Problems introduced by routers with SIP ALG

What's a SIP ALG?

Many of today's commercial routers implement SIP ALG (Application Layer Gateway), coming with this feature enabled by default. While ALG could help in solving NAT related problems, the fact is that many routers' ALG implementations are wrong and break SIP.

There are various solutions for SIP clients behind NAT, some of them in client side (STUN, TURN, ICE), others in server side (Proxy RTP as RtpProxy, MediaProxy). ALG works typically in the client LAN router or gateway. In some scenarios some client side solutions are not valid, for example STUN with symmetrical NAT router. If the SIP proxy doesn't provide a server side NAT solution, then an ALG solution could have a place.

An ALG understands the protocol used by the specific applications that it supports (in this case SIP) and does a protocol packet-inspection of traffic through it. A NAT router with a built-in SIP ALG can re-write information within the SIP messages (SIP headers and SDP body) making signaling and audio traffic between the client behind NAT and the SIP endpoint possible.

SIP ALG problems

The main problem is the poor implementation at SIP protocol level of most commercial routers and the fact that this technology is just useful for outgoing calls, but not for incoming calls:

  • Improper routing: When a UA is switched on it sends a REGISTER to the proxy in order to be localizable and receive incoming calls. This REGISTER is modified by the ALG feature (if not the user wouldn't be reachable by the proxy since it indicated a private IP in REGISTER "Contact" header). Common routers leave the ports open for a while (30-90 seconds) so after that time the port forwarding is ended and incoming packets are discarded by the router. Many SIP proxies maintain the UDP keepalive by sending OPTIONS or NOTIFY messages to the UA, but they just do it when the UA has been detected as being behind NAT during the registration. A SIP ALG router rewrites the REGISTER request so the proxy doesn't detect the NAT and doesn't maintain the keepalive, meaning incoming calls will fail.
  • Breaks SIP signaling: Many routers with built-in SIP ALG modify SIP headers and the SDP body incorrectly, breaking SIP and making communication impossible. Some of them do a whole replacement by searching a private address in all SIP headers and body and replacing them with the router public mapped address (for example, replacing the private address if it appears in "Call-ID" header, which makes no sense at all). Many SIP ALG routers corrupt the SIP message when writing into it (i.e. missed semi-colon ";" in header parameters).
  • Disallows server side solutions: Even if you don't need a client side NAT solution (your SIP proxy gives you a server NAT solution), if your router has SIP ALG enabled that breaks SIP signaling, it will make communication with your proxy impossible. 


How do you know if your router supports SIP ALG?

It might not be obvious. You should refer to your product documentation or search Google for your router model and "SIP ALG."

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