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STUN and NAT

STUN and NAT

STUN and NAT

Session Traversal Utilities for NAT (STUN) is a protocol used to assist applications in establishing peer-to-peer communications across Network Address Translations (NATs) or firewalls.

Network Address Translation (NAT) is commonly used in private networks to allow multiple devices to share a single public IP address. The vast majority of home and corporate internet connections use at least one level of NAT.

Overview

In order for one application to connect to another across a network, the connecting application needs to know the IP address and port under which the target application is reachable. If both applications reside on the same network, then they can most likely connect directly to each other. In the context of a Coder workspace agent and client, this is generally not the case, as both agent and client will most likely be running in different private networks (e.g. 192.168.1.0/24). In this case, at least one of the two will need to know an IP address and port under which they can reach their counterpart.

This problem is often referred to as NAT traversal, and Coder uses a standard protocol named STUN to address this.

Inside of that network, packets from the agent or client will show up as having source address 192.168.1.X:12345. However, outside of this private network, the source address will show up differently (for example, 12.3.4.56:54321). In order for the Coder client and agent to establish a direct connection with each other, one of them needs to know the ip:port pair under which their counterpart can be reached. Once communication succeeds in one direction, we can inspect the source address of the received packet to determine the return address.

At a high level, STUN works like this:

The below glosses over a lot of the complexity of traversing NATs. For a more in-depth technical explanation, see How NAT traversal works (tailscale.com).

  • Discovery: Both the client and agent will send UDP traffic to one or more configured STUN servers. These STUN servers are generally located on the public internet, and respond with the public IP address and port from which the request came.
  • Coordination: The client and agent then exchange this information through the Coder server. They will then construct packets that should be able to successfully traverse their counterpart's NATs successfully.
  • NAT Traversal: The client and agent then send these crafted packets to their counterpart's public addresses. If all goes well, the NATs on the other end should route these packets to the correct internal address.
  • Connection: Once the packets reach the other side, they send a response back to the source ip:port from the packet. Again, the NATs should recognize these responses as belonging to an ongoing communication, and forward them accordingly.

At this point, both the client and agent should be able to send traffic directly to each other.

Examples

1. Direct connections without NAT or STUN

In this example, both the client and agent are located on the network 192.168.21.0/24. Assuming no firewalls are blocking packets in either direction, both client and agent are able to communicate directly with each other's locally assigned IP address.

Diagram of a workspace agent and client in the same network

2. Direct connections with one layer of NAT

In this example, client and agent are located on different networks and connect to each other over the public Internet. Both client and agent connect to a configured STUN server located on the public Internet to determine the public IP address and port on which they can be reached.

Diagram of a workspace agent and client in separate networks

They then exchange this information through Coder server, and can then communicate directly with each other through their respective NATs.

Diagram of a workspace agent and client in separate networks

3. Direct connections with VPN and NAT hairpinning

In this example, the client workstation must use a VPN to connect to the corporate network. All traffic from the client will enter through the VPN entry node and exit at the VPN exit node inside the corporate network. Traffic from the client inside the corporate network will appear to be coming from the IP address of the VPN exit node 172.16.1.2. Traffic from the client to the public internet will appear to have the public IP address of the corporate router 12.34.56.7.

The workspace agent is running on a Kubernetes cluster inside the corporate network, which is behind its own layer of NAT. To anyone inside the corporate network but outside the cluster network, its traffic will appear to be coming from 172.16.1.254. However, traffic from the agent to services on the public Internet will also see traffic originating from the public IP address assigned to the corporate router. Additionally, the corporate router will most likely have a firewall configured to block traffic from the internet to the corporate network.

If the client and agent both use the public STUN server, the addresses discovered by STUN will both be the public IP address of the corporate router. To correctly route the traffic backwards, the corporate router must correctly route both:

  • Traffic sent from the client to the external IP of the corporate router back to the cluster router, and
  • Traffic sent from the agent to the external IP of the corporate router to the VPN exit node.

This behaviour is known as "hairpinning", and may not be supported in all network configurations.

If hairpinning is not supported, deploying an internal STUN server can aid establishing direct connections between client and agent. When the agent and client query this internal STUN server, they will be able to determine the addresses on the corporate network from which their traffic appears to originate. Using these internal addresses is much more likely to result in a successful direct connection.

Diagram of a workspace agent and client over VPN

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