2.5. The Internet Control Message Protocol

IP has a companion protocol that we haven't talked about yet. This is the Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP), used by the kernel networking code to communicate error messages to other hosts. For instance, assume that you are on erdos again and want to telnet to port 12345 on quark, but there's no process listening on that port. When the first TCP packet for this port arrives on quark, the networking layer will recognize this arrival and immediately return an ICMP message to erdos stating “Port Unreachable.”

The ICMP protocol provides several different messages, many of which deal with error conditions. However, there is one very interesting message called the Redirect message. It is generated by the routing module when it detects that another host is using it as a gateway, even though a much shorter route exists. For example, after booting, the routing table of sophus may be incomplete. It might contain the routes to the Mathematics network, to the FDDI backbone, and the default route pointing at the Groucho Computing Center's gateway ( gcc1). Thus, packets for quark would be sent to gcc1 rather than to niels, the gateway to the Physics department. When receiving such a datagram, gcc1 will notice that this is a poor choice of route and will forward the packet to niels, meanwhile returning an ICMP Redirect message to sophus telling it of the superior route.

This seems to be a very clever way to avoid manually setting up any but the most basic routes. However, be warned that relying on dynamic routing schemes, be it RIP or ICMP Redirect messages, is not always a good idea. ICMP Redirect and RIP offer you little or no choice in verifying that some routing information is indeed authentic. This situation allows malicious good-for-nothings to disrupt your entire network traffic, or even worse. Consequently, the Linux networking code treats Network Redirect messages as if they were Host Redirects. This minimizes the damage of an attack by restricting it to just one host, rather than the whole network. On the flip side, it means that a little more traffic is generated in the event of a legitimate condition, as each host causes the generation of an ICMP Redirect message. It is generally considered bad practice to rely on ICMP redirects for anything these days.