Mailbox Server Protocol


The Mailbox Server provides queued delivery of binary messages from one client to a second, and vice versa. Each message contains a “phase” (a string) and a body (bytestring). These messages are queued in a “Mailbox” until the other side connects and retrieves them, but are delivered immediately if both sides are connected to the server at the same time.

Mailboxes are identified by a large random string. “Nameplates”, in contrast, have short numeric identities: in a wormhole code like “4-purple-sausages”, the “4” is the nameplate.

Each client has a randomly-generated “side”, a short hex string, used to differentiate between echoes of a client’s own message, and real messages from the other client.

Application IDs

The server isolates each application from the others. Each client provides an “App Id” when it first connects (via the “BIND” message), and all subsequent commands are scoped to this application. This means that nameplates (described below) and mailboxes can be re-used between different apps. The AppID is a unicode string. Both sides of the wormhole must use the same AppID, of course, or they’ll never see each other. The server keeps track of which applications are in use for maintenance purposes.

Each application should use a unique AppID. Developers are encouraged to use “DNSNAME/APPNAME” to obtain a unique one: e.g. the bin/wormhole file-transfer tool uses

WebSocket Transport

At the lowest level, each client establishes (and maintains) a WebSocket connection to the Mailbox Server. If the connection is lost (which could happen because the server was rebooted for maintenance, or because the client’s network connection migrated from one network to another, or because the resident network gremlins decided to mess with you today), clients should reconnect after waiting a random (and exponentially-growing) delay. The Python implementation waits about 1 second after the first connection loss, growing by 50% each time, capped at 1 minute.

Each message to the server is a dictionary, with at least a type key, and other keys that depend upon the particular message type. Messages from server to client follow the same format.

misc/ is a debug tool which renders timing data gathered from the server and both clients, to identify protocol slowdowns and guide optimization efforts. To support this, the client/server messages include additional keys. Client->Server messages include a random id key, which is copied into the ack that is immediately sent back to the client for all commands (logged for the timing tool but otherwise ignored). Some client->server messages (list, allocate, claim, release, close, ping) provoke a direct response by the server: for these, id is copied into the response. This helps the tool correlate the command and response. All server->client messages have a server_tx timestamp (seconds since epoch, as a float), which records when the message left the server. Direct responses include a server_rx timestamp, to record when the client’s command was received. The tool combines these with local timestamps (recorded by the client and not shared with the server) to build a full picture of network delays and round-trip times.

All messages are serialized as JSON, encoded to UTF-8, and the resulting bytes sent as a single “binary-mode” WebSocket payload.

Servers can signal error for any message type it does not recognize. Clients and Servers must ignore unrecognized keys in otherwise-recognized messages. Clients must ignore unrecognized message types from the Server.

Connection-Specific (Client-to-Server) Messages

The first thing each client sends to the server, immediately after the WebSocket connection is established, is a bind message. This specifies the AppID and side (in keys appid and side, respectively) that all subsequent messages will be scoped to. While technically each message could be independent (with its own appid and side), I thought it would be less confusing to use exactly one WebSocket per logical wormhole connection.

The first thing the server sends to each client is the welcome message. This is intended to deliver important status information to the client that might influence its operation. The Python client currently reacts to the following keys (and ignores all others):

  • current_cli_version: prompts the user to upgrade if the server’s advertised version is greater than the client’s version (as derived from the git tag)
  • motd: prints this message, if present; intended to inform users about performance problems, scheduled downtime, or to beg for donations to keep the server running
  • error: causes the client to print the message and then terminate. If a future version of the protocol requires a rate-limiting CAPTCHA ticket or other authorization record, the server can send error (explaining the requirement) if it does not see this ticket arrive before the bind.

A ping will provoke a pong: these are only used by unit tests for synchronization purposes (to detect when a batch of messages have been fully processed by the server). NAT-binding refresh messages are handled by the WebSocket layer (by asking Autobahn to send a keepalive messages every 60 seconds), and do not use ping.

If any client->server command is invalid (e.g. it lacks a necessary key, or was sent in the wrong order), an error response will be sent, This response will include the error string in the error key, and a full copy of the original message dictionary in orig.


Wormhole codes look like 4-purple-sausages, consisting of a number followed by some random words. This number is called a “Nameplate”.

On the Mailbox Server, the Nameplate contains a pointer to a Mailbox. Clients can “claim” a nameplate, and then later “release” it. Each claim is for a specific side (so one client claiming the same nameplate multiple times only counts as one claim). Nameplates are deleted once the last client has released it, or after some period of inactivity.

Clients can either make up nameplates themselves, or (more commonly) ask the server to allocate one for them. Allocating a nameplate automatically claims it (to avoid a race condition), but for simplicity, clients send a claim for all nameplates, even ones which they’ve allocated themselves.

Nameplates (on the server) must live until the second client has learned about the associated mailbox, after which point they can be reused by other clients. So if two clients connect quickly, but then maintain a long-lived wormhole connection, they do not need to consume the limited space of short nameplates for that whole time.

The allocate command allocates a nameplate (the server returns one that is as short as possible), and the allocated response provides the answer. Clients can also send a list command to get back a nameplates response with all allocated nameplates for the bound AppID: this helps the code-input tab-completion feature know which prefixes to offer. The nameplates response returns a list of dictionaries, one per claimed nameplate, with at least an id key in each one (with the nameplate string). Future versions may record additional attributes in the nameplate records, specifically a wordlist identifier and a code length (again to help with code-completion on the receiver).


The server provides a single “Mailbox” to each pair of connecting Wormhole clients. This holds an unordered set of messages, delivered immediately to connected clients, and queued for delivery to clients which connect later. Messages from both clients are merged together: clients use the included side identifier to distinguish echoes of their own messages from those coming from the other client.

Each mailbox is “opened” by some number of clients at a time, until all clients have closed it. Mailboxes are kept alive by either an open client, or a Nameplate which points to the mailbox (so when a Nameplate is deleted from inactivity, the corresponding Mailbox will be too).

The open command both marks the mailbox as being opened by the bound side, and also adds the WebSocket as subscribed to that mailbox, so new messages are delivered immediately to the connected client. There is no explicit ack to the open command, but since all clients add a message to the mailbox as soon as they connect, there will always be a message response shortly after the open goes through. The close command provokes a closed response.

The close command accepts an optional “mood” string: this allows clients to tell the server (in general terms) about their experiences with the wormhole interaction. The server records the mood in its “usage” record, so the server operator can get a sense of how many connections are succeeding and failing. The moods currently recognized by the Mailbox Server are:

  • happy (default): the PAKE key-establishment worked, and the client saw at least one valid encrypted message from its peer
  • lonely: the client gave up without hearing anything from its peer
  • scary: the client saw an invalid encrypted message from its peer, indicating that either the wormhole code was typed in wrong, or an attacker tried (and failed) to guess the code
  • errory: the client encountered some other error: protocol problem or internal error

The server will also record pruney if it deleted the mailbox due to inactivity, or crowded if more than two sides tried to access the mailbox.

When clients use the add command to add a client-to-client message, they will put the body (a bytestring) into the command as a hex-encoded string in the body key. They will also put the message’s “phase”, as a string, into the phase key. See for details about how different phases are used.

When a client sends open, it will get back a message response for every message in the mailbox. It will also get a real-time message for every add performed by clients later. These message responses include “side” and “phase” from the sending client, and “body” (as a hex string, encoding the binary message body). The decoded “body” will either by a random-looking cryptographic value (for the PAKE message), or a random-looking encrypted blob (for the VERSION message, as well as all application-provided payloads). The message response will also include id, copied from the id of the add message (and used only by the timing-diagram tool).

The Mailbox Server does not de-duplicate messages, nor does it retain ordering: clients must do both if they need to.

All Message Types

This lists all message types, along with the type-specific keys for each (if any), and which ones provoke direct responses:

  • S->C welcome {welcome:}
  • (C->S) bind {appid:, side:}
  • (C->S) list {} -> nameplates
  • S->C nameplates {nameplates: [{id: str},..]}
  • (C->S) allocate {} -> allocated
  • S->C allocated {nameplate:}
  • (C->S) claim {nameplate:} -> claimed
  • S->C claimed {mailbox:}
  • (C->S) release {nameplate:?} -> released
  • S->C released
  • (C->S) open {mailbox:}
  • (C->S) add {phase: str, body: hex} -> message (to all connected clients)
  • S->C message {side:, phase:, body:, id:}
  • (C->S) close {mailbox:?, mood:?} -> closed
  • S->C closed
  • S->C ack
  • (C->S) ping {ping: int} -> ping
  • S->C pong {pong: int}
  • S->C error {error: str, orig:}


The server stores all messages in a database, so it should not lose any information when it is restarted. The server will not send a direct response until any side-effects (such as the message being added to the mailbox) have been safely committed to the database.

The client library knows how to resume the protocol after a reconnection event, assuming the client process itself continues to run.

Clients which terminate entirely between messages (e.g. a secure chat application, which requires multiple wormhole messages to exchange address-book entries, and which must function even if the two apps are never both running at the same time) can use “Journal Mode” to ensure forward progress is made: see “” for details.