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The Airdispatch Protocol

!!! This Specification is not currently correct. It will be updated in the next couple of weeks to reflect the actual protocol changes.

This repository will contain the specifications for the Airdispatch protocol.


Airdispatch is a new application-level protocol that seeks to make it easier to provide federated communications platforms. Currently, new services spring up everyday that provide immense functionality to the user with the caveat of being centralized. Airdispatch aims to make more and more products into interoperable services.

The protocol is able to abstract away the problems of addressing, security, and delivery of messages so that developers can focus on the bigger issues. This spec will run through the expected usage of each of the components and how they should interact.

Table of Contents

  1. Summary of Terms
  2. Message Structure
  3. Message Signatures
  4. Messsage Types 1. Tracker Messages 2. Server Messages 3. Utility Messages
  5. Tracker Protocol
  6. Server Protocol
  7. Mail Data Format 1. Supported Data Types 2. Encryption
  8. Address Format
  9. Protocol Extensions

Summary of Terms

  • Network Object: Client or server that connects to the Airdispatch network
  • Tracker: Any object in the network graph that responds to tracker messages (Query and Registration) and keeps a database that maps airdispatch addresses to network locations (any resolvable address, IP or URL)
  • Server: (Also referred to as the 'mailserver') The location in the network that stores outgoing messages and receives incoming alerts for a specific user. A user may only have one mailserver associated with their address at a time.
  • Client: Software that interacts with the user to coordinate the sending and receiving of mail. This software must interact with the server (which actually sends and receives the mail).
  • Field Omission: In terms of this protocol, a field may be considered 'omitted' if it is not present, initialized to nil, an empty array (for the repeated datatype), or the protocol buffers empty value for that data type.
  • Optional Field: An optional field is one that may be omitted in a message. It is designated in this document by the word OPTIONAL in the field descritpion.

Message Structure

All Airdispatch messages are prefixed with a six-byte code that alerts the receiving network object to the version of the Airdispatch protocol.

The first two bytes are the Airdispatch version identifier, and currently there is only one allowed value:

  • AD: Sent over the wire as 41 44

The following four bytes specify the length of the payload (in bytes) in big-endian format.


Sending a 617kB (631808 bytes) Airdispatch Message...

Message Header:
41 44 00 09 A4 00

Message Body:

The body of the message is always encoded with protocol buffers, so we do not have to worry about the format by which we transfer primatives over the wire.

Message Signatures

All Airdispatch messages are signed with an ECDSA keypair. This ensures that addresses are not spoofed.

We are currently using the P256 curve as specified by FIPS. This curve is also known as the secp256r1 curve as specified by SECG.

Airdispatch converts the key (specified using 32-byte integers X and Y) to wire-transferrable bytes by concatenating the following values:

  • 0x03 (this is used to identify the type of encryption key used, currently, the only supported value is 0x03 which specifies an ECDSA key on the P256 curve)
  • 32-byte X Value in Big Endian Format
  • 32-byte Y Value in Big Endian Format

Each message transferred on the Airdisaptch protocol is embedded in the SignedMessage data structure. It is as defined below:

Field Object Type Description Protocol Buffers Field Number
payload Byte Array The actual message being transferred 1
signing_key Byte Array The ECDSA public key converted to bytes as shown above 2
signature Signature An additional data type that stores the signature 3
message_type string Any defined 3-character Message Type as specified in the table here. 4
signature_function string OPTIONAL: currently unused, will be used in the future to specify using an algorithm other than ECDSA on the P256 curve 5

The Signature data structure (implemented here):

Field Object Type Description Protocol Bufferes Field Number
r Byte Array The r parameter from the ECDSA signature function (big-endian) 1
s Byte Array The s parameter from the ECDSA signature function (big-endian) 2

Message Types

The current protocol is divided into several different types of messages as outlined below and defined in relevant sections.

Message Type Implementation Name Description Defined As
REG AddressRegistration Used to register an address and location with a tracker. Tracker
QUE AddressRequest Used to query a tracker for an address's location. Tracker
RES AddressResponse Returned by a tracker specifying the location for the requested address. Tracker
ALE Alert Used to alert a receiving server to new mail. Server
RET RetrieveData Used to download data from a mailserver. Server
SEN SendMailRequest Used to request that a server send a message on a client's behalf. Server
ARR ArrayedData Used to signifiy that multiple Airdispatch messages follow. Utility
MAI Mail The message type that holds the actual message. Utility
--- MailData The key-value store that contains the message data and metadata. Utility

Tracker Messages

The tracker is the portion of protocol that manages the translation of addresses and locations. This section will detail the structure of the messages that the tracker is associated with.

REG Message (AddressRegistration)

The AddressRegistration message is used to store the location of the mail server for a specific address with a tracker.

Field Object Type Description Protocol Bufferes Field Number
address string The address being registered (this must match the key used to verify the signature of the message or the message will be discarded). 1
public_key Byte Array The public key used to encrypt messages sent from this address (read more in section 7.2 on Encryption). NOTE: This is not the key used to sign messages. 2
location string Any DNS-resolvable (i.e. URL or IP address with a port number) string that designates the location of the mailserver that messages sent to this address should be forwarded to. 3
username string OPTIONAL: This field is used to register a username with the tracker, so that addresses may be queried without knowing the long-form. 4
QUE Message (AddressRequest)

The AddressRequest message is used to look-up the location of an address.

Field Object Type Description Protocol Buffers Field Number
address string OPTIONAL: The address that is being queried for. 1
username string OPTIONAL: The username that is being queried for. 2
need_key bool OPTIONAL: This field should be set to false when a server originating the query message does not wish to receive the encryption key in the response. 3

IMPORTANT NOTE: The AddressRequest message must contain the address field or the username field, but not both. One or the other must be omitted.

RES Message (AddressResponse)

The AddressResponse message is used to return the location of an address based on an AddressRequest message.

Field Object Type Description Protocol Buffers Field Number
server_location string The exact value of the location field specified for the address queried for when it originally sent an AddressRegistration message. 1
address string The addresss that was specified in the AddressRequest message to be queried for. 2
public_key Byte Array OPTIONAL: The exact value of the public_key field originally registered for the address. Only returned when the need_key field of the AddressRequest message is not false. 3

Server Messages

ALE Message (Alert)

The Alert message is sent from one server to another to communicate that the originating server has new mail for a user of the receiving server.

Field Object Type Description Protocol Buffers Field Number
to_address string The receiving user's address. 1
location string OPTIONAL: The location of the mailserver that is holding the message. 2
message_id string OPTIONAL: The unique identifier for the message being sent that should be inserted in the corresponding RetrieveData message. 3
update_alert bool OPTIONAL: A boolean flag that signifies that this alert is to update an earlier message. 4
update_message_id string OPTIONAL: The unique identifier for the message that was updated. 5

This protocol specifies the following acceptable configurations for this message (any fields not listed may be ommitted for the configuration):

  • to_address, message_id all filled to signify that a new message is being sent.
  • to_address, message_id, update_alert, update_message_id all filled to signify that the message with id update_message_id has a new version with id message_id. This configuration is henceforth known as an update Alert message.

NOTE ABOUT THE LOCATION FIELD: The location field should be used for every Alert message to designate the mailserver that stores the message (in case the user changes mailservers). However, if it is unlikely that the user will change mailservers (and the location on file with the tracker is correct), it is unneeded.

NOTE ABOUT UPDATING MESSAGES: Mailservers are expected to send an update Alert message anytime that an old message is updated. This allows the receiving client to do rudimentary version control of the message and caching. If a user updates a message without sending an update Alert message, the receiving server is not required to check for updates manually. (Unless you are dealing with a public message subscription which is talked about later in this document.)

RET Message (RetrieveData)

The RetrieveData message is sent from any network object to a server to download the contents of a message.

Field Object Type Description Protocol Buffers Field Number
message_id string OPTIONAL: The unique identifier that specifies the message to download. It is originally delivered through the Alert message. 1
since_date uint64 OPTIONAL: Used to request a list of messages sent after the specified time in seconds since the Unix Epoch. 2
from_address string OPTIONAL: Used to specify that address that originally sent the message(s). 3
retrieval_type bytes The type of retrieval that should be executed. Defined below. 4

Since the RetrieveData message is complex, we will define the acceptable message configurations in a table below.

Name retrieval_type Description message_id since_date from_address
RETRIEVAL_TYPE_NORMAL 0x00 00 This is used to download a single message sent to the originating address. The ID sent in the Alert OMITTED The address that sent the message.
RETRIEVAL_TYPE_NORMAL 0x00 00 This is used to download multiple messages sent to the originating address. OMITTED The earliest timestamp of message that should be returned. The address that sent the message.
RETRIEVAL_TYPE_PUBLIC 0x00 01 This is used to download multiple public messages. OMITTED The earliest timestamp of message that should be returned. The address that published the messages.
RETRIEVAL_TYPE_MINE 0x00 02 This is used to download the alerts sent to the originating address that have accumulated on a mailserver. (Usually sent by clients.) OMITTED The earliest timestamp of message that should be returned. OMITTED

These different retrieval messages allow servers and clients to download data that has not been transferred yet.

SEN Message (SendMailRequest)

The SendMailRequest message is used to request that a server deliver a piece of mail. These messages are usually sent by a client.

Field Object Type Description Protocol Buffers Field Number
to_address repeated string The array of addresses that the message should be delivered to. 1
stored_message Byte Array A signed copy of the MAI message that should be transferred. 2

Public Messages: Some messages should be public and available to any user that subscribes to updates from a particular address. Messages can be designated as public if the to_address field is omitted.

Utility Messages

ARR Message (ArrayedData)

The ArrayedData message is sent when multiple airdispatch messages of the same type follow. It prompts the server to keep the connection open, and continue to attempt to read messages.

Field Object Type Description Protocol Buffers Field Number
number_of_messages uint32 The number of airdispatch messages that follow. 1
MAI Message (Mail)

This will be covered in detail in section 7.

ERR Message (Error)

The ERR message is returned when the reciepient of a message is unable to process a message request successfully. Acceptable reasons for returning an error are detailed in the Protol details below.

Field Object Type Description Protocol Buffers Field Number
code string Error code number as defined by the protocol. 1
description string OPTIONAL: A helpful description of what went wrong. 2

Currently, each Error message requires a code. For now, the only acceptable code is 400; however, in the future, codes will be specified for different types of errors.

Tracker Protocol

The tracker only needs to respond to two different messages: the REG message and the QUE message.

Upon Receiving a REG Message

When a tracking server receives a REG message, it must do the following:

  1. Determine the registering address from the signing key. (And that it matches the supplied address in the message.)
  2. Find the record in its database for that address.
  3. Replace all fields with the information contained within the REG message.
  4. Close the connection. If there was a problem, return an Error Message.

Possible Error Sources:

  • The registering address is not allowed to be on that tracking server.
  • Not enough information was contained in the message.
  • Some sort of 'lock' was on the record, and it cannot be edited at this time.
  • Errors not related to the request (database connection error, internal errors, etc.)
Upon Receiving a QUE Message

When a tracking server receives a QUE message, it must do the following:

  1. Find the database record for the specified address.
  2. Respond with all of the information in the database in the form of a RES message. (It may omit the public_key if specified by the QUE message).
  3. Or return an error if applicable.

Possible Error Sources:

  • The originating address is not allowed to query the tracking server.
  • The address being queried for does not have a record on that tracking server.
  • Internal Errors
Tracker Security Measures

The crux of the Airdispatch system lies in the Tracking servers. A rogue tracking server could supply Airdispatch users with false locations - compromising the security of the system. We hope to combat this by storing the address associated with the Tracking servers in the software. However, this is not always possible. For example, assume that a user has entered a Legacy Address and wishes to send a message to it. If the software is querying a tracking server in the address for the first time, it has no idea if it communicating with the actual server or a fake server in a Man in the Middle Attack. We hope to fix this problem by introducing features of Airdispatch into the DNS servers.

Airdispatch trackers are expected to add a new TXT record to the domain that the tracking server is hosted on. This TXT record will be of the following form:


Where tracking_server_address is the public facing address of the keys used by the tracking server. In this way, we can offload the security issue onto the DNS system. Assuming that DNS is secure, the software will be able to verify that there is no MITM by simply comparing the address of the Query Response messages to the address listed in the DNS record. Currently this feature is not required in teh protocol; however, the software should warn a user if it is going to connect to a tracking server for the first time that does not implement this security feature.

Server Protocol

The server must respond to three different messages: ALE, RET, and SEN.

Upon Receiving an ALE message

When a mailserver receives an ALE message it may do several different things:

  • File the alert into a mailbox for the client to download later.
  • Immediately send a RET message back to download and cache the message - this is useful if the server has to do processing on the message before it is delivered to the client.

The server may return an error if:

  • The address field on the alert message does not have an account on the server.
  • The originating address is blocked from the server.
  • Internal Error
Upon Receiving a RET message

When a mailserver receives a RET message, it must:

  1. Determine the originating address, and if it is allowed to use the server.
  2. Check to see if they have any messages of the given type.
  3. Return either an ARR message + MAI/ALE messages or return a single MAI/ALE message.

The server may return an error if:

  • The originating address has no messages available.
  • The originating address is not allowed to use the server.
  • Internal Error
Upon Receiving a SEN message

When a mailserver receives a SEN message, it must:

  1. Store the presigned MAI message in an 'outgoing' mailbox.
  2. Use a QUE message to determine the location of the address that the mail is being sent to.
  3. Create an ALE message to send to the location determined in Step 2.

The server may return an error if:

  • The 'to address' cannot be looked up on any of the server's trackers.
  • There was an error sending the ALE message.
  • The originating address is not allowed to use the server.
  • Internal Errors

Mail Data Format

The mail structure is the most complicated message type as it is the most fundamental.

Mail Message (MAI)
Field Object Type Description Protocol Bufferes Field Number
from_address string The address that the mail is originating from. 1
to_address string The address that the mail is being sent to. 4
timestamp uint64 The time (represented in seconds from the UNIX epoch) that the message was sent. 5
encryption string The encryption format of the message. 2
data Byte Array This is the encrypted data of the message. 3

Currently, the only legal values of encryption are 'none' and 'rsa2048'.

The payload is a protocol buffers marshalled MailData object encrypted with the algorithm specified in encryption.

MailData Message
Field Object Type Description Protocol Bufferes Field Number
payload MailData.DataType (repeated) This repeated field represents the entire key-value store of the message. 1

The MailData object only contains an array of MailData.DataType objects.

MailData.DataType Message
Field Object Type Description Protocol Bufferes Field Number
type_name string This is the 'key' of the key-value pair. It is used to identify the encoding and nature of the data stored in the payload. 1
payload Byte Array This is the 'value' of this key-value pair in byte form. It may be encoded however the specific type_name is agreed to be encoded. 2
encryption string OPTIONAL: used to specify a different encryption for this payload. 3

Essentially, the mail object contains an encrypted key-value store that represents the content of the message. Because we are using a key-value store, we can use the keys to identify the types of data contained in the message. This allows one to insert arbitrary data that may be ignored by most clients or to filter out specific data (like events, reminders, or notifications).

Supported Data Types

There are strict rules governing the use of Airdispatch data type names, and how certain data types are stored. We recommend that the type_name is in the form of a go package name. For example, a text package that comes with the framework could have the type_name of This allows anyone to create their own data types to support the applications that they create using Airdispatch.

We are including several different data types by default, and all clients are expected to acknowledge them. They are broken up below by package name.

This pacakge represents arbitrary text in an airdispatch message. It is broken down by the encoding used for the text:


All text is assumed to be plain. However, Airdispatch clients should preferably have built in support for markdown (used by appending /markdown to any of the above URLs) and HTML (indicated by appending /html to any of the above URLs).

This represents an attatchment, or binary file, that comes with the message. This can appear in several different formats:

  1. In the message itself.
  2. As a publicly-accesible URL.
  3. As a private file stored in the mailserver.

We will be adding support for data types as time goes on. Feel free to use them as needed in your messages.


Address Format

Airdispatch supports two different types of addressing.

Airdispatch Addressing

Addresses are computed using the ECDSA public key used to sign the message (seen in section 3). After changing the public key into a ByteArray, follow the following steps to get the Airdispatch Address. This is the address that must be used for all correspondence.

  1. Calculate the SHA-256 Hash of the Public Key.
  2. Calculate the RIPEMD-160 Hash of that.
  3. Hash the output of Step 2 with SHA-256 twice.
  4. Append the first four characters from the output of Step 3 to the end of Step 2 (This is the final address).
Legacy Addressing

Legacy addressing is included for the purposes of migration from the old email system as well as ease of sharing addresses. They are formatted like regular email addresses, although they are encoded with UTF-8.


As you can see, the address is formatted with the username registered at the tracker, followed by the 'at-sign', followed by the tracker that the username was registered with. This type of addressing may only be used from legacy email clients or from the first correspondence of a user on the airdispatch system.

This type of address is recommended for sharing, and if it is used in a client to send mail, the client must perform the following actions:

  1. Lookup the location of the address by sending a QUE message to the server specified in the address
  2. Store the address returned by the RES message in the internal 'Address Book' for all future correspondence. This ensures that the client will always get the correct location, even if the user changes their username.

Legacy addressing allows backwards compatibility with the existing email system, as the tracker should translate the old email into an airdipsatch mail message and forward it on.

Direct Addressing

Direct addressing is used for taking the tracker out of the addressing equation. Direct addressing is not recommended for use.

Individual Mail Addressing

To create a link to a specific mail message, Airdispatch supports the following format


Notice that two colons are used to seperate the Airdispatch Address (which may be in any form: Airdispatch, Legacy, or Direct). The reason that we chose to use two colons was so that it wouldn't conflict with specifying a port number in the Airdispatch Address portion of the Message Address.

Protocol Extensions

The Airdispatch protocol is designed to be extensible. Therefore, it accepts protocol extensions in a specific way.

A protocol extension may define one or more of the following:

  1. A specific Message ID (to be retrieved)
  2. A specific set of Mail DataTypes (names and the information contained therein)
  3. A way to dispaly a certain type of Mail
  4. A way to detect a certain type of Mail (by specifying which DataTypes are required.)
  5. A specific DataType (and its associated byte representation)

Each Protocol Extension is said to adhere to the same standards as this document, and it must be explicitly clear if it wants to take precedence over this protocol.

Current Protocol Extensions

The Airdispatch team will publish prelimenary protocol extensions in this repository in the Extensions folder. However, pull requests are welcome to incorporate more and more functionality.

The list of current Protocol Extensions is as follows:

  • ad-profiles
  • ad-notes
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