The geeks’ wet dreams

As a follow up to my previous rant about FOSDEM I thought I would talk to what I define the “geeks’ wet dream”: IPv6 and public IPv4.

During the whole Twitter storm I had regarding IPv6 and FOSDEM, I said out loud that I think users should not care about IPv6 to begin with, and that IPv4 is not a legacy protocol but a current one. I stand by my description here: you can live your life on the Internet without access to IPv6 but you can’t do that without access to IPv4, at the very least you need a proxy or NAT64 to reach a wide variety of the network.

Having IPv6 everywhere is, for geeks, something important. But at the same time, it’s not really something consumers care about, because of what I just said. Be it for my mother, my brother-in-law or my doctor, having IPv6 access does not give them any new feature they would otherwise not have access to. So while I can also wish for IPv6 to be more readily available, I don’t really have any better excuse for it than making my personal geek life easier by allowing me to SSH to my hosts directly, or being able to access my Transmission UI from somewhere else.

Yes, there is a theoretical advantage for speed and performance, because NAT is not involved, but to be honest for most people that is not what they care about: a 36036 Mbit connection is plenty fast enough even when doing double-NAT, and even Ultra HD, 4K, HDR resolution is well provided by that. You could argue that an even lower latency network may enable more technologies to be available, but that not only sounds to me like a bit of a stretch, it also misses the point once again.

I already liked to Todd’s post, and I don’t need to repeat it here, but if it’s about the technologies that can be enabled, it should be something the service providers should care about. Which by the way is what is happening already: indeed the IPv6 forerunners are the big player companies that effectively are looking for a way to enable better technology. But at the same time, a number of other plans were executed so that better performance can be gained without gating it to the usage of a new protocol that, as we said, really brings nothing to the table.

Indeed, if you look at protocols such as QUIC or HTTP/2, you can notice how these reduce the amount of ports that need to be opened, and that has a lot to do with the double-NAT scenario that is more and more common in homes. Right now I’m technically writing under a three-layers NAT: the carrier-grade NAT used by my ISP for deploying DS-Lite, the NAT issued by my provider-supplied router, and the last NAT which is set up by my own router, running LEDE. I don’t even have a working IPv6 right now for various reasons, and know what? The bottleneck is not the NATs but rather the WiFi.

As I said before, I’m not doing a full Todd and thinking that ignoring IPv6 is a good idea, or that we should not spend any time fixing things that break with it. I just think that we should get a sense of proportion and figuring out what the relative importance of IPv6 is in this world. As I said in the other post, there are plenty of newcomers that do not need to be told to screw themselves if their systems don’t support IPv6.

And honestly the most likely scenario to test for is a dual-stack network in which some of the applications or services don’t work correctly because they misunderstand the system. Like OVH did. So I would have kept the default network dual-stack, and provided a single-stack, NAT64 network as a “perk”, for those who actually do care to test and improve apps and services — and possibly also have a clue not to go and ping a years old bug that was fixed but not fully released.

But there are more reasons why I call these dreams. A lot of the reasoning behind IPv6 appears to be grounded into the idea that geeks want something, and that has to be good for everybody even when they don’t know about it: IPv6, publicly-routed IPv4, static addresses and unfiltered network access. But that is not always the case.

Indeed, if you look even just at IPv6 addressing, and in particular to how stateless addressing works, you can see how there has been at least three different choices at different times for generating them:

  • Modified EUI-64 was the original addressing option, and for a while the only one supported; it uses the MAC address of the network card that receives the IPv6, and that is quite the privacy risk, as it means you can extract an unique identifier of a given machine and identify every single request coming from said machine even when it moves around different IPv6 prefixes.
  • RFC4941 privacy extensions were introduced to address that point. These are usually enabled at some point, but these are not stable: Wikipedia correctly calls these temporary addresses, and are usually fine to provide unique identifiers when connecting to an external service. This makes passive detection of the same machine across network not possible — actually, it makes it impossible to detect a given machine even in the same network, because the address changes over time. This is good on one side, but it means that you do need session cookies to maintain login section active, as you can’t (and you shouldn’t) rely on the persistence of an IPv6 address. It also allows active detection, at least of the presence of a given host within a network, as it does not by default disable the EUI-64 address, just not use it to connect to services.
  • RFC7217 adds another alternative for address selection: it provides a stable-within-a-network address, making it possible to keep long-running connections alive, and at the same time ensuring that at least a simple active probing does not give up the presence of a known machine in the network. For more details, refer to Lubomir Rintel’s post as he went in more details than me on the topic.

Those of you fastest on the uptake will probably notice the connection with all these problems: it all starts by designing the addressing assuming that the most important addressing option is stable and predictable. Which makes perfect sense for servers, and for the geeks who want to run their own home server. But for the average person, these are all additional risks that do not provide any desired additional feature!

There is one more extension to this: static IPv4 addresses suffer from the same problem. If your connection is always coming from the same IPv4 address, it does not matter how private your browser may be, your connections will be very easy to track across servers — passively, even. What is the remaining advantage of a static IP address? Certainly not authentication, as in 2017 you can’t claim ignorance of source address spoofing.

And by the way this is the same reason why providers started issuing dynamic IPv6 prefixes: you don’t want a household (if not a person strictly) to be tied to the same address forever, otherwise passive tracking is effectively a no-op. And yes, this is a pain for the geek in me, but it makes sense.

Static, publicly-routable IP addresses make accessing services running at home much easier, but at the same time puts you at risk. We all have been making about the “Internet of Things”, but at the same time it appears everybody wants to be able to set their own devices to be accessible from the outside, somehow. Even when that is likely the most obvious way for external attackers to access one’s unprotected internal network.

There are of course ways around this that do not require such a publicly routable address, and they are usually more secure. On the other hand, they are not quite a panacea of course. Indeed they effectively require a central call-back server to exist and be accessible, and usually that is tied to a single company, with customise protocols. As far as I know, no open-source such call-back system appears to exist, and that still surprises me.

Conclusions? IPv6, just like static and publicly routable IP addresses, are interesting tools that are very useful to technologists, and it is true that if you consider the original intentions behind the Internet these are pretty basic necessities, but if you think that the world, and thus requirements and importance of features, have not changed, then I’m afraid you may be out of touch.

4 thoughts on “The geeks’ wet dreams

  1. “As far as I know, no open-source such call-back system appears to exist, and that still surprises me.”I’m not sure what you mean by “call-back” system. You might want to look into the open source tinc VPN software, which is capable of dynamically establishing tunnels between clients while simultaneously deploying the full suite of “NAT tricks” with all the bells and whistles: UDP hole punching, UPnP-IGD, and if all else fails, dynamic fallback to central relay indirection (over UDP, or even TCP if that doesn’t work). It’s even capable of actively discovering clients that are on the same LAN to sidestep potential NAT hairpinning (loopback) problems.

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  2. That is exactly the opposite of what I’m talking about. NAT tricks and hole-punching, including things like STUN, are trying to play against the grain of what current practices are.I’m referring to systems that only act as clients to central web-services.

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  3. Okay, I’m thoroughly confused now. “systems that only act as clients to central web-services” describe ~99% of systems in use today (including plenty of open-source ones), short of a few exceptions like BitTorrent. I’m having trouble reconciling that definition with your original statement (“As far as I know, no open-source such call-back system appears to exist”).

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  4. Think of the various remote-camera solutions. Most of the open-source solutions I’ve seen, to the tune of “cloud is other people’s computers”, expect you to open a port so you connect to the device from the outside to see what’s going on.Most of the stuff that is COTS will provide a “cloud” solution, in which the device upload the stream to {somewhere} and you connect to {somewhere} to see it.

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