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The GNU-VPE Protocols


       GVPE can make use of a number of protocols. One of them is the GNU VPE protocol which is
       used to authenticate tunnels and send encrypted data packets. This protocol is described
       in more detail the second part of this document.

       The first part of this document describes the transport protocols which are used by GVPE
       to send its data packets over the network.

PART 1: Transport protocols

       GVPE offers a wide range of transport protocols that can be used to interchange data
       between nodes. Protocols differ in their overhead, speed, reliability, and robustness.

       The following sections describe each transport protocol in more detail. They are sorted by
       overhead/efficiency, the most efficient transport is listed first:

       This protocol is the best choice, performance-wise, as the minimum overhead per packet is
       only 38 bytes.

       It works by sending the VPN payload using raw IP frames (using the protocol set by

       Using raw IP frames has the drawback that many firewalls block "unknown" protocols, so
       this transport only works if you have full IP connectivity between nodes.

       This protocol offers very low overhead (minimum 42 bytes), and can sometimes tunnel
       through firewalls when other protocols can not.

       It works by prepending an ICMP header with type icmp-type and a code of 255. The default
       icmp-type is echo-reply, so the resulting packets look like echo replies, which looks
       rather strange to network administrators.

       This transport should only be used if other transports (i.e. raw IP) are not available or
       undesirable (due to their overhead).

       This is a good general choice for the transport protocol as UDP packets tunnel well
       through most firewalls and routers, and the overhead per packet is moderate (minimum 58

       It should be used if RAW IP is not available.

       This protocol is a very bad choice, as it not only has high overhead (more than 60 bytes),
       but the transport also retries on its own, which leads to congestion when the link has
       moderate packet loss (as both the TCP transport and the tunneled traffic will retry,
       increasing congestion more and more). It also has high latency and is quite inefficient.

       It's only useful when tunneling through firewalls that block better protocols. If a node
       doesn't have direct internet access but a HTTP proxy that supports the CONNECT method it
       can be used to tunnel through a web proxy. For this to work, the tcp-port should be 443
       (https), as most proxies do not allow connections to other ports.

       It is an abuse of the usage a proxy was designed for, so make sure you are allowed to use
       it for GVPE.

       This protocol also has server and client sides. If the tcp-port is set to zero, other
       nodes cannot connect to this node directly. If the tcp-port is non-zero, the node can act
       both as a client as well as a server.

       WARNING: Parsing and generating DNS packets is rather tricky. The code almost certainly
       contains buffer overflows and other, likely exploitable, bugs. You have been warned.

       This is the worst choice of transport protocol with respect to overhead (overhead can be
       2-3 times higher than the transferred data), and latency (which can be many seconds). Some
       DNS servers might not be prepared to handle the traffic and drop or corrupt packets. The
       client also has to constantly poll the server for data, so the client will constantly
       create traffic even if it doesn't need to transport packets.

       In addition, the same problems as the TCP transport also plague this protocol.

       Its only use is to tunnel through firewalls that do not allow direct internet access.
       Similar to using a HTTP proxy (as the TCP transport does), it uses a local DNS
       server/forwarder (given by the dns-forw-host configuration value) as a proxy to send and
       receive data as a client, and an NS record pointing to the GVPE server (as given by the
       dns-hostname directive).

       The only good side of this protocol is that it can tunnel through most firewalls mostly
       undetected, iff the local DNS server/forwarder is sane (which is true for most routers,
       wireless LAN gateways and nameservers).

       Fine-tuning needs to be done by editing src/vpn_dns.C directly.

PART 2: The GNU VPE protocol

       This section, unfortunately, is not yet finished, although the protocol is stable (until
       bugs in the cryptography are found, which will likely completely change the following
       description). Nevertheless, it should give you some overview over the protocol.

   Anatomy of a VPN packet
       The exact layout and field lengths of a VPN packet is determined at compile time and
       doesn't change. The same structure is used for all transport protocols, be it RAWIP or

        | HMAC | TYPE | SRCDST | DATA |

       The HMAC field is present in all packets, even if not used (e.g. in auth request packets),
       in which case it is set to all zeroes. The MAC itself is calculated over the TYPE, SRCDST
       and DATA fields in all cases.

       The TYPE field is a single byte and determines the purpose of the packet (e.g. RESET,

       SRCDST is a three byte field which contains the source and destination node IDs (12 bits

       The DATA portion differs between each packet type, naturally, and is the only part that
       can be encrypted. Data packets contain more fields, as shown:

        | HMAC | TYPE | SRCDST | SEQNO | DATA |

       SEQNO is a 32-bit sequence number. It is negotiated at every connection initialization and
       starts at some random 31 bit value. GVPE currently uses a sliding window of 512
       packets/sequence numbers to detect reordering, duplication and replay attacks.

       The encryption is done on SEQNO+DATA in CTR mode with IV generated from the seqno (for
       AES: seqno || seqno || seqno || (u32)0), which ensures uniqueness for a given key.

   The authentication/key exchange protocol
       Before nodes can exchange packets, they need to establish authenticity of the other side
       and a key. Every node has a private RSA key and the public RSA keys of all other nodes.

       When a node wants to establish a connection to another node, it sends an RSA-OEAP-
       encrypted challenge and an ECDH (curve25519) key. The other node replies with its own ECDH
       key and a HKDF of the challenge and both ECDH keys to prove its identity.

       The remote node enganges in exactly the same protocol. When both nodes have exchanged
       their challenge and verified the response, they calculate a cipher key and a HMAC key and
       start exchanging data packets.

       In detail, the challenge consist of:


       That is, it encrypts (with the public key of the remote node) an initial sequence number
       for data packets, key material for the HMAC key, key material for the cipher key, a salt
       used by the HKDF (as shown later) and some extra random bytes that are unused except for
       authentication. It also sends the public key of a curve25519 exchange.

       The remote node decrypts the RSA data, generates its own ECDH key (ECDH2), and replies

         HKDF-Expand (HKDF-Extract (ECDH2, RSA), ECDH1, AUTH_DIGEST_SIZE) ECDH2

       That is, it extracts from the decrypted RSA challenge, using its ECDH key as salt, and
       then expands using the requesting node's ECDH1 key. The resulting hash is returned as a
       proof that the node could decrypt the RSA challenge data, together with the ECDH key.

       After both nodes have done this to each other, they calculate the shared ECDH secret,
       cipher and HMAC keys for the session (each node generates two cipher and HMAC keys, one
       for sending and one for receiving).

       The HMAC key for sending is generated as follow:


       It extracts from MAC and ECDH_SECRET using the remote SALT, then expands using a static
       info string.

       The cipher key is generated in the same way, except using the CIPHER part of the original

       The result of this process is to authenticate each node to the other node, while
       exchanging keys using both RSA and ECDH, the latter providing perfect forward secrecy.

       The protocol has been overdesigned where this was possible without increasing
       implementation complexity, in an attempt to protect against implementation or protocol
       failures. For example, if the ECDH challenge was found to be flawed, perfect forward
       secrecy would be lost, but the data would likely still be protected. Likewise, standard
       algorithms and implementations are used where possible.

       When there is no response to an auth request, the node will send auth requests in bursts
       with an exponential back-off. After some time it will resort to PING packets, which are
       very small (8 bytes + protocol header) and lightweight (no RSA operations required). A
       node that receives ping requests from an unconnected peer will respond by trying to create
       a connection.

       In addition to the exponential back-off, there is a global rate-limit on a per-IP base. It
       allows long bursts but will limit total packet rate to something like one control packet
       every ten seconds, to avoid accidental floods due to protocol problems (like a RSA key
       file mismatch between two nodes).

       The intervals between retries are limited by the max-retry configuration value. A node
       with connect = always will always retry, a node with connect = ondemand will only try (and
       re-try) to connect as long as there are packets in the queue, usually this limits the
       retry period to max-ttl seconds.

       Sending packets over the VPN will reset the retry intervals as well, which means as long
       as somebody is trying to send packets to a given node, GVPE will try to connect every few

   Routing and Protocol translation
       The GVPE routing algorithm is easy: there isn't much routing to speak of: When routing
       packets to another node, GVPE tries the following options, in order:

       If the two nodes should be able to reach each other directly (common protocol, port
       known), then GVPE will send the packet directly to the other node.
       If this isn't possible (e.g. because the node doesn't have a hostname or known port), but
       the nodes speak a common protocol and a router is available, then GVPE will ask a router
       to "mediate" between both nodes (see below).
       If a direct connection isn't possible (no common protocols) or forbidden (deny-direct) and
       there are any routers, then GVPE will try to send packets to the router with the highest
       priority that is connected already and is able (as specified by the config file) to
       connect directly to the target node.
       If no such router exists, then GVPE will simply send the packet to the node with the
       highest priority available.
       Failing all that, the packet will be dropped.

       A host can usually declare itself unreachable directly by setting its port number(s) to
       zero. It can declare other hosts as unreachable by using a config-file that disables all
       protocols for these other hosts. Another option is to disable all protocols on that host
       in the other config files.

       If two hosts cannot connect to each other because their IP address(es) are not known (such
       as dial-up hosts), one side will send a mediated connection request to a router (routers
       must be configured to act as routers!), which will send both the originating and the
       destination host a connection info request with protocol information and IP address of the
       other host (if known). Both hosts will then try to establish a direct connection to the
       other peer, which is usually possible even when both hosts are behind a NAT gateway.

       Routing via other nodes works because the SRCDST field is not encrypted, so the router can
       just forward the packet to the destination host. Since each host uses its own private key,
       the router will not be able to decrypt or encrypt packets, it will just act as a simple
       router and protocol translator.