Transit Protocol

The Transit protocol is responsible for establishing an encrypted bidirectional record stream between two programs. It must be given a “transit key” and a set of “hints” which help locate the other end (which are both delivered by Wormhole).

The protocol tries hard to create a direct connection between the two ends, but if that fails, it uses a centralized relay server to ferry data between two separate TCP streams (one to each client).

The current implementation starts with the following:

  • detect all of the host’s IP addresses
  • listen on a random TCP port
  • offers the (address,port) pairs as hints

The other side will attempt to connect to each of those ports, as well as listening on its own socket. After a few seconds without success, they will both connect to a relay server.


The Transit protocol has pre-defined “Sender” and “Receiver” roles (unlike Wormhole, which is symmetric/nobody-goes-first). Each connection must have exactly one Sender and exactly one Receiver.

The connection itself is bidirectional: either side can send or receive records. However the connection establishment mechanism needs to know who is in charge, and the encryption layer needs a way to produce separate keys for each side..

This may be relaxed in the future, much as Wormhole was.


Transit establishes a record-pipe, so the two sides can send and receive whole records, rather than unframed bytes. This is a side-effect of the encryption (which uses the NaCl “secretbox” function). The encryption adds 44 bytes of overhead to each record (4-byte length, 24-byte nonce, 32-byte MAC), so you might want to use slightly larger records for efficiency. The maximum record size is 2^32 bytes (4GiB). The whole record must be held in memory at the same time, plus its ciphertext, so very large ciphertexts are not recommended.

Transit provides confidentiality, integrity, and ordering of records. Passive attackers can only do the following:

  • learn the size and transmission time of each record
  • learn the sending and destination IP addresses

In addition, an active attacker is able to:

  • delay delivery of individual records, while maintaining ordering (if they delay record #4, they must delay #5 and later as well)
  • terminate the connection at any time

If either side receives a corrupted or out-of-order record, they drop the connection. Attackers cannot modify the contents of a record, or change the order of the records, without being detected and the connection being dropped. If a record is lost (e.g. the receiver observers records #1,#2,#4, but not #3), the connection is dropped when the unexpected sequence number is received.


The transit key is used to derive several secondary keys. Two of them are used as a “handshake”, to distinguish correct Transit connections from other programs that happen to connect to the Transit sockets by mistake or malice.

The handshake is also responsible for choosing exactly one TCP connection to use, even though multiple outbound and inbound connections are being attempted.

The SENDER-HANDSHAKE is the string transit sender %s ready\n\n, with the %s replaced by a hex-encoded 32-byte HKDF derivative of the transit key, using a “context string” of transit_sender. The RECEIVER-HANDSHAKE is the same but with receiver instead of sender (both for the string and the HKDF context).

The handshake protocol is like this:

  • immediately upon socket connection being made, the Sender writes SENDER-HANDSHAKE to the socket (regardless of whether the Sender initiated the TCP connection, or was listening on a socket and just accepted the connection)
  • likewise the Receiver immediately writes RECEIVER-HANDSHAKE to either kind of socket
  • if the Sender sees anything other than RECEIVER-HANDSHAKE as the first bytes on the wire, it hangs up
  • likewise with the Receiver and SENDER-HANDSHAKE
  • if the Sender sees that this is the first connection to get RECEIVER-HANDSHAKE, it sends go\n. If some other connection got there first, it hangs up (or sends nevermind\n and then hangs up, but this is mostly for debugging, and implementations should not depend upon it). After sending go, it switches to encrypted-record mode.
  • if the Receiver sees go\n, it switches to encrypted-record mode. If the receiver sees anything else, or a disconnected socket, it disconnects.

To tolerate the inevitable race conditions created by multiple contending sockets, only the Sender gets to decide which one wins: the first one to make it past negotiation. Hopefully this is correlated with the fastest connection pathway. The protocol ignores any socket that is not somewhat affiliated with the matching Transit instance.

Hints will frequently point to local IP addresses (local to the other end) which might be in use by unrelated nearby computers. The handshake helps to ignore these spurious connections. It is still possible for an attacker to cause the connection to fail, by intercepting both connections (to learn the two handshakes), then making new connections to play back the recorded handshakes, but this level of attacker could simply drop the user’s packets directly.


The Transit Relay is a host which offers TURN-like services for magic-wormhole instances. It uses a TCP-based protocol with a handshake to determine which connection wants to be connected to which.

When connecting to a relay, the Transit client first writes RELAY-HANDSHAKE to the socket, which is please relay %s\n, where %s is the hex-encoded 32-byte HKDF derivative of the transit key, using transit_relay_token as the context. The client then waits for ok\n.

The relay waits for a second connection that uses the same token. When this happens, the relay sends ok\n to both, then wires the connections together, so that everything received after the token on one is written out (after the ok) on the other. When either connection is lost, the other will be closed (the relay does not support “half-close”).

When clients use a relay connection, they perform the usual sender/receiver handshake just after the ok\n is received: until that point they pretend the connection doesn’t even exist.

Direct connections are better, since they are faster and less expensive for the relay operator. If there are any potentially-viable direct connection hints available, the Transit instance will wait a few seconds before attempting to use the relay. If it has no viable direct hints, it will start using the relay right away. This prefers direct connections, but doesn’t introduce completely unnecessary stalls.


First, create a Transit instance, giving it the connection information of the transit relay. The application must know whether it should use a Sender or a Receiver:

from wormhole.blocking.transit import TransitSender
s = TransitSender("")

Next, ask the Transit for its direct and relay hints. This should be delivered to the other side via a Wormhole message (i.e. add them to a dict, serialize it with JSON, send the result as a message with wormhole.send()).

direct_hints = s.get_direct_hints()
relay_hints = s.get_relay_hints()

Then, perform the Wormhole exchange, which ought to give you the direct and relay hints of the other side. Tell your Transit instance about their hints.


Then use wormhole.derive_key() to obtain a shared key for Transit purposes, and tell your Transit about it. Both sides must use the same derivation string, and this string must not be used for any other purpose, but beyond that it doesn’t much matter what the exact string is.

key = w.derive_key(application_id + "/transit-key")

Finally, tell the Transit instance to connect. This will yield a “record pipe” object, on which records can be sent and received. If no connection can be established within a timeout (defaults to 30 seconds), connect() will throw an exception instead. The pipe can be closed with close().

rp = s.connect()
rp.send_record(b"my first record")
their_record = rp.receive_record()
rp.send_record(b"Greatest Hits)
other = rp.receive_record()

Records can be sent and received arbitrarily (you are not limited to taking turns). However the blocking API does not provide a way to send records while waiting for an inbound record. This might work with threads, but it has not been tested.

Twisted API

The same facilities are available in the asynchronous Twisted environment. The difference is that some functions return Deferreds instead of immediate values. The final record-pipe object is a Protocol (TBD: maybe this is a job for Tubes?), which exposes receive_record() as a Deferred-returning function that internally holds a queue of inbound records.

from twisted.internet.defer import inlineCallbacks
from wormhole.twisted.transit import TransitSender
def do_transit():
    s = TransitSender(relay)
    my_relay_hints = s.get_relay_hints()
    my_direct_hints = yield s.get_direct_hints()
    # (send hints via wormhole)
    rp = yield s.connect()
    them = yield rp.receive_record()
    yield rp.close()

This object also implements the IConsumer/IProducer protocols for bytes, which means you can transfer a file by wiring up a file reader as a Producer. Each chunk of bytes that the Producer generates will be put into a single record. The Consumer interface works the same way. This enables backpressure and flow-control: if the far end (or the network) cannot keep up with the stream of data, the sender will wait for them to catch up before filling buffers without bound.