Arti 1.0.0 is released: Our Rust Tor implementation is ready for production use.

by nickm | September 2, 2022

Back in 2020, we started work on a new implementation of the Tor protocols in the Rust programming language. Now we believe it's ready for wider use.

In this blog post, we'll tell you more about the history of the Arti project, where it is now, and where it will go next.

Background: Why Arti? And How?

Why rewrite Tor in Rust? Because despite (or because of) its maturity, the C Tor implementation is showing its age. While C was a reasonable choice back when we started working on Tor 2001, we've always suffered from its limitations: it encourages a needlessly low-level approach to many programming problems, and using it safely requires painstaking care and effort. Because of these limitations, that pace of development in C has always been slower than we would have liked.

What's more, our existing C implementation has grown over the years to have a not-so-modular design: nearly everything is connected to everything else, which makes it even more difficult to analyze the code and make safe improvements.

A movement to Rust seemed like a good answer. Started in 2010 at Mozilla, and now maintained by the Rust Foundation, Rust has grown over the years to become an independently maintained programming language with great ergonomics and performance, and strong safety properties. In 2017, we started experimenting with adding Rust inside the C Tor codebase, with a view to replacing the code bit by bit.

One thing that we found, however, was that our existing C code was not modular enough to be easily rewritten. (Rust's security guarantees depend on Rust code interacting with other Rust code, so to get any benefit, you need to rewrite a module at a time rather than just one function at a time.) The parts of the code that were isolated enough to replace were mostly trivial, and seemed not worth the effort—whereas the parts that most needed replacement were to intertwined with each other to practically disentangle. We tried to disentangle our modules, but it proved impractical to do so without destabilizing the codebase.

So in 2020, we started on a Rust Tor implementation that eventually became Arti. At first, it was a personal project to improve my Rust skills, but by the end of the summer, it could connect to the Tor network, and by September it sent its first anonymized traffic. After some discussion, we decided to adopt Arti as an official part of the Tor Project, and see how far we could take it.

Thanks to generous support from Zcash Community Grants starting in 2021, we were able to hire more developers and speed up the pace of development enormously. By October, we had our first "no major privacy holes" release (0.0.1), and we started putting out monthly releases. In March of this year, we had enough of a public API to be confident in recommending Arti for experimental embedding, and so we released version 0.1.0.

And now, with our latest release, we've reached our 1.0.0 milestone. Let's talk more about what that means.

Arti 1.0.0: Ready for production use

When we defined our set of milestones, we defined Arti 1.0.0 as "ready for production use": You should be able to use it in the real world, to get a similar degree of privacy, usability, and stability to what you would with a C client Tor. The APIs should be (more or less) stable for embedders.

We believe we have achieved this. You can now use arti proxy to connect to the Tor network to anonymize your network connections.

Note that we don't recommend pointing a conventional web browser at arti (or, indeed, C Tor): web browsers leak much private and identifying information. To browse the web anonymously, use Tor Browser; we have instructions for using it with Arti.

Recent work

To achieve this, we we've made many improvements to Arti. (Items marked as NEW are new or substantially improved since last month's 0.6.0 release.)

For a complete list of changes, including a list of just the changes since 0.6.0, see our CHANGELOG.

So, how's Rust been?

Our experience with Rust has been a definite success.

At every stage, we've encountered way fewer bugs than during comparable C development. The bugs that we have encountered have almost all been semantic/algorithmic mistakes (real programming issues), not mistakes in using the Rust language and its facilities. Rust has a reputation for being a difficult language with a picky compiler - but the pickiness of the compiler has been a great boon. Generally speaking, if our Rust code compiles and passes its tests, it is much likelier to be correct than our C code under the same conditions.

Development of comparable features has gone way faster, even considering that we're building most things for the second time. Some of the speed improvement is due to Rust's more expressive semantics and more usable library ecosystem—but a great deal is due to the confidence Rust's safety brings.

Portability has been far easier than C, though sometimes we're forced to deal with differences between operating systems. (For example, when we've had to get into the fine details of filesystem permissions, we've found that most everything we do takes different handling on Windows.)

One still-uncracked challenge is binary size. Unlike C's standard library, Rust's standard library doesn't come installed by default on our target systems, and so it adds to the size of our downloads. Rust's approach to high-level programming and generic code can make fast code, but also large executables. We've been able to offset this somewhat with the Rust ecosystem's improved support for working with platform-native TLS implementations, but there's more work to do here.

Embedding has been practical so far. We have preliminary work embedding Arti in both Java and Python.

We've found that Arti has attracted volunteer contributions in greater volume and with less friction than C Tor. New contributors are greatly assisted by Rust's strong type system, excellent API documentation support, and safety properties. These features help them find where to make a change, and also enable making changes to unfamiliar code with much greater confidence.

What's coming next?

Our primary focus in Arti 1.1.0 will be to implement Tor's anticensorship features, including support for bridges and pluggable transports. We've identified our primary architectural challenges there, and are working through them now.

In addition, we intend to further solidify our compliance with semantic versioning in our high-level arti-client crate. We are confident that our intentionally exposed APIs there are stable, but before we can promise long-term stability we need to make sure that we have a way to detect and prevent changes to the lower-level APIs that arti-client re-exports. The cargo-public-api and cargo-semver-checks crates both seem promising, but we may need additional thinking.

(This semantic versioning difficulty is the primary reason why arti-client is still at 0.6.0 instead of 1.0.0. When we declare 1.0.0 for arti-client, we want to be sure that we can keep backward compatibility for as long as possible.)

We expect that Arti 1.1.0 will be complete around the end of October. We had originally estimated one month of the team's time for this work, but since we'll all be off for a week for a meeting, and then a few of us have vacations, it seems that we'll need to allocate two months in order to find a month of hacking time. (Such is life!)

And then?

After Arti 1.1.0, we're going to focus on onion services in Arti 1.2.0. They're a complex and important part of the Tor protocols, and will take a significant amount of effort to build. Making onion services work securely and efficiently will require a number of related protocol features, including support for congestion control, DOS protection, vanguards, and circuit padding machines.

After that, Arti 2.0.0 will focus on feature parity with the C tor client implementation, and support for embedding Arti in different languages. (Preliminary embedding work is promising: we have the beginnings of a VPN tool for mobile, embedding Arti in Java.) When we're done, we intend that Arti will be a suitable replacement for C tor as a client implementation in all (or nearly all) use contexts.

We've applied to the Zcash Community Grants for funding to support these next two phases, and we're waiting hopefully to see what they say.

And after that?

We intend that, in the long run, Arti will replace our C tor implementation completely, not only for clients, but also for relays and directory authorities. This will take several more years of work, but we're confident that it's the right direction forward.

(We won't stop support for the C implementation right away; we expect that it will take some time for people to migrate.)

How can you try Arti now?

We rely on users and volunteers to find problems in our software and suggest directions for its improvement. You can test Arti as a SOCKS proxy (if you're willing to compile from source) and as an embeddable library (if you don't mind a little API instability).

Assuming you've installed Arti (with cargo install arti, or directly from a cloned repository), you can use it to start a simple SOCKS proxy for making connections via Tor with:

$ arti proxy -p 9150

and use it more or less as you would use the C Tor implementation!

(It doesn't support onion services yet. If compilation doesn't work, make sure you have development files for libsqlite installed on your platform.)

If you want to build a program with Arti, you probably want to start with the arti-client crate. Be sure to check out the examples too.

For more information, check out the README file. (For now, it assumes that you're comfortable building Rust programs from the command line). Our CONTRIBUTING file has more information on installing development tools, and on using Arti inside of Tor Browser. (If you want to try that, please be aware that Arti doesn't support onion services yet.)

When you find bugs, please report them on our bugtracker. You can request an account or report a bug anonymously.

And if this documentation doesn't make sense, please ask questions! The questions you ask today might help improve the documentation tomorrow.

Whether you're a user or a developer, please give Arti a try, and let us know what you think. The sooner we learn what you need, the better our chances of getting it into an early milestone.


Thanks to everybody who has helped take us here from Arti 0.1.0, including: 0x4ndy, Alexander Færøy, Alex Xu, Arturo Marquez, Christian Grigis, Dimitris Apostolou, Emptycup, FAMASoon, feelingnothing, Jim Newsome, Lennart Kloock, Michael, Michael Mccune, Neel Chauhan, Orhun Parmaksız, Richard Pospesel, Samanta Navarro, solanav, spongechameleon, Steven Murdoch, Trinity Pointard, and Yuan Lyu!

And, of course, thanks to Zcash Community Grants for their support of this critical work! The Zcash Community Grants program (formerly known as ZOMG) funds independent teams entering the Zcash ecosystem to perform major ongoing development (or other work) for the public good of the Zcash ecosystem. Zcash is a privacy-focused cryptocurrency, which pioneered the use of zk-SNARKs. The Zcash ecosystem is driven to further individual privacy and freedom.


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