Thursday, October 4, 2012

Power save, CABQ, multicast frames, EAPOL frames and sequence numbers (or why does my Macbook Pro keep disassociating?)

I do lots of traffic tests when I commit changes to the FreeBSD Atheros HAL or driver. And I hadn't noticed any problems until very recently (when I was doing filtered frames work.) I noticed that my macbook pro would keep disassociating after a while. I had no idea why - it would happen with or without any iperf traffic. Very, very odd.

So I went digging into it a bit further (and it took quite a few evenings to narrow down the cause.) Here's the story.

Firstly - hostapd kept kicking off my station. Ok, so I had to figure out why. It turns out that the group rekey would occasionally fail. When it's time to do a group rekey, hostapd will send a unicast EAPOL frame to each associated station with the new key and each station must send back another EAPOL frame, acknowledging the fact. This wasn't happening so hostapd would just disconnect my laptop.

Ok, so then I went digging to see why. After adding lots of debugging code I found that the EAPOL frames were actually making to my Macbook Pro _AND_ it was ACKing them at the 802.11 layer. Ok, so the frame made it out there. But why the hell was it being dropped?

Now that I knew it was making it to the end node, I could eliminate a bunch of possibilities. What was left:

  • Sequence number is out of order;
  • CCMP IV replay counter is out of order;
  • Invalid/garbled EAPOL frame contents.
I quickly ruled out the EAPOL frame contents. The sequence number and CCMP IV were allocated correctly and in order (and never out of sequence from each other.) Good. So what was going on?

Then I realised - ok, all the traffic is in TID 16 (the non-QoS TID.) That means it isn't a QoS frame but it still has a sequence number; so it is allocated one from TID 16. There's only one CCMP IV number for a transmitter (the receiver tracks a per-TID CCMP IV replay counter, but the transmitter only has one global counter.) So that immediately rings alarm bells - what if the CCMP IV sequence number isn't being allocated in a correctly locked fashion?

Ok. So I should really fix that bug. Actually, let me go and file a bug right now. There.

There. Bug filed. PR 172338.

Now, why didn't this occur back in Perth? Why is it occuring here? Why doesn't it occur under high throughput iperf (150Mbps+) but it is when the iperf tests are capped at 100Mbps ethernet speeds? Why doesn't it drop my FreeBSD STAs?

Right. So what else is in TID 16? Guess what I found ? All the multicast and broadcast traffic like ARPs are in TID 16.

Then I discovered what was really going on. The pieces fell into place.

  • My mac does go in and out of powersave - especially when it does a background scan.
  • When the mac is doing 150Mbps+ of test traffic, it doesn't do background scans.
  • When it's doing 100Mbps of traffic, the stack sneaks in a background scan here and there.
  • Whenever it goes into background scan, it sends a "power save" to the AP..
  • .. and the AP puts all multicast traffic into the CABQ instead of sending it to the destination hardware queue.
  • Now, when this occured, the EAPOL frames would go into the software queue for TID 16 and the ARP/multicast/etc traffic would go into the CABQ
  • .. but the CABQ has higher priority, so it'll be transmitted just after the beacon frame goes out, before the EAPOL frames in the software queue.
Now, given the above set of conditions, the ARP/multicast traffic (which there's more of in my new place, thanks to a DSL modem that constantly scans the local DHCP range for rogue/disconnected devices) would be assigned sequence numbers AFTER the EAPOL frames that went out but are sitting in the TID 16 software queue. The Mac would receive those CABQ frames with later sequence numbers, THEN my EAPOL frame. Which would be rejected for being out of sequence.

The solution? Complicated.

The temporarily solution? TID 16 traffic is now in a higher priority hardware queue, so it goes out first. Yes, I should mark EAPOL frames that way. I'll go through and tidy this up soon. I just needed to fix this problem before others started reporting the instability.

The real solution is complicated. It's complicated because in power save mode, there's both unicast and multicast traffic going into the same TID(s) but different hardware queues. Given this, it's quite possible that the traffic in the CABQ will burst out before the unicast packets with the same TID make it out via another hardware queue.

I'm still thinking of the best way to fix this.

Lessons learnt from fiddling with the rate control code..

(Note before I begin: a lot of these ideas about rate control are stuff I came up with before I began working at my current employer.)

Once I had implemented filtered frames and did a little digging, I found that the rate control code was doing some relatively silly things. Lots of rates were failing quite quickly and the rate control was bouncing all over the place.

The first bug I found was that I was checking the TX descriptor completion before I had copied it over - and so I was randomly failing TX when it didn't fail. Oops.

Next, don't call the rate control code on filtered frames. They've been filtered, not transmitted. My code wasn't doing that - I'm just pointing it out to anyone else who is implementing this.

Then I looked at what was going on with rate control. I noticed that whenever the higher transmission rates failed, it took a long time for the rate control code to try and sample them again. I went and did some digging - and found it was due to a coding decision I had made about 18 months ago. I treated higher rate failures with a low EWMA success rate as successive failures. The ath_rate_sample code treats "successive failures" as "don't try to probe this for ten seconds." Now, there's a few things you need to know about 802.11n:

  • The higher rates fail, often;
  • The channel state changes, often;
  • Don't be afraid to occasionally try those higher rates; it may actually work out better for you even under higher error rates.
So given that, I modified the rate control code a bit:

  • Only randomly sample a few rates lower than the current one; don't try sampling all 6, 14 or 22 rates below the high MCS rates;
  • Don't treat low EWMA as "successive failures"; just let the rate control code oscillate a bit;
  • Drop the EWMA decay time a bit to let the oscillation swing a little more.
Now the rate control code behaves much better and recovers much quicker during unstable channel conditions (eg - adrian walking around a house whilst doing iperf tests.)

Given this, what could I do better? I decided to start reading up on what the current state of play with 802.11n aware rate control and rapidly came to the conclusion that - wow, we likely could do it better. The Linux minstrel_ht algorithm is also based on John Bickett's sample rate code, but instead of using a EWMA and minimising packet transmission time, it uses the EWMA to calculate a theoretical throughput and maximises that. So, that sounds good, right?

Except that the research shows that 802.11n channels can vary very frequently and very often, especially at the higher MCS rates. The higher MCS rates can become better and worse within a window of a second or two. So, do you want to try and squeeze the last of throughput out of that, or not?

Secondly, using "throughput" as a metric is fine if your air time is .. well, cheap. But what if you have many, many clients on an AP? Your choice of maximising throughput based on what the error rate predicts your data throughput is doesn't take airtime into account. In fact, if you choose a higher MCS rate with a higher error rate but higher throughput, you may actually be wasting more air with those retransmissions. Great for a single station, but perhaps not so great when you have lots.

So what's the solution? The open source rate control stuff doesn't take the idea of "air utilisation" into account. There's enough data available to create an air time model, but no-one is using it yet. Patches are gratefully accepted. :-)

Finally, the current packet scheduler is pretty simple and stupid (and does break in a lot of scenarios, sigh.) It's just a FIFO, servicing nodes/TIDs with traffic in said FIFO mechanism. But that's not very fair - both from a "who is next" standpoint and "what's the most efficient use of the air" view. In addition, the decision about which node/TID to schedule next is done totally separate to the rate control decision. Rate control occurs rather late in the packet transmission process (ie, once we've committed to queuing it to the hardware.) Wouldn't it be better to have the packet scheduler and rate control code joined at the hip, where the scheduler doesn't aggressively schedule traffic to a slow/lossy end node?

Lots of things to think about..

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Filtered frames support, or how not to spam the air with useless transmission attempts

I haven't updated this blog in a while - but that doesn't mean I haven't been a busy little beaver in the world of FreeBSD Atheros support.

A small corner part of correct and efficient software retransmission handling is what Atheros hardware calls "filtered frames", or what actually happens - "how to make sure the hardware doesn't just spam the air with transmission attempts to a dead remote node."

So here's the run-down.

You feed the Atheros hardware a set of frames to transmit. There's a linked list (or FIFO for the more recent hardware) of TX descriptors which represent the fragments of each frame you're transmitting. The hardware will attempt each one in turn and then return a TX completion status explaining what happened. For frames without ACKs the TX status is "did I get a chance to squeeze this out into the air" - there's no ACK, so there's no way to know if it made it out there. But for frames with ACKs, there's a response from the remote end which the transmitter uses, and it'll attempt retransmission in hardware before either succeeding or giving up. Either way, it tells you what happened.

The reality is a little more complicated - there's multiple TX queues with varying TX priorities (implementing the 802.11 "WME" QoS mechanism. There's all kinds of stuff going on behind the scenes to figure out which queue wins arbitration, gets access to the air to transmit, etc, etc. For this particular discussion it doesn't matter.

Now, say you then queue 10 frames to a remote node. The hardware will walk the TX queue (or queues) and transmit those frames one at a time. Some may fail, some may not. If you don't care about software retransmission then you're fine.

But say you want to handle software retransmission. Say that retransmission is for legacy, non-aggregation / non-blockack sessions. You transmit one frame at a time. Each traffic identifier (TID) has its own sequence number space, as well as the "Non-QoS" traffic identifier (ie, non-QoS traffic that does have a sequence number.) By design, each frame is transmitted in order, with incrementing sequence numbers. The receiver throws away frames that are out of sequence. That way packets are delivered in order. They may not be reliably received, but the sequence number ordering is enforced.

So, you now want to handle software retransmission of some frames. You get some frames that are transmitted and some frames that weren't. Can you retransmit the failed ones? Well, the answer is "sure", but there are implications. Specifically, those frames may now be out of sequence, so when you retransmit them the receiver will simply drop them. You could choose to reassign them new sequence numbers so the receiver doesn't reject them out of hand, but now the receiver is seeing out-of-order frames. It doesn't see out of sequence frames, but the underlying payloads are all jumbled. This makes various protocols (like TCP) very unhappy. If you're running some older PPTP VPN sessions, the end point may simply drop your now out-of-order frames. So it's very important that you actually maintain the order of frames to a station.

Given that, how can you actually handle software retransmission? The key lies in this idea of "filtered frames." The Atheros MAC has what it calls a "keycache", where it stuffs encryption keys for each destination node (and multicast keys, and WEP keys..) So upon reception of a frame, it'll look in the keycache for that particular station MAC, then attempt to decrypt the data with that key. Transmission is similar - there's keycache entries for each destination station and the TX descriptor has a TX Key ID.

Now, I don't know if the filtered frame bit is stored in the keycache entry or elsewhere (I should check, honest) but I'm pretty sure it is.

So the MAC has a bit for each station in the keycache (I think!) and when a TX fails, it sets that bit. That bit controls whether any further TX attempts to that station will actually occur. So when the first frame TX to that station fails, any subsequent attempts are automatically failed by the MAC, with the TX status "TX destination filtered." Thus, anything already in the hardware TX queue(s) for that destination get automatically filtered for you. The software can then grab those frames in the order you tried them (which is in sequence number order, right?) and since _all_ frames are filtered, you don't have to worry about some intermediary frames being transmitted. You just queue them in a software queue, wait until the node is alive again, and then set the "clear destination mask (CLRDMASK)" bit in the next TX attempt.

This gives you three main benefits:
  • All the frames are filtered at the point the first fails, so you get all the subsequent attempted frames back, in the order you queued them. This makes life much easier when retransmitting them;
  • The MAC now doesn't waste lots of time trying to transmit to destinations that aren't available. So if you have a bunch of UDP traffic being pushed to a dead or far away node, the airtime won't be spent trying to transmit all those frames. The first failure will filter the rest, freeing up the TX queue (and air) to transmit frames to other destinations;
  • When stations go into power save mode, you may have frames already in the hardware queue for said station. You can't cancel them (easily/cleanly/fast), so instead they'll just fail to transmit (as the receiver is asleep.) Now you just get them filtered; you store them away until the station wakes up and then you retransmit them. A little extra latency (which is ok for some things and not others!) but much, much lower packet loss.
This is all nice and easy. However, there are a few gotchas here.

Firstly, it filters all frames to that destination. For all TIDs, QoS or otherwise. That's not a huge deal; if however you're me and you have per-TID queues you need to requeue the frames into the correct queues to retry. No biggie.

Secondly, if a station is just far away or under interference, you'll end up filtering a lot of traffic to it. So a lot of frames will cycle through the filtered frames handling code. Right now in FreeBSD I'm treating them the same as normal software retransmissions and dropping them after 10 attempts. I have a feeling I need to fix that logic a bit as under heavy dropping conditions, the traffic is being prematurely filtered and prematurely dropped (especially when the node is going off-channel to do things like background scans.) So the retransmission and frame expiry is tricky. You can't just keep trying them forever as you'll just end up wasting TX air time and CPU time transmitting lots of frames that will just end up being immediately filtered. Yes, tricky.

Thirdly, there may be traffic that needs to go out to that node that can't be filtered. If that's the case, you may actually end up with some subsequent frames being transmitted. You then can't just naively requeue all of your failed/filtered frames or you'll transmit some frames out of sequence. You then _have_ to drop anything with a sequence number or that was queued _before_ the successfully transmitted frame.

Luckily for 802.11n aggregation sessions the third point isn't a big deal - you already can transmit out of sequence (just within the block-ack window or BAW), so you can just retransmit filtered frames with sequence numbers in any particular sequence. Life is good there.

So what have I done in FreeBSD?

I have filtered frames support working for 802.11n aggregation sessions. I haven't yet implemented software retransmission (and all of the hairy logic to handle point #3 above) for non-aggregate traffic, so I can't do filtered frames there. But I'm going to have to do it in order to nicely support AP power save operation.