IPv6 in Enterprise Wi-Fi Networks

At first I wish all readers a very happy new year and all the best for 2022! May the force be with you for your IPv6 efforts ;-).

In this post I’m going to discuss some characteristics of IPv6 in common organization-level (as opposed to home networks) Wi-Fi deployments. These characteristics have to be kept in mind both during design & implementation and in the course of troubleshooting. Many IPv6 practitioners learn(ed) about IPv6 fundamentals in Ethernet networks (quick hint on terminology: in this post the term ‘Ethernet’ always means ‘wired Ethernet’ as of IEEE 802.3 standards, and ‘Wi-Fi’ refers to technologies in the context of IEEE 802.11), and it’s probably a safe assumption that the designers of IPv6 (in the 90s) mostly had such networks in mind when core parts of IPv6 and its communication behavior on the local-link where specified. While IPv6 neighbor discovery (NDP) as of RFC 4861 strictly speaking supports many different link types (section 3.2), the protocol overview in section 3.3 heavily relies on multicast transport (which doesn’t make sense on certain link types). This is aligned with a mental model of IPv6 behavior that quite a few of us (practitioners) have, and which is based, among others, on the following assumptions:

  • (1) on the local link there are usually (at least) some neighbors, and if so, then interaction with them is possible by certain mechanisms like NS/NA messages.
  • (2) multicast is a somewhat reliable mechanism (otherwise NDP would be unreliable), and it has at least similar performance properties as broadcast (otherwise NDP would be slower than ARP in IPv4 which certainly wouldn’t have been an acceptable objective ;-).
  • (3) sniffing ICMPv6 messages (which encompasses all NDP packets incl. router advertisements) will provide an initial understanding of the local environment.

As we will see in the following, very often Enterprise-level Wi-Fi networks are implemented in a way that renders quite some of these assumptions debatable. Again, it should be noted that the resulting differences do not apply to IPv6 in home networks which hence can be expected to work in a way that aligns with the above assumptions.
The mentioned differences mainly stem from two sources which is why it can be helpful to understand those first.

Assumptions & Security Properties

Wi-Fi networks are often treated slightly different from a security perspective, based on certain assumptions incl. (but not limited to 😉 ) the following:

  • They are considered more hostile environments than ‘the trusted corporate LAN’ (based on thinking along the lines of “heard of those guys getting into our Wi-Fi network from the parking lot, via that compromised PSK?”). So more scrutiny is put onto basic network security measures (like just dropping certain packets, see 3rd point).
  • their traffic is expected to be primarily ‘eyeball traffic’ flowing from clients to servers either in the Internet or in the organization’s data centers, hence no need to communicate with other systems within the same Wi-Fi network/VLAN (as opposed to the Ethernet VLANs where a user/system might still need to reach that lab system under the desk, that printer over there, or the web interface of that building management system which is placed in the same VLAN, for ‘historical reasons’). In enterprise-grade Wi-Fi networks subsequently very often mechanisms to isolate clients from each other can be found (discussed in more detail below).
  • infrastructure systems like routers or DHCPv6 servers are expected to never reside in the Wi-Fi which is why packets supposed to originate from such systems (IPv6 router advertisements or DHCPv6 Advertise, Reply or Reconfigure messages) can be & actually get dropped by default. Please note that the presence of devices implementing Thread networking (like the HomePod mini) puts this approach into question, but that’s another discussion, and the respective filters might not even be (easily) configurable.

Handling of Multicast Traffic

For reasons laid out in section 3 of RFC 9119 Multicast Considerations over IEEE 802 Wireless Media the use of multicast transport in Wi-Fi networks brings various challenges which can heavily degrade the network performance and/or the battery life of connected devices (for the latter see also RFC 7772 Reducing Energy Consumption of Router Advertisements, and for the former it can be a good idea to read the excellent ‘Wireless Means Radio‘ article). That’s the reason for a number of related optimizations commonly found in enterprise Wi-Fi networks (or, for that matter, in conference networks, see Chris Werny’s talk on IPv6 in the Troopers Wi-Fi).

Now let’s look at some technologies in more detail, together with their impact on troubleshooting.

Client Isolation

This is a feature that blocks ‘direct’ connections between clients associated to the same WLC or the same AP. The actual technologies are vendor-specific (‘Peer-to-Peer Blocking’ in Cisco land or ‘Deny Inter-User Traffic’ in Aruba land) but the impact can essentially be broken down to: wireless clients can’t ‘see’/reach other by means of unicast traffic nor by certain multicast traffic (which usually includes IPv6 NDP but *not* mDNS/LLMNR, so the latter commonly pass the boundary). It should further be noted that this feature is implemented on the WLC/AP level, so attackers might still be able to send packets directly to individual stations.
Impact on behavior, in particular in the context of troubleshooting:

  • the actual implementations of different vendors might vary, so one should be extra careful with conclusions. This applies to both handling of specific multicast traffic and to traffic to/from the Ethernet side of things (commonly at least some of this is passed — think: physical router sends RAs to ff02::1 — but other stuff might be dropped, e.g. neighbor solicitations to SNMA of individual Wi-Fi clients. Some devices allow configuring some properties, e.g. look for ‘Forward-Upstream’).
  • keep this feature in mind when troubleshooting connection issues with colleagues (‘can you ping my MacBook?’ might not work as expected ;-).

Performance- or Security-oriented Optimizations of NDP Traffic

A number of mechanisms/configuration tweaks exist in the context of NDP (router advertisements and NS/NA packets). The most known ones are the following (the terminology is a bit Cisco-oriented, based on stuff we used to do at Troopers, but these features can be found, under one name or another, in most Enterprise-level Wi-Fi solutions):

  • RA Throttling: WLC/AP rate limits forwarding of RAs to Wi-Fi, based on certain thresholds & related timers. From an operator perspective one has to make sure that the Router Lifetime in the RAs exceeds the timers used here (see also section 4 of RFC 7772. Andrew Yourtchenko, one of its authors, used to use 9000s in one of his networks, see this post). Some years ago the default Router Lifetime on Junos was 180s which could to lead to issues in networks using RA Throttling (wireless clients losing their default route as they did not receive a new RA before the default route generated from last received RA timed out).
  • Unicast RAs: router advertisements sent in response to a RS are only sent to unicast address of requesting node (instead of sending them to the all-nodes multicast address/ff02::1. RFC 4861 states [in section 6.2.6] that a router ‘MAY’ do this, so it’s a valid, and commonly used, approach).
  • ‘NDP proxy’: when using this feature the WLC responds to NS packets from the Ethernet side by sending NAs ‘on behalf’ of Wi-Fi stations. At this point it can also convert (for unknown MAC addresses) the multicast NS into a unicast packet sent to the MAC address of the wireless client, and some implementations have a dedicated mode for DAD. See also RFC 8929 for a technical description of an ‘ND proxy’.
  • RA Guard (I tested this some years ago with surprisingly solid results).
  • IP Source Guard: this is a security feature that checks MAC address-to-IP(v6) address bindings. From an operations perspective one may keep in mind that there’s a threshold of IPv6 addresses which can be associated with one MAC address (iirc, on Cisco devices it’s eight [8]), and subsequently apparent violations might occur once clients regularly generate privacy addresses after coming back from sleep mode or similar. While I’ve never seen this irl I’m not sure which risk is supposed to be mitigated by the feature anyway (connectionless spoofing of a station’s IP address by another? for which attack vector? who would ever do this?).

Impact on behavior, in particular in the context of troubleshooting:

  • these features are vendor-specific. Their default settings, configuration approaches, and working modes might vary, even between devices from the same vendor (e.g. see this thread).
  • expected behavior re: link-local traffic might differ from observed behavior (certain NDP messages not seen on Wi-Fi due to controller interaction, RAs seemingly missing due to RA throttling etc.)

‘Mobility’ / Layer 2 Will Never Be the Same

In order to allow stations to physically move/to roam between areas covered by different APs, all modern controller-based Wi-Fi solutions implement techniques that span kind-of virtual Layer-2 domains across multiple APs or even across multiple controllers. Furthermore traffic can be tunneled between controllers over Ethernet over IP (EoIP) — this is often, but not only used for Wi-Fi guest networks — which then includes so-called anchor controllers providing a break-out point of the traffic towards certain parts of the corporate network or to the Internet. The main thing to keep in mind here is that a neighbor (in IPv6 terms) can actually be a system separated from a vantage point by many Layer-2 and Layer-3 devices/hops (this is the same in VXLAN environments, but from my experience in Wi-Fi space diagnosing errors might be more difficult due to lack of proper tooling or even proper CLI access/commands).

Impact on behavior, in particular in the context of troubleshooting:

  • from an operator perspective one should note that any type of tunneling can have an impact on the MTU, an area where IPv6 traditionally does not have a great reputation, so to say (e.g. see this Cisco bug).
  • while troubleshooting carefully consider the impact of (all of) the above technologies. For example imagine you don’t see an NA after a station has sent an NS for the default router’s IPv6 address. The actual traffic flow could easily be the following:
    for the NS packet: station sends multicast packet -> AP -> (over a tunnel protocol to) WLC -> Ethernet -> SVI
    for the corresponding NA: unicast packet all the way back, but potentially slightly different path (AP).

tl;dr: In W-Fi networks usually a number of techniques can be found which interact with IPv6 in various ways. As a network designer you should be familiar with those technologies. When doing troubleshooting in such networks it might be helpful to keep them in mind, too ;-).

Thank you for reading so far. I’m always happy to receive feedback, either here on the blog or via Twitter. Happy IPv6 networking to you all!

Published by Enno

Old-school networking guy with a certain focus on network security. This blog is a private blog and it contains private musings, even though I have a day job around the Internet Protocol. I leave it to the valued reader to guess which version of it ;-). Some tweets on related topics at https://twitter.com/enno_insinuator.

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