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RFC 8900

IP Fragmentation Considered Fragile

Pages: ~23
Best Current Practice: 230

Top   ToC   RFCv3-8900
R. Bonica
Juniper Networks
F. Baker
G. Huston
R. Hinden
Check Point Software
O. Troan
F. Gont
SI6 Networks
September 2020

IP Fragmentation Considered Fragile


This document describes IP fragmentation and explains how it introduces fragility to Internet communication.
This document also proposes alternatives to IP fragmentation and provides recommendations for developers and network operators.

Status of This Memo

This memo documents an Internet Best Current Practice.
This document is a product of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). It represents the consensus of the IETF community. It has received public review and has been approved for publication by the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). Further information on BCPs is available in Section 2 of RFC 7841.
Information about the current status of this document, any errata, and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at

Copyright Notice

Copyright (c) 2020 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the document authors. All rights reserved.
This document is subject to BCP 78 and the IETF Trust's Legal Provisions Relating to IETF Documents ( in effect on the date of publication of this document. Please review these documents carefully, as they describe your rights and restrictions with respect to this document. Code Components extracted from this document must include Simplified BSD License text as described in Section 4.e of the Trust Legal Provisions and are provided without warranty as described in the Simplified BSD License.
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1.  Introduction

Operational experience [Kent] [Huston] [RFC 7872] reveals that IP fragmentation introduces fragility to Internet communication. This document describes IP fragmentation and explains the fragility it introduces. It also proposes alternatives to IP fragmentation and provides recommendations for developers and network operators.
While this document identifies issues associated with IP fragmentation, it does not recommend deprecation. Legacy protocols that depend upon IP fragmentation would do well to be updated to remove that dependency. However, some applications and environments (see Section 5) require IP fragmentation. In these cases, the protocol will continue to rely on IP fragmentation, but the designer should be aware that fragmented packets may result in black holes. A design should include appropriate safeguards.
Rather than deprecating IP fragmentation, this document recommends that upper-layer protocols address the problem of fragmentation at their layer, reducing their reliance on IP fragmentation to the greatest degree possible.

1.1.  Requirements Language

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "NOT RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in BCP 14 [RFC 2119] [RFC 8174] when, and only when, they appear in all capitals, as shown here.
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2.  IP Fragmentation

2.1.  Links, Paths, MTU, and PMTU

An Internet path connects a source node to a destination node. A path may contain links and routers. If a path contains more than one link, the links are connected in series, and a router connects each link to the next.
Internet paths are dynamic. Assume that the path from one node to another contains a set of links and routers. If a link or a router fails, the path can also change so that it includes a different set of links and routers.
Each link is constrained by the number of octets that it can convey in a single IP packet. This constraint is called the link Maximum Transmission Unit (MTU). [RFC 0791] requires every link to support an MTU of 68 octets or greater (see NOTE 1). [RFC 8200] similarly requires every link to support an MTU of 1280 octets or greater. These are called the IPv4 and IPv6 minimum link MTUs.
Some links, and some ways of using links, result in additional variable overhead. For the simple case of tunnels, this document defers to other documents. For other cases, such as MPLS, this document considers the link MTU to include appropriate allowance for any such overhead.
Likewise, each Internet path is constrained by the number of octets that it can convey in a single IP packet. This constraint is called the Path MTU (PMTU). For any given path, the PMTU is equal to the smallest of its link MTUs. Because Internet paths are dynamic, PMTU is also dynamic.
For reasons described below, source nodes estimate the PMTU between themselves and destination nodes. A source node can produce extremely conservative PMTU estimates in which:
  • The estimate for each IPv4 path is equal to the IPv4 minimum link MTU.
  • The estimate for each IPv6 path is equal to the IPv6 minimum link MTU.
While these conservative estimates are guaranteed to be less than or equal to the actual PMTU, they are likely to be much less than the actual PMTU. This may adversely affect upper-layer protocol performance.
By executing Path MTU Discovery (PMTUD) procedures [RFC 1191] [RFC 8201], a source node can maintain a less conservative estimate of the PMTU between itself and a destination node. In PMTUD, the source node produces an initial PMTU estimate. This initial estimate is equal to the MTU of the first link along the path to the destination node. It can be greater than the actual PMTU.
Having produced an initial PMTU estimate, the source node sends non-fragmentable IP packets to the destination node (see NOTE 2). If one of these packets is larger than the actual PMTU, a downstream router will not be able to forward the packet through the next link along the path. Therefore, the downstream router drops the packet and sends an Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) [RFC 0792] [RFC 4443] Packet Too Big (PTB) message to the source node (see NOTE 3). The ICMP PTB message indicates the MTU of the link through which the packet could not be forwarded. The source node uses this information to refine its PMTU estimate.
PMTUD produces a running estimate of the PMTU between a source node and a destination node. Because PMTU is dynamic, the PMTU estimate can be larger than the actual PMTU. In order to detect PMTU increases, PMTUD occasionally resets the PMTU estimate to its initial value and repeats the procedure described above.
Ideally, PMTUD operates as described above. However, in some scenarios, PMTUD fails. For example:
  • PMTUD relies on the network's ability to deliver ICMP PTB messages to the source node. If the network cannot deliver ICMP PTB messages to the source node, PMTUD fails.
  • PMTUD is susceptible to attack because ICMP messages are easily [RFC 5927] and not authenticated by the receiver. Such attacks can cause PMTUD to produce unnecessarily conservative PMTU estimates.
In IPv4, every host must be able to reassemble a packet whose length is less than or equal to 576 octets. However, the IPv4 minimum link MTU is not 576. Section 3.2 of [RFC 0791] explicitly states that the IPv4 minimum link MTU is 68 octets.
A non-fragmentable packet can be fragmented at its source. However, it cannot be fragmented by a downstream node. An IPv4 packet whose Don't Fragment (DF) bit is set to 0 is fragmentable. An IPv4 packet whose DF bit is set to 1 is non-fragmentable. All IPv6 packets are also non-fragmentable.
The ICMP PTB message has two instantiations. In [RFC 0792], the ICMP PTB message is a Destination Unreachable message with Code equal to 4 (fragmentation needed and DF set). This message was augmented by [RFC 1191] to indicate the MTU of the link through which the packet could not be forwarded. In [RFC 4443], the ICMP PTB message is a Packet Too Big Message with Code equal to 0. This message also indicates the MTU of the link through which the packet could not be forwarded.

2.2.  Fragmentation Procedures

When an upper-layer protocol submits data to the underlying IP module, and the resulting IP packet's length is greater than the PMTU, the packet is divided into fragments. Each fragment includes an IP header and a portion of the original packet.
[RFC 0791] describes IPv4 fragmentation procedures. An IPv4 packet whose DF bit is set to 1 may be fragmented by the source node, but may not be fragmented by a downstream router. An IPv4 packet whose DF bit is set to 0 may be fragmented by the source node or by a downstream router. When an IPv4 packet is fragmented, all IP options (which are within the IPv4 header) appear in the first fragment, but only options whose "copy" bit is set to 1 appear in subsequent fragments.
[RFC 8200], notably in Section 4.5, describes IPv6 fragmentation procedures. An IPv6 packet may be fragmented only at the source node. When an IPv6 packet is fragmented, all extension headers appear in the first fragment, but only per-fragment headers appear in subsequent fragments. Per-fragment headers include the following:
  • The IPv6 header.
  • The Hop-by-Hop Options header (if present).
  • The Destination Options header (if present and if it precedes a Routing header).
  • The Routing header (if present).
  • The Fragment header.
In IPv4, the upper-layer header usually appears in the first fragment, due to the sizes of the headers involved. In IPv6, the upper-layer header must appear in the first fragment.

2.3.  Upper-Layer Reliance on IP Fragmentation

Upper-layer protocols can operate in the following modes:
  • Do not rely on IP fragmentation.
  • Rely on IP fragmentation by the source node only.
  • Rely on IP fragmentation by any node.
Upper-layer protocols running over IPv4 can operate in all of the above-mentioned modes. Upper-layer protocols running over IPv6 can operate in the first and second modes only.
Upper-layer protocols that operate in the first two modes (above) require access to the PMTU estimate. In order to fulfill this requirement, they can:
  • Estimate the PMTU to be equal to the IPv4 or IPv6 minimum link MTU.
  • Access the estimate that PMTUD produced.
  • Execute PMTUD procedures themselves.
  • Execute Packetization Layer PMTUD (PLPMTUD) procedures [RFC 4821] [RFC 8899].
According to PLPMTUD procedures, the upper-layer protocol maintains a running PMTU estimate. It does so by sending probe packets of various sizes to its upper-layer peer and receiving acknowledgements. This strategy differs from PMTUD in that it relies on acknowledgement of received messages, as opposed to ICMP PTB messages concerning dropped messages. Therefore, PLPMTUD does not rely on the network's ability to deliver ICMP PTB messages to the source.
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3.  Increased Fragility

This section explains how IP fragmentation introduces fragility to Internet communication.

3.1.  Virtual Reassembly

Virtual reassembly is a procedure in which a device conceptually reassembles a packet, forwards its fragments, and discards the reassembled copy. In [RFC 6346] and [RFC 6888], virtual reassembly is required in order to correctly translate fragment addresses. It could be useful to address the problems in Sections [3.2], [3.3], [3.4], and [3.5].
Virtual reassembly is computationally expensive and holds state for indeterminate periods of time. Therefore, it is prone to errors and Section 3.7.

3.2.  Policy-Based Routing

IP fragmentation causes problems for routers that implement policy-based routing.
When a router receives a packet, it identifies the next hop on route to the packet's destination and forwards the packet to that next hop. In order to identify the next hop, the router interrogates a local data structure called the Forwarding Information Base (FIB).
Normally, the FIB contains destination-based entries that map a destination prefix to a next hop. Policy-based routing allows destination-based and policy-based entries to coexist in the same FIB. A policy-based FIB entry maps multiple fields, drawn from either the IP or transport-layer header, to a next hop.
Entry Type Dest. Prefix Next Hdr / Dest. Port Next Hop
1 Destination-based 2001:db8::1/128 Any / Any 2001:db8:2::2
2 Policy-based 2001:db8::1/128 TCP / 80 2001:db8:3::3
Table 1: Policy-Based Routing FIB
Assume that a router maintains the FIB in Table 1. The first FIB entry is destination-based. It maps a destination prefix 2001:db8::1/128 to a next hop 2001:db8:2::2. The second FIB entry is policy-based. It maps the same destination prefix 2001:db8::1/128 and a destination port (TCP / 80) to a different next hop (2001:db8:3::3). The second entry is more specific than the first.
When the router receives the first fragment of a packet that is destined for TCP port 80 on 2001:db8::1, it interrogates the FIB. Both FIB entries satisfy the query. The router selects the second FIB entry because it is more specific and forwards the packet to 2001:db8:3::3.
When the router receives the second fragment of the packet, it interrogates the FIB again. This time, only the first FIB entry satisfies the query, because the second fragment contains no indication that the packet is destined for TCP port 80. Therefore, the router selects the first FIB entry and forwards the packet to 2001:db8:2::2.
Policy-based routing is also known as filter-based forwarding.

3.3.  Network Address Translation (NAT)

IP fragmentation causes problems for Network Address Translation (NAT) devices. When a NAT device detects a new, outbound flow, it maps that flow's source port and IP address to another source port and IP address. Having created that mapping, the NAT device translates:
  • The source IP address and source port on each outbound packet.
  • The destination IP address and destination port on each inbound packet.
[RFC 6346] and [RFC 6888] are two common NAT strategies. In both approaches, the NAT device must virtually reassemble fragmented packets in order to translate and forward each fragment.

3.4.  Stateless Firewalls

As discussed in more detail in Section 3.7, IP fragmentation causes problems for stateless firewalls whose rules include TCP and UDP ports. Because port information is only available in the first fragment and not available in the subsequent fragments, the firewall is limited to the following options:
  • Accept all subsequent fragments, possibly admitting certain classes of attack.
  • Block all subsequent fragments, possibly blocking legitimate traffic.
Neither option is attractive.

3.5.  Equal-Cost Multipath, Link Aggregate Groups, and Stateless Load Balancers

IP fragmentation causes problems for Equal-Cost Multipath (ECMP), Link Aggregate Groups (LAG), and other stateless load-distribution technologies. In order to assign a packet or packet fragment to a link, an intermediate node executes a hash (i.e., load-distributing) algorithm. The following paragraphs describe a commonly deployed hash algorithm.
If the packet or packet fragment contains a transport-layer header, the algorithm accepts the following 5-tuple as input:
  • IP Source Address.
  • IP Destination Address.
  • IPv4 Protocol or IPv6 Next Header.
  • transport-layer source port.
  • transport-layer destination port.
If the packet or packet fragment does not contain a transport-layer header, the algorithm accepts only the following 3-tuple as input:
  • IP Source Address.
  • IP Destination Address.
  • IPv4 Protocol or IPv6 Next Header.
Therefore, non-fragmented packets belonging to a flow can be assigned to one link while fragmented packets belonging to the same flow can be divided between that link and another. This can cause suboptimal load distribution.
[RFC 6438] offers a partial solution to this problem for IPv6 devices only. According to [RFC 6438]:

At intermediate routers that perform load distribution, the hash algorithm used to determine the outgoing component-link in an ECMP and/or LAG toward the next hop MUST minimally include the 3-tuple {dest addr, source addr, flow label} and MAY also include the remaining components of the 5-tuple.

If the algorithm includes only the 3-tuple {dest addr, source addr, flow label}, it will assign all fragments belonging to a packet to the same link. (See [RFC 6437] and [RFC 7098]).
In order to avoid the problem described above, implementations SHOULD implement the recommendations provided in Section 6.4 of this document.

3.6.  IPv4 Reassembly Errors at High Data Rates

IPv4 fragmentation is not sufficiently robust for use under some conditions in today's Internet. At high data rates, the 16-bit IP identification field is not large enough to prevent duplicate IDs, resulting in frequent incorrectly assembled IP fragments, and the TCP and UDP checksums are insufficient to prevent the resulting corrupted datagrams from being delivered to upper-layer protocols. [RFC 4963] describes some easily reproduced experiments demonstrating the problem and discusses some of the operational implications of these observations.
These reassembly issues do not occur as frequently in IPv6 because the IPv6 identification field is 32 bits long.

3.7.  Security Vulnerabilities

Security researchers have documented several attacks that exploit IP fragmentation. The following are examples:
  • Overlapping fragment attacks [RFC 1858] [RFC 3128] [RFC 5722].
  • Resource exhaustion attacks.
  • Attacks based on predictable fragment identification values [RFC 7739].
  • Evasion of Network Intrusion Detection Systems (NIDS) [Ptacek1998].
In the overlapping fragment attack, an attacker constructs a series of packet fragments. The first fragment contains an IP header, a transport-layer header, and some transport-layer payload. This fragment complies with local security policy and is allowed to pass through a stateless firewall. A second fragment, having a nonzero offset, overlaps with the first fragment. The second fragment also passes through the stateless firewall. When the packet is reassembled, the transport-layer header from the first fragment is overwritten by data from the second fragment. The reassembled packet does not comply with local security policy. Had it traversed the firewall in one piece, the firewall would have rejected it.
A stateless firewall cannot protect against the overlapping fragment attack. However, destination nodes can protect against the overlapping fragment attack by implementing the procedures described in RFC 1858, RFC 3128, and RFC 8200. These reassembly procedures detect the overlap and discard the packet.
The fragment reassembly algorithm is a stateful procedure in an otherwise stateless protocol. Therefore, it can be exploited by resource exhaustion attacks. An attacker can construct a series of fragmented packets with one fragment missing from each packet so that the reassembly is impossible. Thus, this attack causes resource exhaustion on the destination node, possibly denying reassembly services to other flows. This type of attack can be mitigated by flushing fragment reassembly buffers when necessary, at the expense of possibly dropping legitimate fragments.
Each IP fragment contains an "Identification" field that destination nodes use to reassemble fragmented packets. Some implementations set the Identification field to a predictable value, thus making it easy for an attacker to forge malicious IP fragments that would cause the reassembly procedure for legitimate packets to fail.
NIDS aims at identifying malicious activity by analyzing network traffic. Ambiguity in the possible result of the fragment reassembly process may allow an attacker to evade these systems. Many of these systems try to mitigate some of these evasion techniques (e.g., by computing all possible outcomes of the fragment reassembly process, at the expense of increased processing requirements).

3.8.  PMTU Black-Holing Due to ICMP Loss

As mentioned in Section 2.3, upper-layer protocols can be configured to rely on PMTUD. Because PMTUD relies upon the network to deliver ICMP PTB messages, those protocols also rely on the networks to deliver ICMP PTB messages.
According to [RFC 4890], ICMPv6 PTB messages must not be filtered. However, ICMP PTB delivery is not reliable. It is subject to both transient and persistent loss.
Transient loss of ICMP PTB messages can cause transient PMTU black holes. When the conditions contributing to transient loss abate, the network regains its ability to deliver ICMP PTB messages and connectivity between the source and destination nodes is restored. Section 3.8.1 of this document describes conditions that lead to transient loss of ICMP PTB messages.
Persistent loss of ICMP PTB messages can cause persistent black holes. Sections [3.8.2], [3.8.3], and [3.8.4] of this document describe conditions that lead to persistent loss of ICMP PTB messages.
The problem described in this section is specific to PMTUD. It does not occur when the upper-layer protocol obtains its PMTU estimate from PLPMTUD or from any other source.

3.8.1.  Transient Loss

The following factors can contribute to transient loss of ICMP PTB messages:
  • Network congestion.
  • Packet corruption.
  • Transient routing loops.
  • ICMP rate limiting.
The effect of rate limiting may be severe, as RFC 4443 recommends strict rate limiting of ICMPv6 traffic.

3.8.2.  Incorrect Implementation of Security Policy

Incorrect implementation of security policy can cause persistent loss of ICMP PTB messages.
For example, assume that a Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) router implements the following zone-based security policy:
  • Allow any traffic to flow from the inside zone to the outside zone.
  • Do not allow any traffic to flow from the outside zone to the inside zone unless it is part of an existing flow (i.e., it was elicited by an outbound packet).
When a correct implementation of the above-mentioned security policy receives an ICMP PTB message, it examines the ICMP PTB payload in order to determine whether the original packet (i.e., the packet that elicited the ICMP PTB message) belonged to an existing flow. If the original packet belonged to an existing flow, the implementation allows the ICMP PTB to flow from the outside zone to the inside zone. If not, the implementation discards the ICMP PTB message.
When an incorrect implementation of the above-mentioned security policy receives an ICMP PTB message, it discards the packet because its source address is not associated with an existing flow.
The security policy described above has been implemented incorrectly on many consumer CPE routers.

3.8.3.  Persistent Loss Caused by Anycast

Anycast can cause persistent loss of ICMP PTB messages. Consider the example below:
A DNS client sends a request to an anycast address. The network routes that DNS request to the nearest instance of that anycast address (i.e., a DNS server). The DNS server generates a response and sends it back to the DNS client. While the response does not exceed the DNS server's PMTU estimate, it does exceed the actual PMTU.
A downstream router drops the packet and sends an ICMP PTB message the packet's source (i.e., the anycast address). The network routes the ICMP PTB message to the anycast instance closest to the downstream router. That anycast instance may not be the DNS server that originated the DNS response. It may be another DNS server with the same anycast address. The DNS server that originated the response may never receive the ICMP PTB message and may never update its PMTU estimate.

3.8.4.  Persistent Loss Caused by Unidirectional Routing

Unidirectional routing can cause persistent loss of ICMP PTB messages. Consider the example below:
A source node sends a packet to a destination node. All intermediate nodes maintain a route to the destination node but do not maintain a route to the source node. In this case, when an intermediate node encounters an MTU issue, it cannot send an ICMP PTB message to the source node.

3.9.  Black-Holing Due to Filtering or Loss

In RFC 7872, researchers sampled Internet paths to determine whether they would convey packets that contain IPv6 extension headers. Sampled paths terminated at popular Internet sites (e.g., popular web, mail, and DNS servers).
The study revealed that at least 28% of the sampled paths did not convey packets containing the IPv6 Fragment extension header. In most cases, fragments were dropped in the destination autonomous system. In other cases, the fragments were dropped in transit autonomous systems.
Another [Huston] confirmed this finding. It reported that 37% of sampled endpoints used IPv6-capable DNS resolvers that were incapable of receiving a fragmented IPv6 response.
It is difficult to determine why network operators drop fragments. Possible causes follow:
  • Hardware inability to process fragmented packets.
  • Failure to change vendor defaults.
  • Unintentional misconfiguration.
  • Intentional configuration (e.g., network operators consciously chooses to drop IPv6 fragments in order to address the issues raised in Sections [3.2] through [3.8], above.)
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4.  Alternatives to IP Fragmentation

4.1.  Transport-Layer Solutions

The [RFC 0793]) can be operated in a mode that does not require IP fragmentation.
Applications submit a stream of data to TCP. TCP divides that stream of data into segments, with no segment exceeding the TCP Maximum Segment Size (MSS). Each segment is encapsulated in a TCP header and submitted to the underlying IP module. The underlying IP module prepends an IP header and forwards the resulting packet.
If the TCP MSS is sufficiently small, then the underlying IP module never produces a packet whose length is greater than the actual PMTU. Therefore, IP fragmentation is not required.
TCP offers the following mechanisms for MSS management:
  • Manual configuration.
  • PMTUD.
Manual configuration is always applicable. If the MSS is configured to a sufficiently low value, the IP layer will never produce a packet whose length is greater than the protocol minimum link MTU. However, manual configuration prevents TCP from taking advantage of larger link MTUs.
Upper-layer protocols can implement PMTUD in order to discover and take advantage of larger Path MTUs. However, as mentioned in Section 2.1, PMTUD relies upon the network to deliver ICMP PTB messages. Therefore, PMTUD can only provide an estimate of the PMTU in environments where the risk of ICMP PTB loss is acceptable (e.g., known to not be filtered).
By contrast, PLPMTUD does not rely upon the network's ability to deliver ICMP PTB messages. It utilizes probe messages sent as TCP segments to determine whether the probed PMTU can be successfully used across the network path. In PLPMTUD, probing is separated from congestion control, so that loss of a TCP probe segment does not cause a reduction of the congestion control window. [RFC 4821] defines PLPMTUD procedures for TCP.
While TCP will never knowingly cause the underlying IP module to emit a packet that is larger than the PMTU estimate, it can cause the underlying IP module to emit a packet that is larger than the actual PMTU. For example, if routing changes and as a result the PMTU becomes smaller, TCP will not know until the ICMP PTB message arrives. If this occurs, the packet is dropped, the PMTU estimate is updated, the segment is divided into smaller segments, and each smaller segment is submitted to the underlying IP module.
The [RFC 4340] and the [RFC 4960] also can be operated in a mode that does not require IP fragmentation. They both accept data from an application and divide that data into segments, with no segment exceeding a maximum size.
DCCP offers manual configuration, PMTUD, and PLPMTUD as mechanisms for managing that maximum size. Datagram protocols can also implement PLPMTUD to estimate the PMTU via [RFC 8899]. This proposes procedures for performing PLPMTUD with UDP, UDP options, SCTP, QUIC, and other datagram protocols.
Currently, [RFC 0768] lacks a fragmentation mechanism of its own and relies on IP fragmentation. However, [UDP-OPTIONS] proposes a fragmentation mechanism for UDP.

4.2.  Application-Layer Solutions

[RFC 8085] recognizes that IP fragmentation reduces the reliability of Internet communication. It also recognizes that UDP lacks a fragmentation mechanism of its own and relies on IP fragmentation. Therefore, [RFC 8085] offers the following advice regarding applications the run over the UDP:

An application SHOULD NOT send UDP datagrams that result in IP packets that exceed the Maximum Transmission Unit (MTU) along the path to the destination. Consequently, an application SHOULD either use the path MTU information provided by the IP layer or implement Path MTU Discovery (PMTUD) itself [RFC 1191] [RFC 1981] [RFC 4821] to determine whether the path to a destination will support its desired message size without fragmentation.

RFC 8085 continues:

Applications that do not follow the recommendation to do PMTU/PLPMTUD discovery SHOULD still avoid sending UDP datagrams that would result in IP packets that exceed the path MTU. Because the actual path MTU is unknown, such applications SHOULD fall back to sending messages that are shorter than the default effective MTU for sending (EMTU_S in [RFC 1122]). For IPv4, EMTU_S is the smaller of 576 bytes and the first-hop MTU [RFC 1122]. For IPv6, EMTU_S is 1280 bytes [RFC 2460]. The effective PMTU for a directly connected destination (with no routers on the path) is the configured interface MTU, which could be less than the maximum link payload size. Transmission of minimum-sized UDP datagrams is inefficient over paths that support a larger PMTU, which is a second reason to implement PMTU discovery.

RFC 8085 assumes that for IPv4 an EMTU_S of 576 is sufficiently small to be supported by most current Internet paths, even though the IPv4 minimum link MTU is 68 octets.
This advice applies equally to any application that runs directly over IP.
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5.  Applications That Rely on IPv6 Fragmentation

The following applications rely on IPv6 fragmentation:
Each of these applications relies on IPv6 fragmentation to a varying degree. In some cases, that reliance is essential and cannot be broken without fundamentally changing the protocol. In other cases, that reliance is incidental, and most implementations already take appropriate steps to avoid fragmentation.
This list is not comprehensive, and other protocols that rely on IP fragmentation may exist. They are not specifically considered in the context of this document.

5.1.  Domain Name Service (DNS)

DNS relies on UDP for efficiency, and the consequence is the use of IP fragmentation for large responses, as permitted by the Extension Mechanisms for DNS (EDNS0) options in the query. It is possible to mitigate the issue of fragmentation-based packet loss by having queries use smaller EDNS0 UDP buffer sizes or by having the DNS server limit the size of its UDP responses to some self-imposed maximum packet size that may be less than the preferred EDNS0 UDP buffer size. In both cases, large responses are truncated in the DNS, signaling to the client to re-query using TCP to obtain the complete response. However, the operational issue of the partial level of support for DNS over TCP, particularly in the case where IPv6 transport is being used, becomes a limiting factor of the efficacy of this approach [Damas].
Larger DNS responses can normally be avoided by aggressively pruning the Additional section of DNS responses. One scenario where such pruning is ineffective is in the use of DNSSEC, where large key sizes act to increase the response size to certain DNS queries. There is no effective response to this situation within the DNS other than using smaller cryptographic keys and adopting of DNSSEC administrative practices that attempt to keep DNS response as short as possible.

5.2.  Open Shortest Path First (OSPF)

OSPF implementations can emit messages large enough to cause fragmentation. However, in order to optimize performance, most OSPF implementations restrict their maximum message size to a value that will not cause fragmentation.

5.3.  Packet-in-Packet Encapsulations

This document acknowledges that in some cases, packets must be fragmented within IP-in-IP tunnels. Therefore, this document makes no additional recommendations regarding IP-in-IP tunnels.
In this document, packet-in-packet encapsulations include [RFC 2003], [RFC 2784], [RFC 8086], and [RFC 2473]. [RFC 4459] describes fragmentation issues associated with all of the above-mentioned encapsulations.
The fragmentation strategy described for GRE in [RFC 7588] has been deployed for all of the above-mentioned encapsulations. This strategy does not rely on IP fragmentation except in one corner case. (See Section of RFC 7588 and Section 7.1 of RFC 2473.) Section 3.3 of RFC 7676 further describes this corner case.
See [TUNNELS] for further discussion.

5.4.  UDP Applications Enhancing Performance

Some UDP applications rely on IP fragmentation to achieve acceptable levels of performance. These applications use UDP datagram sizes that are larger than the Path MTU so that more data can be conveyed between the application and the kernel in a single system call.
To pick one example, the [RFC 5326], which is in current use on the International Space Station (ISS), uses UDP datagram sizes larger than the Path MTU to achieve acceptable levels of performance even though this invokes IP fragmentation. More generally, SNMP and video applications may transmit an application-layer quantum of data, depending on the network layer to fragment and reassemble as needed.
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6.  Recommendations

6.1.  For Application and Protocol Developers

Developers SHOULD NOT develop new protocols or applications that rely on IP fragmentation. When a new protocol or application is deployed in an environment that does not fully support IP fragmentation, it SHOULD operate correctly, either in its default configuration or in a specified alternative configuration.
While there may be controlled environments where IP fragmentation works reliably, this is a deployment issue and can not be known to someone developing a new protocol or application. It is not recommended that new protocols or applications be developed that rely on IP fragmentation. Protocols and applications that rely on IP fragmentation will work less reliably on the Internet.
Legacy protocols that depend upon IP fragmentation SHOULD be updated to break that dependency. However, in some cases, there may be no viable alternative to IP fragmentation (e.g., IPSEC tunnel mode, IP-in-IP encapsulation). Applications and protocols cannot necessarily know or control whether they use lower layers or network paths that rely on such fragmentation. In these cases, the protocol will continue to rely on IP fragmentation but should only be used in environments where IP fragmentation is known to be supported.
Protocols may be able to avoid IP fragmentation by using a sufficiently small MTU (e.g., The protocol minimum link MTU), disabling IP fragmentation, and ensuring that the transport protocol in use adapts its segment size to the MTU. Other protocols may deploy a sufficiently reliable PMTU discovery mechanism (e.g., PLPMTUD).
UDP applications SHOULD abide by the recommendations stated in Section 3.2 of RFC 8085.

6.2.  For System Developers

Software libraries SHOULD include provision for PLPMTUD for each supported transport protocol.

6.3.  For Middlebox Developers

Middleboxes, which are systems that "transparently" perform policy functions on passing traffic but do not participate in the routing system, should process IP fragments in a manner that is consistent with [RFC 0791] and [RFC 8200]. In many cases, middleboxes must maintain state in order to achieve this goal.
Price and performance considerations frequently motivate network operators to deploy stateless middleboxes. These stateless middleboxes may perform suboptimally, process IP fragments in a manner that is not compliant with RFC 791 or RFC 8200, or even discard IP fragments completely. Such behaviors are NOT RECOMMENDED. If a middlebox implements nonstandard behavior with respect to IP fragmentation, then that behavior MUST be clearly documented.

6.4.  For ECMP, LAG, and Load-Balancer Developers And Operators

In their default configuration, when the IPv6 Flow Label is not equal to zero, IPv6 devices that implement Equal-Cost Multipath (ECMP) Routing as described in [RFC 2328] and other routing protocols, [RFC 7424], or other load-distribution technologies SHOULD accept only the following fields as input to their hash algorithm:
  • IP Source Address.
  • IP Destination Address.
  • Flow Label.
Operators SHOULD deploy these devices in their default configuration.
These recommendations are similar to those presented in [RFC 6438] and [RFC 7098]. They differ in that they specify a default configuration.

6.5.  For Network Operators

Operators MUST ensure proper PMTUD operation in their network, including making sure the network generates PTB packets when dropping packets too large compared to outgoing interface MTU. However, implementations MAY rate limit the generation of ICMP messages per [RFC 1812] and [RFC 4443].
As per RFC 4890, network operators MUST NOT filter ICMPv6 PTB messages unless they are known to be forged or otherwise illegitimate. As stated in Section 3.8, filtering ICMPv6 PTB packets causes PMTUD to fail. Many upper-layer protocols rely on PMTUD.
As per RFC 8200, network operators MUST NOT deploy IPv6 links whose MTU is less than 1280 octets.
Network operators SHOULD NOT filter IP fragments if they are known to have originated at a domain name server or be destined for a domain name server. This is because domain name services are critical to operation of the Internet.
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7.  IANA Considerations

This document has no IANA actions.
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8.  Security Considerations

This document mitigates some of the security considerations associated with IP fragmentation by discouraging its use. It does not introduce any new security vulnerabilities, because it does not introduce any new alternatives to IP fragmentation. Instead, it recommends well-understood alternatives.
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9.  References

9.1.  Normative References

J. Postel, "User Datagram Protocol", STD 6, RFC 768, DOI 10.17487/RFC0768, August 1980,
J. Postel, "Internet Protocol", STD 5, RFC 791, DOI 10.17487/RFC0791, September 1981,
J. Postel, "Internet Control Message Protocol", STD 5, RFC 792, DOI 10.17487/RFC0792, September 1981,
J. Postel, "Transmission Control Protocol", STD 7, RFC 793, DOI 10.17487/RFC0793, September 1981,
P.V. Mockapetris, "Domain names - implementation and specification", STD 13, RFC 1035, DOI 10.17487/RFC1035, November 1987,
J.C. Mogul, and S.E. Deering, "Path MTU discovery", RFC 1191, DOI 10.17487/RFC1191, November 1990,
S. Bradner, "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, March 1997,
A. Conta, S. Deering, and M. Gupta, "Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMPv6) for the Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) Specification", STD 89, RFC 4443, DOI 10.17487/RFC4443, March 2006,
M. Mathis, and J. Heffner, "Packetization Layer Path MTU Discovery", RFC 4821, DOI 10.17487/RFC4821, March 2007,
S. Amante, B. Carpenter, S. Jiang, and J. Rajahalme, "IPv6 Flow Label Specification", RFC 6437, DOI 10.17487/RFC6437, November 2011,
B. Carpenter, and S. Amante, "Using the IPv6 Flow Label for Equal Cost Multipath Routing and Link Aggregation in Tunnels", RFC 6438, DOI 10.17487/RFC6438, November 2011,
L. Eggert, G. Fairhurst, and G. Shepherd, "UDP Usage Guidelines", BCP 145, RFC 8085, DOI 10.17487/RFC8085, March 2017,
B. Leiba, "Ambiguity of Uppercase vs Lowercase in RFC 2119 Key Words", BCP 14, RFC 8174, DOI 10.17487/RFC8174, May 2017,
S. Deering, and R. Hinden, "Internet Protocol, Version 6 (IPv6) Specification", STD 86, RFC 8200, DOI 10.17487/RFC8200, July 2017,
J. McCann, S. Deering, J. Mogul, and R. Hinden, "Path MTU Discovery for IP version 6", STD 87, RFC 8201, DOI 10.17487/RFC8201, July 2017,
G Fairhurst, T Jones, M Tüxen, I Rüngeler, and T Völker, "Packetization Layer Path MTU Discovery for Datagram Transports", RFC 8899, DOI 10.17487/RFC8899, September 2020,

9.2.  Informative References

J. Damas, and G. Huston, "Measuring ATR", April 2018,
G. Huston, "IPv6, Large UDP Packets and the DNS", August 2017,
C. Kent, and J. Mogul, "Fragmentation Considered Harmful", DOI 10.1145/55482.55524, August 1987,
Secure Networks, Inc., T. H. Ptacek, and T. N. Newsham, "Insertion, Evasion and Denial of Service: Eluding Network Intrusion Detection", 1998,
R. Braden, "Requirements for Internet Hosts - Communication Layers", STD 3, RFC 1122, DOI 10.17487/RFC1122, October 1989,
F. Baker, "Requirements for IP Version 4 Routers", RFC 1812, DOI 10.17487/RFC1812, June 1995,
G. Ziemba, D. Reed, and P. Traina, "Security Considerations for IP Fragment Filtering", RFC 1858, DOI 10.17487/RFC1858, October 1995,
J. McCann, S. Deering, and J. Mogul, "Path MTU Discovery for IP version 6", RFC 1981, DOI 10.17487/RFC1981, August 1996,
C. Perkins, "IP Encapsulation within IP", RFC 2003, DOI 10.17487/RFC2003, October 1996,
J. Moy, "OSPF Version 2", STD 54, RFC 2328, DOI 10.17487/RFC2328, April 1998,
S. Deering, and R. Hinden, "Internet Protocol, Version 6 (IPv6) Specification", RFC 2460, DOI 10.17487/RFC2460, December 1998,
A. Conta, and S. Deering, "Generic Packet Tunneling in IPv6 Specification", RFC 2473, DOI 10.17487/RFC2473, December 1998,
D. Farinacci, T. Li, S. Hanks, D. Meyer, and P. Traina, "Generic Routing Encapsulation (GRE)", RFC 2784, DOI 10.17487/RFC2784, March 2000,
I. Miller, "Protection Against a Variant of the Tiny Fragment Attack (RFC 1858)", RFC 3128, DOI 10.17487/RFC3128, June 2001,
E. Kohler, M. Handley, and S. Floyd, "Datagram Congestion Control Protocol (DCCP)", RFC 4340, DOI 10.17487/RFC4340, March 2006,
P. Savola, "MTU and Fragmentation Issues with In-the-Network Tunneling", RFC 4459, DOI 10.17487/RFC4459, April 2006,
E. Davies, and J. Mohacsi, "Recommendations for Filtering ICMPv6 Messages in Firewalls", RFC 4890, DOI 10.17487/RFC4890, May 2007,
R. Stewart, "Stream Control Transmission Protocol", RFC 4960, DOI 10.17487/RFC4960, September 2007,
J. Heffner, M. Mathis, and B. Chandler, "IPv4 Reassembly Errors at High Data Rates", RFC 4963, DOI 10.17487/RFC4963, July 2007,
M. Ramadas, S. Burleigh, and S. Farrell, "Licklider Transmission Protocol - Specification", RFC 5326, DOI 10.17487/RFC5326, September 2008,
R. Coltun, D. Ferguson, J. Moy, and A. Lindem, "OSPF for IPv6", RFC 5340, DOI 10.17487/RFC5340, July 2008,
S. Krishnan, "Handling of Overlapping IPv6 Fragments", RFC 5722, DOI 10.17487/RFC5722, December 2009,
F. Gont, "ICMP Attacks against TCP", RFC 5927, DOI 10.17487/RFC5927, July 2010,
R. Bush, "The Address plus Port (A+P) Approach to the IPv4 Address Shortage", RFC 6346, DOI 10.17487/RFC6346, August 2011,
S. Perreault, I. Yamagata, S. Miyakawa, A. Nakagawa, and H. Ashida, "Common Requirements for Carrier-Grade NATs (CGNs)", BCP 127, RFC 6888, DOI 10.17487/RFC6888, April 2013,
B. Carpenter, S. Jiang, and W. Tarreau, "Using the IPv6 Flow Label for Load Balancing in Server Farms", RFC 7098, DOI 10.17487/RFC7098, January 2014,
R. Krishnan, L. Yong, A. Ghanwani, N. So, and B. Khasnabish, "Mechanisms for Optimizing Link Aggregation Group (LAG) and Equal-Cost Multipath (ECMP) Component Link Utilization in Networks", RFC 7424, DOI 10.17487/RFC7424, January 2015,
R. Bonica, C. Pignataro, and J. Touch, "A Widely Deployed Solution to the Generic Routing Encapsulation (GRE) Fragmentation Problem", RFC 7588, DOI 10.17487/RFC7588, July 2015,
C. Pignataro, R. Bonica, and S. Krishnan, "IPv6 Support for Generic Routing Encapsulation (GRE)", RFC 7676, DOI 10.17487/RFC7676, October 2015,
F. Gont, "Security Implications of Predictable Fragment Identification Values", RFC 7739, DOI 10.17487/RFC7739, February 2016,
F. Gont, J. Linkova, T. Chown, and W. Liu, "Observations on the Dropping of Packets with IPv6 Extension Headers in the Real World", RFC 7872, DOI 10.17487/RFC7872, June 2016,
L. Yong, E. Crabbe, X. Xu, and T. Herbert, "GRE-in-UDP Encapsulation", RFC 8086, DOI 10.17487/RFC8086, March 2017,
J Touch, and M Townsley, "IP Tunnels in the Internet Architecture", Internet-Draft draft-ietf-intarea-tunnels-10, September 2019,
J Touch, "Transport Options for UDP", Internet-Draft draft-ietf-tsvwg-udp-options-08, September 2019,
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Thanks to Mikael Abrahamsson, Brian Carpenter, Silambu Chelvan, Lorenzo Colitti, Gorry Fairhurst, Joel Halpern, Mike Heard, Tom Herbert, Tatuya Jinmei, Suresh Krishnan, Jen Linkova, Paolo Lucente, Manoj Nayak, Eric Nygren, Fred Templin, and Joe Touch for their comments.
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Authors' Addresses

Ron Bonica

Juniper Networks
2251 Corporate Park Drive
Herndon   Virginia   20171
United States of America

Fred Baker

Santa Barbara   California   93117
United States of America

Geoff Huston

6 Cordelia St
Brisbane   4101 QLD  

Robert M. Hinden

Check Point Software
959 Skyway Road
San Carlos   California   94070
United States of America

Ole Troan

Philip Pedersens vei 1
N-1366 Lysaker  

Fernando Gont

SI6 Networks
Evaristo Carriego 2644
Haedo   Provincia de Buenos Aires  
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