Cells (messages on channels)

The basic unit of communication on a Tor channel is a "cell".

Once a TLS connection is established, the two parties send cells to each other. Cells are sent serially, one after another.

Cells may be sent embedded in TLS records of any size, or divided across TLS records, but the framing of TLS records MUST NOT leak information about the type or contents of the cells.

Most cells are of fixed length, with the actual length depending on the negotiated link protocol on the channel. Below we designate the negotiated protocol as v.

As an exception, VERSIONS cells are always sent with v = 0, since no version has yet been negotiated.

A fixed-length cell has this format:

FieldSize in bytesNotes
BodyCELL_BODY_LENPadded to fit

The value of CIRCID_LEN depends on the negotiated link protocol.

Some cells have variable length; the length of these cells is encoded in their header.

A variable-length cell has this format:

FieldSize in bytesNotes
Length2A big-endian integer

Fixed-length and variable-length cells are distinguished based on the value of their Command field:

  • Command 7 (VERSIONS) is variable-length.
  • Every other command less than 128 denotes a fixed-length cell.
  • Every command greater than or equal to 128 denotes a variable-length cell.

Historical note:

On version 1 connections, all cells were fixed-length.

On version 2 connections, only the VERSIONS command was variable-length, and all others were fixed-length.

These link protocols are obsolete, and implementations SHOULD NOT support them.

Interpreting the fields: CircID

The CircID field determines which circuit, if any, the cell is associated with. If the cell is not associated with any circuit, its CircID is set to 0.

Note that a CircID is a channel-local identifier.

A single multi-hop circuit will have a different CircID on every channel that is used to transmit its data.

Interpreting the fields: Command

The Command field of a fixed-length cell holds one of the following values:

0NPADDINGLink Padding
1YCREATECreate circuit (deprecated)
2YCREATEDAcknowledge CREATE (deprecated)
3YRELAYEnd-to-end data
4YDESTROYDestroy circuit
5YCREATE_FASTCreate circuit, no public key
8NNETINFOTime and address info
9YRELAY_EARLYEnd-to-end data; limited
10YCREATE2Create circuit
12Y5PADDING_NEGOTIATEPadding negotiation

The variable-length Command values are:

7NVERSIONSNegotiate link protocol
128NVPADDINGVariable-length padding
130NAUTH_CHALLENGEChallenge value
131NAUTHENTICATEAuthenticate initiator

In the tables above, C=Y indicates that a command must have a nonzero CircId, and C=N indicates that a command must have a zero CircId. Where given, P is the first link protocol version to support a command. Commands with no value given for P are supported at least in link protocols 3 and above.

No other command values are allowed. Implementations SHOULD NOT send undefined command values. Upon receiving an unrecognized command, an implementation MAY silently drop the cell and MAY terminate the channel with an error.

Extensibility note:

When we add new cell command types, we define a new link protocol version to indicate support for that command.

Therefore, implementations can now safely assume that other correct implementations will never send them an unrecognized cell command.

Historically, before the link protocol was not versioned, implementations would drop cells with unrecognized commands, under the assumption that the command was sent by a more up-to-date version of Tor.

Interpreting the fields: Cell Body

The interpretation of a cell's Body depends on the cell's command. see the links in the command descriptions above for more information on each command.

Padding fixed-length cell bodies

Often, the amount of information to be sent in a fixed-length cell is less than CELL_BODY_LEN bytes. When this happens, the sender MUST fill the unused part of the cell's body with zero-valued bytes.

Recipients MUST ignore padding bytes.

RELAY and RELAY_EARLY cells' bodies contain encrypted data, and are always full from the point of the view of the channel layer.

The plaintext of these cells' contents may be padded; this uses a different mechanism and does not interact with cell body padding.

Variable-length cells never have extra space, so there is no need to pad their bodies. Unless otherwise specified, variable-length cells have no padding.