It's not socket science: Part I

Saturday, November 29, 2014 · 6 min read

I like protocols. The Internet is like being in a party, and trying to have a conversation with the person across the room by passing post-it notes. Except you can only fit a couple of words onto a post-it note (of which you have, of course, a limited supply). And people take as long as they want to pass along the note. Or they could just forget about it. Some of them might read the notes, others may replace your notes with their own. And the person across the room only speaks Finnish.

Despite these hostile conditions, the Internet works. It works because we have protocols—rules that computers in a network obey so that they can all get along.

And you can understand these protocols. It’s not rocket science: it’s socket science! (I promise that was the only pun in this post.)

Protocols fit onto other protocols. The lowest-level protocol you should really care about is TCP: the Transmission Control Protocol. TCP handles taking a large message, dividing it among many post-it notes, and then reassembling the message at the other end. If some notes get lost along the way, TCP sends replacements. Each post-it is called a “packet”.

Of course, TCP fits on top of another protocol, the Internet Protocol (IP, as in IP Address), which handles even messier things like ensuring a packet gets passed on from its source to its destination. There are other protocols that live on IP: UDP is like TCP, except it doesn’t care whether packets get there. If you’re writing a video conferencing service, you don’t need to ensure that each packet makes it, because they’ll be out of date. So you use UDP.

TCP is handled at the kernel level, so when you send out a message, it’s wrapped in TCP automatically. In fact, you need administrator privileges on UNIX to send out “raw” packets (there are occasionally reasons to do this).

To create a TCP connection, we use sockets. Most languages provide socket bindings: I’ll use Python’s API (which is very similar to C’s), but Node.js’s net module does the same thing.

A quick way to get a socket working is to use netcat (it’s called nc on most UNIX shells). There’s also telnet, but telnet listens for its own protocol (for instance, if your connection sends a specific string, telnet will automatically send back your screen width).

Alternatively, you can use ncat, which comes bundled with nmap. I prefer ncat; I’ll explain why in a little bit. This command-line utility is pretty much a UNIX stream that sends out stdin by TCP, and writes incoming messages to stdout.

Once you have TCP working, you can do all sorts of stuff, because now message length and integrity has been abstracted away. For example, you explore the web by abiding by the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP, as in http://something).

In fact, it’s worth trying right now. HTTP has the concept of a “request” and a “response”. HTTP requests look sort of like GET /index.html HTTP/1.1. GET is the “method”, you can also POST, PUT, or DELETE (or even BREW).

/index.html is the path (the stuff you would type after in the address bar), and HTTP/1.1 is the protocol (you could, in theory, have another protocol running—HTTP 2.0 is being drafted as I write this).

Let’s do it. Open up a shell and try nc 80. You’re now connected to Google. Try sending it GET /index.html HTTP/1.1. You’ll need to hit “enter” twice (it’s part of the protocol!).

You’ll be greeted by a huge mess of symbols, which is the HTML code that makes up the Google homepage. Note that the connection doesn’t close, so you can send another request if you want. In fact, let’s do that: if you only want to check out the protocol, you can send a HEAD request, which is identical to GET except it doesn’t send back an actual message. In the real world, HEAD is useful to efficiently check if a file exists on a server. If you try HEAD /index.html HTTP/1.1, you get:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Sat, 29 Nov 2014 19:40:02 GMT
Expires: -1
Cache-Control: private, max-age=0
Content-Type: text/html; charset=ISO-8859-1
Set-Cookie: PREF=ID=67a496862b9f3c29:FF=0:TM=1417290002:LM=1417290002:S=8UjQDBRWYSa1y9tA; expires=Mon, 28-Nov-2016 19:40:02 GMT; path=/;
Set-Cookie: NID=67=NnwRLRx4JVz-x3lWFTSxzV_ZxLi_TLVmbw8oDifyhzT2iuWwQ0mVveS15bE8jI28kI-p8cMIEXmmwDmwlxojTY07azz6XzcmeRD7mHerDLuVjPwjV180AxNqWBHqJrfp; expires=Sun, 31-May-2015 19:40:02 GMT; path=/;; HttpOnly
P3P: CP="This is not a P3P policy! See for more info."
Server: gws
X-XSS-Protection: 1; mode=block
X-Frame-Options: SAMEORIGIN
Alternate-Protocol: 80:quic,p=0.02
Transfer-Encoding: chunked

This looks messy, but it really isn’t. You can see how the protocol works: you start with the protocol name and 200 OK, which is the response code. You are probably familiar with another response code, 404 NOT FOUND.

Then each line begins with some header, a colon, and then information. For instance, you get the date, you get the content type (text/html), etc.

The Cookie headers instruct the browser to save those values in a local file. When the web browser sends further requests, the protocol instructs it to send the saved cookies as a part of the request. This lets websites track you—and is the reason Gmail keeps you logged in even when you close the window.

So far, so good. One thing that may have bothered you was the 80 you typed as an argument for nc. That’s the port number. The idea is that a computer can serve multiple websites by having multiple active sockets. To allow this, TCP has a port argument: your computer has 65,536 ports and it delivers packets to the right one.

As I said, ncat comes bundled with nmap. nmap is a port scanner, a script that checks every port of a computer to see if anything is listening (this is one of those places where raw sockets make things much more efficient). Running port scans lets an attacker find vulnerable programs running, and then exploit them (for instance, test servers or outdated services that have known security issues are easy targets).

Don’t run port scans on computers you don’t own. nmap is designed to be used by professional network security people, who keep huge sites like Google up and running safely.

80 is the conventional port for HTTP, but you can serve a website on any port. To access it from a web browser, you append the port after the domain name, like

The other thing that may have bothered you was how the computer know who was. The answer to that is another protocol: the DNS protocol, which is used to ask a DNS server to resolve a domain name (like into an IP address. You can try this with the host command:

$ host has address has address has address has address has address has address has address has address has address has address has address has IPv6 address 2607:f8b0:4005:800::1009 mail is handled by 30 mail is handled by 40 mail is handled by 10 mail is handled by 20 mail is handled by 50

Once you choose an IP address, the protocol lets you track down that computer and establish a connection.

Now, you’re often told to always use HTTPS, because it’s secure. You can probably already tell how insecure HTTP is: any guest at the party can read your post-it packets and know everything.

A fun thing to try is to run tcpdump: it’ll dump packets from your computer as they’re sent out or received (you may like the -X option). Mess around with the options a bit, and you can read the raw contents of HTTP packets as you surf the web. You’ll need to be an administrator to run it, but if you think about it, that’s probably a good thing.

Anyhow, back to HTTPS: it’s just HTTP, except sitting on top of another protocol called SSL (or TLS—it’s sort of complicated). SSL handles finding an encryption that both you and your connection agree is secure, negotiating a shared secret key, and then sending encrypted messages. It also lets you authenticate people by passing around certificates that are cryptographically signed by authorities.

HTTPS runs on port 443, which is the other default port that your browser doesn’t need to be told. You can try the above HTTP fun on port 443: most websites will get mad at you and kill the connection.

This is the reason I like ncat: the --ssl option wraps your connection in the SSL negotiations and encrypts what you send (you can’t viably do this manually). Try ncat --ssl 443: things should work as normal now, but tcpdump will show you gibberish.

At this point we’ve foiled almost all the hurdles in our initial party analogy, so I’m going to take a break.

In Part II of this series, we’ll explore some more protocols and write clients using Python. We’ll talk about how protocols are established, and why it’s important that it works the way it does right now.

In Part III (yet-to-be-written), we’ll explore four recent showstopper exploits, all of which make plenty of sense once you understand protocols: Goto Fail, Heartbleed, Shellshock, and POODLE.

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