Internet-Draft Reverse Traceroute February 2023
Heinrich & Winter Expires 20 August 2023 [Page]
Internet Area Working Group
0792, 4443 (if approved)
Intended Status:
V. Heinrich
University of Applied Sciences Augsburg
R. Winter
University of Applied Sciences Augsburg

Reverse Traceroute


Only very few troubleshooting tools exist, that universally work on the public internet. Ping and traceroute are the ones that are most frequently used, when issues arise that are outside the user's administrative reach. Both perform quite basic checks. Ping can only confirm basic reachability of an interface. Traceroute can enumerate routers in the forward direction of a path but remains blind to the reverse path. In this memo, ICMP extensions are defined, that allow to build a reverse traceroute tool for the public internet.

Status of This Memo

This Internet-Draft is submitted in full conformance with the provisions of BCP 78 and BCP 79.

Internet-Drafts are working documents of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Note that other groups may also distribute working documents as Internet-Drafts. The list of current Internet-Drafts is at

Internet-Drafts are draft documents valid for a maximum of six months and may be updated, replaced, or obsoleted by other documents at any time. It is inappropriate to use Internet-Drafts as reference material or to cite them other than as "work in progress."

This Internet-Draft will expire on 20 August 2023.

1. Introduction

Network operators use traceroute to troubleshoot problems that occur within their own but also outside their own network. While traceroute provides valuable information about the path to the target node, it can not gather information about the reverse path. As the internet proves to be widely asymmetric, meaning that forward and reverse path differ, traceroute's output cannot easily be used to find problems arising on the reverse path. This memo addresses this limitation by defining a simple protocol and associated extensions that allow network operators to use traceroute's functionality from a target host back towards a client.

In the past, a few attempts have been made within the IETF to provide similar functionality. [RFC1393] e.g. defines an IPv4 Traceroute option. A packet carrying that option is signaling to routers, that they should send an ICMP Traceroute message, which is also defined in [RFC1393], to the originator of that packet. When the packet finally arrives at the target host, it also uses the IP Traceroute option in its answer to enable reverse traceroute. It does so by copying the IPv4 address of the originator into the option. Routers use that address to again send ICMP Traceroute message to the originator while forwarding the answer towards it. This method differs from regular traceroute in particular in its use of IP options and the need to have routers support a new feature. The IP option defined in [RFC1393] was subsequently obsoleted in [RFC6814] and the ICMP traceroute message was deprecated in [RFC6918].

IPv6 was also in principle capable to perform reverse traceroute from the start. The IPv6 specification in [RFC2460] defines the type 0 routing header (RH0). Adding ones own source address into that option and sending it to a destination would make said destination send a packet back to the original source. The hop count for that packet is copied from the original packet and decremented by one. This way the TTL can be carefully manipulated in a way to achieve a reverse traceroute with some trial and error involved. It does however not provide accurate timing information as a source will measure full round trip times for each hop on the reverse path. Just as the aforementioned IP options and ICMP messages, RH0 has also been deprecated for quite some time now [RFC5095].

The mechanism defined in this memo does not require router changes and does neither rely on IPv4 options nor on IPv6 extension headers. In fact, as much as possible, the traceroute operation as in use today is utilized to implement reverse traceroute itself.

Another attempt at remotely triggering traceroute is documented in [RFC4560]. Performing traceroute on a remote host and collecting the results is essentially reverse traceroute if the performed traceroute is towards the client that actually triggered it. The document specifies an elaborate SNMP MIP module to perform this function. It does however not restrict the host to which the traceroute can be sent, and access to SNMP functionality is typically restricted and not a good choice for a facility that is supposed to work across the public internet. The mechanism defined in this document does rely on ICMP and restricts the reverse traceroute operation to the client that issues the request.

Most closely resembling reverse traceroute as defined in this document is Proxy Trace [proxy-trace]. Besides different message encodings, code points and some smaller differences in design decisions, Proxy Trace is specified to allow a client to ask a server to traceroute towards arbitrary hosts on the internet. Reverse traceroute however only allows for measuring the path back towards the client. We believe this to be a useful restriction for server operators without severely compromising the general usefulness for clients.

Most basic OAM tasks on the public internet involve ICMP and the fact that ICMP is still being actively developed and enhanced shows its continued relevance and utility. [RFC4884] e.g. has made ICMP messages more extensible by defining multipart messages. ICMP has also been extended to probe interfaces similar to ping, but without the need to have bidirectional connectivity between the probing and probed interface in [RFC8335]. ICMP has also been extended to aid the operation of traceroute to, amongst others, indicate the interface where the expiring packet has been received, as that might differ from the interface that was used to send the ICMP Time Exceeded message (see [RFC5837]).

Mechanisms defining new ICMP types and codes are supposed to fall into one of two categories as per [RFC7279]. They either should serve to inform about forwarding plane anomalies or they should facilitate the discovery of dynamic information about the network. The mechanism described in this memo falls into the latter category.

1.1. Terminology

The machine that sends reverse traceroute requests, i.e. the machine towards which a traceroute should be performed.
The machine that responds to reverse traceroute requests, i.e. the machine that actually performs the traceroute operation.
Probe, probe packet, traceroute probe:
A packet, that is sent as part of a traceroute operation, intended to expire at a certain router, causing it to respond with a ICMP Time Exceeded message. Typically these are UDP packets, but they could also be ICMP or TCP packets.

1.2. Requirements Language

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119 [RFC2119] .

2. Overview

Before describing protocol extensions and the detailed operation of the protocol, the following outlines a rough sketch of how reverse traceroute operates. The general aim is to define a protocol that allows a host (the client) to identify the routers on a path from another host (the server) towards itself. In addition, just as with the classic traceroute, RTT measurements should also be part of the information provided to the client.

Below is an illustrative example, showing why such a function could help troubleshoot problems that are difficult to identify using classic traceroute today.

                      +------+    +------+
                      |router|    |router|
                +---->|      +--->|      +-----+
                |     |  B   |    |  C   |     |
                |     +------+    +------+     v
+------+    +---+--+                        +------+     +------+
|      |    |router|                        |router|     |      |
|client|<-->|      |                        |      |<--->|server|
|      |    |  A   |                        |  F   |     |      |
+------+    +------+                        +--+---+     +------+
                ^     +------+    +------+     |
                |     |router|    |router|     |
                +-----+      +----+      |<----+
                      |  D   |    |  E   |
                      +------+    +------+
Figure 1: Exemplary scenario

In the figure above we see a client and a server connected through a network of routers. A packet from the client towards the server is sent along the path consisting of routers A, B, C, and F. A packet from the server towards the client follows a different set of routers, namely, F, E, D and A. Assuming that all routers will send ICMP Time Exceeded messages when the TTL/hop count of an IP packet becomes zero and currently are not hitting any rate limiting for ICMP message generation, using traceroute today, the client would only see routers A, B, C and D as part of traceroute's output.

To make the example more interesting, let us assume that there is a problem between routers D and E causing unusually high delay. Using traceroute today, the output might look similar to this:

  1. A 1ms 2ms 1ms
  2. B 3ms 3ms 2ms
  3. C 5ms 6ms 6ms
  4. F 340ms 320ms 350ms
  5. server 345ms 310ms 360ms

This could be misinterpreted as a problem between F and C because starting at F, the reverse path is different and the additional delay starts to appear in traceroute's output.

Reverse traceroute would make the path between the server towards the client visible. Therefore it's corresponding output should look similar to this, indicating the problem between D and E:

  1. F 1ms 2ms 1ms
  2. E 3ms 2ms 3ms
  3. D 300ms 320ms 310ms
  4. A 330ms 315ms 332ms
  5. client 345ms 360ms 360ms

A client requesting a reverse traceroute does so by using new ICMP messages defined in this document. The same is true for reporting the result of a reverse traceroute operation. Everything else relies as much as possible on existing traceroute operations.

Clearly, the ability to trigger a traceroute on a remote host offers plenty of potential concerns, in particular in terms of amplification attacks, when a single reverse traceroute request could trigger a larger traceroute operation involving tens of packets. Therefore, the general design of the protocol requires the client to send a single request for each and every packet that the server is supposed to send. In other words, a single traceroute request from the client only triggers the emission of a single traceroute probe at the server.

A detailed description of the operation follows in Section 5. A further discussion about security considerations follows in Section 10.

3. Protocol Design

Reverse traceroute messages are defined for both ICMPv4 and ICMPv6.

3.1. Traceroute Request

A traceroute request is sent by the client to the server to prompt the server for the creation of a single traceroute probe addressed to the client.

 0                   1                   2                   3
 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1
|      Type     |   Code=TBD1   |            Checksum           |
|           Identifier          |            (Unused)           |
|      TTL      |     Proto     |              Flow             |
Figure 2

Header fields:

NOTE: see Section 9 for why those protocol field values were chosen.

  • Type: The ICMP Echo type of the message.

    The value for ICMPv4 is 8. The value for ICMPv6 is 128.

  • Code: Reverse traceroute messages are identified by code TBD1.
  • Identifier: The ICMP query identifier of the message.
  • Unused: MUST be set to 0.
  • TTL: The Time-To-Live the traceroute probe MUST use.
  • Protocol: The protocol the traceroute probe MUST use.

    Supported SHOULD be ICMP, TCP and UDP. The code points are defined by IANA in the list of protocol numbers.

  • Flow: The flow identifier the traceroute probe MUST use.

The identifier is employed by a client application to match traceroute requests with traceroute responses. The TTL specifies the Time-To-Live of the resulting traceroute probe.

The protocol field specifies the protocol to be employed in the traceroute probes. A value of 0 indicates to the target that it MUST choose a suitable protocol on its own.

The flow field contains a number that impacts the next-hop forwarding decision in load-balancing routers. Adjusting the Flow field can result in the probes taking different paths. In other words, pinning the Flow field to a fixed value will make sure that all probes with the same Flow value will follow the same path. A value of 0 indicates to the target that it MUST choose a suitable flow identifier on its own. See Section 4 for details.

3.2. Traceroute Response

A traceroute response is sent by a server to the client containing information about the answer to a traceroute probe such as an ICMP Time Exceeded message.

0                   1                   2                   3
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1
|      Type     |   Code=TBD2   |            Checksum           |
|           Identifier          |            (Unused)           |
|     Status    |     Length    |           (Reserved)          |
Figure 3

Header fields:

  • Type: The ICMP Echo type of the message.

    The value for ICMPv4 is 0. The value for ICMPv6 is 129.

  • Code: Reverse traceroute messages are identified by code TBD2.
  • Identifier: The ICMP query identifier of the message.
  • Unused: MUST be set to 0.
  • Status: Supplies information about the status of a request.

    Following values are defined:

    0x00: Success

    0x01: Invalid TTL

    0x02: Invalid Protocol

    0x03: Invalid Flow

  • Length: The length of the optional error message following the header.
  • Reserved: MUST be set to 0.

The identifier of the response MUST match the the identifier of the corresponding request. If a malformed request is encountered, it MUST be silently dropped. If an invalid probe configuration is supplied by the request, the server MUST respond with a suitable error code. Additional information about an error condition MAY be supplied to the client by specifying an error message, whose length MUST be reflected in the length field.

The server MUST respond with an Invalid TTL status if the requested TTL equals zero. The server MUST choose suitable default values if the requested protocol or flow values are zero.

If the response status indicates success, the length field MUST be set to 0 and the message MUST be followed by a single traceroute payload structure. The traceroute payload structure MUST NOT be appended to the response message if the status does not indicate success.

3.3. Traceroute Payload Structure

The traceroute payload structure contains information about a single successful traceroute probe.

 0                   1                   2                   3
 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1
|                                                               |
+                                                               +
|                                                               |
+                          IPv6 Address                         +
|                                                               |
+                                                               +
|                                                               |
|                                                               |
+                            Timespan                           +
|                                                               |
Figure 4
  • IPv6 Address: Address of the node that responded to the traceroute probe.

    The address format is defined in [RFC4291].

    IPv4 addresses are encoded as IPv4-mapped IPv6 addresses.

  • Timespan: The timespan elapsed between sending a traceroute probe and receiving an answer.

    The timespan is defined in nanoseconds.

4. Probes

The probes sent by a reverse traceroute server application share a set of common information, that must be encoded inside them. This set of information consists of:

Flow identifier:
An identifier that affects the next-hop forwarding decision in load-balancing routers. Depending on the protocol used for the probes (ICMP, TCP or UDP), the flow identifier affects different fields in the probe packet's header.
Probe identifier:
A constant identifier that identifies the packet as a reverse traceroute probe. This identifier is needed to distinguish an answer to a reverse traceroute probe from an ICMP Time Exceeded message triggered by the traceroute tool running on the same machine.
Query identifier:
An identifier that is used by the server to match traceroute probes with their responses. It is identical to the identifier inside the traceroute request, which the client uses to match traceroute requests and responses.

[RFC0792] guarantees that Time Exceeded and Destination Unreachable responses contain at least the first eight bytes of the original datagram. As a consequence the needed information MUST be encoded in those eight bytes. This section gives suggestions as to how the state SHOULD be encoded inside different types of probes. In all probes supporting port numbers, e.g. UDP and TCP, the probe identifier is encoded into the source port. As the probe identifier is a constant value, we suggest to assign an unused user port number (see Section 8 ) for reverse traceroute server implementations.

The flow identifier is encoded into a field of the probe packet that routers commonly use for load-balancing decisions. The following sections define the exact fields for ICMP, UDP and TCP. In adddition, when used with IPv6, the probe will use the same flow label as found in the traceroute request. This allows the client to influence load-balancing at that level as well. Further information on load-balancing and flow identifiers can be found in [paris-traceroute].

4.1. ICMP

 0                   1                   2                   3
 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1
|      Type     |     Code=0    |        Checksum (Flow)        |
|       Identifier (Probe)      |       Sequence (Query)        |
|                            Payload                            |
Figure 5

The payload MUST be adjusted so that the flow identifier encoded inside the checksum is valid.

4.2. UDP

 0                   1                   2                   3
 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1
|     Source Port (Probe)       |   Destination Port (Flow)     |
|             Length            |       Checksum (Query)        |
|                            Payload                            |
Figure 6

The payload MUST be adjusted so that the query identifier encoded inside the checksum is valid.

4.3. TCP

 0                   1                   2                   3
 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1
|       Source Port (Probe)     |    Destination Port (Flow)    |
|                    Sequence Number (Query)                    |
|                     Acknowledgment Number                     |
| Offset|  Res. |     Flags     |             Window            |
|            Checksum           |         Urgent Pointer        |
|                    Options                    |    Padding    |
Figure 7

5. Operation

5.1. Client

Before sending traceroute requests, a client could first discover whether a target server runs reverse traceroute. It does so by setting the TTL inside the traceroute request message to 0, thus creating an error condition. If a response with a non-zero status, signaling an error, is received, the server runs reverse traceroute. Otherwise, the originator of the response does not provide a reverse traceroute instance (or other circumstances prevent the instance to respond to or receive requests, such as firewalls).

After such a potential discovery phase, the client sends regular traceroute request messages with an increasing TTL to the server. Each of these request messages SHOULD employ a unique identifier, as the server associates each traceroute probe with a single identifier. The client SHOULD pace those requests appropriately as to avoid packet loss due to e.g. rate limiting, which is recommended for security reasons (see Section 10). If the specified probe configuration is considered invalid by the server, an error message is immediately dispatched to the client. The client examines the status in order to find the cause of the error and prints the optional error message inside the response. If the error occured due to an invalid protocol or flow, the client can set the respective value to zero in order to ask the server to choose a suitable default value on its own.

If the status indicates success, the payload data structure immediately following the header is examined to retrieve the round-trip-time encoded in the timespan field and the address of the node that responded to the traceroute probe. If no response to a traceroute request message is received, then the server e.g. did not receive a response to the probes or timed out before a response was received or some error occured. In either case the client is not notified and SHOULD assume that the traceroute probe was not answered.

5.2. Server

If a request with an invalid configuration was received by the server, it MUST respond with a traceroute response message indicating a suitable error status and MAY supplement it with an error message immediately following the header, whose length is encoded in the corresponding field.

If a request with a valid configuration was received by the server, the server creates a new session entry consisting of the source address and query identifier of the request. If the resulting session entry is already present, the associated traceroute request is discarded without further action. Otherwise the server creates a session state consisting of at least the current timestamp as well. The server stores the session entry and associated session state for later retrieval. A probe with the configuration supplied in the request is formed and sent back towards the client. Then a timer associated with the current session is configured and started.

If a response to a sent traceroute probe is received, a session entry is formed in one of the two following ways depending on the response:

  1. ICMP error messages from routers:

    The original IP header and the first eight bytes of the traceroute probe are contained in the payload of these messages.

    The address for the session entry is the destination address of the original IP header.

    The identifier for the session entry is probe specific and encoded in the first eight bytes of the probe.

  2. Response from client:

    The address for the session entry is the source address of the response.

    The identifier for the session entry is probe specific.

If such a session entry exists, the session state associated with it is retrieved. The round-trip-time is computed by subtracting the previous timestamp inside the session state from the current timestamp. The node address is the source address of the response packet. A traceroute payload structure is appended to the response message and filled with both timestamp and node address and sent back towards the client with a status indicating success.

If no probe response is received before a timeout occurs, the server MUST silently discard the affected session entry and associated session state.

6. Updates to RFC792

This document extends the ICMP Echo Request and ICMP Echo Response messages with code TBD1. It redefines the Sequence field of ICMP Echo Request and ICMP Echo Response messages for code TBD1.

7. Updates to RFC4443

This document extends the ICMPv6 Echo Request and ICMPv6 Echo Response messages with code TBD2. It redefines the Sequence field of ICMPv6 Echo Request and ICMPv6 Echo Response messages for code TBD2.

8. IANA Considerations

If this document is to be published as an RFC, IANA is asked to:

  • assign a unique user port number to be encoded as the probe identifier in the source port of reverse traceroute probes ( Section 4 )
  • extend type 8 with code TBD1 as reverse traceroute request in the list of ICMP Parameters
  • extend type 0 with code TBD2 as reverse traceroute response in the list of ICMP Parameters
  • extend type 128 with code TBD1 as reverse traceroute request in the list of ICMPv6 Parameters
  • extend type 129 with code TBD2 as reverse traceroute response in the list of ICMPv6 Parameters

We ask IANA to assign the code 1 for both TBD1 and TBD2 as its deployability in the internet has been verified by a measurement study.

9. Discussion

The ICMP messages defined in this memo use the ICMP types of Echo request and Echo reply but use new codes. The main reason for this is that by reusing these particular types, reverse traceroute has a higher chance of being immediately deployable on the public internet, as middleboxes are familiar with these types and especially a large number of NATs could readily translate these packets.

10. Security Considerations

The reverse traceroute server needs to maintain state to store query identifiers and timestamps for probes, which renders the implementation vulnerable to state exhaustion attacks. Thus, implementations SHOULD define an upper limit for the number of reverse traceroute sessions. Additionally, rate limiting SHOULD be employed to further decrease the effectiveness of said exploits. By supplementing such measures with a low enough timeout interval for session state cleanup, the threat posed by state exhaustion attacks is significantly reduced.

A server implementation should also be able to restrict the IP address ranges from which it accepts reverse traceroute requests.

The details of the probe encoding scheme proposed in Section 4 should be carefully considered. The flow identifier specified inside reverse traceroute requests is encoded into the destination ports for UDP and TCP. If an operator deems the control of a probe's destination port as a security threat, the reverse traceroute server SHOULD be configured to allow only a single flow identifier. If a client attempts to set a flow identifier other than the one configured at the server, the server should send an appropriate error back.

As the probe encoding scheme uses a four-byte payload to balance changes to the checksum, a malicious client could create reverse traceroute requests that carry a known payload. Combined with the control over the destination probes destination port and employment of IP-Spoofing, the probes could be used to deliver a malicious payload to a service running on the spoofed host.

11. Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Ole Troan for pointing out that the type 0 routing header was a means to implement reverse traceroute in IPv6.

We would also like to thank Saku Ytti for pointing us to his work on Proxy Trace.

Rolf Winter and Valenin Heinrich have been partially funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate as part of the MAVERIC project.

12. References

12.1. Normative References

Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, , <>.
Hinden, R. and S. Deering, "IP Version 6 Addressing Architecture", RFC 4291, DOI 10.17487/RFC4291, , <>.
Bonica, R., Gan, D., Tappan, D., and C. Pignataro, "Extended ICMP to Support Multi-Part Messages", RFC 4884, DOI 10.17487/RFC4884, , <>.

12.2. Informative References

Augustin, B., Cuvellier, X., Orgogozo, B., Viger, F., Friedman, T., Latapy, M., Magnien, C., and R. Teixeira, "Avoiding traceroute anomalies with Paris traceroute", IMC 06, .
Ytti, S., "Proxy Trace: A Utility for Programmatic Discovery of Forward and Reverse Path", IMC 06, , <>.
Postel, J., "Internet Control Message Protocol", STD 5, RFC 792, DOI 10.17487/RFC0792, , <>.
Malkin, G., "Traceroute Using an IP Option", RFC 1393, DOI 10.17487/RFC1393, , <>.
Deering, S. and R. Hinden, "Internet Protocol, Version 6 (IPv6) Specification", RFC 2460, DOI 10.17487/RFC2460, , <>.
Quittek, J., Ed. and K. White, Ed., "Definitions of Managed Objects for Remote Ping, Traceroute, and Lookup Operations", RFC 4560, DOI 10.17487/RFC4560, , <>.
Abley, J., Savola, P., and G. Neville-Neil, "Deprecation of Type 0 Routing Headers in IPv6", RFC 5095, DOI 10.17487/RFC5095, , <>.
Atlas, A., Ed., Bonica, R., Ed., Pignataro, C., Ed., Shen, N., and JR. Rivers, "Extending ICMP for Interface and Next-Hop Identification", RFC 5837, DOI 10.17487/RFC5837, , <>.
Pignataro, C. and F. Gont, "Formally Deprecating Some IPv4 Options", RFC 6814, DOI 10.17487/RFC6814, , <>.
Gont, F. and C. Pignataro, "Formally Deprecating Some ICMPv4 Message Types", RFC 6918, DOI 10.17487/RFC6918, , <>.
Shore, M. and C. Pignataro, "An Acceptable Use Policy for New ICMP Types and Codes", BCP 189, RFC 7279, DOI 10.17487/RFC7279, , <>.
Bonica, R., Thomas, R., Linkova, J., Lenart, C., and M. Boucadair, "PROBE: A Utility for Probing Interfaces", RFC 8335, DOI 10.17487/RFC8335, , <>.

Authors' Addresses

Valentin Heinrich
University of Applied Sciences Augsburg
Rolf Winter
University of Applied Sciences Augsburg