Nov 162018
 

I’ve been doing more pondering on the routing side of things.  The initial thought was to use Net/ROM L3 to figure out the source route of who can hear whom.  Getting access to that via BPQ’s interfaces may not be easy unless we happen to eavesdrop on the broadcasts, and of course, there’s no service discovery in BPQ.

The thought came to me, what does ICMPv6 offer me in terms of routing?  If I can ask “who has a route to node X?” or announce “I know how to reach X”… I could just skip Net/ROM L3 altogether, since there’s a good chance both will co-exist quite happily on the same AX.25 network, we just take a ship-pass-in-the-night approach.

ICMPv6 Router Advertisements basically just say “I’m a router and this is my local prefix”, similarly, ICMPv6 Router Discovery messages just ask “Who’s a router?” … not greatly helpful.

RFC-4191 gets close, specifically the Route Information Option, but this is again, targeted at reaching a node on a differing subnet to the local one, and only applies to RAs.

This is a service that 802.15.4 actually provides to 6LoWPAN (RFC-4944), so from the point of view of IPv6, a 802.15.4 network translated through 6LoWPAN “looks” like one L2 network, it just needs to know a node’s extended address which is what made me think about Net/ROM L3 in the first place.

RFC-6775 looks to enhance things a little bit, by considering the fact that it’s not just one big happy family however, not everyone can talk to each-other, and links come and go.

One thing is clear, not everybody will be a router.  Specifically, a node should definitely not advertise itself as a router unless it can hear at least two other nodes, or knows routes to nodes learned either through static configuration or via Net/ROM node advertisements.

Two nodes can just exclusively use link-layer communications, so there’s no need for either to be “routers”.  Soon as a third joins in, potentially all three could be routers if they can all hear each-other, but if you have a linear topology where only the central node can hear the other two, it is logical that that node becomes a router, and not the others.

The question is then, if one of those peripheral nodes disappears, what should the router do?  I’m thinking it should remain a router for a limited period of time (configurable, but maybe measured in hours), just in case that node returns or other nodes appear.  After some time, it may “demote” itself to non-routing node status and relinquish control of the on-mesh prefix.

Where a node promotes itself to router, if an existing on-mesh prefix is in use, it should continue to use that, otherwise it should derive a suitable ULA prefix for use.

It may also follow that a ULA is configured for certain nodes, and they are configured to remain in the router role, regardless of the number of neighbours.  Repeater sites would be prime candidates for this.  They’re in a position where they should have good coverage, and thus should be prime candidates to be routers.

Since we can do multi-hop source routing with AX.25, there’s scope to perhaps exploit this in a higher level protocol which we might build on UDP messaging, as it doesn’t look like the existing standards provide for this sort of route path all that well.  TCP/IP is after all destination routed whilst AX.25 is source routed.

I think maybe tomorrow (which is predicted to be wet), it’ll be a good day to sit down and prototype something that maybe takes care of the IP messaging side of things and at least gets two AX.25 stations exchanging messages, then we can start to build something atop that.

Nov 152018
 

Having discussed the idea with a few people, both on the linux-hams mailing list and off-list, I’m starting to formalise a few plans for how this might work.

One option is to augment existing software stacks and inter-operate not just over-the-air, but at an API level.  Brisbane WICEN have a fleet of TNCs all running TheNet X1J, which was a popular Net/ROM software stack for TAPR TNC2-compatible TNCs in the early 90s.  Slowly, these are being replaced with Raspberry Pis equipped with Pi-TNCs and running LinBPQ.

These two inter-operate quite well, and the plan looks to be, to slowly upgrade all the sites to LinBPQ nodes.

Now, 6LoWHAM on TNCs that are nearly as old as I am just isn’t going to fly, but if I can link up to LinBPQ, this alternate protocol can be packaged up and installed along-side LinBPQ in an unobtrusive manner.

There are two things I need to be able to do:

  • Send and receive raw AX.25 frames
  • Read the routing table from LinBPQ

Sending and receiving raw frames

Looking at the interfaces that LinBPQ (and BPQ32) offers, the most promising option looks to be the AGWPE-compatible interface.  The protocol is essentially a TCP link over which the AX.25 frames are encapsulated and sent.

There’s a good description of the protocol here, and looking at the sources for LinBPQ (third link from the bottom of the page), it looks as if the necessary bits of the protocol are present to send and receive raw frames.

In particular, to send raw UI frames, I need to send these as ‘M’ (direct) or ‘V’ frames (via digipeater), and to receive them, I need to make use of the monitoring mode (‘m’ frame).

Reading the routing table

This, is where things will be “fun”.  The AGWPE interface does offer a “heard” frame, which can report on what stations have been heard.  This I think isn’t going to be the holy grail I’m after, although it’ll be a start, maybe.

Alternatively, a way around this might be to “eavesdrop” on the Net/ROM routing frames.  In monitor mode, I should theoretically hear all traffic, including these Net/ROM beacons.  It’s not as nice as being able to simply read LinBPQ’s routing table, but at least I don’t have to generate the Net/ROM messages.

The other way would be to connect to the terminal interface on LinBPQ, and use the NODES command, parsing that.  Ugly, but it’ll get me by.  On that same page is NRR… which looks to be similar in function to TCP/IP’s traceroute.  The feature is also supported by JNOS 2.0, which was released in 2006.  Not old by packet radio standards, but old enough.

Identifying if a remote station supports 6LoWHAM

Now, this is the tricky bit.  Identifying an immediate neighbour is easy enough, you can simply send an ICMPv6 neighbour solicitation message and see if they respond.  In fact, I’m thinking that could be the immediate first step.  There’s no support for service discovery as such, but nodes could advertise an “alias” (just one).

The best bet may be a suck-it-and-see approach.  We should be able to “digipeat” via intermediate nodes as if they were plain L2 AX.25 digipeaters, thus if we have a reason to contact a given node (i.e. there’s unicast traffic queued up to be sent there), we can just try routing an AX.25 frame with a ICMPv6 neighbour solicitation and see if we get a neighbour advertisement.

This carries a risk though: a station may not react well to unknown traffic and may try to parse the message as something it is not.  Thus for unicast, it is not a fail-safe method.

Multicast traffic however will be a challenge, and much of IPv6 relies on multicast.  The Net/ROM station will not know anything about this, as it simply wasn’t a concept back in the day.

For subnets like ff03::1, which on Thread networks usually means “all full-function Thread devices”, this could be sent via non-6LoWHAM digipeaters by broadcasting via that digipeater to the AX.25 station alias “6LHMC” (6LoWHAM Multicast).

This could be used to provide tunnelling of multicast traffic where a route to a station has been discovered via Net/ROM and we need to safely test whether the station can in fact understand 6LoWHAM traffic without the risk of crashing it.

I think the next step might be to look at how a normal IPv6 node would “register” interest in a multicast group so that routers between it and the sender of such a group know where to forward traffic.  IPv6 does have such a mechanism, and I think understanding how multicast traverses subnets is going to be key to making this work.

Oct 272018
 

So earlier, I had mentioned that it’s really not desirable to have ARQ (automatic repeat request) on a link carrying TCP datagrams.  My comment is based on this observation:

http://sites.inka.de/bigred/devel/tcp-tcp.html

In that article, the discussion is about one TCP connection being tunnelled over another TCP connection.  Basically it comes down to the lower layer buffering and re-sending the TCP datagrams just as the upper layer gives up on hearing a reply and re-sends its own attempt.

Now, end-to-end ACKs have been done on long chains of AX.25 networks before.  It’s generally accepted to be an unreliable mechanism.  UDP for sure can benefit, but then many protocols that use UDP already do their own handling of lost messages.  CoAP for instance does its own ARQ, as does TFTP.

Gerald Wagenknecht, Markus Anwander and Torsten Braun discuss some of the impacts of this on a 802.15.4 network in their thesis “Hop-to-Hop Reliability in IP-based Wireless Sensor Networks – a Cross-Layer Approach“.  In this, they talk about a variant of TCP called TSS: TCP Support for Sensor Networks.  This was discussed at depth in a thesis by Adam Dunkels, “Towards TCP/IP for Wireless Sensor Networks“.

This latter document, was apparently the inspiration for 6LoWPAN.  Section 4.4.3 discusses the approaches to handling ARQ in TCP.  Section 9.6 goes into further detail on how ARQ might be handled elsewhere in the network.

Thankfully in our case, it’s only the network that’s constrained, the nodes themselves will be no smaller than a Raspberry Pi which would have held its own against the PC that Adam Dunkels used to write that thesis!

In short, it looks as if just routing IP packets is not going to cut it, we need to actually handle the TCP side of things as well.  As for other protocols like CoAP, I guess the answer is be patient.  The timeout settings defined in RFC-7252 are usually tuneable, and it may be desirable to back those off just a little for use over AX.25.

Oct 202018
 

So, doing some more digging here.  One question people might ask is what kind of applications would I use over this network?

Bear in mind that it’s running at 1200 baud!  If we use HTTP at all, tiny is the word!  No bloated images, and definitely no big heavy JavaScript frameworks like ReactJS, Angular, DoJo or JQuery.  You can forget watching Netflicks in 4k over this link.

HTTP really isn’t designed for low-bandwidth links, as Steve Netting demonstrated:

The page itself is bad enough, but even then, it’s loaded after a minute.  The real slow bit is the 20kB GIF.

So yeah, slow-scan television, the ability to send weather radar images over, that is something I was thinking of, but not like that!

HTTP uses pretty verbose headers:

GET /qld/forecasts/brisbane.shtml?ref=hdr HTTP/1.1
Host: www.bom.gov.au
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux x86_64; rv:62.0) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/62.0
Accept: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,*/*;q=0.8
Accept-Language: en-AU,en-GB;q=0.8,en-US;q=0.5,en;q=0.3
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
Referer: http://www.bom.gov.au/products/IDR664.loop.shtml
Cookie: bom_meteye_windspeed_units_knots=yes
Connection: keep-alive
Upgrade-Insecure-Requests: 1
Pragma: no-cache
Cache-Control: no-cache

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Accept-Ranges: bytes
Content-Encoding: gzip
Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8
Server: Apache
Vary: Accept-Encoding
Content-Length: 6321
Date: Sat, 20 Oct 2018 10:56:12 GMT
Connection: keep-alive

That request is 508 bytes and the response headers are 216 bytes.  It’d be inappropriate on 6LoWPAN as you’d be fragmenting that packet left right and centre in order to squeeze it into the 128-byte 802.15.4 frames.

In that video, ICMP echo requests were also demonstrated, and those weren’t bad!  Yes, a little slow, but workable.  So to me, it’s not the packet network that’s the problem, it’s just that something big like HTTP is just not appropriate for a 1200-baud radio link.

It might work on 9600 baud packet … maybe.  My Kantronics KPC3 doesn’t do 9600 baud over the air.

CoAP was designed for tight messages.  It is UDP based, so your TCP connection overhead disappears, and the “options” are encoded as individual bytes in many cases.  There are other UDP-based protocols that would work fine too, as well as older TCP protocols such as Telnet.

A request, and reply in CoAP look something like this:

Hex dump of request:
00000000  40 01 00 01 3b 65 78 61  6d 70 6c 65 2e 63 6f 6d   @...;exa mple.com
00000010  81 63 03 52 46 77 11 3c                            .c.RFw.< 

Hex dump of response:
    00000000  60 45 00 01 c1 3c ff a1  1a 00 01 11 70 a1 01 a3   `E...<.. ....p...
    00000010  04 18 64 02 6b 31 39 32  2e 31 36 38 2e 30 2e 31   ..d.k192 .168.0.1
    00000020  03 64 65 74 68 30                                  .deth0

Or in more human readable form:

Request:
Constrained Application Protocol, Confirmable, GET, MID:1
    01.. .... = Version: 1
    ..00 .... = Type: Confirmable (0)
    .... 0000 = Token Length: 0
    Code: GET (1)
    Message ID: 1
    Opt Name: #1: Uri-Host: example.com
        Opt Desc: Type 3, Critical, Unsafe
        0011 .... = Opt Delta: 3
        .... 1011 = Opt Length: 11
        Uri-Host: example.com
    Opt Name: #2: Uri-Path: c
        Opt Desc: Type 11, Critical, Unsafe
        1000 .... = Opt Delta: 8
        .... 0001 = Opt Length: 1
        Uri-Path: c
    Opt Name: #3: Uri-Path: RFw
        Opt Desc: Type 11, Critical, Unsafe
        0000 .... = Opt Delta: 0
        .... 0011 = Opt Length: 3
        Uri-Path: RFw
    Opt Name: #4: Content-Format: application/cbor
        Opt Desc: Type 12, Elective, Safe
        0001 .... = Opt Delta: 1
        .... 0001 = Opt Length: 1
        Content-type: application/cbor
    [Uri-Path: coap://example.com/c/RFw]

Response:
Constrained Application Protocol, Acknowledgement, 2.05 Content, MID:1
    01.. .... = Version: 1
    ..10 .... = Type: Acknowledgement (2)
    .... 0000 = Token Length: 0
    Code: 2.05 Content (69)
    Message ID: 1
    Opt Name: #1: Content-Format: application/cbor
        Opt Desc: Type 12, Elective, Safe
        1100 .... = Opt Delta: 12
        .... 0001 = Opt Length: 1
        Content-type: application/cbor
    End of options marker: 255
    Payload: Payload Content-Format: application/cbor, Length: 31
        Payload Desc: application/cbor
        [Payload Length: 31]
Concise Binary Object Representation
    Map: (1 entries)
        Unsigned Integer: 70000
            Map: (1 entries)
                ...0 0001 = Unsigned Integer: 1
                    Map: (3 entries)
                        ...0 0100 = Unsigned Integer: 4
                            Unsigned Integer: 100
                        ...0 0010 = Unsigned Integer: 2
                            Text String: 192.168.0.1
                        ...0 0011 = Unsigned Integer: 3
                            Text String: eth0

That there, also shows another tool to data packing: CBOR.  CBOR is basically binary JSON.  Just like JSON it is schemaless, it has objects, arrays, strings, booleans, nulls and numbers (CBOR differentiates between integers of various sizes and floats).  Unlike JSON, it is tight.  The CBOR blob in this response would look like this as JSON (in the most compact representation possible):

{70000:{4:100,2:"192.168.0.1",3:"eth0"}}

The entire exchange is 190 bytes, less than a quarter of the size of just the HTTP request alone.  I think that would work just fine over 1200 baud packet.  As a bonus, you can also multicast, try doing that with HTTP.

So you’d be writing higher-level services that would use this instead of JSON-REST interfaces.  There’s a growing number of libraries that can consume this sort of thing, and IoT is pushing that further.  I think it’s doable.

Now, on the routing front, I’ve been digging up a bit on Net/ROM.  Net/ROM is actually two parts, Net/ROM Level 3 does the routing and level 4 does the circuit switching.  It’s the “Level 3” bit we want.

Coming up with a definitive specification of the protocol has been a bit tough, it doesn’t help that there is a company called NetROM, but I did manage to find this document.  In a way, if I could make my software behave like a Net/ROM node, I could piggy-back off that to discover neighbours.  Thus this protocol would co-exist along side Net/ROM networks that may be completely oblivious to TCP/IP.

This is preferable to just re-inventing the wheel…yes I know non-circular wheels are so much fun!  Really, once Net/ROM L3 has figured out where everyone is, IP routing just becomes a matter of correctly addressing the AX.25 frame so the next hop receives the message.

VK4RZB at Mt. Coot-tha is one such node running TheNet.  Easy enough to do tests on as it’s a mere stone throw away from my home QTH.

There’s a little consideration to make about how to label the AX.25 frame.  Obviously, it’ll be a UI frame, but what PID field should I use?  My instinct suggests that I should just label it as “ARPA Internet Protocol”, since it is Internet Protocol traffic, just IPv6 instead of v4.  Not all the codes are taken though, 0xc9 is free, so I could be cheeky and use that instead.  If the idea takes off, we can talk with the TAPR then.

Oct 102018
 

This is another brain dump of ideas.

So, part of me wants to consider the idea of using amateur radio as a transmission mechanism for 6LoWPAN.  The idea being that we use NET/ROM and AX.25 or similar schemes as a transport mechanism for delivering shortened IPv6 packets.  Over this, we can use standard TCP/IP programming to write applications.

Protocols designed for low-bandwidth constrained networks are ideal here, so things like CoAP where emphasis is placed on compact representation.  6LoWPAN normally runs over IEEE 802.15.4 which has a payload limit of 128 bytes.  AX.25 has a limit of 256 bytes, so is already doing better.

The thinking is that I “encode” the call-sign into a “hardware” address.  MAC addresses are nominally 48-bits, although the IEEE is trying to phase that out in favour of 64-bit EUIs.  Officially the IEEE looks after this, so we want to avoid doing things that might clash with their system.

A EUI-48 (MAC) address is 6-bytes long, where the first 3 bytes identify the type of address and the organisation, and the latter 3 bytes identify an individual device.  The least significant two bits of the first byte are flags that decide whether the address is unicast or local, and whether it is globally administered (by the IEEE) or locally administered.

To avoid complications, we should probably keep the unicast bit cleared to indicate that these addresses are unicast addresses.

Some might argue that the ITU assigns prefixes to countries, and these countries have national bodies that hand out callsigns, thus we could consider callsigns as “globally administered”.  Truth is, the IEEE has nothing to do with the process, and could very legitimately assign the EUI-48 prefix 56-4b-34 to a company… in that hypothetical scenario, there goes all the addresses that might represent amateur operators stationed in Queensland.  So let’s call these “locally administered”, since there are suffixes the user may choose (e.g. “/P”).

That gives us 46-bits to play with.  7-bit ASCII just fits 6 characters, which would just fit the callsigns used in AX.25 with enough room for a 4-bit SSID.  We don’t need all 128 characters though, and a scheme based on DEC’s Radix50 can pack in far more.

We can get 8 arbitrary Radix50 characters into 43 bits, which gives us 3 left over which can be used as the user wishes.  We’ll probably call it the SSID, but unlike AX.25, will be limited from 0-7.  The user can always use the least significant character in their callsign field for an additional 6 bits, which gives them 9 bits to play with.  (i.e. “VK4MSL-1″#0 to encode the AX.25 SSID “VK4MSL-10”)

Flip the multicast bit, and we’ve got a group address.

SLAAC derives the IPv6 address from the EUI-48, so the IPv6 address will effectively encode the callsigns of the two communicating stations.  If both are on the same “mesh”, then we can probably borrow ideas from 6LoWPAN for shortening that address.

Oct 032018
 

So, I’ll admit to looking at AX.25 with the typical modems available (the classical 1200-baud AFSK and the more modern G3RUH modem which runs at a blistering 9600 baud… look out 5G!) years ago and wondering “what’s the point”?

It was Brisbane Area WICEN’s involvement in the International Rally of Queensland that changed my view somewhat.  This was an event that, until CAMS knocked it on the head, ran annually in the Imbil State Forest up in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

There, WICEN used it for forwarding the scores of drivers as they passed through each stage of the rally.  A checkpoint would be at the start and finish of each stage, and a packet network would be set up with digipeaters in strategic locations and a base station, often located at the Imbil school.

The organisers of IRoQ did experiment with other ways of getting scores through, including hiring bandwidth on satellites, flying planes around in circles over the area, and other shenanigans.  Although these systems had faster throughput speeds, one thing they had which we did not have, was latency.  The score would arrive back at base long before the car had left the check point.

This freed up the analogue FM network for reporting other more serious matters.

In addition to this kind of work, WICEN also help out with horse endurance rides.  Traditionally we’ve just relied on good ol’e analogue FM radio, but in events such as the Tom Quilty, there has been a desire to use packet as a mechanism for reporting when horses arrive at given checkpoints and to perhaps enable autonomous stations that can detect horses via RFID and report those “back to base” to deter riders from cheating.

The challenge of AX.25 is two-fold:

  1. With the exception of Linux, no other OS has any kind of baked-in support for it, so writing applications that can interact with it means either implementing your own AX.25 stack or interfacing to some third-party stack such as BPQ.
  2. Due to the specialised stack, applications often have to run as privileged applications, can have problems with firewalling, etc.

The AX.25 protocol does do static routing.  It offers connected-mode links (like TCP) and a connectionless-mode (like UDP), and there are at least two routing protocols I know of that allow for dynamic routing (ROSE, Net/ROM).  There is a standard for doing IPv4 over AX.25, but you still need to manage the allocation of addresses and other details, it isn’t plug-and-play.

Net/ROM would make an ideal way to forward 6LoWPAN traffic, except it only does connected mode, and doing IP over a “TCP-like” link is really a bad idea.  (Anything that does automatic repeat requests really messes with TCP/IP.)

I have no idea whether ROSE does the connectionless mode, but the idea of needing to come up with a 10-digit numeric “address” is a real turn-off.

If the address used can be derived off the call-sign of the operator, that makes life a lot easier.

The IPv6 address format has enough bits to do that.  To me the most obvious way would be to derive a MAC address from a call-sign and an arbitrarily chosen digit (0-7).  It would be reversible of course, and since the MAC address is used in SLAAC, you would see the station’s call-sign in the IPv6 address.

The thinking is that there’s a lot of problems that have been solved in 6LoWPAN.  Discovery of services for example is handled using mechanisms like mDNS and CoRE RD.  We don’t need to forward Internet traffic, although being able to pull up the Mt. Kanigan and Mt. Stapylton radars over such a network would be real handy at times (yes, I know it’ll be slow).

The OS will view the packet network like a VPN, and so writing applications that can talk over packet will be no different to writing any other kind of network software.  Any consumer desktop OS written in the last 16 years has the necessary infrastructure to support it (even Windows 2000, there was a downloadable add-on for it).

Linking two separate “mesh” networks via point-to-point links is also trivial.  Each mesh will of course see the other as “external” but participants on both can nonetheless communicate.

The guts of 6LoWPAN is in RFC-4944.  This specifies details about how the IPv6 datagram is encoded as a IEEE 802.15.4 payload, and how the infrastructure within 802.15.4 is used to route IPv6.  Gnarly details like how fragmentation of a 1280-byte IPv6 datagram into something that will fit the 128-byte maximum 802.15.4 frames is handled here.  For what it’s worth, AX.25 allows 255 bytes (or was it 256?), so we’re ahead there.

Crucially, it is assumed that the 802.15.4 layer can figure out how to get from node A to node Z via B… C…, etc.  802.15.4 networks are managed by a PAN coordinator, which provides various services to the network.

AX.25 makes this “our problem”.  Yes the sender of a frame can direct which digipeaters a frame should be passed to, but they have to figure that out.  It’s like sending an email by UUCP, you need a map of the Internet to figure out what someone’s address is relative to your site.

Plain AX.25 digipeaters will of course be part of the mix, so having the ability for a node stuck on one side of such a digipeater would be worth having, but ultimately, the aim here will be to provide a route discovery mechanism in place that, knowing a few static digipeater routes, can figure out who is able to hear whom, and route traffic accordingly.