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Protocols for Interworking: XNFS, Version 3W
Copyright © 1998 The Open Group

Remote Procedure Calls: Protocol Specification

This chapter specifies a protocol that is used by many implementors of XNFS. It is derived from a document designated RFC 1057 by the ARPA Network Information Centre (see References to RFCs ).


This chapter specifies a message protocol used in implementing a Remote Procedure Call (RPC) package. The message protocol is specified with the External Data Representation (XDR) language (see XDR Protocol Specification ). It is assumed that the reader is familiar with XDR and no attempt is made to justify it or its uses. The paper by Birrell and Nelson, Implementing Remote Procedure Calls is recommended as an excellent background to, and justification of, RPC.


This chapter discusses servers, services, programs, procedures, clients and versions.

network server
A piece of software where network services are implemented.

network service
A collection of one or more remote programs.

remote program
Implements one or more remote procedures; the procedures, their parameters and results are documented in the specific program's protocol specification.

network clients
Pieces of software that initiate remote procedure calls to services.

A network server may support more than one version of a remote program in order to be forward compatible with changing protocols. For example, a network file service may be composed of two programs: one program may deal with high-level applications such as file system access control and locking; the other may deal with low-level file I/O and have procedures like read and write. A client machine of the network file service would call the procedures associated with the two programs of the service on behalf of a user on the client machine.

The RPC Model

The remote procedure call model is similar to the local procedure call model. In the local case, the caller places arguments to a procedure in some well-specified location (such as a stack). It then transfers control to the procedure, and eventually gains back control. At that point, the results of the procedure are extracted from the well-specified location, and the caller continues execution.

In the remote case, one thread of control logically winds through two processes; one is the caller's process, the other is a server's process. That is, the caller process sends a call message to the server process and waits (blocks) for a reply message. The call message contains the procedure's parameters, among other things. The reply message contains the procedure's results, among other things. Once the reply message is received, the results of the procedure are extracted, and the caller's execution is resumed.

On the server side, a process is dormant awaiting the arrival of a call message. When one arrives, the server process extracts the procedure's parameters, computes the results, sends a reply message, and then awaits the next call message. Note that in this model, only one of the two processes is active at any given time.

However, this model is only given as an example. The RPC protocol makes no restrictions on the concurrency model implemented, and others are possible. For example, an implementation may choose to have RPC calls asynchronous, so that the client may do useful work while waiting for the reply from the server. Another possibility is to have the server create a task to process an incoming request, so that the server can be free to receive other requests.

Transports and Semantics

The RPC protocol is independent of transport protocols. That is, RPC does not care how a message is passed from one process to another. The protocol deals only with specification and interpretation of messages.

It is important to point out that RPC does not try to implement any kind of reliability, and that the application must be aware of the type of transport protocol underneath RPC. If it knows it is running on top of a reliable transport such as TCP/IP, as described in Transmission Control Protocol - DARPA Internet Program Protocol Specification, then most of the work is already done for it. If, however, it is running on top of an unreliable transport such as UDP/IP, as described in User Datagram Protocol, it must implement its own retransmission and time-out policy as the RPC layer does not provide this service.

Because of transport independence, the RPC protocol does not attach specific semantics to the remote procedures or their execution. Semantics can be inferred from (but should be explicitly specified by) the underlying transport protocol. For example, consider RPC running on top of an unreliable transport such as UDP/IP. If an application retransmits RPC messages after short time-outs, the only thing it can infer if it receives no reply is that the procedure was executed zero or more times. If it does receive a reply, then it can infer that the procedure was executed at least once.

A server may wish to remember previously granted requests from a client and not regrant them in order to ensure some degree of execute-at-most-once semantics. A server can do this by taking advantage of the transaction ID that is packaged with every RPC request. The main use of this transaction is by the client RPC layer in matching replies to requests. However, a client application may choose to reuse its previous transaction ID when retransmitting a request. The server application, knowing this fact, may choose to remember this ID after granting a request and not re-grant requests with the same ID in order to achieve some degree of execute-at-most-once semantics. The server is not allowed to examine this ID in any other way except as a test for equality.

However, if using a reliable transport such as TCP/IP, the application can infer from a reply message that the procedure was executed exactly once, but if it receives no reply message, it cannot assume the remote procedure was not executed. Note that even if a connection-oriented protocol like TCP is used, an application still needs time-outs and reconnection to handle server crashes.

There are other possibilities for transports besides datagram or connection-oriented protocols. For example, a request-reply protocol such as VMTP[2] is perhaps the most natural transport for RPC. Note that although RPC is currently implemented on top of both TCP/IP and UDP/IP transports, the XNFS specification defines only the use of connectionless protocols; therefore, RPC over connection-oriented protocols will not be discussed further in this specification.

Binding and Rendezvous Independence

The act of binding a client to a service is not part of the remote procedure call specification. This important and necessary function is left up to some higher-level software. (The software may use RPC itself, see Introduction to Port Mapper Program Protocol .)

Implementors should think of the RPC protocol as the jump-subroutine instruction (JSR) of a network; the loader (binder) makes JSR useful, and the loader itself uses JSR to accomplish its task. Likewise, the network makes RPC useful, using RPC to accomplish this task.

RPC Protocol Requirements

The RPC protocol must provide for the following:

Besides these requirements, RPC has features that detect the following:

Programs and Procedures

The RPC call message has three unsigned fields: remote program number, remote program version number and remote procedure number. The three fields uniquely identify the procedure to be called. Program numbers are administered by some central authority. (Currently Sun Microsystems, Inc. is responsible for administering program numbers.) Once an implementor has a program number, the remote program can be implemented; the first implementation would most likely have the version number of 1. Because most new protocols evolve into better, stable and mature protocols, a version field of the call message identifies which version of the protocol the caller is using. Version numbers make speaking old and new protocols through the same server process possible.

The procedure number identifies the procedure to be called. These numbers are documented in the specific program's protocol specification. For example, a file service's protocol specification may state that its procedure number 5 is read and procedure number 12 is write.

Just as remote program protocols may change over several versions, the actual RPC message protocol could also change. Therefore, the call message also contains the RPC version number, which is always 2 for the version of RPC described here.

The reply message to a request message has enough information to distinguish the following error conditions:


The RPC protocol provides the fields necessary for a client to identify itself to a service and vice versa. Security and access control mechanisms can be built on top of the message authentication. Several different authentication protocols can be supported. A field in the RPC header indicates which protocol is being used. More information on specific authentication protocols can be found in Authentication Protocols .

The RPC Message Protocol

This section defines the RPC message protocol in the XDR data description language. The message is defined in a top-down style.

enum msg_type { CALL = 0, REPLY = 1 }; /* * A reply to a call message can take on two forms: * the message was either accepted or rejected. */ enum reply_stat { MSG_ACCEPTED = 0, MSG_DENIED = 1 }; /* * Given that a call message was accepted, the following is the * status of an attempt to call a remote procedure. */ enum accept_stat { SUCCESS = 0, /* RPC executed successfully */ PROG_UNAVAIL = 1, /* remote hasn't exported program */ PROG_MISMATCH = 2, /* remote can't support version number */ PROC_UNAVAIL = 3, /* program can't support procedure */ GARBAGE_ARGS = 4 /* procedure can't decode params */ }; /* * Reasons why a call message was rejected: */ enum reject_stat { RPC_MISMATCH = 0, /* RPC version number is not 2 */ AUTH_ERROR = 1 /* remote can't authenticate caller */ }; /* * Why authentication failed: */ enum auth_stat { AUTH_BADCRED = 1, /* bad credentials */ AUTH_REJECTEDCRED = 2, /* client must begin new session */ AUTH_BADVERF = 3, /* bad verifier */ AUTH_REJECTEDVERF = 4, /* verifier expired or replayed */ AUTH_TOOWEAK = 5 /* rejected for security reasons */ };
/* * The RPC message: * All messages start with a transaction identifier, xid, * followed by a two-armed discriminated union. The union's * discriminant is a msg_type which switches to one of * the two types of the message. The xid of a * REPLY message always matches that of the initiating * CALL message. N.B.: The xid field may be * used by clients to match reply messages with call messages, * or by servers detecting retransmissions; the service side * cannot treat this xid as any type of sequence number. */ struct rpc_msg { unsigned int xid; union switch (msg_type mtype) { case CALL: call_body bgcolor="#FFFFFF" cbody; case REPLY: reply_body bgcolor="#FFFFFF" rbody; } body bgcolor="#FFFFFF"; }; /* * Body of an RPC request call: * In version 2 of the RPC protocol specification, rpcvers * must be equal to 2. The fields prog, vers and * proc specify the remote program, its version number, * and the procedure within the remote program to be called. * After these fields are two authentication parameters: * cred (authentication credentials) and verf * (authentication verifier). The two authentication parameters * are followed by the parameters to the remote procedure, * which are specified by the specific program protocol. */ struct call_body bgcolor="#FFFFFF" { unsigned int rpcvers; /* must be equal to two (2) */ unsigned int prog; unsigned int vers; unsigned int proc; opaque_auth cred; opaque_auth verf; /* procedure specific parameters start here */ }; /* * Body of an RPC reply: * The call message was either accepted or rejected. */
union reply_body bgcolor="#FFFFFF" switch (reply_stat stat) { case MSG_ACCEPTED: accepted_reply areply; case MSG_DENIED: rejected_reply rreply; } reply; /* * Reply to an RPC request that was accepted by the server: * there could be an error even though the request was accepted. * The first field is an authentication verifier that the server * generates in order to validate itself to the caller. It is * followed by a union whose discriminant is an enum * accept_stat. The SUCCESS arm of the union is * protocol-specific. The PROG_UNAVAIL, PROC_UNAVAIL * and GARBAGE_ARGS arms of the union are void. The * PROG_MISMATCH arm specifies the lowest and highest * version numbers of the remote program supported by the server. */ struct accepted_reply { opaque_auth verf; union switch (accept_stat stat) { case SUCCESS: opaque results[0]; /* procedure-specific results start here */ case PROG_MISMATCH: struct { unsigned int low; unsigned int high; } mismatch_info; default: /* * Void. Cases include PROG_UNAVAIL, * PROC_UNAVAIL and GARBAGE_ARGS. */ void; } reply_data; }; /* * Reply to an RPC request that was rejected by the server. * The request can be rejected for two reasons: either the * server is not running a compatible version of the RPC * protocol (RPC_MISMATCH), or the server refuses to * authenticate the caller (AUTH_ERROR). In case of an RPC * version mismatch, the server returns the lowest and highest * supported RPC version numbers. In case of refused * authentication, failure status is returned. */
union rejected_reply switch (reject_stat stat) { case RPC_MISMATCH: struct { unsigned int low; unsigned int high; } mismatch_info; case AUTH_ERROR: auth_stat stat; };

Authentication Protocols

As previously stated, authentication parameters are opaque, but open-ended to the rest of the RPC protocol. This section defines four "flavours" of authentication. Other implementations are free to invent new authentication types, with the same rules of flavour number assignment as there are for program number assignment.

Provisions for authentication of caller to service and vice versa are provided as a part of the RPC protocol. The call message has two authentication fields: the credentials and verifier. The reply message has one authentication field, the response verifier. The RPC protocol specification defines all three fields to be the following opaque type:

enum auth_flavor { AUTH_NULL = 0, AUTH_UNIX = 1, AUTH_DES = 3, AUTH_KERB = 4, /* and more to be defined */ }; struct opaque_auth { auth_flavor flavor; opaque body bgcolor="#FFFFFF"<400>; };

In other words, any opaque_auth structure is an auth_flavor enumeration followed by a sequence of bytes which are opaque to the RPC protocol implementation.

The interpretation and semantics of the data contained within the authentication fields is specified by individual, independent authentication protocol specifications.

If authentication parameters are rejected, the response message will contain information stating why they were rejected.

Null Authentication

Often calls must be made where the caller does not know who he is, or the server does not care who the caller is. In this case, the flavour value (the discriminant of the opaque_auth's union) of the RPC message's credentials, verifier and response verifier is AUTH_NULL. The bytes of the opaque_auth's body bgcolor="#FFFFFF" are undefined. It is recommended that the opaque length is zero.

UNIX Authentication

The caller of a remote procedure may wish to identify himself as he is identified on a UNIX system. The value of the credential's discriminant of an RPC call message is AUTH_UNIX. The bytes of the credential's opaque body bgcolor="#FFFFFF" encode the following structure:

struct auth_unix { unsigned int stamp; string machinename<255>; unsigned int uid; unsigned int gid; unsigned int gids<16>; };

The stamp is an arbitrary ID which the caller machine may generate. The machinename is the name of the caller's machine (like "krypton"). Implementations and applications must be able to handle machine names as 8-bit transparent data (allowing use of arbitrary character set encodings). For maximum portability and interworking, it is recommended that applications and users define machine names containing only the characters of the Portable Filename Character Set defined in ISO/IEC 9945-1:1990. The uid is the caller's effective user ID. The gid is the caller's effective group ID. The gids is a counted array of groups which contain the caller as a member (supplementary groups). An entry in the gids array whose value is 0xffffffff should be ignored. Although the supplementary group list gids is part of the XNFS specification and is supported by (PC)NFS clients, it is only optional in the X/Open (PC)NFS Specification. It is unspecified whether a server uses all the entries in the gids array or only [NGROUPS_MAX] entries, which may be zero. [NGROUPS_MAX] is defined in the X/Open Commands and Utilities Specification (see reference XCU). The verifier accompanying the credentials (the verf field in call_body bgcolor="#FFFFFF" and accept_reply) should be of AUTH_NULL (defined above).

DES and Kerberos Authentication

The AUTH_DES flavour is defined in RFC 1057. It provides DES-encrypted authentication parameters based on a network-wide name, with session keys exchanged via a public key scheme. The AUTH_KERB flavour provides DES encrypted authentication parameters based on a network-wide name with session keys exchanged via Kerberos, Version 4 secret keys.

The AUTH_DES and AUTH_KERB styles of authentication are based on a network-wide name. They provide greater security through the use of DES encryption and public keys in the case of AUTH_DES, and DES encryption and Kerberos secret keys (and tickets) in the AUTH_KERB case. The server and client must agree on the identity of a particular name on the network, but the name to identity mapping is more operating system independent than the uid and gid mapping in AUTH_UNIX. Also, because the authentication parameters are encrypted, a malicious user must know another user's network password or private key to masquerade as that user. Similarly, the server returns a verifier that is also encrypted so that masquerading as a server requires knowing a network password.

The RPC Language

Just as it was necessary to describe the XDR data types in a formal language, it is also necessary to describe the procedures that operate on these XDR data types in a formal language. The RPC Language is used for this purpose. It is an extension to the XDR language. The following example is used to describe the essence of the language.

The RPC Language Specification

The RPC language is identical to the XDR language, except for the added definition of a program-def described below.

program-def: "program" identifier "{" version-def version-def * "}" "=" constant ";"

version-def: "version" identifier "{" procedure-def procedure-def * "}" "=" constant ";"

procedure-def: type-specifier identifier "(" type-specifier ")" "=" constant ";"

An Example Service Described in the RPC Language

Here is an example of the specification of a simple ping program.

/* * Simple ping program */ program PING_PROG { /* Latest and greatest version */ version PING_VERS_PINGBACK { void PINGPROC_NULL(void) = 0;

/* * Ping the caller, return the round-trip time (in * microseconds). Returns -1 if the operation timed out. */ int PINGPROC_PINGBACK(void) = 1; } = 2;

/* Original version */ version PING_VERS_ORIG { void PINGPROC_NULL(void) = 0; } = 1; } = 1;

const PING_VERS = 2; /* latest version */

The first version described is PING_VERS_PINGBACK with two procedures, PINGPROC_NULL and PINGPROC_PINGBACK. PINGPROC_NULL takes no arguments and returns no results, but it is useful for computing round-trip times from the client to the server and back again. By convention, procedure 0 of any RPC protocol should have the same semantics, and never require any kind of authentication. The second procedure is used for the client to have the server do a reverse ping operation back to the client, and it returns the amount of time (in microseconds) that the operation used. The next version, PING_VERS_ORIG, is the original version of the protocol and it does not contain PINGPROC_PINGBACK procedure. It is useful for compatibility with old client programs, and as this program matures it may be dropped from the protocol entirely.

Syntax Notes

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