Traffic proxying, the act of encapsulating one flow of data inside another, is a valuable privacy tool for establishing boundaries on the Internet. Encapsulation has an overhead, Cloudflare and our Internet peers strive to avoid turning it into a performance cost. MASQUE is the latest collaboration effort to design efficient proxy protocols based on IETF standards. We're already running these at scale in production; see our recent blog post about Cloudflare's role in iCloud Private Relay for an example.

In this blog post series, we’ll dive into proxy protocols.

To begin, let’s start with a simple question: what is proxying? In this case, we are focused on forward proxying — a client establishes an end-to-end tunnel to a target server via a proxy server. This contrasts with the Cloudflare CDN, which operates as a reverse proxy that terminates client connections and then takes responsibility for actions such as caching, security including WAF, load balancing, etc. With forward proxying, the details about the tunnel, such as how it is established and used, whether or not it provides confidentiality via authenticated encryption, and so on, vary by proxy protocol. Before going into specifics, let’s start with one of the most common tunnels used on the Internet: TCP.

Transport basics: TCP provides a reliable byte stream

The TCP transport protocol is a rich topic. For the purposes of this post, we will focus on one aspect: TCP provides a readable and writable, reliable, and ordered byte stream. Some protocols like HTTP and TLS require a reliable transport underneath them and TCP's single byte stream is an ideal fit. The application layer reads or writes to this byte stream, but the details about how TCP sends this data "on the wire" are typically abstracted away.

Large application objects are written into a stream, then they are split into many small packets and they are sent in order to the network. At the receiver, packets are read from the network and combined back into an identical stream. Networks are not perfect and packets can be lost or reordered. TCP is clever at dealing with this and not worrying the application with details. It just works. A way to visualize this is to imagine a magic paper shredder that can both shred documents and convert shredded papers back to whole documents. Then imagine you and your friend bought a pair of these and decided that it would be fun to send each other shreds.

The one problem with TCP is that when a lost packet is detected at a receiver, the sender needs to retransmit it. This takes time to happen and can mean that the byte stream reconstruction gets delayed. This is known as TCP head-of-line blocking. Applications regularly use TCP via a socket API that abstracts away protocol details; they often can't tell if there are delays because the other end is slow at sending or if the network is slowing things down via packet loss.

Magic shredders for HTTP/1.1.

Proxy Protocols

Proxying TCP is immensely useful for many applications, including, though certainly not limited to HTTPS, SSH, and RDP. In fact, Oblivious DoH, which is a proxy protocol for DNS messages, could very well be implemented using a TCP proxy, though there are reasons why this may not be desirable. Today, there are a number of different options for proxying TCP end-to-end, including:

  • SOCKS, which runs in cleartext and requires an expensive connection establishment step.
  • Transparent TCP proxies, commonly referred to as performance enhancing proxies (PEPs), which must be on path and offer no additional transport security, and, definitionally, are limited to TCP protocols.
  • Layer 4 proxies such as Cloudflare Spectrum, which might rely on side carriage metadata via something like the PROXY protocol.
  • HTTP CONNECT, which transforms HTTPS connections into opaque byte streams.

While SOCKS and PEPs are viable options for some use cases, when choosing which proxy protocol to build future systems upon, it made most sense to choose a reusable and general-purpose protocol that provides well-defined and standard abstractions. As such, the IETF chose to focus on using HTTP as a substrate via the CONNECT method.

The concept of using HTTP as a substrate for proxying is not new. Indeed, HTTP/1.1 and HTTP/2 have supported proxying TCP-based protocols for a long time. In the following sections of this post, we’ll explain in detail how CONNECT works across different versions of HTTP, including HTTP/1.1, HTTP/2, and the recently standardized HTTP/3.

HTTP/1.1 and CONNECT

In HTTP/1.1, the CONNECT method can be used to establish an end-to-end TCP tunnel to a target server via a proxy server. This is commonly applied to use cases where there is a benefit of protecting the traffic between the client and the proxy, or where the proxy can provide access control at network boundaries. For example, a Web browser can be configured to issue all of its HTTP requests via an HTTP proxy.

A client sends a CONNECT request to the proxy server, which requests that it opens a TCP connection to the target server and desired port. It looks something like this:

CONNECT target.example.com:80 HTTP/1.1
Host: target.example.com

If the proxy succeeds in opening a TCP connection to the target, it responds with a 2xx range status code. If there is some kind of problem, an error status in the 5xx range can be returned. Once a tunnel is established there are two independent TCP connections; one on either side of the proxy. If a flow needs to stop, you can simply terminate them.

HTTP CONNECT proxies forward data between the client and the target server. The TCP packets themselves are not tunneled, only the data on the logical byte stream. Although the proxy is supposed to forward data and not process it, if the data is plaintext there would be nothing to stop it. In practice, CONNECT is often used to create an end-to-end TLS connection where only the client and target server have access to the protected content; the proxy sees only TLS records and can't read their content because it doesn't have access to the keys.

Magic shredders with end-to-end TLS connection.

Finally, it's worth noting that after a successful CONNECT request, the HTTP connection (and the TCP connection underpinning it) has been converted into a tunnel. There is no more possibility of issuing other HTTP messages, to the proxy itself, on the connection.

HTTP/2 and CONNECT

HTTP/2 adds logical streams above the TCP layer in order to support concurrent requests and responses on a single connection. Streams are also reliable and ordered byte streams, operating on top of TCP. Returning to our magic shredder analogy: imagine you wanted to send a book. Shredding each page one after another and rebuilding the book one page at a time is slow, but handling multiple pages at the same time might be faster. HTTP/2 streams allow us to do that. But, as we all know, trying to put too much into a shredder can sometimes cause it to jam.

Magic shredders for HTTP/2.

In HTTP/2, each request and response is sent on a different stream. To support this, HTTP/2 defines frames that contain the stream identifier that they are associated with. Requests and responses are composed of HEADERS and DATA frames which contain HTTP header fields and HTTP content, respectively. Frames can be large. When they are sent on the wire they might span multiple TLS records or TCP segments. Side note: the HTTP WG has been working on a new revision of the document that defines HTTP semantics that are common to all HTTP versions. The terms message, header fields, and content all come from this description.

HTTP/2 concurrency allows applications to read and write multiple objects at different rates, which can improve HTTP application performance, such as web browsing. HTTP/1.1 traditionally dealt with this concurrency by opening multiple TCP connections in parallel and striping requests across these connections. In contrast, HTTP/2 multiplexes frames belonging to different streams onto the single byte stream provided by one TCP connection. Reusing a single connection has benefits, but it still leaves HTTP/2 at risk of TCP head-of-line blocking. For more details, refer to Perf Planet blog.

HTTP/2 also supports the CONNECT method. In contrast to HTTP/1.1, CONNECT requests do not take over an entire HTTP/2 connection. Instead, they convert a single stream into an end-to-end tunnel. It looks something like this:

:method = CONNECT
:authority = target.example.com:443

If the proxy succeeds in opening a TCP connection, it responds with a 2xx (Successful) status code. After this, the client sends DATA frames to the proxy, and the content of these frames are put into TCP packets sent to the target. In the return direction, the proxy reads from the TCP byte stream and populates DATA frames. If a tunnel needs to stop, you can simply terminate the stream; there is no need to terminate the HTTP/2 connection.

By using HTTP/2, a client can create multiple CONNECT tunnels in a single connection. This can help reduce resource usage (saving the global count of TCP connections) and allows related tunnels to be logically grouped together, ensuring that they "share fate" when either client or proxy need to gracefully close. On the proxy-to-server side there are still multiple independent TCP connections.

Magic shredders for HTTP/2 CONNECT.

One challenge of multiplexing tunnels on concurrent streams is how to effectively prioritize them. We've talked in the past about prioritization for web pages, but the story is a bit different for CONNECT. We've been thinking about this and captured considerations in the new Extensible Priorities draft.

QUIC, HTTP/3 and CONNECT

QUIC is a new secure and multiplexed transport protocol from the IETF. QUIC version 1 was published as RFC 9000 in May 2021 and, the next day, we enabled it for all Cloudflare customers.

QUIC is composed of several foundational features. You can think of these like individual puzzle pieces that interlink to form a transport service. This service needs one more piece, an application mapping, to bring it all together.

Four puzzle pieces arranged into a whole: Recovery, Transport, Security, and Application Mapping.

Similar to HTTP/2, QUIC version 1 provides reliable and ordered streams. But QUIC streams live at the transport layer and they are the only type of QUIC primitive that can carry application data. QUIC has no opinion on how streams get used. Applications that wish to use QUIC must define that themselves.

QUIC streams can be long (up to 2^62 - 1 bytes). Stream data is sent on the wire in the form of STREAM frames. All QUIC frames must fit completely inside a QUIC packet. QUIC packets must fit entirely in a UDP datagram; fragmentation is prohibited. These requirements mean that a long stream is serialized to a series of QUIC packets sized roughly to the path MTU (Maximum Transmission Unit). STREAM frames provide reliability via QUIC loss detection and recovery. Frames are acknowledged by the receiver and if the sender detects a loss (via missing acknowledgments), QUIC will retransmit the lost data. In contrast, TCP retransmits packets. This difference is an important feature of QUIC, letting implementations decide how to repacketize and reschedule lost data.

When multiplexing streams, different packets can contain STREAM frames belonging to different stream identifiers. This creates independence between streams and helps avoid the head-of-line blocking caused by packet loss that we see in TCP. If a UDP packet containing data for one stream is lost, other streams can continue to make progress without being blocked by retransmission of the lost stream.

To use our magic shredder analogy one more time: we're sending a book again, but this time we parallelise our task by using independent shredders. We need to logically associate them together so that the receiver knows the pages and shreds are all for the same book, but otherwise they can progress with less chance of jamming.

Magic shredders for HTTP/3.

HTTP/3 is an example of an application mapping that describes how streams are used to exchange: HTTP settings, QPACK state, and request and response messages. HTTP/3 still defines its own frames like HEADERS and DATA, but it is overall simpler than HTTP/2 because QUIC deals with the hard stuff. Since HTTP/3 just sees a logical byte stream, its frames can be arbitrarily sized. The QUIC layer handles segmenting HTTP/3 frames over STREAM frames for sending in packets. HTTP/3 also supports the CONNECT method. It functions identically to CONNECT in HTTP/2, each request stream converting to an end-to-end tunnel.

HTTP packetization comparison

We've talked about HTTP/1.1, HTTP/2 and HTTP/3. The diagram below is a convenient way to summarize how HTTP requests and responses get serialized for transmission over a secure transport. The main difference is that with TLS, protected records are split across several TCP segments. While with QUIC there is no record layer, each packet has its own protection.

Side-by-side comparison of HTTP/1.1, HTTP/2 and HTTP/3 framing and packet structures.

Limitations and looking ahead

HTTP CONNECT is a simple and elegant protocol that has a tremendous number of application use cases, especially for privacy-enhancing technology. In particular, applications can use it to proxy DNS-over-HTTPS similar to what’s been done for Oblivious DoH, or more generic HTTPS traffic (based on HTTP/1.1 or HTTP/2), and many more.

However, what about non-TCP traffic? Recall that HTTP/3 is an application mapping for QUIC, and therefore runs over UDP as well. What if we wanted to proxy QUIC? What if we wanted to proxy entire IP datagrams, similar to VPN technologies like IPsec or WireGuard? This is where MASQUE comes in. In the next post, we’ll discuss how the MASQUE Working Group is standardizing technologies to enable proxying for datagram-based protocols like UDP and IP.