RFC 9419 Path Signals Collaboration July 2023
Arkko, et al. Informational [Page]
Internet Architecture Board (IAB)
J. Arkko
T. Hardie
T. Pauly
M. Kühlewind

RFC 9419

Considerations on Application - Network Collaboration Using Path Signals


This document discusses principles for designing mechanisms that use or provide path signals and calls for standards action in specific valuable cases. RFC 8558 describes path signals as messages to or from on-path elements and points out that visible information will be used whether or not it is intended as a signal. The principles in this document are intended as guidance for the design of explicit path signals, which are encouraged to be authenticated and include a minimal set of parties to minimize information sharing. These principles can be achieved through mechanisms like encryption of information and establishing trust relationships between entities on a path.

Status of This Memo

This document is not an Internet Standards Track specification; it is published for informational purposes.

This document is a product of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) and represents information that the IAB has deemed valuable to provide for permanent record. It represents the consensus of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB). Documents approved for publication by the IAB are not candidates for any level of Internet Standard; see Section 2 of RFC 7841.

Information about the current status of this document, any errata, and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc9419.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

[RFC8558] defines the term "path signals" as signals to or from on-path elements. Today, path signals are often implicit; for example, they are derived from cleartext end-to-end information by, e.g., examining transport protocols. For instance, on-path elements use various fields of the TCP header [RFC9293] to derive information about end-to-end latency as well as congestion. These techniques have evolved because the information was available and its use required no coordination with anyone. This made such techniques more easily deployable than alternative, potentially more explicit or cooperative, approaches.

However, this also means that applications and networks have often evolved their interaction without comprehensive design for how this interaction should happen or which (minimal) information would be needed for a certain function. This has led to a situation where information that happens to be easily available is used instead of the information that is actually needed. As such, that information may be incomplete, incorrect, or only indirectly representative of the information that is actually needed. In addition, dependencies on information and mechanisms that were designed for a different function limit the evolvability of the protocols in question.

In summary, such unplanned interactions end up having several negative effects:

For instance, features such as DNS resolution or TLS setup have been used beyond their original intent, such as in name-based filtering. Media Access Control (MAC) addresses have been used for access control, captive portals have been used to take over cleartext HTTP sessions, and so on. (This document is not about whether those practices are good or bad; it is simply stating a fact that the features were used beyond their original intent.)

Many protocol mechanisms throughout the stack fall into one of two categories: authenticated private communication that is only visible to a very limited set of parties, often one on each "end", and unauthenticated public communication that is visible to all network elements on a path.

Exposed information encourages pervasive monitoring, which is described in [RFC7258]. It may also be used for commercial purposes or to form a basis for filtering that the applications or users do not desire. However, a lack of all path signaling, on the other hand, may limit network management, debugging, or the ability for networks to optimize their services. There are many cases where elements on the network path can provide beneficial services, but only if they can coordinate with the endpoints. It also affects the ability of service providers and others to observe why problems occur [RFC9075].

As such, this situation is sometimes cast as an adversarial trade-off between privacy and the ability for the network path to provide intended functions. However, this is perhaps an unnecessarily polarized characterization as a zero-sum situation. Not all information passing implies loss of privacy. For instance, performance information or preferences do not require disclosing the content being accessed, the user identity, or the application in use. Similarly, network congestion status information does not have to reveal network topology, the status of other users, and so on.

Increased deployment of encryption is changing this situation. Encryption provides tools for controlling information access and protects against ossification by avoiding unintended dependencies and requiring active maintenance. The increased deployment of encryption provides an opportunity to reconsider parts of Internet architecture that have used implicit derivation of input signals for on-path functions rather than explicit signaling, as recommended by [RFC8558].

For instance, QUIC replaces TCP for various applications and protects end-to-end signals so that they are only accessible by the endpoints, ensuring evolvability [RFC9000]. QUIC does expose information dedicated for on-path elements to consume by using explicit signals for specific use cases, such as the Spin Bit for latency measurements or connection ID that can be used by load balancers [RFC9312]. This information is accessible by all on-path devices, but information is limited to only those use cases. Each new use case requires additional action. This points to one way to resolve the adversity: the careful design of what information is passed.

Another extreme is to employ explicit trust and coordination between specific entities, endpoints, and network path elements. VPNs are a good example of a case where there is an explicit authentication and negotiation with a network path element that is used to gain access to specific resources. Authentication and trust must be considered in both directions: how endpoints trust and authenticate signals from network path elements and how network path elements trust and authenticate signals from endpoints.

The goal of improving privacy and trust on the Internet does not necessarily need to remove the ability for network elements to perform beneficial functions. We should instead improve the way that these functions are achieved and design new ways to support explicit collaboration where it is seen as beneficial. As such, our goals should be to:

These goals for exposure and distribution apply equally to senders, receivers, and path elements.

Going forward, new standards work in the IETF needs to focus on addressing this gap by providing better alternatives and mechanisms for building functions that require some collaboration between endpoints and path elements.

We can establish some basic questions that any new network function should consider:

If we look at ways network functions are achieved today, we find that many, if not most of them, fall short of the standard set up by the questions above. Too often, they send unnecessary information, fail to limit the scope of distribution, or fail to provide any negotiation or consent.

Designing explicit signals between applications and network elements, and ensuring that all information is appropriately protected, enables information exchange in both directions that is important for improving the quality of experience and network management. The clean separation provided by explicit signals is also more conducive to protocol evolvability.

Beyond the recommendation in [RFC8558], the IAB has provided further guidance on protocol design. Among other documents, [RFC5218] provides general advice on incremental deployability based on an analysis of successes and failures, and [RFC6709] discusses protocol extensibility. The Internet Technology Adoption and Transition (ITAT) workshop report [RFC7305] is also a recommended reading on this same general topic. [RFC9049], an IRTF document, provides a catalog of past issues to avoid and discusses incentives for adoption of path signals such as the need for outperforming end-to-end mechanisms or considering per-connection state.

This document discusses different approaches for explicit collaboration and provides guidance on architectural principles to design new mechanisms. Section 2 discusses principles that good design can follow. This section also provides examples and explores the consequences of not following these principles in those examples. Section 3 points to topics that need to be looked at more carefully before any guidance can be given.

2. Principles

This section provides architecture-level principles for protocol designers and recommends models to apply for network collaboration and signaling.

While [RFC8558] focuses specifically on communication to "on-path elements", the principles described in this document apply potentially to:

An example of on-path signaling is communication between an endpoint and a router on a network path. An example of signaling with another network element is communication between an endpoint and a network-assigned DNS server, firewall controller, or captive portal API server. Note that these communications are conceptually independent of the base flow, even if they share a packet; they are coming from and going to other parties, rather than creating a multiparty communication.

Taken together, these principles focus on the inherent privacy and security concerns of sharing information between endpoints and network elements, emphasizing that careful scrutiny and a high bar of consent and trust need to be applied. Given the known threat of pervasive monitoring, the application of these principles is critical to ensuring that the use of path signals does not create a disproportionate opportunity for observers to extract new data from flows.

2.1. Intentional Distribution

The following guideline is best expressed in [RFC8558]:

Fundamentally, this document recommends that implicit signals should be avoided and that an implicit signal should be replaced with an explicit signal only when the signal's originator intends that it be used by the network elements on the path. For many flows, this may result in the signal being absent but allows it to be present when needed.

The goal is that any information should be provided knowingly, for a specific purpose, sent in signals designed for that purpose, and that any use of information should be done within that purpose. In addition, an analysis of the security and privacy implications of the specific purpose and associated information is needed.

This guideline applies in the network element to application direction as well: a network element should not unintentionally leak information. While this document makes recommendations that are applicable to many different situations, it is important to note that the above call for careful analysis is key. Different types of information, applications, and directions of communication influence the analysis and can lead to very different conclusions about what information can be shared and with whom. For instance, it is easy to find examples of information that applications should not share with network elements (e.g., content of communications) or that network elements should not share with applications (e.g., detailed user location in a wireless network). But, equally, information about other things, such as the onset of congestion, should be possible to share and can be beneficial information to all parties.

Intentional distribution is a precondition for explicit collaboration that enables each entity to have the highest possible level of control about what information to share.

2.2. Control of the Distribution of Information

Explicit signals are not enough. The entities also need to agree to exchange the information. Trust and mutual agreement between the involved entities must determine the distribution of information in order to give each entity adequate control over the collaboration or information sharing. This can be achieved as discussed below.

The sender needs to decide that it is willing to send information to a specific entity or set of entities. Any passing of information or request for an action needs to be explicit and use signaling mechanisms that are designed for the purpose. Merely sending a particular kind of packet to a destination should not be interpreted as an implicit agreement.

At the same time, the recipient of information or the target of a request should have the option to agree or deny to receiving the information. It should not be burdened with extra processing if it does not have willingness or a need to do so. This happens naturally in most protocol designs, but it has been a problem for some cases where "slow path" packet processing is required or implied, and the recipient or router is not willing to handle it. Performance impacts like this are best avoided, however.

In any case, all involved entities must be identified and potentially authenticated if trust is required as a prerequisite to share certain information.

Many Internet communications are not performed on behalf of the applications but are ultimately made on behalf of users. However, not all information that may be shared directly relates to user actions or other sensitive data. All shared information must be evaluated carefully to identify potential privacy implications for users. Information that directly relates to the user should not be shared without the user's consent. It should be noted that the interests of the user and other parties, such as the application developer, may not always coincide; some applications may wish to collect more information about the user than the user would like. As discussed in [RFC8890], from an IETF point of view, the interests of the user should be prioritized over those of the application developer. The general issue of how to achieve a balance of control between the actual user and an application representing a user's interest is out of scope for this document.

2.3. Protecting Information and Authentication

Some simple forms of information often exist in cleartext form, e.g., Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN) bits from routers are generally not authenticated or integrity protected. This is possible when the information exchanges do not carry any significantly sensitive information from the parties. Often, these kinds of interactions are also advisory in their nature (see Section 2.5).

In other cases, it may be necessary to establish a secure signaling channel for communication with a specific other party, e.g., between a network element and an application. This channel may need to be authenticated, integrity protected, and confidential. This is necessary, for instance, if the particular information or request needs to be shared in confidence only with a particular, trusted network element or endpoint or if there is danger of an attack where someone else may forge messages that could endanger the communication.

Authenticated integrity protections on signaled data can help ensure that data received in a signal has not been modified by other parties. Still, both network elements and endpoints need to be careful in processing or responding to any signal. Whether through bugs or attacks, the content of path signals can lead to unexpected behaviors or security vulnerabilities if not properly handled. As a result, the advice in Section 2.5 still applies even in situations where there's a secure channel for sending information.

However, it is important to note that authentication does not equal trust. Whether a communication is with an application server or network element that can be shown to be associated with a particular domain name, it does not follow that information about the user can be safely sent to it.

In some cases, the ability of a party to show that it is on the path can be beneficial. For instance, an ICMP error that refers to a valid flow may be more trustworthy than any ICMP error claiming to come from an address.

Other cases may require more substantial assurances. For instance, a specific trust arrangement may be established between a particular network and application. Or technologies, such as confidential computing, can be applied to provide an assurance that information processed by a party is handled in an appropriate manner.

2.4. Minimize Information

Each party should provide only the information that is needed for the other parties to perform the task for which collaboration is desired and no more. This applies to information sent by an application about itself, sent about users, or sent by the network. This also applies to any information related to flow identification.

An architecture can follow the guideline from [RFC8558] in using explicit signals but still fail to differentiate properly between information that should be kept private and information that should be shared. [RFC6973] also outlines this principle of data minimization as a mitigation technique to protect privacy and provides further guidance.

In looking at what information can or cannot be easily passed, we need to consider both information from the network to the application and from the application to the network.

For the application-to-network direction, user-identifying information can be problematic for privacy and tracking reasons. Similarly, application identity can be problematic if it might form the basis for prioritization or discrimination that the application provider may not wish to happen.

On the other hand, as noted above, information about general classes of applications may be desirable to be given by application providers if it enables prioritization that would improve service, e.g., differentiation between interactive and non-interactive services.

For the network-to-application direction, there is similarly sensitive information, such as the precise location of the user. On the other hand, various generic network conditions, predictive bandwidth and latency capabilities, and so on might be attractive information that applications can use to determine, for instance, optimal strategies for changing codecs. However, information given by the network about load conditions and so on should not form a mechanism to provide a side channel into what other users are doing.

While information needs to be specific and provided on a per-need basis, it is often beneficial to provide declarative information that, for instance, expresses application needs and then makes specific requests for action.

2.5. Limiting Impact of Information

Information shared between a network element and an endpoint of a connection needs to have a limited impact on the behavior of both endpoints and network elements. Any action that an endpoint or network element takes based on a path signal needs to be considered appropriately based on the level of authentication and trust that has been established, and it needs to be scoped to a specific network path.

For example, an ICMP signal from a network element to an endpoint can be used to influence future behavior on that particular network path (such as changing the effective packet size or closing a path-specific connection) but should not be able to cause a multipath or migration-capable transport connection to close.

In many cases, path signals can be considered advisory information, with the effect of optimizing or adjusting the behavior of connections on a specific path. In the case of a firewall blocking connectivity to a given host, endpoints should only interpret that as the host being unavailable on that particular path; this is in contrast to an end-to-end authenticated signal, such as a DNSSEC-authenticated denial of existence [RFC7129].

2.6. Minimum Set of Entities

It is recommended that a design identifies the minimum number of entities needed to share a specific signal required for an identified function.

Often, this will be a very limited set, such as when an application only needs to provide a signal to its peer at the other end of the connection or a host needs to contact a specific VPN gateway. In other cases, a broader set is needed, such as when explicit or implicit signals from a potentially unknown set of multiple routers along the path inform the endpoints about congestion.

While it is tempting to consider removing these limitations in the context of closed, private networks, each interaction is still best considered separately, rather than simply allowing all information exchanges within the closed network. Even in a closed network with carefully managed elements, there may be compromised components, as evidenced in the most extreme way by the Stuxnet worm that operated in an air-gapped network. Most "closed" networks have at least some needs and means to access the rest of the Internet and should not be modeled as if they had an impenetrable security barrier.

2.7. Carrying Information

There is a distinction between what information is sent and how it is sent. The information that is actually sent may be limited, while the mechanisms for sending or requesting information can be capable of sharing much more.

There is a trade-off here between flexibility and ensuring that the information is minimal in the future. The concern is that a fully generic data-sharing approach between different layers and parties could potentially be misused, e.g., by making the availability of some information a requirement for passing through a network, such as making it mandatory to identify specific applications or users. This is undesirable.

This document recommends that signaling mechanisms that send information be built to specifically support sending the necessary, minimal set of information (see Section 2.4) and no more. As previously noted, flow-identifying information is a path signal in itself, and as such, provisioning of flow identifiers also requires protocol-specific analysis.

Further, such mechanisms also need to have the ability to establish an agreement (see Section 2.2) and sufficient trust to pass the information (see Section 2.3).

3. Further Work

This is a developing field, and it is expected that our understanding of it will continue to grow. One recent change is much higher use of encryption at different protocol layers. This obviously impacts the field greatly, by removing the ability to use most implicit signals. However, it may also provide new tools for secure collaboration and force a rethinking of how collaboration should be performed.

While there are some examples of modern, well-designed collaboration mechanisms, the list of examples is not long. Clearly, more work is needed if we wish to realize the potential benefits of collaboration in further cases. This requires a mindset change, a migration away from using implicit signals. And of course we need to choose such cases where the collaboration can be performed safely, where it is not a privacy concern, and where the incentives of the relevant parties are aligned. It should also be noted that many complex cases would require significant developments in order to become feasible.

Some of the most difficult areas are listed below. Research on these topics would be welcome. Note that the topics include both those dealing directly with on-path network element collaboration and some adjacent issues that would influence such collaboration.

4. IANA Considerations

This document has no IANA actions.

5. Security Considerations

This document has no security considerations.

6. Informative References

Claffy, KC. and D. Clark, "Adding Enhanced Services to the Internet: Lessons from History", TPRC 43: The 43rd Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy Paper, DOI 10.2139/ssrn.2587262, , <https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2587262>.
Arkko, J. and J. Novotny, "Privacy Improvements for DNS Resolution with Confidential Computing", Work in Progress, Internet-Draft, draft-arkko-dns-confidential-02, , <https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/html/draft-arkko-dns-confidential-02>.
Trammell, B., Ed., "Architectural Considerations for Transport Evolution with Explicit Path Cooperation", Work in Progress, Internet-Draft, draft-trammell-stackevo-explicit-coop-00, , <https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/html/draft-trammell-stackevo-explicit-coop-00>.
Thomson, M. and C. A. Wood, "Oblivious HTTP", Work in Progress, Internet-Draft, draft-thomson-http-oblivious-02, , <https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/html/draft-thomson-http-oblivious-02>.
Jain, A., Terzis, A., Flinck, H., Sprecher, N., Arunachalam, S., Smith, K., Devarapalli, V., and R. Bar Yanai, "Mobile Throughput Guidance Inband Signaling Protocol", Work in Progress, Internet-Draft, draft-flinck-mobile-throughput-guidance-04, , <https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/html/draft-flinck-mobile-throughput-guidance-04>.
Yiakoumis, Y., McKeown, N., and F. Sorensen, "Network Tokens", Work in Progress, Internet-Draft, draft-yiakoumis-network-tokens-02, , <https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/html/draft-yiakoumis-network-tokens-02>.
Schmitt, P., Edmundson, A., Mankin, A., and N. Feamster, "Oblivious DNS: Practical Privacy for DNS Queries", Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies, Volume 2019, Issue 2, pp. 228-244, DOI 10.2478/popets-2019-0028, , <https://doi.org/10.2478/popets-2019-0028>.
Arkko, J., "Considerations on Information Passed between Networks and Applications", Work in Progress, Internet-Draft, draft-arkko-path-signals-information-00, , <https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/html/draft-arkko-path-signals-information-00>.
Nakatsuka, Y., Paverd, A., and G. Tsudik, "PDoT: Private DNS-over-TLS with TEE Support", Digital Threats: Research and Practice, Volume 2, Issue 1, Article No. 3, pp. 1-22, DOI 10.1145/3431171, , <https://doi.org/10.1145/3431171>.
Colitti, L. and T. Pauly, "Per-Application Networking Considerations", Work in Progress, Internet-Draft, draft-per-app-networking-considerations-00, , <https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/html/draft-per-app-networking-considerations-00>.
Thaler, D. and B. Aboba, "What Makes for a Successful Protocol?", RFC 5218, DOI 10.17487/RFC5218, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc5218>.
Carpenter, B., Aboba, B., Ed., and S. Cheshire, "Design Considerations for Protocol Extensions", RFC 6709, DOI 10.17487/RFC6709, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc6709>.
Cooper, A., Tschofenig, H., Aboba, B., Peterson, J., Morris, J., Hansen, M., and R. Smith, "Privacy Considerations for Internet Protocols", RFC 6973, DOI 10.17487/RFC6973, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc6973>.
Gieben, R. and W. Mekking, "Authenticated Denial of Existence in the DNS", RFC 7129, DOI 10.17487/RFC7129, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc7129>.
Farrell, S. and H. Tschofenig, "Pervasive Monitoring Is an Attack", BCP 188, RFC 7258, DOI 10.17487/RFC7258, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc7258>.
Lear, E., Ed., "Report from the IAB Workshop on Internet Technology Adoption and Transition (ITAT)", RFC 7305, DOI 10.17487/RFC7305, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc7305>.
Hardie, T., Ed., "Transport Protocol Path Signals", RFC 8558, DOI 10.17487/RFC8558, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8558>.
Nottingham, M., "The Internet is for End Users", RFC 8890, DOI 10.17487/RFC8890, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc8890>.
Iyengar, J., Ed. and M. Thomson, Ed., "QUIC: A UDP-Based Multiplexed and Secure Transport", RFC 9000, DOI 10.17487/RFC9000, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc9000>.
Dawkins, S., Ed., "Path Aware Networking: Obstacles to Deployment (A Bestiary of Roads Not Taken)", RFC 9049, DOI 10.17487/RFC9049, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc9049>.
Arkko, J., Farrell, S., Kühlewind, M., and C. Perkins, "Report from the IAB COVID-19 Network Impacts Workshop 2020", RFC 9075, DOI 10.17487/RFC9075, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc9075>.
Eddy, W., Ed., "Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)", STD 7, RFC 9293, DOI 10.17487/RFC9293, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc9293>.
Kühlewind, M. and B. Trammell, "Manageability of the QUIC Transport Protocol", RFC 9312, DOI 10.17487/RFC9312, , <https://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc9312>.

IAB Members at the Time of Approval

Internet Architecture Board members at the time this document was approved for publication were:


The authors would like to thank everyone at the IETF, the IAB, and our day jobs for interesting thoughts and proposals in this space. Fragments of this document were also in [PER-APP-NETWORKING] and [PATH-SIGNALS-INFO]. We would also like to acknowledge that similar thoughts are presented in [EXPLICIT-COOP]. Finally, the authors would like to thank Adrian Farrell, Toerless Eckert, Martin Thomson, Mark Nottingham, Luis M. Contreras, Watson Ladd, Vittorio Bertola, Andrew Campling, Eliot Lear, Spencer Dawkins, Christian Huitema, David Schinazi, Cullen Jennings, Mallory Knodel, Zhenbin Li, Chris Box, and Jeffrey Haas for useful feedback on this topic and document.

Authors' Addresses

Jari Arkko
Ted Hardie
Tommy Pauly
Mirja Kühlewind