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This document explains the problem that our Clinic project solves, and the approach that we took.

Background on IP fragmentation

Our project deals with the Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4). The objective of IPv4 is to route packets from a source to a destination through a sequence of intermediate routers. However, every link between two routers has an associated limit on the size of packets that it can handle, called the Maximum Transmission Unit (MTU). Unfortunately, MTUs vary dramatically between links. Typical values range from 50 to 1500 bytes.

When a packet must be sent through a link whose MTU is too small for it, IPv4 fragments the packet into smaller pieces which can be sent individually and then reassembled at the destination. This ensures that packets will be delivered, but it has serious performance implications. The main issue is that receiving fragmented packets is significantly slower than receiving unfragmented packets, since expensive operations must be performed to reassemble the fragments correctly and since the destination must keep all received fragments in memory for a relatively long time until either the final fragment is received or until a timeout.

For this reason, it is desirable to avoid fragmentation.

The standard approach to this is called Path MTU Discovery (PMTUD). Under PMTUD, the Don't Fragment (DF) option is set on all transmitted packets. With DF, when a packet reaches a link whose MTU is too small, the router will drop it and return an ICMP (Internet Control Message Protocol) Destination Unreachable message to the source. The ICMP message includes the MTU of the relevant link, which informs the source that it needs to retransmit that data, but split it into smaller packets based on the MTU. If a subsequent link on the path to the destination has an even smaller MTU, this process may repeat several times before a packet is successfully delivered. PMTUD allows the source to estimate the MTU of the smallest link on the path to the destination, which is called the path MTU (PMTU). After PMTUD, transmitted packets have exactly the PMTU. (Note, however, that PMTUD is not just performed at the initialization of a connection. It also happens implicitly whenever the PMTU decreases, which might happen due to load balancing or changes in network topology.)

PMTUD has several problems. One issue is that it is slow. Although it avoids fragmentation, it increases latency on the delivery of some packets because messages must be sent back and forth synchronously before the too-large packet can be delivered successfully. With fragmentation, on the other hand, all packets that are sent can be delivered without a round trip, even if their processing is slower. PMTUD trades one performance problem for a different one.

A much more serious shortcoming of PMTUD is called blackholing. This occurs when an intermediate router fails to pass along ICMP Destination Unreachable messages. Routers may do this for security reasons (since emitting less diagnostic information makes an attack on the network more difficult) or because they are misconfigured. In either case, if the ICMP message is never delivered, then the source will never be informed that the packet it sent was too large. Under the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), in which every data packet sent triggers an acknowledgement (ACK) packet in response, the source will notice from the absence of an ACK that its packet was not delivered. However, it will not know to split the data into smaller packets, so it will fall into an infinite loop sending the same packet over and over again. This failure condition is much worse than the degraded performance of fragmentation.

A final issue with PMTUD is that it is not compatible with all protocols. For example, the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) does not have the notion of a persistent connection between source and destination (for example, it supports multicast, wherein a single packet can be addressed to multiple destinations, each of which might have its own distinct PMTU). For this reason, it does not make conceptual sense for the source to generate a PMTU estimate by setting DF.

IPv6, the successor to IPv4, uses PMTUD exclusively and disallows fragmentation except at the source node. However, fragmentation is still allowed in IPv4, and our Clinic project implements a better solution to the fragmentation problem which replaces PMTUD.


We propose a new type of ICMP message, called Packet Reassembled. An IPv4 host emits this message when it successfully reassembles a fragmented packet, addressing the message to the source of the fragmented packet. ICMP Packet Reassembled includes the size of the largest fragment that was received. Note that this size is guaranteed not to exceed the PMTU, and is likely to equal it exactly. For this reason, the source host can inspect this message and know that it should send smaller packets. In other words, ICMP Packet Reassembled serves the same function for the source host as ICMP Destination Unreachable.

However, its different usage has several key advantages. For one thing, fragmentation is still enabled, so the blackholing issue is ruled out. (Note that an intermediate router could still refuse to pass ICMP Packet Reassembled messages, but this will not cause blackholing because data packets are still being delivered successfully, albeit at slightly degraded performance.) Furthermore, ICMP Packet Reassembled has lower latency than PMTUD because packets never need to be retransmitted synchronously. In essence, the PMTU is "discovered" asynchronously, in parallel with continuous data transmission. Furthermore, although ICMP Packet Reassembled does not explicitly address the issue of UDP, it is much easier to see how an implementation of UDP could reduce fragmentation by inspecting ICMP Packet Reassembled messages than it is to see how PMTUD could be used for UDP.

Please refer to the published Internet Draft here.


Our implementation is in the context of the Linux kernel. The patch is provided in juniper.patch and is also available in our fork of the Linux source repository.

Here is an outline of the changes that the patch includes:

  • include/uapi/linux/icmp.h: define the format of ICMP Packet Reassembled and assign it code 253, which is reserved for Internet experiments as per RFC 4727.
  • net/ipv4/ip_fragment.c: send ICMP Packet Reassembled when a packet is reassembled.
  • net/ipv4/icmp.c: trigger the same code when receiving ICMP Packet Reassembled as when receiving ICMP Destination Unreachable. Handle ICMP Packet Reassembled that was triggered by a reassembled ICMP Echo Reply packet.
  • net/ipv4/ping.c: trigger the same code when receiving ICMP Packet Reassembled as when receiving ICMP Destination Unreachable. Handle ICMP Packet Reassembled that was triggered by a reassembled ICMP packet of type other than Echo Reply.
  • net/ipv4/tcp_ipv4: handle ICMP Packet Reassembled that was triggered by a reassembled TCP packet.
  • net/ipv4/udp.c: handle ICMP Packet Reassembled that was triggered by a reassembled UDP packet.
  • net/ipv4/raw.c: handle ICMP Packet Reassembled that was triggered by reassembly across a raw socket.