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Connection Establishment in libp2p

Lifecycle Stage Maturity Status Latest Revision
1A Working Draft Active r1, 2022-12-07

Authors: @yusefnapora

Interest Group: @JustMaier, @vasco-santos @bigs, @mgoelzer

See the lifecycle document for context about the maturity level and spec status.

Table of Contents


This document describes the process of establishing connections to new peers in libp2p and, if necessary, adding security and stream multiplexing capabilities to "raw" connections provided by transport protocols.

We also discuss opening new streams over an existing connection, and the protocol negotiation process that occurs to route traffic to the correct protocol handler.

This document does not cover the establishment of "transport level" connections, for example opening "raw" TCP sockets, as those semantics are specific to each transport.

What is covered here is the process that occurs after making the initial transport level connection, up to the point where "application level" streams are opened, and their protocols are identified and data is routed appropriately to handler functions.


A connection is a reliable, bidirectional communication channel between two libp2p peers that provides security and the ability to open multiple logically independent streams.

Security in this context means that all communications (after an initial handshake) are encrypted, and that the identity of each peer is cryptographically verifiable by the other peer.

Streams are reliable, bidirectional channels that are multiplexed over a libp2p connection. They must support backpressure, which prevents receivers from being flooded by data from eager senders. They can also be "half closed", meaning that a stream can be closed for writing data but still open to receiving data and vice versa.

Support for multiple streams ensures that a single connection between peers can support a wide variety of interactions, each with their own protocol. This is especially helpful if connections are difficult to establish due to NAT traversal issues or other connectivity barriers.

Connections take place over an underlying transport, for example TCP sockets, websockets, or various protocols layered over UDP.

While some transport protocols like QUIC have "built in" security and stream multiplexing, others such as TCP need to have those capabilities layered on top of the "raw" transport connection.

When the base capabilities of security and stream multiplexing are not natively supported by the underlying transport protocol, a connection upgrade process occurs to augment the raw transport connection with the required features.

libp2p peers can both initiate connections to other peers and accept incoming connections. We use the term dial to refer to initiating outbound connections, and listen to refer to accepting inbound connections.

Protocol Negotiation

One of libp2p's core design goals is to be adaptable to many network environments, including those that don't yet exist. To provide this flexibility, the connection upgrade process supports multiple protocols for connection security and stream multiplexing and allows peers to select which to use for each connection.

The process of selecting protocols is called protocol negotiation. In addition to its role in the connection upgrade process, protocol negotiation is also used whenever a new stream is opened over an existing connection. This allows libp2p applications to route application-specific protocols to the correct handler functions.

Each protocol supported by a peer is identified using a unique string called a protocol id. While any string can be used, the conventional format is a path-like structure containing a short name and a version number, separated by / characters. For example: /yamux/1.0.0 identifies version 1.0.0 of the yamux stream multiplexing protocol. multistream-select itself has a protocol id of /multistream/1.0.0.

Including a version number in the protocol id simplifies the case where you want to concurrently support multiple versions of a protocol, perhaps a stable version and an in-development version. By default, libp2p will route each protocol id to its handler function using exact literal matching of the protocol id, so new versions will need to be registered separately. However, the handler function receives the protocol id negotiated for each new stream, so it's possible to register the same handler for multiple versions of a protocol and dynamically alter functionality based on the version in use for a given stream.


libp2p uses a protocol called multistream-select for protocol negotiation. Below we cover the basics of multistream-select and its use in libp2p. For more details, see the multistream-select repository.

Before engaging in the multistream-select negotiation process, it is assumed that the peers have already established a bidirectional communication channel, which may or may not have the security and multiplexing capabilities of a libp2p connection. If those capabilities are missing, multistream-select is used in the connection upgrade process to determine how to provide them.

Messages are sent encoded as UTF-8 byte strings, and they are always followed by a \n newline character. Each message is also prefixed with its length in bytes (including the newline), encoded as an unsigned variable-length integer according to the rules of the multiformats unsigned varint spec.

For example, the string "na" is sent as the following bytes (shown here in hex):


The first byte is the varint-encoded length (0x03), followed by na (0x6e 0x61), then the newline (0x0a).

The basic multistream-select interaction flow looks like this:

see multistream.plantuml for diagram source

Let's walk through the diagram above. The peer initiating the connection is called the Initiator, and the peer accepting the connection is the Responder.

The Initiator first opens a channel to the Responder. This channel could either be a new connection or a new stream multiplexed over an existing connection.

Next, both peers will send the multistream protocol id to establish that they want to use multistream-select. Both sides may send the initial multistream protocol id simultaneously, without waiting to receive data from the other side. If either side receives anything other than the multistream protocol id as the first message, they abort the negotiation process.

Once both peers have agreed to use multistream-select, the Initiator sends the protocol id for the protocol they would like to use. If the Responder supports that protocol, it will respond by echoing back the protocol id, which signals agreement. If the protocol is not supported, the Responder will respond with the string "na" to indicate that the requested protocol is Not Available.

If the peers agree on a protocol, multistream-select's job is done, and future traffic over the channel will adhere to the rules of the agreed-upon protocol.

If a peer receives a "na" response to a proposed protocol id, they can either try again with a different protocol id or close the channel.

Upgrading Connections

libp2p is designed to support a variety of transport protocols, including those that do not natively support the core libp2p capabilities of security and stream multiplexing. The process of layering capabilities onto "raw" transport connections is called "upgrading" the connection.

Because there are many valid ways to provide the libp2p capabilities, the connection upgrade process uses protocol negotiation to decide which specific protocols to use for each capability. The protocol negotiation process uses multistream-select as described in the Protocol Negotiation section.

When raw connections need both security and multiplexing, security is always established first, and the negotiation for stream multiplexing takes place over the encrypted channel.

Here's an example of the connection upgrade process:

see conn-upgrade.plantuml for diagram source

First, the peers both send the multistream protocol id to establish that they'll use multistream-select to negotiate protocols for the connection upgrade.

Next, the Initiator proposes the TLS protocol for encryption, but the Responder rejects the proposal as they don't support TLS.

The Initiator then proposes the Noise protocol, which is supported by the Responder. The Listener echoes back the protocol id for Noise to indicate agreement.

At this point the Noise protocol takes over, and the peers exchange the Noise handshake to establish a secure channel. If the Noise handshake fails, the connection establishment process aborts. If successful, the peers will use the secured channel for all future communications, including the remainder of the connection upgrade process.

Once security has been established, the peers negotiate which stream multiplexer to use. The negotiation process works in the same manner as before, with the dialing peer proposing a multiplexer by sending its protocol id, and the listening peer responding by either echoing back the supported id or sending "na" if the multiplexer is unsupported.

Once security and stream multiplexing are both established, the connection upgrade process is complete, and both peers are able to use the resulting libp2p connection to open new secure multiplexed streams.

Note: In the case where both peers initially act as initiators, e.g. during NAT hole punching, tie-breaking is done via the multistream-select simultaneous open protocol extension.

Inlining Muxer Negotiation

If both peers support it, it's possible to shortcut the muxer selection by moving it into the security handshake. Details are specified in [inlined-muxer-negotiation].

Opening New Streams Over a Connection

Once we've established a libp2p connection to another peer, new streams are multiplexed over the connection using the native facilities of the transport, or the stream multiplexer negotiated during the upgrade process if the transport lacks native multiplexing. Either peer can open a new stream to the other over an existing connection.

When a new stream is opened, a protocol is negotiated using multistream-select. The protocol negotiation process for new streams is very similar to the one used for upgrading connections. However, while the security and stream multiplexing modules for connection upgrades are typically libp2p framework components, the protocols negotiated for new streams can be easily defined by libp2p applications.

Streams are routed to application-defined handler functions based on their protocol id string. Incoming stream requests will propose a protocol id to use for the stream using multistream-select, and the peer accepting the stream request will determine if there are any registered handlers capable of handling the protocol. If no handlers are found, the peer will respond to the proposal with "na".

When registering protocol handlers, it's possible to use a custom predicate or "match function", which will receive incoming protocol ids and return a boolean indicating whether the handler supports the protocol. This allows more flexible behavior than exact literal matching, which is the default behavior if no match function is provided.

Practical Considerations

This section will go over a few aspects of connection establishment and state management that are worth considering when implementing libp2p.


Support for connection security protocols and stream multiplexers varies across libp2p implementations. To support the widest variety of peers, implementations should support a baseline "stack" of security and multiplexing protocols.

The recommended baseline security protocol is Noise, which is supported in all current libp2p implementations.

The recommended baseline stream multiplexer is yamux, which provides a very simple programmatic API and is supported in most libp2p implementations.

State Management

While the connection establishment process itself does not require any persistent state, some state management is useful to assist bootstrapping and maintain resource limits.

Peer Metadata Storage

It's recommended that libp2p implementations provide a persistent metadata storage interface that contains at minimum the peer id and last known valid addresses for each peer. This allows you to more easily "catch back up" and rejoin a dense network between invocations of your libp2p application without having to rely on a few bootstrap nodes and random DHT walks to build up a routing table.

Even during a single invocation of an application, you're likely to benefit from an in-memory metadata storage facility, which will allow you to cache addresses for connection resumption. Designing a storage interface which can be backed by memory or persistent storage will let you swap in whichever is appropriate for your use case and stage of development.

For examples, see go-libp2p-peerstore and js-peer-book.

Connection Limits

Maintaining a large number of persistent connections can cause issues with some network environments and can lead to resource exhaustion and erratic behavior.

It's highly recommended that libp2p implementations maintain an upper bound on the number of open connections. Doing so while still maintaining robust performance and connectivity will likely require implementing some kind of priority mechanism for selecting which connections are the most "expendable" when you're near the limit.

Resource allocation, measurement and enforcement policies are all an active area of discussion in the libp2p community, and implementations are free to develop whatever prioritization system makes sense.

Connection Lifecycle Events

The establishment of new connections and streams is likely to be a "cross-cutting concern" that's of interest to various parts of your application (or parts of libp2p) besides the protocol handlers that directly deal with the traffic.

For example, the persistent metadata component could automatically add peer ids and addresses to its registry whenever a new peer connects, or a DHT module could update its routing tables when a connection is terminated.

To support this, it's recommended that libp2p implementations support a notification or event delivery system that can inform interested parties about connection lifecycle events.

The full set of lifecycle events is not currently specified, but a recommended baseline would be:

Event Description
Connected A new connection has been opened
Disconnected A connection has closed
OpenedStream A new stream has opened over a connection
ClosedStream A stream has closed
Listen We've started listening on a new address
ListenClose We've stopped listening on an address

Hole punching

See hole punching document.

Future Work

A replacement for multistream-select is being discussed which proposes solutions for several inefficiencies and shortcomings in the current protocol negotiation and connection establishment process. The ideal outcome of that discussion will require many changes to this document, once the new multistream semantics are fully specified.

For connection management, there is currently a draft of a connection manager specification that may replace the current connmgr interface in go-libp2p and may also form the basis of other connection manager implementations. There is also a proposal for a more comprehensive resource management system, which would track and manage other finite resources as well as connections.

Also related to connection management, libp2p has recently added support for QUIC, a transport protocol layered on UDP that can resume sessions with much lower overhead than killing and re-establishing a TCP connection. As QUIC and other "connectionless" transports become more widespread, we want to take advantage of this behavior where possible and integrate lightweight session resumption into the connection manager.

Event delivery is also undergoing a refactoring in go-libp2p, with work on an in-process event bus in progress now that will augment (and perhaps eventually replace) the current notification system.

One of the near-term goals of the event bus refactor is to more easily respond to changes in the protocols supported by a remote peer. Those changes are communicated over the wire using the [identify/push protocol][identify-push]. Using an event bus allows other, unrelated components of libp2p (for example, a DHT module) to respond to changes without tightly coupling components together with direct dependencies.

While the event bus refactoring is specific to go-libp2p, a future spec may standardize event types used to communicate information across key libp2p subsystems, and may possibly require libp2p implementations to provide an in-process event delivery system. If and when this occurs, this spec will be updated to incorporate the changes.