Using tcpflow

Sometimes, when you're writing applications that use a library to talk over the wire to a remote service, it's difficult to see how the high level API the library exposes translates into the on-the-wire protocol. Funnily enough, I was having that very problem yesterday, so I dug tcpflow out my toolbox to better understand what was happening.

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Sometimes, when you’re writing applications that use a library to talk over the wire to a remote service, it’s difficult to see how the high level API the library exposes translates into the on-the-wire protocol. Funnily enough, I was having that very problem yesterday, so I dug tcpflow out my toolbox to better understand what was happening.

I was writing a client for the [REDACTED] (for now, at least!) API, for a client project. I’d decided to use this as an excuse to learn EventMachine and em-http-request to talk to the remote API. Given the pattern of use I’m expecting, a reactor-patterned daemon feels like a really good fit.

It was a weird experience – it’s the first time I’ve done any reactor pattern development in anger since ~2004 when I was messing around with using Python’s Twisted framework for small TCP server applications. (Ah, them were the days, before HTTP became the hammer to everybody’s wire protocol thumb nail.) But I digress…

I was having trouble understanding why the em-http-request requests I was making weren’t having the intended result. There were two specific problems I saw over the course of the day:

  • The path I was sending in, according to the documentation, using request.get :path => '/api/v2/chickens.json', didn’t appear to be what was being requested (in that everything I requested looked like it was getting the same response as a request to GET /).

  • After the initial request, subsequent requests reusing the same HttpRequest object would silently fail. This was slightly more bizarre.

In solving either of these problems, I could have dived into the em-http-request source and traced what was happening. In fact, that was my first port of call but, being rusty at the reactor pattern, I was having trouble following the flow of execution. (As it turns out, if I’ve done this properly, I should have spotted the problem straight away, but we’ll get to that.)

However, in this instance, I decided to treat the library I was using as a black box and instead examine what it was generating and consuming at the other end.

Enter tcpflow. It’s been part of my arsenal of network debugging tools for as long as I can remember. It is similar to tcpdump, but that typically just shows you the IP packets on the wire. tcpflow attempts to reconstruct the actual TCP streams to give you an idea of the conversation going on.

Let’s install it. I’m on a Mac, and I’m using Homebrew, so it’s just a case of:

brew install tcpflow

Your mileage may vary, but it’s a piece of software that’s been around for a long time, so I bet there’s a package for your system. If you’re using Homebrew, it will install the binary as your user and not setuid to root, which means that, in order to access the packet capture device, you’ll have to make sure and run it through sudo. The examples I show all have sudo in ‘em since that’s what I had to do.

tcpflow uses libpcap as the underlying packet capture library, the very same one as is used by tcpdump. This means that the syntax for specifying the information you want to capture will be familiar if you’ve used that tool before.

Last piece of background information before we get into solving the problems. You’ll need to figure out the network interface you’re using as that’s the interface it will capture packets from. Short version (since a longer version is out of scope!): if you’re on a Mac, it’s highly likely to be en0 if you’re on wired Ethernet and en1 if you’re on wireless. If you’re using Linux and you’re on a wired network, chances are it’ll be eth0. My Mac laptop is on a wireless network right now, so the examples show me using en1. Examine the output of ifconfig to determine your active network interface.

So, that’s the theory, let’s see this thing in action. The first problem is that we’re not getting the response we’re expecting from making particular HTTP requests. Let’s see what’s happening on the wire with tcpflow:

sudo tcpflow -c -n en1 src or dst host

Breaking that down:

  • -c spits the flows out on stdout. The normal operation is to create a file for each flow, in each direction. If you’re capturing a lot of data, or pipelined conversations, files are much more sane, but for small conversations like this, stdout is really convenient.

  • -n en1 is capturing from my wireless device, as discussed above.

  • src or dst host is the expression used to describe the flows that we want to capture. In essence, this is saying that we want to capture flows of data that are sent to, or received from, The language is pretty rich, allowing for a bunch of complex rules to narrow down the data captured, but I tend to find that specifying a remote host and/or port is enough.

Let’s see what that gets us. I’ve created a Ruby script, the essence of which is: do
  request ='')
  deferrable = request.get :path => '/api/v2/chickens.json'
  deferrable.callback { puts "It worked"; EM.stop }
  deferrable.errback  { puts "It failed"; EM.stop }

Let’s see what the on-the-wire communication turns into: GET / HTTP/1.1
User-Agent: EventMachine HttpClient
Host: HTTP/1.1 301 Moved Permanently
Date: Sat, 05 Mar 2011 11:59:55 GMT
Content-Type: text/html
Content-Length: 178
Connection: close

[ body content elided ]

That’s annoying, because I’d specifically requested /api/v2/chickens.json, but it’s actually requesting / (the GET / HTTP/1.1 line). What’s with that? Well, it turns out that the published stable gem for em-http-request doesn’t actually implement the :path option; I need to install the beta 1.0 gem to get that. Oops. Moral of the story: if you’re going to read the source to the gem you’re using, read the source to the installed version you’re using, not just the latest version on GitHub!

The second problem is a little more subtle. I got to the stage where the first request was working successfully, but subsequent requests reusing the same HttpRequest would fail miserably, just waiting for no response to occur. An example: do
  request ='')
  deferrable = request.get :path => '/api/v2/chickens.json'
  deferrable.callback do
    deferred_eggs = request.get :path => '/api/v2/chickens/1/eggs.json'
    deferred_eggs.callback { puts "It worked"; EM.stop }
    deferred_eggs.errback  { puts "Egg retrieval failed"; EM.stop }
  deferrable.errback  { puts "It failed"; EM.stop }

Let’s take a wee look at the over-the-wire conversation as captured by tcpflow: GET /api/v2/chickens.json HTTP/1.1
User-Agent: EventMachine HttpClient
Host: HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Date: Sat, 05 Mar 2011 13:39:47 GMT
Content-Type: application/json;charset=ISO-8859-1
Connection: close
Set-Cookie: JSESSIONID=B4D6AE4456BC6D93E6B3441D4FEC6946; Path=/api/v2
Content-Language: en-US

[ body content elided ] GET /api/v2/chickens/1/eggs.json HTTP/1.1
User-Agent: EventMachine HttpClient

Here we see the initial request, the response and the second request, but no response. That’s really weird. Isn’t it? Then I spotted something. Do you see the initial line of each flow, with a string of numbers? That’s the source IP and port, then the destination IP and port. Let’s break the first one apart:

which translates to:

  • the client IP address is That’s the internal IP of my laptop on my home network.

  • the client TCP port is 54442. Both sides of a TCP connection get a port, and the client side usually has a random, unused, high port number chosen for it by the kernel. Each TCP connection gets a different client port, and they’re typically not reused for a while after you’re done with them.

  • the server IP address is which I cleverly remembered to change just now, lest you discover who [REDACTED] is. ;)

  • the server TCP port is 80, the well known port for HTTP.

Now, let’s look at the second request’s connection information:

Isn’t that interesting? They’ve both got the same client TCP port. Now, we’re not doing keepalive, and the server responded with Connection: close (which, sadly, it does, even if I do attempt to switch keepalive on). So, as far as the server’s concerned, the TCP session is done and it has closed the connection. But the client, em-http-request, hasn’t closed its end, and has decided to send another request along the same TCP connection. Since the server has already closed its side of the connection, it never sees the second request and, naturally, never responds.

I smell a bug with em-http-request that I’ve reported here: #77 Reusing HttpRequest.

I hope this has served as a useful introduction to tcpflow. It’s a great tool for discovering what really happens on the wire when you’re using higher level APIs and libraries. It really comes into its own when the library is, say, closed source and you have to deal with it as a black box. There are plenty of higher level tools with GUIs that can help you with this kind of task too, but I really like that tcpflow does one thing and does it really well. Thanks, Jeremy!

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