Aries RFC 0046: Mediators and Relays
- Authors: Daniel Hardman
- Status: ACCEPTED
- Since: 2019-02-01
- Status Note: Socialized and broadly understood in other conceptual RFCs about routing.
- Start Date: 2018-12-01
- Tags: concept
The mental model for agent-to-agent messaging (A2A) messaging includes two important communication primitives that have a meaning unique to our ecosystem: mediator and relay.
A mediator is a participant in agent-to-agent message delivery that
must be modeled by the sender. It has its own keys and will
deliver messages only after decrypting an outer envelope to reveal
forward request. Many types of mediators may exist, but two important
ones should be widely understood, as they commonly manifest in DID Docs:
- A service that hosts many cloud agents at a single endpoint to provide herd privacy (an "agency") is a mediator.
- A cloud-based agent that routes between/among the edges of a sovereign domain is a mediator.
A relay is an entity that passes along agent-to-agent messages, but that can be ignored when the sender considers encryption choices. It does not decrypt anything. Relays can be used to change the transport for a message (e.g., accept an HTTP POST, then turn around and emit an email; accept a Bluetooth transmission, then turn around and emit something in a message queue). Mix networks like TOR are an important type of relay.
Read on to explore how agent-to-agent communication can model complex topologies and flows using these two primitives.
When we describe agent-to-agent communication, it is convenient to think of an interaction only in terms of Alice and Bob and their agents. We say things like: "Alice's agent sends a message to Bob's agent" -- or perhaps "Alice's edge agent sends a message to Bob's cloud agent, which forwards it to Bob's edge agent".
Such statements adopt a useful level of abstraction--one that's highly recommended for most discussions. However, they make a number of simplifications. By modeling the roles of mediators and relays in routing, we can support routes that use multiple transports, routes that are not fully known (or knowable) to the sender, routes that pass through mix networks, and other advanced and powerful concepts.
Let's define mediators and relays by exploring how they manifest in a series of communication scenarios between Alice and Bob.
Scenario 1 (base)
Alice and Bob are both employees of a large corporation. They work in the same office, but have never met. The office has a rule that all messages between employees must be encrypted. They use paper messages and physical delivery as the transport. Alice writes a note, encrypts it so only Bob can read it, puts it in an envelope addressed to Bob, and drops the envelope on a desk that she has been told belongs to Bob. This desk is in fact Bob's, and he later picks up the message, decrypts it, and reads it.
In this scenario, there is no mediator, and no relay.
Scenario 2: a gatekeeper
Imagine that Bob hires an executive assistant, Carl, to filter his mail. Bob won't open any mail unless Carl looks at it and decides that it's worthy of Bob's attention.
Alice has to change her behavior. She continues to package a message for Bob, but now she must account for Carl as well. She take the envelope for Bob, and places it inside a new envelope addressed to Carl. Inside the outer envelope, and next to the envelope destined for Bob, Alice writes Carl an encrypted note: "This inner envelope is for Bob. Please forward."
Here, Carl is acting as a mediator. He is mostly just passing messages along. But because he is processing a message himself, and because Carl is interposed between Alice and Bob, he affects the behavior of the sender. He is a known entity in the route.
Scenario 3: transparent indirection
All is the same as the base scenario (Carl has been fired), except that Bob is working from home when Alice's message lands on his desk. Bob has previously arranged with his friend Darla, who lives near him, to pick up any mail that's on his desk and drop it off at his house at the end of the work day. Darla sees Alice's note and takes it home to Bob.
In this scenario, Darla is acting as a relay. Note that Bob arranges for Darla to do this without notifying Alice, and that Alice does not need to adjust her behavior in any way for the relay to work.
Scenario 4: more indirection
Like scenario 3, Darla brings Bob his mail at home. However, Bob isn't at home when his mail arrives. He's had to rush out on an errand, but he's left instructions with his son, Emil, to open any work mail, take a photo of the letter, and text him the photo. Emil intends to do this, but the camera on his phone misfires, so he convinces his sister, Francis, to take the picture on her phone and email it to him. Then he texts the photo to Bob, as arranged.
Here, Emil and Francis are also acting as relays. Note that nobody knows about the full route. Alice thinks she's delivering directly to Bob. So does Darla. Bob knows about Darla and Emil, but not about Francis.
Note, too, how the transport is changing from physical mail to email to text.
To the party immediately upstream (closer to the sender), a relay is indistinguishable from the next party downstream (closer to the recipient). A party anywhere in the chain can insert one or more relays upstream from themselves, as long as those relays are not upstream of another named party (sender or mediator).
Mediators and relays can be combined in any order and any amount in variations on our fictional scenario. Bob could employ Carl as a mediator, and Carl could work from home and arrange delivery via George, then have his daughter Hannah run messages back to Bob's desk at work. Carl could hire his own mediator. Darla could arrange or Ivan to substitute for her when she goes on vacation. And so forth.
More Traditional Usage
The scenarios used above are somewhat artificial. Our most familiar agent-to-agent scenarios involve edge agents running on mobile devices and accessible through bluetooth or push notification, and cloud agents that use electronic protocols as their transport. Let's see how relays and mediators apply there.
Scenario 5 (traditional base)
Alice's cloud agent wants to talk to Bob's cloud agent. Bob's cloud agent is listening at http://bob.com/agent. Alice encrypts a message for Bob and posts it to that URL.
In this scenario, we are using a direct transport with neither a mediator nor a relay.
If you are familiar with common routing patterns and you are steeped in HTTP, you are likely objecting at this point, pointing out ways that this description diverges from best practice, including what's prescribed in other RFC. You may be eager to explain why this is a privacy problem, for example.
You are not wrong, exactly. But please suspend those concerns and hang with me. This is about what's theoretically possible in the mental model. Besides, I would note that virtually the same diagram could be used for a Bluetooth agent conversation:
Scenario 6: herd hosting
Let's tweak Scenario 5 slightly by saying that Bob's agent is one of thousands that
are hosted at the same URL. Maybe the URL is now http://agents-r-us.com/inbox. Now
if Alice wants to talk to Bob's cloud agent, she has to cope with a mediator. She
wraps the encrypted message for Bob's cloud agent inside a
forward message that's
addressed to and encrypted for the agent of agents-r-us that functions as a gatekeeper.
This scenario is one that highlights an external mediator--so-called because the mediator lives outside the sovereign domain of the final recipient.
Scenario 7: intra-domain dispatch
Now let's subtract agents-r-us. We're back to Bob's cloud agent listening directly at http://bob.com/agent. However, let's say that Alice has a different goal--now she wants to talk to the edge agent running on Bob's mobile device. This agent doesn't have a permanent IP address, so Bob uses his own cloud agent as a mediator. He tells Alice that his mobile device agent can only be reached via his cloud agent.
Once again, this causes Alice to modify her behavior. Again, she wraps her encrypted message. The inner message is enclosed in an outer envelope, and the outer envelope is passed to the mediator.
This scenario highlights an internal mediator. Internal and external mediators introduce similar features and similar constraints; the relevant difference is that internal mediators live within the sovereign domain of the recipient, and may thus be worthy of greater trust.
Scenario 8: double mediation
Now let's combine. Bob's cloud agent is hosted at agents-r-us, AND Alice wants to reach Bob's mobile:
This is a common pattern with HTTP-based cloud agents plus mobile edge agents, which is the most common deployment pattern we expect for many users of self-sovereign identity. Note that the properties of the agency and the routing agent are not particularly special--they are just an external and an internal mediator, respectively.
Routes are One-Way (not duplex)
In all of this discussion, note that we are analyzing only a flow from Alice to Bob. How Bob gets a message back to Alice is a completely separate question. Just because Carl, Darla, Emil, Francis, and Agents-R-Us may be involved in how messages flow from Alice to Bob, does not mean they are involved in flow the opposite direction.
Note how this breaks the simple assumptions of pure request-response technologies
like HTTP, that assume the channel in (request) is also the channel out (response).
can be modeled with A2A, but doing so requires support that may not always be
available, plus cooperative behavior governed by the
Conventions on Direction
For any given one-way route, the direction of flow is always from sender to receiver. We could use many different metaphors to talk about the "closer to sender" and "closer to receiver" directions -- upstream and downstream, left and right, before and after, in and out. We've chosen to standardize on two:
The SSI Notation uses directional arrows. A message from Alice to Bob is notated as either
A --> Bor
B <-- A-- whether the arrow faces left or right, it always points to Bob.
In text, we use the words source-ward and dest-ward to clarify whether we are moving toward the sender, or toward the receiver, respectively. "Dest-ward" always corresponds to where the arrow is pointing and to later points in time; "source-ward" is the opposite direction. All messages, whether requests, responses, or otherwise, always flow dest-ward.
The following lists the implementations (if any) of this RFC. Please do a pull request to add your implementation. If the implementation is open source, include a link to the repo or to the implementation within the repo. Please be consistent in the "Name" field so that a mechanical processing of the RFCs can generate a list of all RFCs supported by an Aries implementation.
|Name / Link||Implementation Notes|
|Connect.Me||Free mobile app from Evernym. Installed via app store on iOS and Android.|
|Verity||Commercially licensed enterprise agent, SaaS or on-prem.|