Automated end host bootstrapping

  • Author(s): Andrea Tulimiero, François Wirz

  • Last updated: 2021-03-09

  • Status: implemented externally in netsec-ethz/bootstrapper

  • Discussion at: #3943


Low entry barriers are crucial to push people to experiment with new technologies. The goal of automated end host bootstrapping is to let anyone join the SCION Internet effortlessly. From within an AS, all an end user needs to do is to install a package.

In particular, the package contains a bootstrapper daemon that retrieves hints from the local network using zero conf services, downloads the required SCION configuration files from a local discovery server, and starts the SCION Daemon (SD).


A hint is a piece of information returned by a zero conf service deployed in the local network. Depending on the discovery mechanism, a hint can be either sufficient to contact a discovery server (e.g., providing its IP address) or can be used to query the local network further (e.g., a DNS PTR response).

A discovery server is a server that exposes the endpoints required by the bootstrapper (more in the Discovery Server section).

A discoverer is a client of a zero conf service. It communicates with the service and provides hints to the bootstrapper.


Bootstrapping Process

An external orchestrator (e.g., systemd) will manage the bootstrapper daemon and start the SD once the bootstrapper finishes successfully.

Bootstrapping Steps

The bootstrapping process consists of the following:

  1. The bootstrapper daemon probes the local network for hints about a discovery server address using the available discovery mechanisms (i.e., DHCP, DNS, and mDNS).

  2. Wait for hints from discoverers.

  3. Once a hint gets received, the bootstrapper tries to download the topology of the AS and some TRCs from the discovery server. While there is no maximum amount of TRCs to be served, the discovery server must provide at least the TRC of the ISD the AS is in.

    1. On success, the bootstrapper prepares the SD’s files and exits successfully, and the SD is automatically started by the orchestrator.

    2. On failure, go back to 2.

If no hint is received after a certain period, the bootstrapper times out and exits with a non-zero value.

NB: The TRCs retrieval is a temporary solution; in the future, they will be installed on a device via other means, ideally before it gets connected to a network at all (more in the Security section).

Discovery Mechanisms

In this section, we analyze the various discovery mechanisms supported by the bootstrapper. For clarity’s sake, we suppose the following setting:

  • the end host is located in the domain, and

  • the IP address of the discovery server serving the bootstrapping files can be reached at


The DHCP mechanism requires a DHCP server present in the network.

The DHCP server has to be configured to announce the addresses of the discovery services in the option field with ID 72 ”Default WWW server”, in our example We chose this existing option to ease rapid development without going through a formal standardization at IETF and because we use the same application-level protocol as used in the WWW, namely HTTP.

This mechanism is a simple one for small networks, covering scenarios such as household networks. The drawback is that only an IP address can be announced via this mechanisms and hence a default port needs to be used.

A more advanced solution is to use a DHCP Vendor-Identifying Vendor Option as defined in [RFC3925]. The enterprise number used to identify the option is the Private Enterprise Number assigned to Anapaya Systems, PEN 55324. The option has the following format:

  0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 1 2 3 4 5
|  option-code  |  option-len   |
|      enterprise-number1       |
|                               |
|   data-len1   |               |
+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+-+               |
/      vendor-class-data1       /

The IP address and the port of the discovery server are encoded as a sequence of code/length/value fields as defined in RFC2132 section 2 “DHCP Option Field Format”. An IPv4 address is encoded as a 4 byte sequence with type code 1. A UDP port is encoded as a 2 byte sequence with type code 2. The option fields have the following general format:

 Code   Len   Vendor-specific information
+-----+-----+-----+-----+---     ---+-----+
|  tc |  n  |  i1 |  i2 | ...   ... |   in|
+-----+-----+-----+-----+---     ---+-----+


The DNS-based mechanisms require public DNS to be set up to contain the necessary records.

Some minimal setups are listed below:


As specified in [RFC2782], a DNS SRV record redirects to an A record pointing to the discovery server:

  • IN SRV 8041

  • IN A


As specified in [RFC6763], a list of DNS PTR records points to SRV records, each of which defines an instance of a SCION discovery service:

  • IN PTR

  • IN SRV 8041

  • IN A


In this variant, a DNS NAPTR record redirects to an A record pointing to the discovery server:

  • IN NAPTR "A" "x-sciondiscovery:tcp" ""

  • IN A

Like the DNS-SD option, multiple NAPTR records for different discovery services can be defined.

This mechanism is well suited for large-scale networks having control over their DNS domain. Supporting both of them gives network operators more flexibility to choose depending on their DNS setup.


mDNS, a decentralized DNS based on IP multicasting, is usually used in combination with DNS-SD to realize zero conf networks. It removes the need for a centralized DNS server, but it might not be easy to correctly set up a network to work with multicast traffic. It is a lightweight solution that requires just one entity besides the client in the network. On the one hand, mDNS is a very lightweight and simple solution to deploy. However, when planning to deploy mDNS, one must keep in mind that it relies on IP multicast communication. If all participating hosts reside in the same network, this should raise no issue; however, if the network is divided by a router, between the clients and the discovery server, the router has to be configured to propagate multicast traffic between the two subnets for the discovery to work.

This mechanism is quite flexible and can be used in almost every scenario. However, since devices need to be in the same subnet to discover each other it does not work well with a large, segmented enterprise network.

Discovery Server

The discovery server (e.g. Nginx) exposes the following endpoints to serve the bootstrapping configuration files:

  • /topology: to retrieve the topology of the AS, and

  • /trcs/isd{isd}-b{base}-s{serial} and /trcs/isd{isd}-b{base}-s{serial}/blob: to retrieve the TRCs needed by the SD.

The API and parameter values are the same as described in [spec/control/spec.yml](

NB: The endpoints are kept separate since in the future the latter should no longer be used for bootstrapping. As previously pointed out, the TRCs will be installed on a device via different out-of-band means.


Guaranteeing the genuinity of the retrieved resources is crucial to ensure that a user’s connection is not hijacked. To certify a resource, this resource can be signed so that after the download the bootstrapper can verify its authenticity.

In the current Internet, the root of trust is based on an oligopoly of CAs. In SCION, this root of trust is represented by one TRC per ISD. Nonetheless, like the current Internet, a device joining a network for the first time needs to have some pre-shared knowledge to determine what is authentic or not.

While we can consider the discovery of TRCs a temporary solution, the same is not true for the topology – which is at the heart of the automatic bootstrapping. For this, a signing solution based on the cryptographic keys of an AS should be implemented.

The bootstrapper has a config option to allow it to download the TRC from the local AS infrastructure. Only this initial TRC retrieval is allowed to be unauthenticated, under the Trust on first use (TOFU) principle, and subsequent requests must be authenticated and the user warned if the there is a conflict with an existing TRC. Otherwise, a user needs to copy a TRC to a well-known location on the system.

Request for Comments

  1. All discovery mechanisms can provide the port in addition to the discovery server IP. When the port is not provided a default port value of 8041 is assumed.

  2. The DNS discovery mechanisms use the name server and DNS search domain values provided by the host OS. This covers the case where a static network configuration is used and no DHCP server is available on the local network. When DHCP discovery is enabled those values can additional be retrieved over DHCP, covering the case where the host uses name servers and DNS search domains not specific to the local network, like the public recursive name servers or and search domain .local.