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Unlocking QUIC’s proxying potential with MASQUE

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In the last post, we discussed how HTTP CONNECT can be used to proxy TCP-based applications, including DNS-over-HTTPS and generic HTTPS traffic, between a client and target server. This provides significant benefits for those applications, but it doesn’t lend itself to non-TCP applications. And if you’re wondering whether or not we care about these, the answer is an affirmative yes!

For instance, HTTP/3 is based on QUIC, which runs on top of UDP. What if we wanted to speak HTTP/3 to a target server? That requires two things: (1) the means to encapsulate a UDP payload between client and proxy (which the proxy decapsulates and forward to the target in an actual UDP datagram), and (2) a way to instruct the proxy to open a UDP association to a target so that it knows where to forward the decapsulated payload. In this post, we’ll discuss answers to these two questions, starting with encapsulation.

Encapsulating datagrams

While TCP provides a reliable and ordered byte stream for applications to use, UDP instead provides unreliable messages called datagrams. Datagrams sent or received on a connection are loosely associated, each one is independent from a transport perspective. Applications that are built on top of UDP can leverage the unreliability for good. For example, low-latency media streaming often does so to avoid lost packets getting retransmitted. This makes sense, on a live teleconference it is better to receive the most recent audio or video rather than starting to lag behind while you're waiting for stale data

QUIC is designed to run on top of an unreliable protocol such as UDP. QUIC provides its own layer of security, packet loss detection, methods of data recovery, and congestion control. If the layer underneath QUIC duplicates those features, they can cause wasted work or worse create destructive interference. For instance, QUIC congestion control defines a number of signals that provide input to sender-side algorithms. If layers underneath QUIC affect its packet flows (loss, timing, pacing, etc), they also affect the algorithm output. Input and output run in a feedback loop, so perturbation of signals can get amplified. All of this can cause congestion control algorithms to be more conservative in the data rates they use.

If we could speak HTTP/3 to a proxy, and leverage a reliable QUIC stream to carry encapsulated datagrams payload, then everything can work. However, the reliable stream interferes with expectations. The most likely outcome being slower end-to-end UDP throughput than we could achieve without tunneling. Stream reliability runs counter to our goals.

Fortunately, QUIC's unreliable datagram extension adds a new DATAGRAM frame that, as its name plainly says, is unreliable. It has several uses; the one we care about is that it provides a building block for performant UDP tunneling. In particular, this extension has the following properties:

  • DATAGRAM frames are individual messages, unlike a long QUIC stream.
  • DATAGRAM frames do not contain a multiplexing identifier, unlike QUIC's stream IDs.
  • Like all QUIC frames, DATAGRAM frames must fit completely inside a QUIC packet.
  • DATAGRAM frames are subject to congestion control, helping senders to avoid overloading the network.
  • DATAGRAM frames are acknowledged by the receiver but, importantly, if the sender detects a loss, QUIC does not retransmit the lost data.

The Datagram "Unreliable Datagram Extension to QUIC" specification will be published as an RFC soon. Cloudflare's quiche library has supported it since October 2020.

Now that QUIC has primitives that support sending unreliable messages, we have a standard way to effectively tunnel UDP inside it. QUIC provides the STREAM and DATAGRAM transport primitives that support our proxying goals. Now it is the application layer responsibility to describe how to use them for proxying. Enter MASQUE.

MASQUE: Unlocking QUIC’s potential for proxying

Now that we’ve described how encapsulation works, let’s now turn our attention to the second question listed at the start of this post: How does an application initialize an end-to-end tunnel, informing a proxy server where to send UDP datagrams to, and where to receive them from? This is the focus of the MASQUE Working Group, which was formed in June 2020 and has been designing answers since. Many people across the Internet ecosystem have been contributing to the standardization activity. At Cloudflare, that includes Chris (as co-chair), Lucas (as co-editor of one WG document) and several other colleagues.

MASQUE started solving the UDP tunneling problem with a pair of specifications: a definition for how QUIC datagrams are used with HTTP/3, and a new kind of HTTP request that initiates a UDP socket to a target server. These have built on the concept of extended CONNECT, which was first introduced for HTTP/2 in RFC 8441 and has now been ported to HTTP/3. Extended CONNECT defines the :protocol pseudo-header that can be used by clients to indicate the intention of the request. The initial use case was WebSockets, but we can repurpose it for UDP and it looks like this:

:method = CONNECT
:protocol = connect-udp
:scheme = https
:path = /target.example.com/443/
:authority = proxy.example.com

A client sends an extended CONNECT request to a proxy server, which identifies a target server in the :path. If the proxy succeeds in opening a UDP socket, it responds with a 2xx (Successful) status code. After this, an end-to-end flow of unreliable messages between the client and target is possible; the client and proxy exchange QUIC DATAGRAM frames with an encapsulated payload, and the proxy and target exchange UDP datagrams bearing that payload.

Components involved in UDP tunneling. From left-to-right: Client, Proxy, Server.

Anatomy of Encapsulation

UDP tunneling has a constraint that TCP tunneling does not – namely, the size of messages and how that relates to path MTU (Maximum Transmission Unit; for more background see our Learning Center article). The path MTU is the maximum size that is allowed on the path between client and server. The actual maximum is the smallest maximum across all elements at every hop and at every layer, from the network up to application. All it takes is for one component with a small MTU to reduce the path MTU entirely. On the Internet, 1,500 bytes is a common practical MTU. When considering tunneling using QUIC, we need to appreciate the anatomy of QUIC packets and frames in order to understand how they add bytes of overheard. This consumes bytes and subtracts from our theoretical maximum.

We've been talking in terms of HTTP/3 which normally has its own frames (HEADERS, DATA, etc) that have a common type and length overhead. However, there is no HTTP/3 framing when it comes to DATAGRAM, instead the bytes are placed directly into the QUIC frame. This frame is composed of two fields. The first field is a variable number of bytes, called the Quarter Stream ID field, which is an encoded identifier that supports independent multiplexed DATAGRAM flows. It does so by binding each DATAGRAM to the HTTP request stream ID. In QUIC, stream IDs use two bits to encode four types of stream. Since request streams are always of one type (client-initiated bidirectional, to be exact), we can divide their ID by four to save space on the wire. Hence the name Quarter Stream ID. The second field is payload, which contains the end-to-end message payload. Here's how it might look on the wire.

A UDP datagram, containing a QUIC packet, which contains a DATAGRAM frame.

If you recall our lesson from the last post, DATAGRAM frames (like all frames) must fit completely inside a QUIC packet. Moreover, since QUIC requires that fragmentation is disabled, QUIC packets must fit completely inside a UDP datagram. This all combines to limit the maximum size of things that we can actually send: the path MTU determines the size of the UDP datagram, then we need to subtract the overheads of the UDP datagram header, QUIC packet header, and QUIC DATAGRAM frame header. For a better understanding of QUIC's wire image and overheads, see Section 5 of RFC 8999 and Section 12.4 of RFC 9000.

If a sender has a message that is too big to fit inside the tunnel, there are only two options: discard the message or fragment it. Neither of these are good options. Clients create the UDP tunnel and are more likely to accurately calculate the real size of encapsulated UDP datagram payload, thus avoiding the problem. However, a target server is most likely unaware that a client is behind a proxy, so it cannot accommodate the tunneling overhead. It might send a UDP datagram payload that is too big for the proxy to encapsulate. This conundrum is common to all proxy protocols! There's an art in picking the right MTU size for UDP-based traffic in the face of tunneling overheads. While approaches like path MTU discovery can help, they are not a silver bullet. Choosing conservative maximum sizes can reduce the chances of tunnel-related problems. However, this needs to be weighed against being too restrictive. Given a theoretical path MTU of 1,500, once we consider QUIC encapsulation overheads, tunneled messages with a limit between 1,200 and 1,300 bytes can be effective.This is especially important when we think about tunneling QUIC itself. RFC 9000 Section 8.1 details how clients that initiate new QUIC connections must send UDP datagrams of at least 1,200 bytes. If a proxy can't support that, then QUIC will not work in a tunnel.

Nested tunneling for Improved Privacy Proxying

MASQUE gives us the application layer building blocks to support efficient tunneling of TCP or UDP traffic. What's cool about this is that we can combine these blocks into different deployment architectures for different scenarios or different needs.

One example of this case is nested tunneling via multiple proxies, which can minimize the connection metadata available to each individual proxy or server (one example of this type of deployment is described in our recent post on iCloud Private Relay). In this kind of setup, a client might manage at least three logical connections. First, a QUIC connection between Client and Proxy 1. Second, a QUIC connection between Client and Proxy 2, which runs via a CONNECT tunnel in the first connection. Third, an end-to-end byte stream between Client and Server, which runs via a CONNECT tunnel in the second connection. A real TCP connection only exists between Proxy 2 and Server. If additional Client to Server logical connections are needed, they can be created inside the existing pair of QUIC connections.

Components involved in a nested tunneling setup. From left-to-right: Client, Proxy 1, Proxy 2 and Server.

Towards a full tunnel with IP tunneling

Proxy support for UDP and TCP already unblocks a huge assortment of use cases, including TLS, QUIC, HTTP, DNS, and so on. But it doesn’t help protocols that use different IP protocols, like ICMP or IPsec Encapsulating Security Payload (ESP). Fortunately, the MASQUE Working Group has also been working on IP tunneling. This is a lot more complex than UDP tunneling, so they first spent some time defining a common set of requirements. The group has recently adopted a new specification to support IP proxying over HTTP. This behaves similarly to the other CONNECT designs we've discussed but with a few differences. Indeed, IP proxying support using HTTP as a substrate would unlock many applications that existing protocols like IPsec and WireGuard enable.

At this point, it would be reasonable to ask: “A complete HTTP/3 stack is a bit excessive when all I need is a simple end-to-end tunnel, right?” Our answer is, it depends! CONNECT-based IP proxies use TLS and rely on well established PKIs for creating secure channels between endpoints, whereas protocols like WireGuard use a simpler cryptographic protocol for key establishment and defer authentication to the application. WireGuard does not support proxying over TCP but can be adapted to work over TCP transports, if necessary. In contrast, CONNECT-based proxies do support TCP and UDP transports, depending on what version of HTTP is used. Despite these differences, these protocols do share similarities. In particular, the actual framing used by both protocols – be it the TLS record layer or QUIC packet protection for CONNECT-based proxies, or WireGuard encapsulation – are not interoperable but only slightly differ in wire format. Thus, from a performance perspective, there’s not really much difference.

In general, comparing these protocols is like comparing apples and oranges – they’re fit for different purposes, have different implementation requirements, and assume different ecosystem participants and threat models. At the end of the day, CONNECT-based proxies are better suited to an ecosystem and environment that is already heavily invested in TLS and the existing WebPKI, so we expect CONNECT-based solutions for IP tunnels to become the norm in the future. Nevertheless, it's early days, so be sure to watch this space if you’re interested in learning more!

Looking ahead

The IETF has chartered the MASQUE Working Group to help design an HTTP-based solution for UDP and IP that complements the existing CONNECT method for TCP tunneling. Using HTTP semantics allows us to use features like request methods, response statuses, and header fields to enhance tunnel initialization. For example, allowing for reuse of existing authentication mechanisms or the Proxy-Status field. By using HTTP/3, UDP and IP tunneling can benefit from QUIC's secure transport native unreliable datagram support, and other features. Through a flexible design, older versions of HTTP can also be supported, which helps widen the potential deployment scenarios. Collectively, this work brings proxy protocols to the masses.

While the design details of MASQUE specifications continue to be iterated upon, so far several implementations have been developed, some of which have been interoperability tested during IETF hackathons. This running code helps inform the continued development of the specifications. Details are likely to continue changing before the end of the process, but we should expect the overarching approach to remain similar. Join us during the MASQUE WG meeting in IETF 113 to learn more!

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Lucas Pardue |@SimmerVigor
Cloudflare |Cloudflare

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