPMs with some success. We’ve targeted ARM and MIPS platforms as well, including the Ubiquiti EdgeRouter - another device I happen to own and like.

The use of the Go programming language actually helped a lot here, because as it turns out, Google have gone through great lengths to make Go code relatively portable across platforms and architectures. It bundles a custom standard library, and the Go compiler can cross-compile effortlessly for a wide range of platforms and architectures by simply passing in environment variables like GOARCH and GOOS to the compiler. There’s no tinkering about with architecture-specific toolchains - it’s built-in for free.

Cross-compiling, however, is only part of the battle. Every platform comes with unique behaviours and interfaces which need to be accounted for in our code. The most troublesome part was by far the TUN/TAP adapter, a crucial component for allowing the node to actually communicate with the Yggdrasil network instead of just being a passive router.

Reuse, reuse, reuse

Admittedly, we didn’t write all of the TUN/TAP code ourselves. Instead we made use of a library called Water which exposes a much simpler interface. However, this library is certainly not without inadequacies - it was necessary for us to fork this library to add platform support for BSD, interface name support for Windows and to fix a deadlock bug with closing the TUN/TAP adapter on macOS. (Apparently the author is not terribly receptive to pull requests, so to this day, we continue to use our own fork.)

Of course, a couple of fixed bugs and introduced features in Water wasn’t all that remained to be done…

macOS

Getting Yggdrasil to work on macOS was actually relatively straight-forward. TUN adapters on macOS are a little different to on other platforms - they are implemented through a utun interface. Luckily, Water already had support for this, but Yggdrasil didn’t have a mechanism for configuring the interface address, prefix or MTU. On macOS, all of this is possible by using an AF_SYSTEM socket, so I wrote code that would fill this gap, plagiarising a number of structs from the XNU source code in the process.

The macOS utun driver only supports creating TUN (Layer 3) devices and has no support whatsoever for TAP (Layer 2) devices. There is an open-source tuntaposx driver which implements both, but this would rely on the driver being installed when utun does the job perfectly out of the box. Therefore, Yggdrasil will only allow TUN mode when run on macOS.

BSD

In many ways, Darwin (the operating system which underpins macOS) is not dissimilar to BSD at all. In fact, there are many user-space components which were derived or imported directly from BSD. It made sense that adding support for FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD would be relatively simple as a result.

However, Water didn’t have support for BSD, so at this point we started to modify the Water library to include support for it. TUN/TAP on BSD is actually much simpler than on macOS - rather than having to request a new utun device from within the process, you can simply open a read/write descriptor to one of the TUN or TAP nodes in /dev. The changes needed to Water were actually very simple in the end, but did end up being really quite different from macOS.

Originally I anticipated that setting the interface address, prefix and MTU would be just like macOS too, but this turned out not to be the case. Whereas macOS uses an AF_SYSTEM socket, BSD expects you to simply perform syscalls directly onto the TUN/TAP device node. More code for BSD was born. However, like all system calls, these are difficult to debug, and I haven’t yet figured out the secret formula to getting these ioctl calls to work right. I was forced to implement an ugly workaround - when the ioctl fails, it simply falls back to calling ifconfig to do the work for us. Hardly ideal, but at least functional.

The MTU proved troublesome too. Whereas Linux and macOS both support a maximum MTU of 65535 on TUN devices (65521 for Linux TAP devices to make way for the 14-byte Ethernet header), the maximum supported MTUs on the BSDs were much lower. FreeBSD managed only half of the above MTU with a maximum of 32767 bytes. OpenBSD was half of that again with a maximum of 16384. NetBSD, just in the spirit of being awkward, is different again, with a mere 9000 byte maximum. I assume there are historical and possibly important reasons for the varying defaults, but they remain a mystery to me at the moment.

One final place that caught me out is that, in TUN mode, OpenBSD and FreeBSD (but not NetBSD) both include a “Protocol Information” header to all traffic going in and out of the TAP adapter. Incidentally, macOS does not do this, and on Linux, this behaviour can be disabled. Nevertheless, on OpenBSD and FreeBSD, this behaviour seems to be mandatory. Yggdrasil would need to recognise and strip this header, although at this time, this remains an unfixed problem as it will require additional changes in the Water library. Currently, the library is not aware of this and simply fails to process the packets as it believes they are malformed. As a workaround, these operating systems were later supported through TAP mode, which was only introduced when we added support for…

Windows

Yes, Windows. The real outlier, sharing almost nothing in common with Linux, macOS or BSD, apart from some very historic POSIX compliance in the early incarnations of Windows NT which have almost certainly since lapsed. Windows actually presented a rather unique challenge. Through the help of the OpenVPN developers, there is an NDIS-compliant TAP driver available for Windows, and Water even had support for it too, but it is the only platform out of our current supported list that actually only supports TAP and doesn’t support TUN.

Whereas TUN adapters typically emulate a Layer 3 routed interface, like those used with VPNs and encapsulated tunnels, TAP adapters actually mimic a real Layer 2 network interface - Ethernet and all. These adapters behave almost as if the program responsible for them is connected by a virtual network cable, requiring that every frame sent in and out is a valid Ethernet frame, with MAC address and all.

Yggdrasil, up until this point, had not made any particular accommodation for TAP devices, but that would not be sufficient on Windows. I was faced with two new challenges.

Ethernet frames

Given that the TAP adapter would feed us entire Ethernet frames instead of just IP packets, I started by writing code that would be dissect the Ethernet headers and to unwrap the IP packet within, and also encapsulate any IP packets received across the Yggdrasil network within a new Ethernet frame. Critically, Yggdrasil never transports Ethernet headers across our encrypted sessions - only raw IP packets, therefore the Ethernet encapsulation needs to be dealt with at the endpoint itself.

Encapsulation and decapsulation takes place transparently if Water reports that the adapter is a TAP device. Yggdrasil must take a note of the MAC address of the frames coming from the TAP adapter and must create headers for the response frames too with a MAC address of its own (a rather arbitrarily-chosen 02:00:00:00:00:02 if you were wondering), which allows the host to believe that the traffic coming in from the TAP adapter was sent from a real Ethernet device.

But this alone is not enough to encourage Windows to send traffic over the TAP adapter.

ICMPv6

Because the prefix length on the adapter address covers the entire Yggdrasil address space, this leads the host to believe that the entire network is reachable within a single broadcast domain. In the real world, this would be like every other host being directly attached to the same switch. This is obviously not the case, but in order to avoid having to add additional static routes (which may be fragile or even difficult to automatically add or remove, especially on Windows) we instead lie to the host to make it believe that every other node is directly connected.

When a packet is sent towards an Yggdrasil IP address, a request is sent out on the Ethernet interface to ask which MAC address holds that IP address. In IPv4, this happens using Address Resolution Protocol (ARP), but in IPv6, this is actually a feature of ICMPv6 called Neighbour Discovery (ND).

Windows (or any other platform, for that matter) won’t actually send any real traffic to a Layer 2 interface for the destination until it is received a suitable ARP or ND response for the destination. Windows starts by sending out an ND request for the destination address, therefore Yggdrasil must respond. I wrote code that would do exactly that - we check if the destination address matches our address space (0200::/7) and if it does, we send back an ND message claiming that the destination address is reachable at 02:00:00:00:00:02 (our virtual MAC address from before). At this point, Windows starts sending traffic towards that MAC address and all is good.

Now that Yggdrasil can understand Ethernet headers, and it can sufficiently lie to the host operating system to make it believe that an Yggdrasil address is directly connected, we can now exchange traffic over a TAP adapter. Doing this actually opened up TAP support properly on Linux and BSD too!

Ubiquiti EdgeRouter

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the EdgeOS platform - it’s just a modified Debian distribution, but instead, running on a MIPS CPU instead of an x86-based CPU. This meant that cross-compiling Yggdrasil for MIPS Linux was largely sufficient to get Yggdrasil to work on the EdgeRouter.

However, EdgeOS also comes with an overlay configuration system (the Vyatta configuration system, in fact). For friendliness, it made sense to create a Vyatta configuration wrapper for Yggdrasil so that it can be configured in the same way as everything else on the EdgeRouter.

These wrappers are merely scripts that either modify the yggdrasil.conf file or start/stop the Yggdrasil process. The work for this is in a separate repository but this results in a single .deb package that can provide EdgeOS support.

Conclusion

That concludes the journey that I have taken to bring Yggdrasil to a wider range of platforms. Of course there are still platforms that are still to be targeted, and some platforms are better tested than others, but it is a significant step for the project to be able to run on more operating systems than just Linux. We would really appreciate if you can provide us with any feedback you have about running Yggdrasil on your own systems - as always, issues can be raised on our GitHub repository.