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NAT Traversal for Peer-to-Peer Networks

Packets flow in both directions

When writing software, we use terms like “opening a connection” or “sending a response and getting a reply.” In my head, when thinking about this from a software perspective, there is a magic tunnel where a “server” can send a “response” back to a “client” without the “client” having to run a “server.”

This is an illusion, a convenient abstraction provided by the networking layer. Underneath that layer, a packet going to the server looks nearly indistinguishable from a packet going to the client, especially with UDP. When a client makes a request to a server it opens up a transient port to accept a response. It then sends a packet to the server and the server sends a packet back to that open port.

Let that sink in, every time a client makes an outbound request, it starts looking like a transient server. That “server” exists for the duration of the “connection.”

Everything is a server, problem solved!

If clients can start transient servers, they can start long-lived servers too right? Actually, yes. A computer can do that, which isn’t surprising. But the problem is twofold:

Do you connect to the net? I wouldn’t if I were you! - NetWatch

In a perfect world, software would only do the things we want it to. But software is less than perfect and motivated adversaries can find clever ways to trick software into doing undesirable things. The internet is a dangerous place. There are a lot of computers on it whose users don’t have good intentions. They’re looking for misconfigured software they can trick into behaving against the intentions of its operator.

If every time you connected to a server, you had to start your own long-lived server that anyone on the internet could connect to, you’d be opening yourself up to quite a bit of risk.

This is where firewalls come in. A common rule for “clients” is that their firewalls will only allow packets from a remote computer through if the client sent a packet to that address first.

Firewalls maintain a stateful list of all the destinations a computer has sent packets. If Alice sends a message to Bob, the firewall will allow Bob to send a message to Alice. Even though Alice has to have a public (ip, port) open for Bob to send that message, the firewall can prevent Charlie from sending a message to it. If Charlie sends a message to Alice, the firewall looks at the list of destinations it’s observed for Alice, not seeing Charlie on that list it “blocks” (doesn’t forward) the message.

Getting through a firewall

But what if Alice wants to allow Charlie to send her a message?

If Alice controls the firewall, getting Charlie through is easy! Alice just tells the firewall to allow messages from anyone through to her port.

But what if Alice doesn’t control the firewall? How can Alice “trick” the firewall into allowing Charlie through?

That’s actually pretty easy too. Alice can tell the firewall to let Charlie through by sending a message to Charlie - once the firewall sees Alice send a message to Charlie it’ll let Charlie send messages to Alice.

The astute observer will identify the problem with this: Alice needs to know Charlie wants to send her a message in order for Alice to tell the firewall to let Charlie through! But Charlie can’t tell Alice that he wants to send her a message because that would require Charlie to send Alice a message! In order for Charlie to send messages to Alice, Charlie needs to be able to send messages to Alice, catch-22

Side-channel Relay

Basically, every solution we are going to talk about here (both for firewalls and NATs) uses the same mechanism: establish an upfront side channel that Alice and Charlie can communicate through to coordinate getting a direct connection to each other.

This side channel has to have the following characteristics:

Some approaches will have additional requirements for this side-channel, but fundamentally they all rely on relaying messages between Alice and Charlie through an existing connection that is already capable of communicating with both of them.

Firewall Rendezvous

In the above example, if Alice is already talking to Bob, Charlie can ask Bob to tell Alice to send a message to Charlie. Once Alice sends Charlie that message, the firewall will let Charlie through to Alice. For a symmetric firewall, where Alice and Charlie both need to trick their firewalls into letting messages through, Charlie and Alice both ask Bob to tell each other to send messages.

Once Alice and Charlie know they need to send each other messages, they start sending messages to each other until they start receiving those messages. At this point, they’ve breached the firewall and can start communicating.

Using Bob as a Rendezvous point, Alice and Charlie can get through each other’s firewalls.

Sounds easy right?

Alice and Charlie need to send each other packets through Bob and coordinate getting through each other’s firewalls before they can start sending each other packets directly. To be explicit, Alice and Charlie both have an (ip, port) that they created and are using to communicate with Bob. Bob receives a packet from Charlie’s (ip, port) asking to be connected to Alice. Bob then sends a packet to Alice with Charlie’s (ip, port). Alice then sends a packet to that (ip, port) so she can let Charlie through her firewall.

The astute observer will notice a pretty challenging problem: this needs to happen at a different layer of the OSI Model than most software engineers are used to working in. What’s worse is that most libraries for networking protocols don’t allow access to that layer.

You can’t just “add NAT Traversal” to your SQL or gRPC connection. In order to get through a firewall (or NAT), those protocols need to be aware of the side-channel relay and handle coordinating and establishing a direct connection before trying to send the SQL/gRPC packets.


To say that another way: NAT Traversal has to be baked directly into the protocol. There are two common approaches to this. The first is to bake it directly into the protocol from day one like WebRTC does. This approach isn’t viable for most applications. Rebuilding every application layer protocol from the ground up to do NAT Traversal would be difficult and expensive.

The other approach is to establish a tunnel. The tunnel handles all NAT Traversal and exposes a standard OSI-like networking API on top of it.

So, first, Alice and Charlie each start up a tunnel service. Then they instruct the tunnel to establish a connection to each other through Bob’s rendezvous point. Once Alice and Charlie have a direct connection to each other, they can pump another protocol through that tunnel. This lets Alice and Charlie use standard libraries and software that don’t support NAT traversal.


So now we have some powerful building blocks for establishing a direction communication channel between Alice and Charlie! We need a rendezvous point that Alice and Charlie can communicate through, and we need either a NAT-Traversal capable protocol or a tunnel that handles NAT-Traversal for us.

Once those are in place, Alice and Charlie can coordinate allowing each other access through their firewalls and everything is solved. Right?

Right? …… Right?

The final boss battle

You know when you make it through a level in a video game and you get to that room full of health potions, great armor, a save checkpoint, etc.? For a second life is good, you just went through hell and now you’re getting pampered by the game developers. Then you realize that can only mean one thing: there is an imminent boss battle.

That boss is Network Address Translation.

Most computers do not connect directly to the internet. There is a router that connects to the internet. That router creates its own network, a subnetwork, that your device connects to. Do you know the saying that is where the heart is? 192.168.1.* is a subnet.

When Alice connects to Bob, she opens up a port on her computer, but her IP address isn’t unique on the internet. Her IP address might be, an address shared by many computers across many subnets. So when Alice sends a package from port 23456, her (ip, port) is (,23456)

So then how does Bob know how to get a packet back to Alice? The answer is that Bob doesn’t see the packet sent from Alice. Alice’s router changes the packet before sending it to Bob.

Alice’s router opens up its own port, let's say 34567, and replaces Alice’s IP address and port with its own. It then keeps track of the mapping between Alice’s (ip, port) and the router’s (ip, port) to reliably forward packets back and forth.

This is called Network Address Translation. The router translates packets from its subnetwork to the network the router is connected to.

Bob doesn’t know or care about any of this. To Bob, the packet came from Alice and Bob sends a packet back to Alice. Alice’s router hides all of this happily rewriting and forwarding packets between Alice and Bob.

So now we have Network Address Translation. Alice sends a packet to Bob. Her router rewrites the packet to come from the router. Bob gets the packet and sends a packet back to Alice’s router in response. The router then forwards the messages to Alice.

This is too easy

So Bob has Alice’s (ip, port) and is able to communicate with her. It’s going through her router and her router is hiding all the NAT stuff. Both Alice and her router might have their own firewalls, but Bob has already gotten through them.

How does Charlie communicate with Alice now?

All we need to do is follow the same process we used to get through the firewall. Bob tells Alice to send a packet to Charlie. Alice sends the packet to Charlie. The router rewrites the packet using Network Address Translation. Charlie receives the packet from Alice’s router. This opens up Alice’s firewall(s) for Charlie.

Charlie can now send a message through to Alice by sending them to the router and the router will happily forward them along to Alice.

This boss battle is easy and is called “Easy NAT.”

You might see the looming challenge: if there is an “Easy NAT” then there must be a “Not Easy NAT”

The “Hard NAT”

“Hard NAT” works the same as above but every destination Alice dials gets a random dedicated port on her router. This means the (ip, port) that Bob gets will not be valid for Charlie! If Charlie tries to send the router a packet to Bob’s assigned port, Alice’s router will drop it.

There is no way for Alice to know which port Charlie should send a packet to get through her firewall(s). She can’t know that in advance.

This is a lot easier if Charlie has no NAT or firewall. In that case, Bob can tell Alice to send a packet to Charlie. When Charlie gets that packet, he can send a packet back to Alice and it’ll make it through her NAT and firewalls.

But if Charlie is also behind a firewall, he will need to send a packet to Alice first to open up a path for her through his firewall. Otherwise, Alice’s packet will get blocked. But where should he send the packet?

From this point forward, every approach to NAT traversal becomes a probabilities game. Alice and Charlie both take a spray-and-pray approach sending packets to each other at random ports hoping to “guess” the right port number that will punch a hole through the firewalls and NATs between the two nodes. They keep guessing until they get through or a timeout passes and they give up.

That timeout isn’t just for Alice and Charlie, routers often maintain a timeout for port mapping where they’ll close the route if a message isn’t received. Once you reach that timeout, all of your previous guesses could be valid again. If you can’t find the right ports in that window of time, you’re unlikely to ever find them.

It gets even harder when the firewall has security policies that detect port scanning since Alice and Charlie are quite literally being forced to port scan each other’s routers. If the security policy kicks in, their routers are likely to ban each other’s IP addresses outright.

In this scenario, a NAT traversal strategy is unlikely to succeed. Even if the routers’ timeouts are extremely generous and there are no port-scanning security policies, it can take many minutes for Alice and Charlie to both make a valid matching guess. This latency is beyond what most applications can accept.

The “Dark Souls NAT”

The final boss is a “Hard NAT” router that load balances connections across multiple IP addresses. These are common in corporate networks. If Alice connects to the internet through a router that has a pool of IP addresses, she can’t even be sure what IP address Charlie should try to connect to.

When Alice tries to send a message to Bob, the router might pick any one of the IP addresses from the pool. When she sends a message to Charlie, it might come from a different IP address in the pool.

Charlie will need to know all possible IP addresses Alice might send a packet from and guess the right (IP, port) combination to open up his firewall for Alice.

In Dark Souls, this is when you shamelessly throw the controller at the TV and give up. That’s what we are going to do.

Giving up and maintaining performance

When Alice and Charlie are both behind “Easy NATs” and Bob can help them coordinate and get through each other’s firewalls, NAT Traversal is quick.

But how do Alice and Charlie know they need NAT traversal in the first place?

On the internet, there is no “baked-in” confirmation of delivery. Confirmation of delivery comes in the form of receiving a response back. All you can do is send a packet and wait.

Waiting isn’t great. If I want to connect two computers, waiting 5 seconds to figure out if I need to do NAT traversal is 5 seconds someone is staring at a “connecting” screen. And what do we do if NAT traversal isn’t easy? Do users sit and wait for 10s+?

Can we have our cake and eat it too? Peer-to-peer connections that get through firewalls and NAT while still maintaining similar performance to a publicly routable centralized service?

Actually, yes. Well, kind of. If Bob is generous.

If Bob is publicly addressable and already providing relaying services to Alice and Charlie, that relay can be used both for NAT Traversal and communicating.

This means Alice and Charlie can start communicating immediately through Bob. Bob provides a full relaying service allowing Alice and Charlie to communicate even if they can’t talk directly to one another.

In parallel, Alice and Charlie try directly dialing each other. If that times out, they start NAT traversal. If that fails, they just keep talking through Bob forever. But as soon as Alice and Charlie find a way through their NAT and firewalls, they “upgrade” their connection to a peer-to-peer connection.

Conclusion (for real this time)

Getting through a firewall is easy. Getting through an “Easy NAT” is easy. Getting through a single “Hard NAT” is tricky, but doable. Getting through multiple “Hard NATs” and some corporate network configurations is basically impossible.

Luckily most computers can perform NAT traversal fairly easily. “Hard NATs” aren’t exceptionally common and it’s even more rare for both ends of a connection to be behind a “Hard NAT.”

In every NAT Traversal strategy, we need a rendezvous point. To maintain performance, and when NAT Traversal fails, we need that rendezvous point to act as a relay for all communication.