Monday, June 5, 2017

gqrx, direct sampling configuration, shortwave/AM reception, etc

This is one of those articles that I write specifically to, you know, not forget it the next time.

I picked up a v3 RTL-SDR dongle from a few weeks ago. It's a solidly looking aluminium can dongle with a much more useful RF connector. But, it still only tunes down by default to the same RTL-SDR limits as .. well, the rest.

So I go digging. I bought this thing because on Windows you're supposed to be able to tune down to a couple hundred KHz. I found out some useful stuff after a bit of google abuse:

  • it's called "direct sampling mode";
  • it's supported by the rtl_sdr driver/library that you normally use;
  • you have to configure things up in a special way to get GQRX, etc to actually do the right thing;
  • There's a specific thing called "Q-Branch" that you have to care about.
Ok, so the actual details.

Firstly, the NIC needs to go into direct sampling mode. So instead of being mixed with a VCO, you're bypassing all of that and just acting as a really fast ADC. Which, yes, will alias signals everywhere.

Secondly, you have to tell it to only give you "Q" samples, rather than both I and Q. If it's direct sampling, mixing doesn't come into it, so the hardware is just giving you ADC samples.

Then, you just tell GQRX, etc to ignore enforcing tuning limits (tick "No limits") and you're golden.

The specific string to add to the device string when you set up which rtl_tcp instance to talk to is:


(0 = no direct sampling; 1 = direct sampling on I, 2 = direct sampling on Q.)

Ok, so does it work? I'm still testing it. I will need to acquire some RF filters to try and filter out bands of HF frequencies to avoid aliasing as there is limited to on actual passband filtering going on here. But it did tune to AM radio and I picked up some data transmissions in 3MHz.

Baby steps!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

gqrx on freebsd

I'm still tinkering with my own SDR code in C, but I decided I'd give gqrx a go. It sports a simple UI to visualise things as well as a simple control network protocol.

FreeBSD has packages for it, so it really was as simple as:

# pkg install gqrx

I already have the rtl-sdr bits installed, so that was pretty easy:

# rtl_tcp

.. to bring up the network service for it.

But running gqrx .. didn't work. It just stood there and did nothing when I ran it - no UI, no useful log output, nothing.

So out came truss. Step one in the "what is going on" showed no useful logging. Step 2 is "ok, what syscalls is it making." It turns out it was trying to connect to the IPv6 localhost address - but rtl_tcp defaults on FreeBSD to IPv4 localhost. gqrx doesn't handle connect() errors gracefully, so it was just stuck in an infinite connect() loop.

So I cleared the config, started gqrx again, and ensured this time it was set to '' instead of 'localhost'. Voila! It worked!

Now - I need an SDR unit that can go down closer to DC so I can pick up shortwave. This RTL dongle I have doesn't tune below 27MHz.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Bringing up 802.11ac on FreeBSD

I've been chipping away at bringing up 802.11ac on FreeBSD. I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but you know, life got in the way.

net80211 has reasonably good 802.11n support, but no 802.11ac support. I decided a while ago to start adding basic 802.11ac support. It was a good exercise in figuring out what the minimum set of required features are and another excuse to go find some of the broken corner cases in net80211 that needed addressing. I'll talk about a few here.

802.11ac introduces a few new concepts that the stack needs to understand. I decided to use the QCA 802.11ac parts because (a) I know the firmware and general chip stuff from the first generation 11ac parts well, and (b) I know that it does a bunch of stuff (like rate control, packet scheduling, etc) so I don't have to do it. If I chose, say, the Intel 11ac parts then I'd have to implement a lot more of the fiddly stuff to get good behaviour.

So, the first step was to survey what I needed to at bring up a very small subset of functionality. The typical first target is "monitor" mode, since that requires channel configuration to work, but doesn't require the rest of the stack to know about anything (ie, no 11ac aware IE negotiation.)

Step one - adding VHT channels. I decided in the shorter term to cheat and just add VHT channels to the already very large ieee80211_channel map. The linux way of there being a channel context rather than hundreds of static channels to choose from is better in the long run, but I wanted to get things up and running. So, that's what I did first - I added VHT flags for 20, 40, 80, 80+80 and 160MHz operating modes and I did the bare work required to populate the channel lists with VHT channels as well.

This required adding support to lib80211 and ifconfig to support loading VHT channels from the regulatory domain (regdomain.xml.) And yes, this let me get VHT channels statically configured.

Then I needed to add VHT capabilities to the driver structure (ieee80211com) and the virtual interface structure (ieee80211vap.) This is so that drivers can be told that yes, we can do VHT things.

Then I needed to glue it into an 11ac driver. My ath10k port was far enough along to attempt this, so I added enough glue to say "I support VHT" to the ic_caps field and propagated it to the driver for monitor mode configuration. And yes, after a bit of dancing, I managed to get a VHT channel to show up in ath10k in monitor mode and could capture 80MHz wide packets. Success!

So at this point I took a big of a segue and decided to ensure that the receive packet flags made sense for VHT operation. I did a bunch of work to tidy this up so I could mark frames as 20/40/80/etc and had all of that mostly done in a few days.

Next up was station operation. So this required a few things to get right:
  • Channel promotion (ie, going from 11a -> 11n -> 11ac)
  • Knowing about VHT IEs, both for transmit and receive
  • Negotiating VHT capabilities to announce to the AP during association request/response and then telling the driver about what's going on.
By far the most fiddly was getting channel promotion to work. net80211 supports the concept of dumb NICs (like atheros 11abgn parts) very well, where you can have multiple virtual interfaces but the "driver" view of the right configuration is what's programmed into the hardware. For firmware NICs which do this themselves (like basically everything sold today) this isn't exactly all that helpful. So, for now, it's limited to a single VAP, and the VAP configuration is partially derived from the global state and partially derived from the negotiated state. It's annoying, but it is adding to the list of things I will have to fix later.

Sorry, I went off on a bit of a tangent. So one of the things net80211 does is it looks at the list of desired channels for each VAP and determines what the "NIC" channel should be in order to support it. So yes, ic_curchan is being used and it's what gets updated. the vap->iv_des_chan is the "I'd like to be this channel" but the active channel is actually vap->iv_bss->ni_chan (yes, the BSS node current channel.) That's what gets promoted. I need to uhm, "fix" the per-VAP state to have a "current channel" that gets updated with the BSS channel - so that's high on the list of things to fix.

Then the next part for channel promotion is how it's done. IT's not done via a call to "promote channel" - it instead was done by a call to net80211's 802.11n routines which just parse HT (11n) IEs. Yes, parsing an 11n IE also upgraded the channel. So I spent a bunch of time refactoring that, and now the bits that parse IEs are separate from channel promotion. Fun times.

So, once channel promotion worked, I associated fine as an open mode 11ac station. All of the negotiated pieces were wrong, so I spent a few days looking at packet captures to ensure I negotiated VHT capabilities correctly, but it seems to work fine.

Next was adding in support for things that stopped me doing encrypted data. The TL;DR here is - net80211's crypto key handling model needed overhauling.

Firstly the key management code assumes everything is synchronous and can't sleep. For firmware based devices this really isn't true. So, a lot of drivers defer key management into taskqueues to run things. This sounds fine, but then you realise that once the key addition succeeds, net80211 then will transmit frames expecting them to be encrypted. Userland too has this problem - it will do an ioctl() to set a key, then when it returns OK, it will queue further key negotiation frames. So, I had to do some uhm, clever things to try and work around this, and I'll cover how I need to fix it properly later.

Next up - the QCA chips/firmware do 802.11 crypto offload. They actually pretend that there's no key - you don't include the IV, you don't include padding, or anything. You send commands to set the crypto keys and then you send unencrypted 802.11 frames (or 802.3 frames if you want to do ethernet only.) This means that I had to teach net80211 a few things:

  • frames decrypted by the hardware needed to have a "I'm decrypted" bit set, because the 802.11 header field saying "I'm decrypted!" is cleared
  • frames encrypted don't have the "i'm encrypted" bit set
  • frames encrypted/decrypted have no padding, so I needed to teach the input path and crypto paths to not validate those if the hardware said "we offload it all."
So yeah, that's now done.

(Now, there's a whole separate discussion about hostap that I'll defer for later. Suffice to say - at this point I got hostap mostly working.)

Now comes the hard bit of fixing the shortcomings before I can commit the driver. There are .. lots.

The first one is the global state. The ath10k firmware allows what they call 'vdevs' (virtual devices) - for example, multiple SSID/BSSID support is implemented with multiple vdevs. STA+WDS is implemented with vdevs. STA+P2P is implemented with vdevs. So, technically speaking I should go and find all of the global state that should really be per-vdev and make it per-vdev. This is tricky though, because a lot of the state isn't kept per-VAP even though it should be.

So, I need to fix the following to be per-vdev rather than global:
  • Slot time configuration
  • ERP configuration (ie, 11g BSS overlap with 11b)
  • Frame protection configuration
  • QoS/WMM configuration
  • 20/40 channel width configuration - which needs extending to 11ac channel widths too
Then there are some things which are just plainly not implemented. A-MPDU offload for example is fine, but A-MSDU offload pretends that there are multiple 802.11 frames with the same sequence number / crypto information. This is problematic for the sequence number de-duplication code and also A-MPDU offload - in both cases, all but one A-MSDU frames are just tossed. This drastically kills performance. I'm almost done implementing A-MSDU in A-MPDU offload support, and when that's done, I'll implement A-MSDU offload de-duplication awareness and performance should drastically rise.

Another thing as mentioned is channel width, as well as other 802.11n things that need extending for 802.11ac. A bit one that I'd like to get right is SMPS (spatial multiplexing power save.) If the chip supports it in firmware then we just need to allow it to be configured and controlled, but that isn't even an option right now. I'd like to implement SMPS for Atheros 11n parts in ath(4), but that's a lot more work.

Anyway, so far so good. I need to do some of the above and land it in FreeBSD-HEAD so I can finish off the ath10k port and commit what I have to FreeBSD. There's a lot of stuff coming - including all of the wave-2 stuff (like multiuser MIMO / MU-MIMO) which I just plainly haven't talked about yet.

Viva la FreeBSD wireless! 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

(finally) investigating how to get dynamic WDS (DWDS) working in FreeBSD!

I sat down recently to figure out how to get dynamic WDS working on FreeBSD-HEAD. It's been in FreeBSD since forever, and it in theory should actually have just worked, but it's extremely not documented in any useful way. It's basically the same technology in earlier Apple Airports (before it grew into what the wireless tech world calls "Proxy-STA") and is what the "extender" technology on Qualcomm Atheros chipsets implement.

A common question I get from people is "why can't I bridge multiple virtual machines on my laptop and have them show up over wifi? It works on ethernet!" And my response is "when I make dynamic WDS work, you can just make this work on FreeBSD devices - but for now, use NAT." That always makes people sad.

So what is it?

With normal station / access point setups, wireless frames have up to three addresses. In the header it's "address 1", "address 2", and "address 3".

Depending upon the packet type, these can be a variety of addresses:

  • SA - source address - source of the packet (eg the STA address)
  • TA - transmitter address - STA/AP that transmitted the frame
  • RA - receiver address - immediate destination of the packet 
  • DA - finally recipient of the data
  • BSSID - BSS ID (ie, AP mac address)
There are a lot of addresses. There are, in fact, more than the number of address fields in a normal 802.11 frame.

Now, if you want to understand when each of these are used in which frames, you can totally find blog posts from people which describe things (eg will fill you in. But the TL;DR for normal AP/STA traffic is:

  • From an AP, the frame has BSSID, SA of the MAC (eg ethernet behind the AP bridge) sending data, and DA is the STA MAC address
  • From a STA, the frame has BSSID, TA is the STA that transmits, and DA is the final destination of the frame (eg ethernet behind the AP bridge.)
The big note here is that there's not enough MAC addresses to say "please send this frame to a station MAC address, but then have them forward it to another MAC address attached behind it in a bridge." That would require 4 mac addresses in the 802.11 header, which we don't get.

.. except we do. There's a separate address format where from-DS and to-DS bits in the header set to 1, which means "this frame is coming from distribution system to a distribution system", and it has four mac addresses. The RA is then the AP you're sending to, and then a fourth field indicates the eventual destination address that may be an ethernet device connected behind said STA.

If you don't configure up WDS, then when you send frames from a station from a MAC address that isn't actually your 802.11 interface MAC address, the system would be confused. The STA wouldn't be able to transmit it easily, and the AP wouldn't know how to get back to your bridged ethernet addresses.

Ok, so how does this work with WDS? The above from/to-DS mode is actually the technical hilarity behind "Wireless Distribution System",  which is a fancy way of saying "an AP connects to another AP and can relay frames for you." It's what was used for extending wireless networks before true meshing solutions came into existence.

The original WDS was a statically configured thing. You'd configure up a particular device as a WDS extender, and both sides would need configuring:

  • The central AP would need to know the MAC address of a WDS master, so it would know that frames from/to that particular AP needed the four-address frame format, and
  • The extender AP would need to be configured to talk to the central AP to act as a WDS master - it would then associate as a station to that central AP, and would use 4-address frames to relay traffic to it.
 So for static configurations, this works great. You'd associate your extender AP as a station of the central AP, it'd use wpa_supplicant to setup encryption, then anything between that central AP and that extender AP (as a station) would be encrypted as normal station traffic (but, 4-address frame format.)

But that's not very convenient. You have to statically configure everything, including telling your central AP about all of your satellite extender APs. If you want to replace your central AP, you have to reprogram all of your extenders to use the new MAC addresses.

So, Sam Leffler came up with "dynamic WDS" - where you don't have to explicitly state the list of central/satellite APs. Instead, you configure a central AP as "dynamic WDS", and when a 4-address frame shows up from an associated station, it "promotes" it to a WDS peer for you. On the satellite AP, it will just find an AP to communicate to, and then assume it'll do WDS and start using 4-address frames. It's still a bit clunky (there's no beacon, probe request, etc IEs that say "I do dynamic WDS!" so you'd better make ALL your central APs a different SSID!) but it certainly is better than what we had.

(Yes, one of the things I'll be doing to FreeBSD now that this works is adding that concept of "I'm a DWDS primary!" node concept so satellites can just "find" a DWDS primary enabled AP to associate to. Baby steps..)

But, I tried it - and ... let's just say, the documentation didn't say very much. So I couldn't really get it to work.

Then a friend pointed out he figured it out. (Thankyou Edward!)

Firstly, there are scripts in src/tools/tools/net80211/ - setup.wdsmain and setup.wdsrelay. These scripts are .. well, the almost complete documentation on a dynamic WDS setup. The manpage doesn't go into anywhere near enough information.

So I dug into it. It turns out that dynamic WDS uses a helper daemon - 'wlanwds' -  which listens for dynamic WDS configuration changes and will do things for you. This is what runs on the central AP side. Then it started making sense!
  • For dynamic WDS, there are no WDS interface types created by default
  • net80211 will post a routing socket message if a 4-address frame shows up on a "dwds" enabled interface, which is the signal to userland to plumb up a DWDS interface for that particular peer
  • wlanwds is then responsible for creating that virtual interface with the right configuration
  • Then it runs a shell script that you provide which lets you do things like assign it to a bridge group so it can bridge traffic
  • Finally, if the station goes away, wlanwds will get another notification from net80211 saying the station has gone, and wlanwds will destroy the virtual interface for that peer.
So far, so good. I followed that script, modified it a bit to use encryption, and .. well, it half worked. Association worked fine, but no traffic was passing.

A little tcpdump'ing later showed what was going on!
  • 4-address frames from the extender side was successfully being encrypted and transmitted to the central AP
  • 4-address frames from the central AP were being send, but unencrypted
  • .. so the station dropped them as well, unencrypted when they should've been encrypted.
A little more digging showed the actual problem - the dynamic WDS example scripts are for an open/unencrypted network. If you are using an encrypted network, the central AP side needs to enable privacy on the virtual interfaces so traffic gets encrypted with the parent interface encryption keys. So adding this:

ifconfig $DEV wepmode mixed

.. to the shell script for when an interface was created made everything work.

Now, I've only done enough testing to show that indeed it is working. I haven't done anything like pass lots of traffic via iperf, or have a mix of DWDS and normal STA peers, nor actually run it for longer than 5 minutes. I'm sure there will be issues to fix. However - I do need it at home, as I can't see the home AP from the upstairs room (and now you see why I care about DWDS!) and so when I start using it daily I'll fix whatever hilarity ensues.