Wire Protocol

Introduction

This document describes and specifies the wire protocol that exists between the service and its clients. It explains the general principles of how the protocol is structured, and goes on to provide a full specification that can be used as the basis of both client-side and service-side code.

Scope

This document describes the principles, patterns and low-level details of the wire protocol. This covers the details that are common to all messages that pass between the service and its clients. This document is not an API specification for the service. Individual API operations, along with their behaviours, inputs and outputs are described separately in the API specification. The wire protocol is the underlying message-passing mechanism that enables the API.

Audience

A thorough understanding of the wire protocol is necessary if you are developing new capabilities within certain parts of the service, or if you are developing or extending one of its client libraries. However, it is not necessary to understand the wire protocol in order to consume the client API into an application.

General Principles

Binary Protocol

The wire protocol is a binary and stream-oriented protocol. It is designed for speed and compactness of transmission.

Requests and Responses

The wire protocol is principally structured around the notion of a request and a response. Requests and responses are self-contained pairs of entities, where each request is answered by exactly one response. Requests always travel from the client to the service, and responses always travel back from the service to the client. Each pair of request and response encapsulates a single call to a single operation provided by the service. Client library code is concerned with forming requests and transmitting them to the service. Service code is concerned with processing requests, forming responses, and transmitting those responses back to the client. The term message is used to refer generically to requests and responses in contexts where there is no need to draw a distinction between them.

Analogy With HTTP and REST

The request-response pattern of the wire protocol is intentionally modelled on the familiar notion of calling a REST API over HTTP. In fact, one of the guiding principles of the wire protocol design has been to create something that might loosely be called a "lightweight REST". This term must be applied with caution, however. REST is a collection of architectural principles, not a protocol. It does not follow that all of the RESTful principles are adopted here. However, thinking of the wire protocol as being like a web service protocol, only without any dependency on HTTP or similar stacks, can be a good way to gain an initial understanding. Some patterns of the wire protocol design have their foundation in a mixture of concepts taken from HTTP and REST, but the wire protocol itself is neither of these things: it is an entirely bespoke protocol.

Synchronous Operation

The wire protocol is based on requests and responses, and therefore models synchronous patterns of interaction. There is nothing in current versions of the protocol to assist with asynchronous patterns of interaction between the client and the service. Future versions of the protocol may introduce such concepts. In the meantime, depending on the type of transport used, it may be possible for the service or the clients to take advantage of asynchronous features of the transport (such as the non-blocking mode of a socket) to provide certain levels of asynchronous control.

Separation of Protocol and Transport

The wire protocol defines the format of messages, and some key characteristics and invariants concerning their transmission between the service and its clients. It does not mandate a specific transport stack. The wire protocol is a binary, stream-oriented protocol. As such, it can be carried by any transport medium that supports the reliable transmission of binary octet streams, such as Unix domain sockets (connected in streaming mode) or TCP sockets. Datagram-oriented transports are not supported, because the protocol depends on the reliable transmission of entire messages in the proper sequence.

Separation of Header and Body

Every message (whether request or response) has a header and a body. Again, this is conceptually similar to the separation of header and body in HTTP. And, like HTTP, this protocol allows some flexibility in how the body content is encoded. The wire protocol borrows HTTP's notion of the content-type and accept header fields, which allow the client to tell the server how to interpret the content, and also to declare what kind of response is acceptable in return. The only difference is that the wire protocol uses numerical byte fields to indicate these values, where HTTP uses string key-value pairs and media types. This is another illustration of how the wire protocol can be viewed as a more compact and stripped-down HTTP.

The message headers are fixed-length and fixed-format. The headers themselves have no variability in their encoding, nor do they adhere to any encoding or serialization standard. The format of the header is defined solely by this specification. When writing code to either transmit or receive a header, the code must be written and validated according to this specification alone. Headers are composed of a series of single-byte and multi-byte fields.

The header format is specified to be identical for requests and responses. Request and response headers are of identical size, and have identical fields specified at identical offsets. This means that developers only need to understand and code to a single header format. This design also means that shared memory transport technologies can be used where the header resides in a single shared buffer. However, this design does also means that some fields are redundant depending on the context. A full specification of the byte fields for the header will be found later in this document, including information about how and when they should be populated or interpreted.

Headers carry a fixed set of metadata fields that are common to all messages. However, they do not carry any inputs to or outputs from specific API operations. API inputs and outputs are always carried in the body. Unlike the header, which is always fixed-length and fixed-format, the body can be both variable-length and variable-format.

Protobuf Body

As described above, the wire protocol design allows for the message body to be structured and encoded in a variety of formats. However, in current manifestations of the protocol, only a single encoding is defined for use in the message bodies, and this encoding is based on protocol buffers, also known as protobuf.

For each operation in the API, two separate protobuf message definitions will exist: one for that operation's inputs, and another for its outputs. The body in a request message can be converted through protobuf-generated code into a model object for the inputs. Likewise, the body in a response message can be converted through protobuf-generated code into a model object for the outputs.

Processing any message is, therefore, a two-phase process: firstly, the header must be processed by writing code that is conformant with this specification; and secondly, the content must be processed according to its content type, which is currently always protobuf.

Future manifestations of the wire protocol might support encoding schemes other than protobuf, in which case the second phase of processing would differ. This is the reason why the protocol design has granted some flexibility in terms of the message body encoding.

It is worth re-iterating that protobuf encodings are employed only for message bodies and not for headers. As explained above, headers employ a bespoke binary encoding that is fully defined within this specification alone. There is no use of protobuf within the header. Headers can be parsed and generated only by writing code that conforms to this specification document. Again, this permits for the possibility that a future manifesation might support different encoding schemes.

Authentication

As described above, all messages in this protocol have a header and a body. If a message is a request (as opposed to a response), then it will additionally carry a third component: its authentication field.

The wire protocol is agnostic about how the authentication field is interpreted. The request header measures the size of the field so that the service can consume the correct number of bytes from the input stream. The request header also includes a one-byte integer label to inform the service how to interpret the authentication bytes.

Authentication is based on the invariant that all client applications have access to a persistent unique identifier. This is a string token that allows the assets and actions of one client to be cleanly separated from those of another. But while this identifier string is the core component of authentication, there are different ways that it can be used, and consequently there are different ways for the authentication field to be populated. One simple method is for the client identifier to be passed directly. But it is also possible to use the identifier as input to an HMAC algorithm over the body, in which case the authentication field would contain the computed HMAC, rather than the identifier itself.

Sessions

The wire protocol supports the notion of sessions, which can be used to allow the client and the service to track state across multiple API calls. The protocol allocates space within the request header and the response header for an 8-byte session identifier. Details of how to create and manage sessions are given in the API specification.

Wire Protocol Versions

The wire protocol is versioned. It caters for situations where the service and its clients may be operating at different versions. All messages (requests and responses) carry a major and minor version number field. Although the design supports having different wire protocol versions, changes are not expected to happen regularly, and they may not happen at all.

Clients can use the Ping operation to determine what is the highest version of the protocol that the service support and switch to that one if they want to. Requests made with a wire protocol version not supported by the service will be sent back a WireProtocolVersionNotSupported status code response.

Responses will be sent using the same wire protocol version than the requests they originate from.

Please note that the wire protocol version is not the mean of finding out the level of support for specific operations in the API. The ListOpcodes operation should be used, per provider basis, to determine if an operation is supported by the provider.

Opcodes

All requests contain an unsigned 4-byte integer field called the opcode. The opcode is the value that determines which API operation is being invoked by the requests. Recall that each request/response pair corresponds to the invocation of exactly one API operation, and each of these operations is assigned an integer opcode.

The opcode zero is not used and is not valid. The lowest valid opcode is 0x0001, and the highest valid opcode is 0xFFFF.

All opcodes are defined within the API specification.

Status

All responses contain an unsigned 2-byte integer field called the status, which is defined to indicate the overall success or failure of the operation.

The status value of zero (0x0000) is used universally to mean that the operation completed successfully.

With the exception of zero as a special case, other status values are partitioned according to the same strategy as the opcodes. Status values from 1-999 are reserved for internal service housekeeping operations, and status values from 1000-1999 are reserved for status codes corresponding to the Platform Security Architecture (PSA) Cryptography API.

All status values and their definition can be found on the Status Codes page.

Message Structure Specifications

General Rules

This section provides a complete specification for the interpretation of messages. Based on this specification, service and client code can be created to both consume and produce conformant messages on any suitable transport medium.

All multi-byte numerical fields are transported in little-endian format: the least significant byte is sent first.

The Fixed Common Header

Requests and responses share a common fixed-format header whose specification is given below. Because the header format is the same for requests and responses, it means that some of the data fields in the header are unused/ignored depending on whether the header is an outgoing request (being transmitted from the client to the service), or an incoming response (being returned from the service back to the client). However, most fields are relevant and common to both.

Each field is annotated according to the following scheme:

  • "Common" indicates that the field is common to both request messages and response messages.
  • "Requests only" indicates that the field is only used in requests and may be ignored in responses.
  • "Responses only" indicates that the field is only used in responses and may be ignored in requests.

Fields occur in contiguous memory and there must be no additional padding between them. On the following diagram, the bytes go left to right from least significant to most significant.

Header Structure

NameSchemeSize (in bytes)Description
Magic numberCommon4Must be 0x5EC0A710 (selected to be an approximate transcoding of SECurity API). This field can be used as an initial validity check for incoming messages. This field must be populated in all messages. This field will remain the same across different wire protocol versions.
Header sizeCommon2Size of the remainder of the header in bytes (once the magic number and header size fields have been consumed). Consumers must use this field to consume the correct number of bytes of header from the input stream, rather than use this specification to deduce the header size. This field's position and width will remain the same across different wire protocol versions. Only the value of this field may change between versions.
Major version numberCommon1Versioning field. Currently the only supported and valid value for this field is 0x01. This field's position and width will remain the same across different wire protocol versions. Only the value of this field may change between versions.
Minor version numberCommon1Versioning sub-field. Currently the only supported and valid value for this field is 0x00. This field's position and width will remain the same across different wire protocol versions. Only the value of this field may change between versions.
FlagsCommon2Currently unused and should be set to 0x0000.
ProviderCommon1Identify the back-end service provider for which the request is intended. A value of zero indicates that the request is intended for a special provider, which always exists, and is used for service discovery and communication bootstrapping.
Session handleCommon8Session identifier.
Content typeCommon1Defines how the message body should be processed. The only currently-supported value is 0x01, which indicates that the message body should be treated as a serialized protobuf message.
Accept typeRequests only1Defines how the service should provide its response. The only currently-supported value is 0x01, which indicates that the service should provide a response whose body is a serialized protobuf message.
Auth typeRequests only1Defines how the authentication bytes should be interpreted.
Content lengthCommon4Provides the exact number of bytes of body.
Auth lengthRequests only2Provides the exact number of bytes of authentication.
OpcodeCommon4Indicates the operation being performed by this request. See the section above on opcodes.
StatusResponses only2Indicates the overall success or failure of the operation. A value of zero is used universally to mean success. Other values should be interpreted according to the API specification.
ReservedCommon2Currently unused and must be set to zero.

Requests

A request message begins with the fixed-format header as specified above, followed contiguously by a variable-length field of zero or more message body bytes, which is in turn followed contiguously in memory by a variable-length field of zero or more authentication bytes.

The interpretation of the body and authentication bytes is specified by the relevant fields in the fixed-format header.

The request body bytes must immediately follow the request header bytes, and the size of the body must precisely match the Content Length field of the header with no additional padding or alignment.

The authentication bytes must immediately follow the request body bytes, and the size of the authentication field must precisely match the Auth Length field of the header with no additional padding or alignment.

Wire Request

Responses

A response message begins with the fixed-format header as specified above, followed contiguously by a variable-length field of zero or more message body bytes.

The interpretation of the body is specified by the relevant fields in the fixed-format header.

The response body bytes must immediately follow the response header bytes, and the size of the body must precisely match the Content Length field of the header with no additional padding or alignment.

Wire Response

Copyright 2019 Contributors to the Parsec project.