RFC-0228: FDomain: Remote control of Fuchsia targets

RFC-0228: FDomain: Remote control of Fuchsia targets
  • Developer
  • Testing

Introduces a new protocol for performing arbitrary FIDL on remote Fuchsia devices

Gerrit change
Date submitted (year-month-day)2023-05-22
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2023-10-04


This proposal outlines FDomain, a new mechanism for communicating with FIDL services on a Fuchsia target from a development host. FDomain will support the functionality of the FFX command line tool, replacing the Overnet protocol used today.


FFX offers more or less arbitrary access to FIDL protocols exposed in the component hierarchy. This has made it easy to develop a wide range of tools and plugins, and shows great potential to allow automated integration testing and functionality similar to sl4f.

FFX communicates with on-device FIDL via Overnet. Overnet is a peer-to-peer protocol that allows Fuchsia kernel handles to be shared over the network. A Fuchsia device can send a channel via overnet to a developer host, and a host side Fuchsia emulation library will allow that channel to be used much as it could on the device itself. Rust's FIDL bindings can compile on host using these channels and so FIDL can be used to communicate from host to target.

There are several drawbacks to Overnet's approach:

  • The emulation of kernel handles on the host is necessarily imperfect. Handles are confined to a single process and additional Overnet connections are necessary to move them between processes on the host. Certain mechanisms, such as zx_channel_call, are missing entirely.
  • Error reporting from handles was not designed around the idea that they were being supported by a complex and fallible network stack. Any service-interrupting issue that occurs with an Overnet handle ends up being reported as PEER_CLOSED with no further information.
  • Kernel handles were not designed to be proxied over the network. Overnet was designed and implemented without sufficient consultation of the kernel team. As a result, correct implementation of some features, such as object signals, is impossible with current APIs and likely to remain impossible.
  • The commitment to proxying handles and having them behave more or less the same remotely on the host as they would locally on the target makes supporting certain objects, such as VMOs, almost completely impossible.

In addition to the problems with the approach, Overnet's specific design and implementation also has significant drawbacks:

  • Overnet's low-level protocols, which it uses to coordinate streams, are written with FIDL, but do not use FIDL in the way it was designed. Rather, FIDL serves in a protobuf-like role, specifying the binary shapes of packets but having no role in transport. This has left Overnet vulnerable to wire format changes in FIDL in ways that the FIDL team could not manage as it could for FIDL users operating over normal transports.
  • Overnet's code is overly-complex and uses asynchronous patterns that have proven to be extremely difficult to debug.
  • Overnet was designed as a peer-to-peer mesh network, an additional layer of complexity that is not needed for any present-day use case.





abarth@ cpu@ ianloic@ mgnb@ mkember@ slgrady@ wilkinsonclay@


The design of FDomain was discussed within the Fuchsia tools team, and a basic proposal was shown to the kernel and FIDL teams as well, both of whom offered feedback.


FDomain should allow a host to connect to a Fuchsia target and, where configured, communicate with services via FIDL in much the same way a component on the target would. As with Overnet, this will be implemented by supporting communication with lower-level kernel primitives (channels specifically) and FIDL bindings can then be implemented on top of that communication. Overnet currently supports proxying channels, sockets, events and event pairs, and thus can be used to communicate with any FIDL protocol that does not transfer handles outside of those types. FDomain will be specified here as supporting that same set of handle types, but must have a clear path to be extended to support a maximal set of Fuchsia handle types, with the hope being that all handle types can be supported. VMOs are of particular interest for several applications and will likely be an immediate area of future work. Note that not all operations on all handle types make sense to present in a remote context (e.g. mapping and unmapping VMOs remotely is not useful), but FDomain seeks to present as much capability with respect to each handle type as possible.

Related to the above, FDomain should present an abstraction over the wire that allows similar capabilities to directly using the kernel interfaces, but in a way that does not break the assumptions on which those interfaces were designed. Many of the limitations of Overnet are due to its transfer-and-proxy model of presenting handles to the host being incompatible with handle types outside of its original supported set.

FDomain's design will assume the ability to exchange reliable, ordered datagrams between the target and the host. This should be trivial to implement on top of a TCP or SSH connection with a small additional protocol layer, or on top of a USB bulk endpoint. Specifics of these transports is beyond the scope of the core protocol.

Unlike Overnet, FDomain will not provide any facilities to discover or establish connections to targets automatically. FFX already does not rely on Overnet's implementations of these functions. FDomain, unlike Overnet, is purely an endpoint-to-endpoint protocol, not a mesh networking protocol.

FDomain should be able to detect protocol version incompatibilities such that tools can surface issues arising therefrom easily. It is difficult to foresee what sort of compatibility issues could be introduced in the future, but in general, FDomain should interoperate as well as possible with incompatible versions. Where FDomain uses FIDL directly, it must use facilities maintainable by the FIDL team themselves to ensure wire format compatibility and fall back where available.

Requirements for the user API

While the FDomain protocol and the semantics it exposes directly are important to design correctly, there are also important constraints on the APIs presented to the user directly. These will take the form of a host-side Rust crate which provides functions for connecting to an FDomain from a host.

While FDomain deliberately does not present an exact emulation of Zircon, it also must support bindings which do not disrupt the "programming model" of Zircon itself. That is, working with handles in an FDomain from the host should not have subtle or surprising differences with working with handles from Zircon code.

Determining exactly what differences are safe to allow between the Zircon and FDomain host-side APIs is a subject for API review, beyond the scope of this RFC. However we will note a few expected differences that will be necessary for FDomain to achieve its goals:

  • FDomain actions on handles will usually require IO, so we cannot implement the non-blocking semantics of the Zircon APIs. The Rust bindings for Zircon handles include higher-level "async" versions of each handle which handle asynchronous operations using Rust's futures system. We will likely implement the FDomain host-side library at that layer, without providing the lower level handles that provide direct access to non-blocking operations. This will result in some semantic differences around object creation. Also, operations which normally took only the raw handle, not the async version, such as creating endpoints in the FIDL APIs, will not be able to make this distinction with FDomain.
  • FDomain handles are necessarily part of a remotely-connected FDomain. The RAII objects representing them in our API will be produced from a connection object, not constructed in place, and may have behaviors or type properties which reflect the fact that their lifecycle is tied to the lifecycle of the connection. (Since some debate has occurred about this portion of the design, we will emphasize that this RFC is making no specific recommendation here).
  • FDomain operations will return a different, richer error type reflecting the more complicated failure modes a remote protocol can experience (and the richer error reporting we can afford in a remote context). Rust's programing conventions around error handling should make this change fairly easy for users to navigate.


Conceptually, an FDomain is a collection of handles which can be manipulated remotely via a set of operations. The FDomain protocol presents these operations via a FIDL protocol.

The FDomain is connected to, and manipulated by, a host, and the connection between FDomain and host is an FDomain connection. An FDomain only ever has at most one connected host, meaning a host should never observe the handles in the FDomain it controls being closed or written to or read from by another actor. While session resumption might be an interesting area of future work, we assume for this document that a host always connects to a new FDomain, which is a pre-populated collection of handles, and that when the host disconnects the FDomain is destroyed and the handles within it closed.

Core Protocol

Since the point of FDomain is to present FIDL over a connection that does not support transfer of kernel handles, and usually to a host which does not support them either, The FDomain FIDL itself cannot use handles anywhere in its method parameters or return values. Put specifically, the resource keyword must never appear in FDomain's FIDL specification.

Because FDomain's protocol messages are designed to be transported over media other than channels, we assume no message size limit, and accordingly do not limit sizes of vectors and other structures within the protocol.

Error Reporting is Mandatory

All methods must be capable of returning an error. Since our error type is extensible, this allows us to add error conditions to all methods in the future.

In addition, this forces all methods to be two-way methods, which means that unknown interaction handling as specified in (RFC-0138)RFC-0138 will always be able to return an error to the host about an unknown ordinal. This should make our backwards compatibility stories easier to implement, as per the "smart sender, dim receiver" principal, all compatibility errors will surface on the host.

Handle ID Allocation

Each handle within an FDomain will be referred to by the host via an ID. These IDs are encoded in the protocol as 32-bit unsigned integers, but SHOULD NOT be the actual kernel handle number directly exposed to the host.

In order to reduce round trips necessary to perform operations in the protocol, we will be using host-side ID allocation where possible. This means that if an operation would cause a new handle to be produced within the FDomain, such as when the host requests the creation of a new channel or socket, the host provides the ID numbers which the new channel will use themselves. This allows better pipelining in the protocol, as the host can submit the request that the handle be created along with the first operations on that handle in the same transaction, without having to wait for a reply for each operation.

The exception to this policy is reads from channels, which may produce an arbitrary number of handles. Requiring the host to allocate IDs for handles which may be produced by reading a channel makes submitting read requests unwieldy and requires specifying complicated blocking semantics in order to be compatible with streaming reads. As such handles produced by reading channels will be assigned IDs by the FDomain itself.


When a host connects to an FDomain, it is assumed from context to be populated with a few starting handles. These handles resemble the handles that would be provided to a newly-started component. The FDomain will allow the host to retrieve these handles in a way that supports that analogy, preserving a user intuition where an FDomain is a node in the component topology.

Handle Operations

FDomain will support creating new sockets, channels, event pairs, and events inside of the FDomain. It will also support closing and duplicating handles, and replacing a handle with a new version with different rights, similarly to zx_handle_replace.

For reading, writing, and other operations that may have to be retried (i.e. may fail with ZX_ERR_SHOULD_WAIT), the FDomain protocol will implement a hanging get and perform the necessary port waiting operations on the target side. This will avoid the clumsiness and large number of round trips involved in requiring the host to set up a port manually.

Stable Wire Encoding

FIDL's transaction format was not designed to be transmitted outside of Fuchsia channels. When FIDL needs to be serialized in other contexts, the persistent headers are recommended, as outlined in RFC-0120.

The usual use of the persistent header is for FIDL data which will be stored at rest. While FDomain messages won't be transmitted over channels as is usually the case, they are still meant to be sent and received in the usual request-response fashion.

The persistent header and the transaction header both contain a magic number and a series of compatibility flags. The transaction header also adds a "dynamic flags" field, used for the new flexible methods protocol, and a transaction ID and method ordinal, both of which we will require for FDomain messages.

Initially, the plan was to use the persistent header and add the transaction ID and method ordinal manually creating a new combined header format. All of FDomain's methods are flexible so the dynamic flag field's value could be implicit.

On review, the FIDL team noticed that the combined header was so similar to the transaction header that they proposed simply using the normal FIDL transaction header. This RFC will adopt that proposal, with the understanding that the FIDL maintainers accept any ways this might change the evolutionary pressures on the transaction header format.


Target-side FDomain support can be provided in a single Rust crate, with the first integrator likely being the Remote Control Service.

A transport to the device may be provided first as a socket distributed over the legacy Overnet protocol, or as an additional circuit within the lower layer of said protocol. From there, we may choose to implement a direct transport over SSH, or to move directly to implementing a bespoke transport.

From the target side more work is needed. Current host-side FIDL communication over Overnet relies on an emulation of Fuchsia's kernel primitives which lives in the fuchsia-async library. FDomain is explicitly designed for use from non-Fuchsia targets and should not rely on this emulation. To allow this, we will require a new kind of Rust FIDL binding for FDomain users that works on top of an FDomain set of primitives. These primitives will represent individual handles in the FDomain, but will not attempt to perfectly emulate the Fuchsia kernel interface. It is in fact desirable that these handles be explicit about the fact that they are handles to remote objects, as their APIs can expose errors related to the unique failure conditions associated with that scenario. Contrast Overnet, where any failure of the transport or internal protocol implementation results in an undifferentiated ZX_ERR_PEER_CLOSED for the user.


An FDomain target-side implementation will depend on the Zircon APIs for manipulating handles. Because Overnet provides these APIs, it should be possible to run an FDomain on top of an Overnet node.

This will be our initial strategy for migration within FFX. We will host an FDomain in the FFX daemon, which obtains an RCS proxy from the legacy Overnet connection, and exposes it in its namespace. Hosts can use a magic initiator to request a new socket connection become either a normal Overnet connection or an FDomain connection (currently overnet connections start with the magic string "CIRCUIT\0", so we already look for magic in this position).

From here the FFX tool framework will be able to provide either Overnet or FDomain proxies to tools, possibly a mix of both if two connections are established. This should allow us to migrate individual tools easily to the FDomain host-side code. Services hosted in the daemon itself are inconvenient to use from FDomain, but other architectural pressures are already encouraging such services to go away or be rethought.

Since FFX plugins only consume FIDL proxies in general, we should be able to migrate to an FDomain connection hosted directly by the target with no further changes to them. We should be able to support both connection atop Overnet and direct FDomain connection in parallel, as we did with the circuit-switched Overnet migration.


FDomain's existing applications are all developer tools currently handled by Overnet. There has never been a serious effort to benchmark Overnet performance as developer tools usually don't have strict latency or large bandwidth requirements.

That said, questions about Overnet's performance have started to arise, and at least establishing what performance expectations are is likely worthwhile. As such a cursory effort should be made to test the following:

  • Throughput communicating with a socket, blocking and streaming.
  • Latency when making FIDL calls directly to a simple interface.
  • Latency when making FIDL calls repeatedly where each call is made on a channel sent in reply to the previous call. This will establish how handle creation operations show up in performance-sensitive application.

Backwards Compatibility

FDomain will represent a clean break from the Overnet protocol. Backward compatibility will be preserved by maintaining both protocols for some grace period before dismantling Overnet entirely.

Security considerations

The FDomain core protocol does not handle authentication directly and is designed to allow arbitrary access to the collection of handles it controls. It should be deployed in such a way as to give access only to handles which can be safely shared with the accessor, and in environments where it is safe to give such access. These considerations were already taken for Overnet, so taking over its applications should ensure these things.

In future applications where privilege escalation is more of a concern (Overnet, and thus whatever replaces it, is by nature a maximally-privileged application), one could envision a class of attack where an attacker manipulates handles with FDomain that are not actually intended to be in the FDomain. Following the guideline in this document of not using actual kernel handle numbers as handle IDs in the FDomain protocol should mitigate all obvious vectors for such an attack. Implementing FDomain in Rust will also make these attacks easier to defend due to the language's strong ownership semantics.

Privacy considerations

FDomain is intended for use on devices under development. It should not have unique privacy concerns. Even in unanticipated applications it is unlikely to have unique privacy concerns except those which follow from security concerns.


We've had success with Overnet in producing integration tests hosted within a single process, where multiple instances of the protocol's state are connected to each other simply by providing the bytes output from one instance to the input of another. This should let us test a variety of configurations and topologies.

Integration tests involving real, networked components are more difficult, but may not add much additional value and can introduce the flake risks inherent in a complicated physical test setup. We will use facilities to do such testing where the infrastructure is readily available, and expand that testing as availability changes.


Apart from documenting the implementation deliverables in the usual manner, a living form of the protocol specification should exist in the tree. This will consist largely of the text of the Design section of this RFC at first but can adapt to incorporate protocol extensions as needed.

Drawbacks, alternatives, and unknowns

FDomain represents a considerable reduction in complexity compared to Overnet. It also must be implemented from scratch and has no backward compatibility with Overnet.

The space of alternative designs for a remote tools protocol is vast, so enumerating alternatives given the assumption a new protocol is needed is a long and unproductive task. We could have chosen a custom binary format over FIDL, thereby potentially gaining more control over our compatibility story. Or we could have presented an IPC mechanism that did not represent kernel objects at all but instead provided specific bespoke interfaces to tooling.

If Fuchsia's use cases expand it is likely other uses for FDomain will surface out of a desire to duplicate less work and offer fewer protocols. One could envision Fuchsia servers in a data center with FDomain replacing SSH as a remote administration transport rather than simply a diagnostic tool. The FDomain protocol described here should hopefully be useful in general for such things, but it is impossible to know for certain how it would scale to such tasks.

Prior art and references

Please see the Overnet docs in the Fuchsia tree for more information on that protocol.