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Why avahi and bonjour don't work on your home network

Copyright © 2017, Marc Culler

An internet search turns up lots and lots of reports of problems with avahi and bonjour of the following general nature: "when I first start up my XXX device / service it works fine; all the devices can see it. But after a certain time, XXX disappears. Other devices cannot see it." A typical example is Bug #657553 which remains unresolved as of January 2014.

When the avahi developers respond to these complaints, they usually say it is not their fault and refer the plaintiff to FAQ #15 which says

"you most likely are experiencing trouble with a broken network driver or WLAN AP, which doesn't properly support IP multicasting."

Well, great. But what can be done about it?

What is going on?

To explain the problem we need a little background on IP multicasting and IGMP snooping.

Multicasting was designed for delivering high-bandwidth data streams, TV in other words, across a network without overloading the network. If an internet TV station had to send its video stream to each subscriber individually, the outgoing network link from the station would have to carry many, many identical data streams. There is no way that they could possibly get enough bandwidth. And anyway it is silly to send many copies of the same stream.

Multicasting avoids this problem by providing a way for a single stream to be delivered to many subscribers. The outgoing stream is directed to a single multicast address belonging to a "multicast group". When a router receives the packets of such a stream on an upstream port, it sends a copy to each of its downstream ports provided that some downstream node on that port has joined the multicast group. How does it know whether any downstream nodes belong to the group? That job is handled by the IGMP protocol.

But the bandwidth problem is not limited to routers. It also occurs with swithes on a local area network, especially when wireless is involved. If one person on your LAN is watching TV on their iPad, connected to a wireless access point which is connected to one port of your DNS or cable router, then your router needs to deliver the stream to the WAP. But the WAP is most likely behaving as a switch, not a router. So it is not supposed to be interpreting packets, just forwarding them to the devices connected to it. If this rule were followed strictly, it would mean that any device connected to that WAP would receive the video stream, even if it is not watching TV. And that video stream uses a substantial portion of the bandwidth available on the wireless link. So innocent devices who are not watching TV would experience a significant slowdown. To deal with this problem, switches use IGMP snooping. See the wikipedia article.

The idea of IGMP snooping is that a switch will watch the IGMP traffic generated by the devices it serves in order to decide which multicast groups each device wants to belong to. The switch then notifies its upstream router that it wants to subscribe to all groups which have at least one member among the nodes served by the switch. If no device on a switch port wants to belong to a certain group, then the switch will not forward any multicast packets for that group. A key point is this: while IGMP v2 provides a way for a device to leave a group, the switch cannot count on a device sending a leave request. First of all, the leave requests did not exist in IGMP v1, which the device may be using. Secondly, the device might crash. Therefore, a switch which does IGMP snooping will set an "IGMP membership timeout." When a device subscribes to a multicast group it must renew its membership before the timeout expires; otherwise the switch will mark it as not belonging to the group and stop sending it packets for that group.

But, you ask, what does this have to do with avahi or bonjour? Well, it turns out that those protocols also use multicasting. There is a multicast group for mDNS (the address is 224.0.0.251). All of the communication related to avahi or bonjour uses multicast packets sent to this multicast group.

So now we see the problem. The avahi or bonjour daemon on your device joins the mDNS multicast group when it starts up. But it is not the job of the avahi-daemon to ensure that your device remains a member of the mDNS group. That job is supposed to be handled automatically by the switches and routers on your network, using IGMP. The reason your device disappears after a while is that a switch, probably your WAP, does not hear any subsequent IGMP join requests from your device. So, after a while, the switch stops forwarding any mDNS packets, and the device "disappears".

What can be done?

To understand how to deal with this we need to discuss one more feature of the IGMP protocol and IGMP snooping. In order for your device to remain a member of the mDNS group, it needs to periodically send a request (actually called a report in IGMP) to join the mDNS group before the switch decides to remove it from the group. As explained in the Wikipedia page, the IGMP protocol deals with this by requiring that each network have a router which functions as an "IGMP querier". In order to avoid unnecessary network traffic, IGMP v2 specifies that this router should be "elected" by choosing the router with the lowest IP address. The job of the querier is simply to send an IGMP query packet to the multicast broadcast address (224.0.0.1) every so often. Switches are required to forward the query packets to all of their ports. When a device receives a query packet it responds (after a random delay and subject to a countdown timer) by sending reports requesting to join all groups that it wants to belong to.

Unfortunately, however, many cheap home network routers like the ones that you and I buy do not provide an IGMP querier. That is the reason that avahi and bonjour do not work on your home network.

The good news is that this problem is easy to fix. All we need to do is run a little daemon on one device which sends an IGMP query to the multicast broadcast address at regular intervals. QuerierD provides such a daemon. Once you start it up on one or more of your computers your devices will stop disappearing.

The querierd daemon will participate in the querier election process, so you can run querierd daemons on several devices on your network, some of which may not be running all the time. The querierd daemons will cooperate with any routers or other querierd daemons, so only one of them will provide the querier service at a time.

NOTE: A C implementation with similar functionality is available from Daniel Lorch: igmp-querier.