A Simple, Delay-Tolerant, Offline-Capable Mesh Network with Syncthing (+ optional NNCP)

A little while back, I spent a week in a remote area. It had no Internet and no cell phone coverage. Sometimes, I would drive in to town where there was a signal to get messages, upload photos, and so forth. I had to take several devices with me: my phone, my wife’s, maybe a laptop or a tablet too. It seemed there should have been a better way. And there is.

I’ll use this example to talk about a mesh network, but it could just as well apply to people wanting to communicate on a 12-hour flight that has no in-flight wifi, or spacecraft with an intermittent connection, or a person traveling.

Syncthing makes a wonderful solution for things like these. Here are some interesting things about Syncthing:

  • You can think of Syncthing as a serverless, peer-to-peer, open source alternative to Dropbox. Machines sync directly with each other without a server, though you can add a server if you want.
  • It can operate completely without Internet access or any central server, though if Internet access is available, it can readily be used.
  • Syncthing devices connected to the same LAN or Wifi will detect each other’s presence and automatically communicate.
  • Syncthing is capable of handling a constantly-changing topology. It can also, for instance, handle two disconnected clusters of nodes with one node that “travels” between them — perhaps just a phone.
  • Syncthing scales from everything from a phone to thousands of nodes.
  • Syncthing normally performs syncs in every direction, but can also do single-direction syncs
  • An individual Syncthing node can register its interest or disinterest in certain files or directories based on filename patterns

Syncthing works by having you define devices and folders. You can choose which devices to share folders with. A shared folder has an ID that is unique across Sycnthing. You can share a folder from device A to device B, and then device B can share it with device C, even if A and C don’t know about each other or have no way to communicate. More commonly, though, all the devices would know about each other and will opportunistically communicate the best way they can.

Syncthing uses something akin to a Bittorrent protocol. Say you’re syncing videos from your phone, and they’re going to 3 machines. It doesn’t mean that Syncthing has to send it three times from the phone. Syncthing will send each block, most likely, just once; the other nodes in the swarm will register the block availability from the first other node to get it and will exchange blocks with themselves.

Syncthing will typically look for devices on the local LAN. Failing that, it will use an introduction server to see if it can reach them directly using P2P. Failing that, perhaps due to restrictive firewalls or NAT, communication can be relayed through volunteer-run Syncthing servers on the Internet. All Syncthing communications are cryptographically encrypted and verified. You can also configure Syncthing arbitrarily; for instance, to run over ssh or Tor tunnels.

So, let’s look at how Syncthing might help with the example I laid out up front.

All the devices at the remote location could communicate with each other. The Android app is quite capable of syncing photos and videos using Syncthing, for instance. Then one device could be taken to the Internet location and it would transmit data on behalf of all the others – perhaps back to a computer at your home, or to a server somewhere. Perhaps a script running on the remote server would then move files out of the syncthing synced folder into permanent storage elsewhere, triggering a deletion to be sent to the phone to free up storage. When the phone gets back to the other devices, the deletion can be propagated to them to free up storage there too.

Or maybe you have a computer out in a shed or somewhere without Internet access that you go to periodically, and need to get files to it. Again, your phone could be a carrier.

Taking it a step further

If you envision a file as a packet, you could, conceivably, do something like tunnel TCP/IP over Syncthing, assuming generous-enough timeouts. It can truly handle communication.

But you don’t need TCP/IP for this. Consider some other things you could do:

  • Drop a script in a special directory that gets picked up by a remote server and run
  • Drop emails in a special directory that get transmitted and then deleted by a remote system when they’re seen
  • Drop files (eg, photos or videos) in a directory that a remote system will copy or move out of there
  • Drop messages (perhaps gpg-encrypted) — which could be text files — for someone to see and process.
  • Drop NNTP bundles for group communication

You can start to see how there are a lot of possibilities here that extend beyond just file synchronization, though they are built upon a file synchronization tool.

Enter NNCP

Let’s look at a tool that’s especially suited for this: NNCP, which I’ve been writing about a lot lately.

NNCP is designed to handle file exchange and remote execution with remote computers in an asynchronous, store-and-forward manner. NNCP packets are themselves encrypted and authenticated. NNCP traditionally is source-routed (that is, you configure it so that machine A reaches machine D by relaying through B and C), and the packets are onion-routed. NNCP packets can be exchanged by a TCP call, a tar-like stream, copying files to something like a USB stick and physically transporting it to the remote, etc.

This works really well and I’ve been using it myself. But it gets complicated if the network topology isn’t fixed; it is difficult to reroute packets due to the onion routing, for instance. There are various workarounds that could be used — but why not just use Syncthing as a transport in those cases?

nncp-xfer is the command that exchanges packets by writing them to, and reading them from, a directory. It is what you’d use to exchange packets on a USB stick. And what you’d use to exchange packets via Syncthing. It writes packets in a RECIPIENT/SENDER/PACKET directory structure, so it is perfectly fine to have multiple systems exchanging packets in a single Syncthing synced folder tree. This structure also allows leaf nodes to only carry the particular packets they’re interested in. The packets are all encrypted, so they can be freely synced wherever.

Since Syncthing opportunistically syncs a shared folder with any device the folder is shared with, a phone could very easily be the NNCP transport, even if it has no idea what NNCP is. It could carry NNCP packets back and forth between sites, or to the Internet, or whatever.

NNCP supports file transmission, file request, and remote execution, all subject to controls, of course. It is easy to integrate with Exim or Postfix to use as a mail transport, Git transport, and so forth. I use it for backups. It would be quite easy to have it send those backups (encrypted zfs send) via nncp-xfer to Syncthing instead of the usual method, and then if I’ve shared the Syncthing folder with my phone, all I need to do is bring the phone into Internet range and they get sent. nncp-xfer will normally remove the packets out of the xfer directory as it ingests them, so the space will only be consumed on the phone (and laptop) until we know the packets made it to their destination.

Pretty slick, eh?

12 thoughts on “A Simple, Delay-Tolerant, Offline-Capable Mesh Network with Syncthing (+ optional NNCP)

  1. Have you looked at CouchDB? It serves some of the same use cases, but with a different approach. It’s very popular for offline-first applications. Two real-world examples I’ve heard:

    1. forestry applications, where a mobile device is frequently in the middle of a national forest, with no network connection, but it can easily sync back to a centralized data store when back within range.
    2. Fighting the Ebola outbreak in parts of Africa where network connecitivity was sporadic, at best. Medics in the field could track local data on tablets, to be easily synced with other sites when the network was made available, to allow global analytics.

    It’s sometimes called “A replication protocol, with a database tacked on.”

    I’ve been working on a project that allows bi-directional sync between CouchDB and a filesystem directory. Makes me think it could easily be coupled with something like syncthing…

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