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Posted by Richy George on 15 March, 2023This post was originally published on this site
Networking can be an annoying problem for software developers. I’m not talking about local area networking or browsing the web, but the much harder problem of ad hoc, inbound, wide area networking.
Suppose you create a dazzling website on your laptop and you want to share it with your friends or customers. You could modify the firewall on your router to permit incoming web access on the port your website uses and let your users know the current IP address and port, but that could create a potential security vulnerability. Plus, it would only work if you have control over the router and you know how to configure firewalls for port redirection.
Alternatively, you could upload your website to a server, but that’s an extra step that can often become time-consuming, and maintaining dedicated servers can be a burden, both in time and money. You could spin up a small cloud instance and upload your site there, but that is also an extra step that can often become time-consuming, even though it’s often fairly cheap.
Another potential solution is Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), which enables devices to set port forwarding rules by themselves. UPnP needs to be enabled on your router, but it’s only safe if the modem and router are updated and secure. If not, it creates serious security risks on your whole network. The usual advice from security vendors is not to enable it, since the UPnP implementations on many routers are still dangerous, even in 2023. On the other hand, if you have an Xbox in the house, UPnP is what it uses to set up your router for multiplayer gaming and chat.
A simpler and safer way is Tailscale, which allows you to create an encrypted, peer-to-peer virtual network using the secure WireGuard protocol without generating public keys or constantly typing passwords. It can traverse NAT and firewalls, span subnets, use UPnP to create direct connections if it’s available, and connect via its own network of encrypted TCP relay servers if UPnP is not available.
In some sense, all VPNs (virtual private networks) compete with Tailscale. Most other VPNs, however, route traffic through their own servers, which tends to increase the network latency. One major use case for server-based VPNs is to make your traffic look like it’s coming from the country where the server is located; Tailscale doesn’t help much with this. Another use case is to penetrate corporate firewalls by using a VPN server inside the firewall. Tailscale competes for this use case, and usually has a simpler setup.
Besides Tailscale, the only other peer-to-peer VPN is the free open source WireGuard, on which Tailscale builds. Wireguard doesn’t handle key distribution and pushed configurations. Tailscale takes care of all of that.
Tailscale is an encrypted point-to-point VPN service based on the open source WireGuard protocol. Compared to traditional VPNs based on central servers, Tailscale often offers higher speeds and lower latency, and it is usually easier and cheaper to set up and use.
Tailscale is useful for software developers who need to set up ad hoc networking and don’t want to fuss with firewalls or subnets. It’s also useful for businesses that need to set up VPN access to their internal networks without installing a VPN server, which can often be a significant expense.
Signing up for a Tailscale Personal plan was free and quick; I chose to use my GitHub ID for authentication. Installing Tailscale took a few minutes on each machine I tried: an M1 MacBook Pro, where I installed it from the macOS App Store; an iPad Pro, installed from the iOS App Store; and a Pixel 6 Pro, installed from the Google Play Store. Installing on Windows starts with a download from the Tailscale website, and installing on Linux can be done using a
curl command and shell script, or a distribution-specific series of commands.
Tailscale uses IP addresses in the 100.x.x.x range and automatically assigns DNS names, which you can customize if you wish. You can see your whole “tailnet” from the Tailscale site and from each machine that is active on the tailnet.
In addition to viewing your machines, you can view and edit the services available, the users of your tailnet, your access controls (ACL), your logs, your tailnet DNS, and your tailnet settings.
Tailscale installs a CLI on desktop and laptop computers. It’s not absolutely necessary to use this command line, but many software developers will find it convenient.
Tailscale, unlike most VPNs, sets up peer-to-peer connections, aka a mesh network, rather than a hub-and-spoke network. It uses the open source WireGuard package (specifically the userspace Go variant, wireguard-go) as its base layer.
For public key distribution, Tailscale does use a hub-and-spoke configuration. The coordination server is at login.tailscale.com. Fortunately, public key distribution takes very little bandwidth. Private keys, of course, are never distributed.
You may be familiar with generating public-private key pairs manually to use with
ssh, and including a link to the private key file as part of your
ssh command line. Tailscale does all of that transparently for its network, and ties the keys to whatever login or 2FA credentials you choose.
The key pair steps are:
Tailscale doesn’t handle user authentication itself. Instead, it always outsources authentication to an OAuth2, OIDC (OpenID Connect), or SAML provider, including Gmail, G Suite, and Office 365. This avoids the need to maintain a separate set of user accounts or certificates for your VPN.
NAT traversal is a complicated process, one that I personally tried unsuccessfully to overcome a decade ago. NAT (network address translation) is one of the ways firewalls work: Your computer’s local address of, say, 192.168.1.191, gets translated in the firewall, as a packet goes from your computer to the internet, to your current public IP address and a random port number, say 188.8.131.52:9876, and remembers that port number as yours. When a site returns a response to your request, your firewall recognizes the port and translates it back to your local address before passing you the response.
Where’s the problem? Suppose you have two firewall clients trying to communicate peer-to-peer. Neither can succeed until someone or something tells both ends what port to use.
This arbitrator will be a server when you use the STUN (Session Traversal Utilities for NAT) protocol; while STUN works on most home routers, it unfortunately doesn’t work on most corporate routers. One alternative is the TURN (Traversal Using Relays around NAT) protocol, which uses relays to get around the NAT deadlock issue; the trouble with that is that TURN is a pain in the neck to implement, and there aren’t many existing TURN relay servers.
Tailscale implements a protocol of its own for this, called DERP (Designated Encrypted Relay for Packets). This use of the term DERP has nothing to do with being goofy, but it does suggest that someone at Tailscale has a sense of humor.
Tailscale has DERP servers around the world to keep latency low; these include nine servers in the US. If, for example, you are trying to use Tailscale to connect your smartphone from a park to your desktop at your office, the chances are good that the connection will route via the nearest DERP server. If you’re lucky, the DERP server will only be used as a side channel to establish the connection. If you’re not, the DERP server will carry the encrypted WireGuard traffic between your nodes.
Tailscale offers a reviewer’s guide. I often look at such documents and then do my own thing because I’ve been around the block a couple of times and recognize when a company is putting up straw men and knocking them down, but this one is somewhat helpful. Here are some key differentiators to consider.
With most VPNs, when you are disconnected you have to log in again. It can be even worse when your company has two internet providers and has two VPN servers to handle them, because you usually have to figure out what’s going on by trial and error or by attempting to call the network administrator, who is probably up to his or her elbows in crises. With Tailscale (and WireGuard), the connection just resumes. Similarly, many VPN servers have trouble with flakey connections such as LTE. Tailscale and WireGuard take the flakiness in stride.
With most VPNs, getting a naive user connected for the first time is an exercise in patience for the network administrator and possibly scary for the user who has to “punch a hole” in her home firewall to enable the connection. With Tailscale it’s a five-minute process that isn’t scary at all.
Most VPNs want to be exclusive. Connecting to two VPN concentrators at once is considered a cardinal sin and a potential security vulnerability, especially if they are at different companies. Tailscale doesn’t care. WireGuard can handle this situation just fine even with hub-and-spoke topologies, and with Tailscale point-to-point connections there is a Zero Trust configuration that exposes no vulnerability.
Tailscale has documented about a dozen solutions to common use cases that can be addressed with its ad hoc networking. These range from wanting to code from your iPad to running a private Minecraft server without paying for hosting or opening up your firewall.
As we’ve seen, Tailscale is simple to use, but also sophisticated under the hood. It’s an easy choice for ad hoc networking, and a reasonable alternative to traditional hub-and-spoke VPNs for companies. The only common VPN function that I can think of that it won’t do is spoof your location so that you can watch geographically restricted video content—but there are free VPNs that handle that.
Cost: Personal, open source, and “friends and family” plans, free. Personal Pro, $48 per year. Team, $5 per user per month (free trial available). Business, $15 per user per month (free trial available). Custom plans, contact sales.
Platform: macOS 10.13 or later, Windows 7 SP1 or later, Linux (most major distros), iOS 15 or later, Android 6 or later, Raspberry Pi, Synology.
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