Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Google search engine
HomeUncategorizedHow NAT traversal works (2020)

How NAT traversal works (2020)

We covered a lot of ground in our post about How Tailscale
. However, we glossed over how we can get through NATs
(Network Address Translators) and connect your devices directly to
each other, no matter what’s standing between them. Let’s talk about
that now!

Let’s start with a simple problem: establishing a peer-to-peer
connection between two machines. In Tailscale’s case, we want to set
up a WireGuard® tunnel, but that doesn’t really matter. The
techniques we use are widely applicable and the work of many people
over decades. For example, WebRTC uses this bag of tricks to
send peer-to-peer audio, video and data between web browsers. VoIP
phones and some video games use similar techniques, though not always

We’ll be discussing these techniques generically, using Tailscale and
others for examples where appropriate. Let’s say you’re making your
own protocol and that you want NAT traversal. You need two things.

First, the protocol should be based on UDP. You can do NAT traversal
with TCP, but it adds another layer of complexity to an already quite
complex problem, and may even require kernel customizations depending
on how deep you want to go. We’re going to focus on UDP for the rest
of this article.

If you’re reaching for TCP because you want a stream-oriented
connection when the NAT traversal is done, consider using QUIC
instead. It builds on top of UDP, so we can focus on UDP for NAT
traversal and still have a nice stream protocol at the end.

Second, you need direct control over the network socket that’s sending
and receiving network packets. As a rule, you can’t take an existing
network library and make it traverse NATs, because you have to send
and receive extra packets that aren’t part of the “main” protocol
you’re trying to speak. Some protocols tightly integrate the NAT
traversal with the rest (e.g. WebRTC). But if you’re building your
own, it’s helpful to think of NAT traversal as a separate entity that
shares a socket with your main protocol. Both run in parallel, one
enabling the other.

Direct socket access may be tough depending on your situation. One
workaround is to run a local proxy. Your protocol speaks to this
proxy, and the proxy does both NAT traversal and relaying of your
packets to the peer. This layer of indirection lets you benefit from
NAT traversal without altering your original program.

With prerequisites out of the way, let’s go through NAT traversal from
first principles. Our goal is to get UDP packets flowing
bidirectionally between two devices, so that our other protocol
(WireGuard, QUIC, WebRTC, …) can do something cool. There are two
obstacles to having this Just Work: stateful firewalls and NAT

Figuring out firewalls

Stateful firewalls are the simpler of our two problems. In fact, most
NAT devices include a stateful firewall, so we need to solve this
subset before we can tackle NATs.

There are many incarnations to consider. Some you might recognize are
the Windows Defender firewall, Ubuntu’s ufw (using iptables/nftables),
BSD’s pf (also used by macOS) and AWS’s Security Groups. They’re all
very configurable, but the most common configuration allows all
“outbound” connections and blocks all “inbound” connections. There
might be a few handpicked exceptions, such as allowing inbound SSH.

But connections and “direction” are a figment of the protocol
designer’s imagination. On the wire, every connection ends up being
bidirectional; it’s all individual packets flying back and forth. How
does the firewall know what’s inbound and what’s outbound?

That’s where the stateful part comes in. Stateful firewalls remember
what packets they’ve seen in the past and can use that knowledge when
deciding what to do with new packets that show up.

For UDP, the rule is very simple: the firewall allows an inbound UDP
packet if it previously saw a matching outbound packet. For example,
if our laptop firewall sees a UDP packet leaving the laptop from to, it’ll make a note that incoming
packets from to are also fine. The
trusted side of the world clearly intended to communicate with, so we should let them talk back.

(As an aside, some very relaxed firewalls might allow traffic from
anywhere back to once has communicated
with anyone. Such firewalls make our traversal job easier, but are
increasingly rare.)

Firewall face-off

This rule for UDP traffic is only a minor problem for us, as long as
all the firewalls on the path are “facing” the same way. That’s
usually the case when you’re communicating with a server on the
internet. Our only constraint is that the machine that’s behind the
firewall must be the one initiating all connections. Nothing can
talk to it, unless it talks first.

This is fine, but not very interesting: we’ve reinvented client/server
communication, where the server makes itself easily reachable to
clients. In the VPN world, this leads to a hub-and-spoke topology: the
hub has no firewalls blocking access to it and the firewalled spokes
connect to the hub.

The problems start when two of our “clients” want to talk
directly. Now the firewalls are facing each other. According to the
rule we established above, this means both sides must go first, but
also that neither can go first, because the other side has to go

How do we get around this? One way would be to require users to
reconfigure one or both of the firewalls to “open a port” and allow
the other machine’s traffic. This is not very user friendly. It also
doesn’t scale to mesh networks like Tailscale, in which we expect the
peers to be moving around the internet with some regularity. And, of
course, in many cases you don’t have control over the firewalls: you
can’t reconfigure the router in your favorite coffee shop, or at the
airport. (At least, hopefully not!)

We need another option. One that doesn’t involve reconfiguring

Finessing finicky firewalls

The trick is to carefully read the rule we established for our
stateful firewalls. For UDP, the rule is: packets must flow out
before packets can flow back in.

However, nothing says the packets must be related to each other
beyond the IPs and ports lining up correctly. As long as some packet
flowed outwards with the right source and destination, any packet that
looks like a response will be allowed back in, even if the other
side never received your packet!

So, to traverse these multiple stateful firewalls, we need to share
some information to get underway: the peers have to know in advance
the ip:port their counterpart is using. One approach is to
statically configure each peer by hand, but this approach doesn’t
scale very far. To move beyond that, we built a coordination
to keep the ip:port information synchronized in a
flexible, secure manner.

Then, the peers start sending UDP packets to each other. They must
expect some of these packets to get lost, so they can’t carry any
precious information unless you’re prepared to retransmit them. This
is generally true of UDP, but especially true here. We’re going to
lose some packets in this process.

Our laptop and workstation are now listening on fixed ports, so that
they both know exactly what ip:port to talk to. Let’s take a look at
what happens.

The laptop’s first packet, from to, goes
through the Windows Defender firewall and out to the internet. The
corporate firewall on the other end blocks the packet, since it has no
record of ever talking to However,
Windows Defender now remembers that it should expect and allow
responses from to

Next, the workstation’s first packet from to goes through the corporate firewall and across the
internet. When it arrives at the laptop, Windows Defender thinks “ah,
a response to that outbound request I saw”, and lets the packet
through! Additionally, the corporate firewall now remembers that it
should expect responses from to, and
that those packets are also okay.

Encouraged by the receipt of a packet from the workstation, the laptop
sends another packet back. It goes through the Windows Defender
firewall, through the corporate firewall (because it’s a “response” to
a previously sent packet), and arrives at the workstation.

Success! We’ve established two-way communication through a pair of
firewalls that, at first glance, would have prevented it.

Creative connectivity caveats

It’s not always so easy. We’re relying on some indirect influence over
third-party systems, which requires careful handling. What do we need
to keep in mind when managing firewall-traversing connections?

Both endpoints must attempt communication at roughly the same time, so
that all the intermediate firewalls open up while both peers are still
around. One approach is to have the peers retry continuously, but this
is wasteful. Wouldn’t it be better if both peers knew to start
establishing a connection at the same time?

This may sound a little recursive: to communicate, first you need to
be able to communicate. However, this preexisting “side channel”
doesn’t need to be very fancy: it can have a few seconds of latency,
and only needs to deliver a few thousand bytes in total, so a tiny VM
can easily be a matchmaker for thousands of machines.

In the distant past, I used XMPP chat messages as the side channel,
with great results. As another example, WebRTC requires you to come up
with your own “signalling channel” (a name that reveals WebRTC’s IP
telephony ancestry), and plug it into the WebRTC APIs. In Tailscale,
our coordination server and fleet of DERP (Detour Encrypted Routing
Protocol) servers act as our side channel.

Stateful firewalls have limited memory, meaning that we need periodic
communication to keep connections alive. If no packets are seen for a
while (a common value for UDP is 30 seconds), the firewall forgets
about the session, and we have to start over. To avoid this, we use a
timer and must either send packets regularly to reset the timers, or
have some out-of-band way of restarting the connection on demand.

On the plus side, one thing we don’t need to worry about is exactly
how many firewalls exist between our two peers. As long as they are
stateful and allow outbound connections, the simultaneous transmission
technique will get through any number of layers. That’s really nice,
because it means we get to implement the logic once, and it’ll work


Well, not quite. For this to work, our peers need to know in advance
what ip:port to use for their counterparts. This is where NATs come
into play, and ruin our fun.

The nature of NATs

We can think of NAT (Network Address Translator) devices as stateful
firewalls with one more really annoying feature: in addition to all
the stateful firewalling stuff, they also alter packets as they go

A NAT device is anything that does any kind of
Network Address Translation, i.e. altering the source or destination
IP address or port. However, when talking about connectivity problems
and NAT traversal, all the problems come from Source NAT, or SNAT for
short. As you might expect, there is also DNAT (Destination NAT), and
it’s very useful but not relevant to NAT traversal.

The most common use of SNAT is to connect many devices to the
internet, using fewer IP addresses than the number of devices. In the
case of consumer-grade routers, we map all devices onto a single
public-facing IP address. This is desirable because it turns out that
there are way more devices in the world that want internet access,
than IP addresses to give them (at least in IPv4 — we’ll come to IPv6
in a little bit). NATs let us have many devices sharing a single IP
address, so despite the global shortage of IPv4 addresses, we can
scale the internet further with the addresses at hand.

Let’s look at what happens when your laptop is connected to your home
Wi-Fi and talks to a server on the internet.

Your laptop sends UDP packets from to This is exactly the same as if the laptop had a public
IP. But that won’t work on the internet: is a private
IP address, which appears on many different peoples’ private
networks. The internet won’t know how to get responses back to us.

Enter the home router. The laptop’s packets flow through the home
router on their way to the internet, and the router sees that this is
a new session that it’s never seen before.

It knows that won’t fly on the internet, but it can
work around that: it picks some unused UDP port on its own public IP
address — we’ll use — and creates a NAT mapping that
establishes an equivalence: on the LAN side is the
same as on the internet side.

From now on, whenever it sees packets that match that mapping, it will rewrite
the IPs and ports in the packet appropriately.

Resuming our packet’s journey: the home router applies the NAT mapping
it just created, and sends the packet onwards to the internet. Only
now, the packet is from, not It
goes on to the server, which is none the wiser. It’s communicating
with, like in our previous examples sans NAT.

Responses from the server flow back the other way as you’d expect,
with the home router rewriting back to The laptop is also none the wiser, from its
perspective the internet magically figured out what to do with its
private IP address.

Our example here was with a home router, but the same principle
applies on corporate networks. The usual difference there is that the
NAT layer consists of multiple machines (for high availability or
capacity reasons), and they can have more than one public IP address,
so that they have more public ip:port combinations to choose from
and can sustain more active clients at once.

Multiple NATs on a single layer allow for higher availability or capacity, but function the same as a single NAT.

Multiple NATs on a single layer allow for higher availability or capacity, but function the same as a single NAT.

A study in STUN

We now have a problem that looks like our earlier scenario with the
stateful firewalls, but with NAT devices:

Our problem is that our two peers don’t know what the ip:port of
their peer is. Worse, strictly speaking there is no ip:port until
the other peer sends packets, since NAT mappings only get created when
outbound traffic towards the internet requires it. We’re back to our
stateful firewall problem, only worse: both sides have to speak first,
but neither side knows to whom to speak, and can’t know until the
other side speaks first.

How do we break the deadlock? That’s where STUN comes in. STUN is both
a set of studies of the detailed behavior of NAT devices, and a
protocol that aids in NAT traversal. The main thing we care about for
now is the network protocol.

STUN relies on a simple observation: when you talk to a server on the
internet from a NATed client, the server sees the public ip:port
that your NAT device created for you, not your LAN ip:port. So, the
server can tell you what ip:port it saw. That way, you know what
traffic from your LAN ip:port looks like on the internet, you can
tell your peers about that mapping, and now they know where to send
packets! We’re back to our “simple” case of firewall traversal.

That’s fundamentally all that the STUN protocol is: your machine sends
a “what’s my endpoint from your point of view?” request to a STUN
server, and the server replies with “here’s the ip:port that I saw
your UDP packet coming from.”

(The STUN protocol has a bunch more stuff in it — there’s a way of
obfuscating the ip:port in the response to stop really broken NATs
from mangling the packet’s payload, and a whole authentication
mechanism that only really gets used by TURN and ICE, sibling
protocols to STUN that we’ll talk about in a bit. We can ignore all of
that stuff for address discovery.)

Incidentally, this is why we said in the introduction that, if you
want to implement this yourself, the NAT traversal logic and your main
protocol have to share a network socket. Each socket gets a different
mapping on the NAT device, so in order to discover your public
ip:port, you have to send and receive STUN packets from the socket
that you intend to use for communication, otherwise you’ll get a
useless answer.

How this helps

Given STUN as a tool, it seems like we’re close to done. Each machine
can do STUN to discover the public-facing ip:port for its local
socket, tell its peers what that is, everyone does the firewall
traversal stuff, and we’re all set… Right?

Well, it’s a mixed bag. This’ll work in some cases, but not
others. Generally speaking, this’ll work with most home routers, and
will fail with some corporate NAT gateways. The probability of failure
increases the more the NAT device’s brochure mentions that it’s a
security device. (NATs do not enhance security in any meaningful way,
but that’s a rant for another time.)

The problem is an assumption we made earlier: when the STUN server
told us that we’re from its perspective, we assumed
that meant that we’re from the entire internet’s
perspective, and that therefore anyone can reach us by talking to

As it turns out, that’s not always true. Some NAT devices behave
exactly in line with our assumptions. Their stateful firewall
component still wants to see packets flowing in the right order, but
we can reliably figure out the correct ip:port to give to our peer
and do our simultaneous transmission trick to get through. Those NATs
are great, and our combination of STUN and the simultaneous packet
sending will work fine with those.

(in theory, there are also NAT devices that are super relaxed, and
don’t ship with stateful firewall stuff at all. In those, you don’t
even need simultaneous transmission, the STUN request gives you an
internet ip:port that anyone can connect to with no further
ceremony. If such devices do still exist, they’re increasingly rare.)

Other NAT devices are more difficult, and create a completely
different NAT mapping for every different destination that you talk
to. On such a device, if we use the same socket to send to and, we’ll end up with two different
ports on, one for each destination. If you use the wrong port
to talk back, you don’t get through.

Naming our NATs

Now that we’ve discovered that not all NAT devices behave in the same
way, we should talk terminology. If you’ve done anything related to
NAT traversal before, you might have heard of “Full Cone”, “Restricted
Cone”, “Port-Restricted Cone” and “Symmetric” NATs. These are terms
that come from early research into NAT traversal.

That terminology is honestly quite confusing. I always look up what a
Restricted Cone NAT is supposed to be. Empirically, I’m not alone in
this, because most of the internet calls “easy” NATs Full Cone, when
these days they’re much more likely to be Port-Restricted Cone.

More recent research and RFCs have come up with a much better
taxonomy. First of all, they recognize that there are many more
varying dimensions of behavior than the single “cone” dimension of
earlier research, so focusing on the cone-ness of your NAT isn’t
necessarily helpful. Second, they came up with words that more plainly
convey what the NAT is doing.

The “easy” and “hard” NATs above differ in a single dimension: whether
or not their NAT mappings depend on what the destination is. RFC
calls the easy variant “Endpoint-Independent Mapping”
(EIM for short), and the hard variant “Endpoint-Dependent Mapping”
(EDM for short). There’s a subcategory of EDM that specifies whether
the mapping varies only on the destination IP, or on both the
destination IP and port. For NAT traversal, the distinction doesn’t
matter. Both kinds of EDM NATs are equally bad news for us.

In the grand tradition of naming things being hard,
endpoint-independent NATs still depend on an endpoint: each source
ip:port gets a different mapping, because otherwise your packets
would get mixed up with someone else’s packets, and that would be
chaos. Strictly speaking, we should say “Destination Endpoint
Independent Mapping” (DEIM?), but that’s a mouthful, and since “Source
Endpoint Independent Mapping” would be another way to say “broken”, we
don’t specify. Endpoint always means “Destination Endpoint.”

You might be wondering how 2 kinds of endpoint dependence maps into 4
kinds of cone-ness. The answer is that cone-ness encompasses two
orthogonal dimensions of NAT behavior. One is NAT mapping behavior,
which we looked at above, and the other is stateful firewall
behavior. Like NAT mapping behavior, the firewalls can be
Endpoint-Independent or a couple of variants of Endpoint-Dependent. If
you throw all of these into a matrix, you can reconstruct the
cone-ness of a NAT from its more fundamental properties:

NAT Cone Types

Endpoint-Independent NAT mapping Endpoint-Dependent NAT mapping (all types)
Endpoint-Independent firewall Full Cone NAT N/A*
Endpoint-Dependent firewall (dest. IP only) Restricted Cone NAT N/A*
Endpoint-Dependent firewall (dest. IP+port) Port-Restricted Cone NAT Symmetric NAT

* can theoretically exist, but don’t show up in the wild

Once broken down like this, we can see that cone-ness isn’t terribly
useful to us. The major distinction we care about is Symmetric versus
anything else — in other words, we care about whether a NAT device is

While it’s neat to know exactly how your firewall behaves, we don’t
care from the point of view of writing NAT traversal code. Our
simultaneous transmission trick will get through all three variants of
firewalls. In the wild we’re overwhelmingly dealing only with
IP-and-port endpoint-dependent firewalls. So, for practical code, we
can simplify the table down to:

Endpoint-Independent NAT mapping Endpoint-Dependent NAT mapping (dest. IP only)
Firewall is yes Easy NAT Hard NAT

If you’d like to read more about the newer taxonomies of NATs, you can
get the full details in RFCs 4787 (NAT Behavioral
Requirements for UDP), 5382 (for TCP) and 5508
(for ICMP). And if you’re implementing a NAT device, these RFCs are
also your guide to what behaviors you should implement, to make them
well-behaved devices that play well with others and don’t generate
complaints about Halo multiplayer not working.

Back to our NAT traversal. We were doing well with STUN and firewall
traversal, but these hard NATs are a big problem. It only takes one of
them in the whole path to break our current traversal plans.

But wait, this post is titled “how NAT traversal works”, not “how NAT
traversal doesn’t work.” So presumably, I have a trick up my sleeve to
get out of this, right?

Have you considered giving up?

This is a good time to have the awkward part of our chat: what happens
when we empty our entire bag of tricks, and we still can’t get
through? A lot of NAT traversal code out there gives up and declares
connectivity impossible. That’s obviously not acceptable for us;
Tailscale is nothing without the connectivity.

We could use a relay that both sides can talk to unimpeded, and have
it shuffle packets back and forth. But wait, isn’t that terrible?

Sort of. It’s certainly not as good as a direct connection, but if the
relay is “near enough” to the network path your direct connection
would have taken, and has enough bandwidth, the impact on your
connection quality isn’t huge. There will be a bit more latency, maybe
less bandwidth. That’s still much better than no connection at all,
which is where we were heading.

And keep in mind that we only resort to this in cases where direct
connections fail. We can still establish direct connections through a
lot of different networks. Having relays to handle the long tail
isn’t that bad.

Additionally, some networks can break our connectivity much more
directly than by having a difficult NAT. For example, we’ve observed
that the UC Berkeley guest Wi-Fi blocks all outbound UDP except for DNS
traffic. No amount of clever NAT tricks is going to get around the
firewall eating your packets. So, we need some kind of reliable
fallback no matter what.

You could implement relays in a variety of ways. The classic way is a
protocol called TURN (Traversal Using Relays around NAT). We’ll skip
the protocol details, but the idea is that you authenticate yourself
to a TURN server on the internet, and it tells you “okay, I’ve
allocated ip:port, and will relay packets for you.” You tell your
peer the TURN ip:port, and we’re back to a completely trivial
client/server communication scenario.

For Tailscale, we didn’t use TURN for our relays. It’s not a
particularly pleasant protocol to work with, and unlike STUN there’s
no real interoperability benefit since there are no open TURN servers
on the internet.

Instead, we created DERP (Detoured Encrypted Routing
, which is a general purpose packet relaying
protocol. It runs over HTTP, which is handy on networks with strict
outbound rules, and relays encrypted payloads based on the
destination’s public key.

As we briefly touched on earlier, we use this communication path both
as a data relay when NAT traversal fails (in the same role as TURN in
other systems) and as the side channel to help with NAT
traversal. DERP is both our fallback of last resort to get
connectivity, and our helper to upgrade to a peer-to-peer connection,
when that’s possible.

Now that we have a relay, in addition to the traversal tricks we’ve
discussed so far, we’re in pretty good shape. We can’t get through
everything but we can get through quite a lot, and we have a backup
for when we fail. If you stopped reading now and implemented just the
above, I’d estimate you could get a direct connection over 90% of the
time, and your relays guarantee some connectivity all the time.

NAT notes for nerds

But… If you’re not satisfied with “good enough”, there’s still a lot
more we can do! What follows is a somewhat miscellaneous set of
tricks, which can help us out in specific situations. None of them
will solve NAT traversal by itself, but by combining them judiciously,
we can get incrementally closer to a 100% success rate.

The benefits of birthdays

Let’s revisit our problem with hard NATs. The key issue is that the
side with the easy NAT doesn’t know what ip:port to send to on the
hard side. But must send to the right ip:port in order to open up
its firewall to return traffic. What can we do about that?

Well, we know some ip:port for the hard side, because we ran
STUN. Let’s assume that the IP address we got is correct. That’s not
necessarily true, but let’s run with the assumption for now. As it
turns out, it’s mostly safe to assume this. (If you’re curious why,
see REQ-2 in RFC 4787.)

If the IP address is correct, our only unknown is the port. There’s
65,535 possibilities… Could we try all of them? At 100 packets/sec,
that’s a worst case of 10 minutes to find the right one. It’s better
than nothing, but not great. And it really looks like a port scan
(because in fairness, it is), which may anger network intrusion
detection software.

We can do much better than that, with the help of the birthday
. Rather than open 1 port on the hard side and have the
easy side try 65,535 possibilities, let’s open, say, 256 ports on the
hard side (by having 256 sockets sending to the easy side’s
ip:port), and have the easy side probe target ports at random.

I’ll spare you the detailed math, but you can check out the dinky
python calculator I made while working it out. The
calculation is a very slight variant on the “classic” birthday
paradox, because it’s looking at collisions between two sets
containing distinct elements, rather than collisions within a single
set. Fortunately, the difference works out slightly in our favor!
Here’s the chances of a collision of open ports (i.e. successful
communication), as the number of random probes from the easy side
increases, and assuming 256 ports on the hard side:

Number of random probes Chance of success
174 50%
256 64%
1024 98%
2048 99.9%

If we stick with a fairly modest probing rate of 100 ports/sec, half
the time we’ll get through in under 2 seconds. And even if we get
unlucky, 20 seconds in we’re virtually guaranteed to have found a way
in, after probing less than 4% of the total search space.

That’s great! With this additional trick, one hard NAT in the path is
an annoying speedbump, but we can manage. What about two?

We can try to apply the same trick, but now the search is much harder:
each random destination port we probe through a hard NAT also results
in a random source port. That means we’re now looking for a
collision on a {source port, destination port} pair, rather than
just the destination port.

Again I’ll spare you the calculations, but after 20 seconds in the
same regime as the previous setup (256 probes from one side, 2048 from
the other), our chance of success is… 0.01%.

This shouldn’t be surprising if you’ve studied the birthday paradox
before. The birthday paradox lets us convert N “effort” into
something on the order of sqrt(N). But we squared the size of the
search space, so even the reduced amount of effort is still a lot more
effort. To hit a 99.9% chance of success, we need each side to send
170,000 probes. At 100 packets/sec, that’s 28 minutes of trying before
we can communicate. 50% of the time we’ll succeed after “only” 54,000
packets, but that’s still 9 minutes of waiting around with no
connection. Still, that’s better than the 1.2 years it would take
without the birthday paradox.

In some applications, 28 minutes might still be worth it. Spend half
an hour brute-forcing your way through, then you can keep pinging to
keep the open path alive indefinitely — or at least until one of the
NATs reboots and dumps all its state, then you’re back to brute
forcing. But it’s not looking good for any kind of interactive

Worse, if you look at common office routers, you’ll find that they
have a surprisingly low limit on active sessions. For example, a
Juniper SRX 300 maxes out at 64,000 active sessions. We’d consume its
entire session table with our one attempt to get through! And that’s
assuming the router behaves gracefully when overloaded. And this is
all to get a single connection! What if we have 20 machines doing this
behind the same router? Disaster.

Still, with this trick we can make it through a slightly harder
network topology than before. That’s a big deal, because home routers
tend to be easy NATs, and hard NATs tend to be office routers or cloud
NAT gateways. That means this trick buys us improved connectivity for
the home-to-office and home-to-cloud scenarios, as well as a few
office-to-cloud and cloud-to-cloud scenarios.

Partially manipulating port maps

Our hard NATs would be so much easier if we could ask the NATs to stop
being such jerks, and let more stuff through. Turns out, there’s a
protocol for that! Three of them, to be precise. Let’s talk about
port mapping protocols.

The oldest is the UPnP IGD (Universal Plug’n’Play Internet
Gateway Device) protocol. It was born in the late 1990’s, and as such
uses a lot of very 90’s technology (XML, SOAP, multicast HTTP over UDP
— yes, really) and is quite hard to implement correctly and securely —
but a lot of routers shipped with UPnP, and a lot still do. If we
strip away all the fluff, we find a very simple request-response that
all three of our port mapping protocols implement: “Hi, please forward
a WAN port to lan-ip:port,” and “okay, I’ve allocated wan-ip:port
for you.”

Speaking of stripping away the fluff: some years after UPnP IGD came
out, Apple launched a competing protocol called NAT-PMP
(NAT Port Mapping Protocol). Unlike UPnP, it only does port
forwarding, and is extremely simple to implement, both on clients and
on NAT devices. A little bit after that, NAT-PMP v2 was reborn as
PCP (Port Control Protocol).

So, to help our connectivity further, we can look for UPnP IGD,
NAT-PMP and PCP on our local default gateway. If one of the protocols
elicits a response, we request a public port mapping. You can think of
this as a sort of supercharged STUN: in addition to discovering our
public ip:port, we can instruct the NAT to be friendlier to our
peers, by not enforcing firewall rules for that port. Any packet from
anywhere that lands on our mapped port will make it back to us.

You can’t rely on these protocols being present. They might not be
implemented on your devices. They might be disabled by default and
nobody knew to turn them on. They might have been disabled by policy.

Disabling by policy is fairly common because UPnP suffered from a
number of high-profile vulnerabilities (since fixed, so newer devices
can safely offer UPnP, if implemented properly). Unfortunately, many
devices come with a single “UPnP” checkbox that actually toggles UPnP,
NAT-PMP and PCP all at once, so folks concerned about UPnP’s security
end up disabling the perfectly safe alternatives as well.

Still, when it’s available, it effectively makes one NAT vanish from
the data path, which usually makes connectivity trivial… But let’s
look at the unusual cases.

Negotiating numerous NATs

So far, the topologies we’ve looked at have each client behind one NAT
device, with the two NATs facing each other. What happens if we build
a “double NAT”, by chaining two NATs in front of one of our machines?

What happens if we build a “double NAT”, by chaining two NATs in front of one of our machines?

What happens if we build a “double NAT”, by chaining two NATs in front of one of our machines?

In this example, not much of interest happens. Packets from client A
go through two different layers of NAT on their way to the
internet. But the outcome is the same as it was with multiple layers
of stateful firewalls: the extra layer is invisible to everyone, and
our other techniques will work fine regardless of how many layers
there are. All that matters is the behavior of the “last” layer before
the internet, because that’s the one that our peer has to find a way

The big thing that breaks is our port mapping protocols. They act upon
the layer of NAT closest to the client, whereas the one we need to
influence is the one furthest away. You can still use the port mapping
protocols, but you’ll get an ip:port in the “middle” network, which
your remote peer cannot reach. Unfortunately, none of the protocols
give you enough information to find the “next NAT up” to repeat the
process there, although you could try your luck with a traceroute and
some blind requests to the next few hops.

Breaking port mapping protocols is the reason why the internet is so
full of warnings about the evils of double-NAT, and how you should
bend over backwards to avoid them. But in fact, double-NAT is entirely
invisible to most internet-using applications, because most
applications don’t try to do this kind of explicit NAT traversal.

I’m definitely not saying that you should set up a double-NAT in
your network. Breaking the port mapping protocols will degrade
multiplayer on many video games, and will likely strip IPv6 from your
network, which robs you of some very good options for NAT-free
connectivity. But, if circumstances beyond your control force you into
a double-NAT, and you can live with the downsides, most things will
still work fine.

Which is a good thing, because you know what circumstances beyond your
control force you to double-NAT? Let’s talk carrier-grade NAT.

Concerning CGNATs

Even with NATs to stretch the supply of IPv4 addresses, we’re still
running out, and ISPs can no longer afford to give one entire public
IP address to every home on their network. To work around this, ISPs
apply SNAT recursively: your home router SNATs your devices to an
“intermediate” IP address, and further out in the ISP’s network a
second layer of NAT devices map those intermediate IPs onto a smaller
number of public IPs. This is “carrier-grade NAT”, or CGNAT for short.

How do we connect two peers who are behind the same CGNAT, but different home NATs within?

How do we connect two peers who are behind the same CGNAT, but different home NATs within?

Carrier-grade NAT is an important development for NAT traversal. Prior
to CGNAT, enterprising users could work around NAT traversal
difficulties by manually configuring port forwarding on their home
routers. But you can’t reconfigure the ISP’s CGNAT! Now even power
users have to wrestle with the problems NATs pose.

The good news: this is a run of the mill double-NAT, and so as we
covered above it’s mostly okay. Some stuff won’t work as well as it
could, but things work well enough that ISPs can charge money for
it. Aside from the port mapping protocols, everything from our current
bag of tricks works fine in a CGNAT world.

We do have to overcome a new challenge, however: how do we connect two
peers who are behind the same CGNAT, but different home NATs within?
That’s how we set up peers A and B in the diagram above.

The problem here is that STUN doesn’t work the way we’d like. We’d
like to find out our ip:port on the “middle network”, because it’s
effectively playing the role of a miniature internet to our two
peers. But STUN tells us what our ip:port is from the STUN server’s
point of view, and the STUN server is out on the internet, beyond the

If you’re thinking that port mapping protocols can help us here,
you’re right! If either peer’s home NAT supports one of the port
mapping protocols, we’re happy, because we have an ip:port that
behaves like an un-NATed server, and connecting is
trivial. Ironically, the fact that double NAT “breaks” the port
mapping protocols helps us! Of course, we still can’t count on these
protocols helping us out, doubly so because CGNAT ISPs tend to turn
them off in the equipment they put in homes in order to avoid software
getting confused by the “wrong” results they would get.

But what if we don’t get lucky, and can’t map ports on our NATs? Let’s
go back to our STUN-based technique and see what happens. Both peers
are behind the same CGNAT, so let’s say that STUN tells us that peer A
is, and peer B is

The question is: what happens when peer A sends a packet to We might hope that the following takes place in the
CGNAT box:

  • Apply peer A’s NAT mapping, rewrite the packet to be from and

  • Notice that matches peer B’s incoming NAT mapping, rewrite
    the packet to be from and to peer B’s private IP.

  • Send the packet on to peer B, on the “internal” interface rather than off
    towards the internet.

This behavior of NATs is called hairpinning, and with all this
dramatic buildup you won’t be surprised to learn that hairpinning
works on some NATs and not others.

In fact, a great many otherwise well-behaved NAT devices don’t support
hairpinning, because they make assumptions like “a packet from my
internal network to a non-internal IP address will always flow
outwards to the internet”, and so end up dropping packets as they try
to turn around within the router. These assumptions might even be
baked into routing silicon, where it’s impossible to fix without new

Hairpinning, or lack thereof, is a trait of all NATs, not just
CGNATs. In most cases, it doesn’t matter, because you’d expect two LAN
devices to talk directly to each other rather than hairpin through
their default gateway. And it’s a pity that it usually doesn’t matter,
because that’s probably why hairpinning is commonly broken.

But once CGNAT is involved, hairpinning becomes vital to
connectivity. Hairpinning lets you apply the same tricks that you use
for internet connectivity, without worrying about whether you’re
behind a CGNAT. If both hairpinning and port mapping protocols fail,
you’re stuck with relaying.

Ideally IPv6, NAT64 notwithstanding

By this point I expect some of you are shouting at your screens that
the solution to all this nonsense is IPv6. All this is happening
because we’re running out of IPv4 addresses, and we keep piling on
NATs to work around that. A much simpler fix would be to not have an IP
address shortage, and make every device in the world reachable without
NATs. Which is exactly what IPv6 gets us.

And you’re right! Sort of. It’s true that in an IPv6-only world, all
of this becomes much simpler. Not trivial, mind you, because we’re
still stuck with stateful firewalls. Your office workstation may have
a globally reachable IPv6 address, but I’ll bet there’s still a
corporate firewall enforcing “outbound connections only” between you
and the greater internet. And on-device firewalls are still there,
enforcing the same thing.

So, we still need the firewall traversal stuff from the start of the
article, and a side channel so that peers can know what ip:port to
talk to. We’ll probably also still want fallback relays that use a
well-like protocol like HTTP, to get out of networks that block
outbound UDP. But we can get rid of STUN, the birthday paradox trick,
port mapping protocols, and all the hairpinning bumf. That’s much

The big catch is that we currently don’t have an all-IPv6 world. We
have a world that’s mostly IPv4, and about 33% IPv6. Those
34% are very unevenly distributed, so a particular set of peers could
be 100% IPv6, 0% IPv6, or anywhere in between.

What this means, unfortunately, is that IPv6 isn’t yet the solution
to our problems. For now, it’s just an extra tool in our connectivity
toolbox. It’ll work fantastically well with some pairs of peers, and
not at all for others. If we’re aiming for “connectivity no matter
what”, we have to also do IPv4+NAT stuff.

Meanwhile, the coexistence of IPv6 and IPv4 introduces yet another new
scenario we have to account for: NAT64 devices.

So far, the NATs we’ve looked at have been NAT44: they translate IPv4
addresses on one side to different IPv4 addresses on the other
side. NAT64, as you might guess, translates between protocols. IPv6 on
the internal side of the NAT becomes IPv4 on the external
side. Combined with DNS64 to translate IPv4 DNS answers into IPv6, you
can present an IPv6-only network to the end device, while still giving
access to the IPv4 internet.

(Incidentally, you can extend this naming scheme indefinitely. There
have been some experiments with NAT46; you could deploy NAT66 if you
enjoy chaos; and some RFCs use NAT444 for carrier-grade NAT.)

This works fine if you only deal in DNS names. If you connect to, turning that into an IP address involves the DNS64
apparatus, which lets the NAT64 get involved without you being any the

But we care deeply about specific IPs and ports for our NAT and
firewall traversal. What about us? If we’re lucky, our device supports
CLAT (Customer-side translator — from Customer XLAT). CLAT makes the
OS pretend that it has direct IPv4 connectivity, using NAT64 behind
the scenes to make it work out. On CLAT devices, we don’t need to do
anything special.

CLAT is very common on mobile devices, but very uncommon on desktops,
laptops and servers. On those, we have to explicitly do the work CLAT
would have done: detect the existence of a NAT64+DNS64 setup, and use
it appropriately.

Detecting NAT64+DNS64 is easy: send a DNS request to
That name resolves to known, constant IPv4 addresses, and only IPv4
addresses. If you get IPv6 addresses back, you know that a DNS64 did
some translation to steer you to a NAT64. That lets you figure out
what the NAT64 prefix is.

From there, to talk to IPv4 addresses, send IPv6 packets to {NAT64 prefix + IPv4 address}. Similarly, if you receive traffic from
{NAT64 prefix + IPv4 address}, that’s IPv4 traffic. Now speak STUN
through the NAT64 to discover your public ip:port on the NAT64, and
you’re back to the classic NAT traversal problem — albeit with a bit
more work.

Fortunately for us, this is a fairly esoteric corner case. Most
v6-only networks today are mobile operators, and almost all phones
support CLAT. ISPs running v6-only networks deploy CLAT on the router
they give you, and again you end up none the wiser. But if you want to
get those last few opportunities for connectivity, you’ll have to
explicitly support talking to v4-only peers from a v6-only network as

Integrating it all with ICE

We’re in the home stretch. We’ve covered stateful firewalls, simple
and advanced NAT tricks, IPv4 and IPv6. So, implement all the above,
and we’re done!

Except, how do you figure out which tricks to use for a particular
peer? How do you figure out if this is a simple stateful firewall
problem, or if it’s time to bust out the birthday paradox, or if you
need to fiddle with NAT64 by hand? Or maybe the two of you are on the
same Wi-Fi network, with no firewalls and no effort required.

Early research into NAT traversal had you precisely characterize the
path between you and your peer, and deploy a specific set of
workarounds to defeat that exact path. But as it turned out, network
engineers and NAT box programmers have many inventive ideas, and that
stops scaling very quickly. We need something that involves a bit less
thinking on our part.

Enter the Interactive Connectivity Establishment (ICE) protocol. Like
STUN and TURN, ICE has its roots in the telephony world, and so the
RFC is full of SIP and SDP and signalling sessions and dialing and so
forth. However, if you push past that, it also specifies a stunningly
elegant algorithm for figuring out the best way to get a connection.

Ready? The algorithm is: try everything at once, and pick the best
thing that works. That’s it. Isn’t that amazing?

Let’s look at this algorithm in a bit more detail. We’re going to
deviate from the ICE spec here and there, so if you’re trying to
implement an interoperable ICE client, you should go read RFC
and implement that. We’ll skip all the
telephony-oriented stuff to focus on the core logic, and suggest a few
places where you have more degrees of freedom than the ICE spec

To communicate with a peer, we start by gathering a list of candidate
endpoints for our local socket. A candidate is any ip:port that
our peer might, perhaps, be able to use in order to speak to us. We
don’t need to be picky at this stage, the list should include at

  • IPv6 ip:ports

  • IPv4 LAN ip:ports

  • IPv4 WAN ip:ports discovered by STUN (possibly via a NAT64 translator)

  • IPv4 WAN ip:port allocated by a port mapping protocol

  • Operator-provided endpoints (e.g. for statically configured port forwards)

Then, we swap candidate lists with our peer through the side channel,
and start sending probe packets at each others’ endpoints. Again, at
this point you don’t discriminate: if the peer provided you with 15
endpoints, you send “are you there?” probes to all 15 of them.

These packets are pulling double duty. Their first function is to act
as the packets that open up the firewalls and pierce the NATs, like
we’ve been doing for this entire article. But the other is to act as a
health check. We’re exchanging (hopefully authenticated) “ping” and
“pong” packets, to check if a particular path works end to end.

Finally, after some time has passed, we pick the “best” (according to
some heuristic) candidate path that was observed to work, and we’re

The beauty of this algorithm is that if your heuristic is right,
you’ll always get an optimal answer. ICE has you score your candidates
ahead of time (usually: LAN > WAN > WAN+NAT), but it doesn’t have to
be that way. Starting with v0.100.0, Tailscale switched from a
hardcoded preference order to round-trip latency, which tends to
result in the same LAN > WAN > WAN+NAT ordering. But unlike static
ordering, we discover which “category” a path falls into organically,
rather than having to guess ahead of time.

The ICE spec structures the protocol as a “probe phase” followed by an
“okay let’s communicate” phase, but there’s no reason you need to
strictly order them. In Tailscale, we upgrade connections on the fly
as we discover better paths, and all connections start out with DERP
preselected. That means you can use the connection immediately through
the fallback path, while path discovery runs in parallel. Usually,
after a few seconds, we’ll have found a better path, and your
connection transparently upgrades to it.

One thing to be wary of is asymmetric paths. ICE goes to some effort
to ensure that both peers have picked the same network path, so that
there’s definite bidirectional packet flow to keep all the NATs and
firewalls open. You don’t have to go to the same effort, but you do
have to ensure that there’s bidirectional traffic along all paths
you’re using. That can be as simple as continuing to send ping/pong
probes periodically.

To be really robust, you also need to detect that your currently
selected path has failed (say, because maintenance caused your NAT’s
state to get dumped on the floor), and downgrade to another path. You
can do this by continuing to probe all possible paths and keep a set
of “warm” fallbacks ready to go, but downgrades are rare enough that
it’s probably more efficient to fall all the way back to your relay of
last resort, then restart path discovery.

Finally, we should mention security. Throughout this article, I’ve
assumed that the “upper layer” protocol you’ll be running over this
connection brings its own security (QUIC has TLS certs, WireGuard has
its own public keys…). If that’s not the case, you absolutely need
to bring your own. Once you’re dynamically switching paths at runtime,
IP-based security becomes meaningless (not that it was worth much in
the first place), and you must have at least end-to-end

If you have security for your upper layer, strictly speaking it’s okay
if your ping/pong probes are spoofable. The worst that can happen is
that an attacker can persuade you to relay your traffic through
them. In the presence of e2e security, that’s not a huge deal
(although obviously it depends on your threat model). But for good
measure, you might as well authenticate and encrypt the path discovery
packets as well. Consult your local application security engineer for
how to do that safely.

Concluding our connectivity chat

At last, we’re done. If you implement all of the above, you’ll have
state of the art NAT traversal software that can get direct
connections established in the widest possible array of
situations. And you’ll have your relay network to pick up the slack
when traversal fails, as it likely will for a long tail of cases.

This is all quite complicated! It’s one of those problems that’s fun
to explore, but quite fiddly to get right, especially if you start
chasing the long tail of opportunities for just that little bit more

The good news is that, once you’ve done it, you have something of a
superpower: you get to explore the exciting and relatively
under-explored world of peer-to-peer applications. So many interesting
ideas for decentralized software fall at the first hurdle, when it
turns out that talking to each other on the internet is harder than
expected. But now you know how to get past that, so go build cool

Here’s a parting “TL;DR” recap: For robust NAT traversal, you need
the following ingredients:

  • A UDP-based protocol to augment

  • Direct access to a socket in your program

  • A communication side channel with your peers

  • A couple of STUN servers

  • A network of fallback relays (optional, but highly recommended)

Then, you need to:

  • Enumerate all the ip:ports for your socket on your directly
    connected interfaces

  • Query STUN servers to discover WAN ip:ports and the “difficulty”
    of your NAT, if any

  • Try using the port mapping protocols to find more WAN ip:ports

  • Check for NAT64 and discover a WAN ip:port through that as well,
    if applicable

  • Exchange all those ip:ports with your peer through your side
    channel, along with some cryptographic keys to secure everything.

  • Begin communicating with your peer through fallback relays
    (optional, for quick connection establishment)

  • Probe all of your peer’s ip:ports for connectivity and if
    necessary/desired, also execute birthday attacks to get through
    harder NATs

  • As you discover connectivity paths that are better than the one
    you’re currently using, transparently upgrade away from the previous

  • If the active path stops working, downgrade as needed to maintain

  • Make sure everything is encrypted and authenticated end-to-end.

Read More



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisment -
Google search engine

Most Popular

Recent Comments