The Network is not Free: The Case of the Connected Toaster
Latency is a big deal for many modern applications, particularly in the realm of machine learning applied to problems like determining if someone standing at your door is a delivery person or a … robber out to grab all your smart toasters and big screen television. The problem is networks, particularly in the last mile don’t deal with latency very well. In fact, most of the network speeds and feeds available in anything outside urban areas kindof stinks. The example given by Bagchi et al. is this—
A fixed video sensor may generate 6Mbps of video 24/7, thus producing nearly 2TB of data per month—an amount unsustainable according to business practices for consumer connections, for example, Comcast’s data cap is at 1TB/month and Verizon Wireless throttles traffic over 26GB/month. For example, with DOCSIS 3.0, a widely deployed cable Internet technology, most U.S.-based cable systems deployed today support a maximum of 81Mbps aggregated over 500 home—just 0.16Mbps per home.
Bagchi, Saurabh, Muhammad-Bilal Siddiqui, Paul Wood, and Heng Zhang. “Dependability in Edge Computing.” Communications of the ACM 63, no. 1 (December 2019): 58–66. https://doi.org/10.1145/3362068.
The authors claim a lot of the problem here is just that edge networks have not been built out, but there is a reason these edge networks aren’t built out large enough to support pulling this kind of data load into a centrally located data center: the network isn’t free.
This is something so obvious to network engineers that it almost slips under our line of thinking unnoticed—except, of course, for the constant drive to make the network cost less money. For application developers, however, the network is just a virtual circuit data rides over… All the complexity of pulling fiber out to buildings or curbs, all the work of physically connecting things to the fiber, all the work of figuring out how to make routing scale, it’s all just abstracted away in a single QUIC or TCP session.
If you can’t bring the data to the compute, which is typically contained in some large-scale data center, then you have to bring the computing power to the data. The complexity of bringing the computing power to the data is applications, especially modern micro-services based applications optimized for large-scale, low latency data center fabrics, just aren’t written to be broken into components and spread all over the world.
Let’s consider the case of the smart toaster—the case used in the paper in hand. Imagine a toaster with little cameras to sense the toastiness of the bread, electronically controlled heating elements, an electronically controlled toast lifter, and some sort of really nice “bread storage and moving” system that can pull bread out of a reservoir, load them into the toaster, and make it all work. Imagine being able to get up in the morning to a fresh cup of coffee and a nice bagel fresh and hot just as you hit the kitchen…
But now let’s look at the complexity required to do such a thing. We must have local processing power and storage, along with some communication protocol that periodically uploads and downloads data to improve the toasting process. You have to have some sort of handling system that can learn about new kinds of bread and adapt to them automatically—this is going to require data, as well. You have to have a bread reservoir that will keep the bread fresh for a few days so you don’t have refill it constantly.
Will you save maybe five minutes every morning? Maybe.
Will you spend a lot of time getting this whole thing up and running? Definitely.
What will the MTBF be, precisely? What about the MTTR?
All to save five minutes in the morning? Of course the authors chose a trivial—perhaps even silly—example to use, just to illustrate the kinds of problems IoT devices combined with edge computing are going to encounter. But still … in five years you’re going to see advertisements for this smart toaster out there. There are toasters that already have a few of these features, and refrigerators that go far beyond this.
Sometimes we have to remember the cost of the network is telling us something—just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean we should. If the cost of the network forces us to consider the tradeoffs, that’s a good thing.
And remember that if your toaster makes your bread at the same time every morning, you have to adjust to the machine’s schedule, rather than the machine adjusting to yours…
Research: Off-Path TCP Attacks
I’s fnny, bt yu cn prbbly rd ths evn thgh evry wrd s mssng t lst ne lttr. This is because every effective language—or rather every communication system—carried enough information to reconstruct the original meaning even when bits are dropped. Over-the-wire protocols, like TCP, are no different—the protocol must carry enough information about the conversation (flow data) and the data being carried (metadata) to understand when something is wrong and error out or ask for a retransmission. These things, however, are a form of data exhaust; much like you can infer the tone, direction, and sometimes even the content of conversation just by watching the expressions, actions, and occasional word spoken by one of the participants, you can sometimes infer a lot about a conversation between two applications by looking at the amount and timing of data crossing the wire.
The paper under review today, Off-Path TCP Exploit, uses cleverly designed streams of packets and observations about the timing of packets in a TCP stream to construct an off-path TCP injection attack on wireless networks. Understanding the attack requires understanding the interaction between the collision avoidance used in wireless systems and TCP’s reaction to packets with a sequence number outside the current window.
Beginning with the TCP end of things—if a TCP packet is received with a window falling outside the current window, TCP implementations will send a duplicate of the last ACK it sent back to the transmitter. From the Wireless network side of things, only one talker can use the channel at a time. If a device begins transmitting a packet, and then hears another packet inbound, it should stop transmitting and wait some random amount of time before trying to transmit again. These two things can be combined to guess at the current window size.
Assume an attacker sends a packet to a victim which must be answered, such as a probe. Before the victim can answer, the attacker than sends a TCP segment which includes a sequence number the attacker thinks might be within the victim’s receive window, sourcing the packet from the IP address of some existing TCP session. Unless the IP address of some existing session is used in this step, the victim will not answer the TCP segment. Because the attacker is using a spoofed source address, it will not receive the ACK from this segment, so it must find some other way to infer if an ACK was sent by the victim.
How can the attacker infer this? After sending this TCP sequence, the attacker sends another probe of some kind to the victim which must be answered. If the TCP segment’s sequence number is outside the current window, the victim will attempt to send a copy of its previous ACK. If the attacker times things correctly, the victim will attempt to send this duplicate ACK while the attacker is transmitting the second probe packet; the two packets will collide, causing the victim to back off, slowing the receipt of the probe down a bit from the attacker’s perspective.
If the answer to the second probe is slower than the answer to the first probe, the attacker can infer the sequence number of the spoofed TCP segment is outside the current window. If the two probes are answered in close to the same time, the attacker can infer the sequence number of the spoofed TCP segment is within the current window.
Combining this information with several other well-known aspects of widely deployed TCP stacks, the researchers found they could reliably inject information into a TCP stream from an attacker. While these injections would still need to be shaped in some way to impact the operation of the application sending data over the TCP stream, the ability to inject TCP segments in this way is “halfway there” for the attacker.
There probably never will be a truly secure communication channel invented that does not involve encryption—the data required to support flow control and manage errors will always provide enough information to an attacker to find some clever way to break into the channel.
Is QUIC really Quicker?
QUIC is a relatively new data transport protocol developed by Google, and currently in line to become the default transport for the upcoming HTTP standard. Because of this, it behooves every network engineer to understand a little about this protocol, how it operates, and what impact it will have on the network. We did record a History of Networking episode on QUIC, if you want some background.
In a recent Communications of the ACM article, a group of researchers (Kakhi et al.) used a modified implementation of QUIC to measure its performance under different network conditions, directly comparing it to TCPs performance under the same conditions. Since the current implementations of QUIC use the same congestion control as TCP—Cubic—the only differences in performance should be code tuning in estimating the round-trip timer (RTT) for congestion control, QUIC’s ability to form a session in a single RTT, and QUIC’s ability to carry multiple streams in a single connection. The researchers asked two questions in this paper: how does QUIC interact with TCP flows on the same network, and does UIC perform better than TCP in all situations, or only some?
To answer the first question, the authors tried running QUIC and TCP over the same network in different configurations, including single QUIC and TCP sessions, a single QUIC session with multiple TCP sessions, etc. In each case, they discovered that QUIC consumed about 50% of the bandwidth; if there were multiple TCP sessions, they would be starved for bandwidth when running in parallel with the QUIC session. For network folk, this means an application implemented using QUIC could well cause performance issues for other applications on the network—something to be aware of. This might mean it is best, if possible, to push QUIC-based applications into a separate virtual or physical topology with strict bandwidth controls if it causes other applications to perform poorly.
Does QUIC’s ability to consume more bandwidth mean applications developed on top of it will perform better? According to the research in this paper, the answer is how many balloons fit in a bag? In other words, it all depends. QUIC does perform better when its multi-stream capability comes into play and the network is stable—for instance, when transferring variably sized objects (files) across a network with stable jitter and delay. In situations with high jitter or delay, however, TCP consistently outperforms QUIC.
TCP outperforming QUIC is a bit of a surprise in any situation; how is this possible? The researchers used information from their additional instrumentation to discover QUIC does not tolerate out-of-order packet delivery very well because of its fast packet retransmission implementation. Presumably, it should be possible to modify these parameters somewhat to make QUIC perform better.
This would still leave the second problem the researchers found with QUIC’s performance—a large difference between its performance on desktop and mobile platforms. The difference between these two comes down to where QUIC is implemented. Desktop devices (and/or servers) often have smart NICs which implement TCP in the ASIC to speed packet processing up. QUIC, because it runs in user space, only runs on the main processor (it seems hard to see how a user space application could run on a NIC—it would probably require a specialized card of some type, but I’ll have to think about this more). The result is that QUIC’s performance depends heavily on the speed of the processor. Since mobile devices have much slower processors, QUIC performs much more slowly on mobile devices.
QUIC is an interesting new transport protocol—one everyone involved in designing or operating networks is eventually going to encounter. This paper gives good insight into the “soul” of this new protocol.
Understanding DC Fabric Complexity
When I think of complexity, I mostly consider transport protocols and control planes—probably because I have largely worked in these areas from the very beginning of my career in network engineering. Complexity, however, is present in every layer of the networking stack, all the way down to the physical. I recently ran across an interesting paper on complexity in another part of the network I had not really thought about before: the physical plant of a data center fabric.
Some researchers at USC and VMWare have thought about complexity in the physical infrastructure, however, and they wrote a rather interesting paper about it.
The paper begins by defining what complexity in the physical infrastructure of a DC fabric looks like. They focus on packaging, or the layout of the switches in the fabric, the bundles of cabling required to wire the topology, and the number and locations of patch panels required. The packaging and patch panels impact the length and complexity of the cable runs (whether optical or copper), which represents a base complexity for the entire topology.
The second thing they consider is the lifecycle of the physical fabric infrastructure. What steps are required to upgrade the fabric from a smaller configuration to a larger one? Or from a lower speed (higher oversubscription) to a higher speed (lower oversubscription)? The result is the ability to put a number on the overall complexity of each topology.
The first class of topologies they consider are spine-and-leaf, such as the Clos, Benes, and butterfly fabrics. They call all kinds of spine-and-leaf fabrics Clos fabrics. Spine-and-leaf fabrics, they note generally have very low cabling complexity because their symmetry encourages consistent bundling and hardware placement. They call the second kind of topology expander fabrics; the most common fabric in this class is the dragonfly. These topologies are more difficult to wire but simpler to scale out because they can be expanded largely by modifying just the edge of the fabric. Their analysis shows these classes of fabric rate equally on their complexity scale.
A side note they don’t consider in the paper—their complexity computation implies that if you are building a fabric with a somewhat fixed range of sizes, and you can preplan the location of spines leaving enough room for the maximum sized fabric on the first day, spine-and-leaf fabrics are less complex than the fancier topologies you might hear about from time to time. Since most data center fabrics do, in fact, fall into these kinds of constraints (given a good day one designer!), this seems to validate the widespread use of butterfly and Clos fabrics for most applications. This feels like a significant result for most common data center fabric designs.
Finally, they describe an interesting topology they call FatClique, which is an interesting blend of spine-and-lead and edge expander topologies; I’ve screen grabbed the image from the paper below.
Overall, it’s well worth spending the time to read the entire paper if you have an in-depth interest in fabric design.The way this topology is described feels very much like a Benes to me, or a butterfly where the fabric routers are replaced by fabrics (making a seven-stage fabric). It’s hard to tell how useful this topology would be in real deployments—but that researchers are looking into alternatives other than the venerable spine-and-leaf is interesting in its own right.
Understanding Internet Peering
The world of provider interconnection is a little … “mysterious” … even to those who work at transit providers. The decision of who to peer with, whether such peering should be paid, settlement-free, open, and where to peer is often cordoned off into a separate team (or set of teams) that don’t seem to leak a lot of information. A recent paper on current interconnection practices published in ACM SIGCOMM sheds some useful light into this corner of the Internet, and hence is useful for those just trying to understand how the Internet really works.
To write the paper, the authors sent requests to fill out a survey through a wide variety of places, including NOG mailing lists and blogs. They ended up receiving responses from all seven regions (based on the RIRs, who control and maintain Internet numbering resources like AS numbers and IP addresses), 70% from ISPs, 14% from content providers, and 7% from “Enterprise” and infrastructure operators. Each of these kinds of operators will have different interconnection needs—I would expect ISPs to engage in more settlement-free peering (with roughly equal traffic levels), content providers to engage in more open (settlement-free connections with unequal traffic levels), IXs to do mostly local peering (not between regions), and “enterprises” to engage mostly in paid peering. The survey also classified respondents by their regional footprint (how many regions they operate in) and size (how many customers they support).
The survey focused on three facets of interconnection: time required to form a connection, the reasons given for interconnecting, and parameters included in the peering agreement. These largely describe the status quo in peering—interconnections as they are practiced today. As might be expected, connections at IXs are the quickest to form. Since IXs are normally set up to enable peering; it makes sense that the preset processes and communications channels enabled by an IX would make the peering process a lot faster. According to the survey results, the most common timeframe to complete peering is days, with about a quarter taking weeks.
Apparently, the vast majority (99%!) of peering arrangements are by “handshake,” which means there is no legal contract behind them. This is one reason Network Operator Groups (NOGs) are so important (a topic of discussion in the Hedge 31, dropping next week); the peering workshops are vital in building and keeping the relationships behind most peering arrangements.
On-demand connectivity is a new trend in inter-AS peering. For instance, interxion recently worked with LINX and several other IXs to develop a standard set of APIs allowing operators to peer with one another in a standard way, often reducing the technical side of the peering process to minutes rather than hours (or even days). Companies are moving into this space, helping operators understand who they should peer with, and building pre-negotiated peering contracts with many operators. While current operators seem to be aware of these options, they do not seem to be using these kinds of services yet.
While this paper is interesting, it does leave many corners of the inter-AS peering world un-exposed. For instance—I would like to know how correct my assumptions are about the kinds of peering used by each of the different classes of providers is, and whether there are regional differences in the kinds of peering. While its interesting to survey the reasons providers pursue peering, it would be interesting to understand the process of making a peering determination more fully. What kinds of tools are available, and how are they used? These would be useful bits of information for an operator who only connects to the Internet, rather than being part of the Internet infrastructure (perhaps a “non-infrastructure operator,” rather than “enterprise”) in understanding how their choice of upstream provider can impact the performance of their applications and network.
Note: this is another useful, but slightly older, paper on the topic of peering.
The Hedge 27: New directions in network and computing systems
On this episode of the Hedge, Micah Beck joins us to discuss a paper he wrote recently considering a new model of compute, storage, and networking. Micah Beck is Associate Professor in computer science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he researches and publishes in the area of networking technologies, including the hourglass model and the end-to-end principle.
If you are interested in the paper we are discussing on this episode, or Micah’s other work, you can find it at his personal site.
Note: I’m off in the weeds a little this week thinking about cyber-insurance because of a paper that landed in one of my various feeds—while this isn’t something we often think about as network operators, it does impact the overall security of the systems we build.
When you go to the doctor for a yearly checkup, do you think about health or insurance? You probably think about health, but the practice of going to the doctor for regular checkups began because of large life insurance companies in the United States. These companies began using statistical methods to make risk, or to build actuarial tables they could use to set the premiums properly. Originally, life insurance companies relied on the “hunches” of their salesmen, combined with some checking by people in the “back office,” to determine the correct premium. Over time, they developed networks of informers in local communities, such as doctors, lawyers, and even local politicians, who could describe the life of anyone in their area, providing the information the company needed to set premiums correctly.
Over time, however, statistical methods came into play, particularly relying on an initial visit with a doctor. The information these insurance companies gathered, however, gave them insight into what habits increased or decreased longevity—they decided they should use this information to help shape people’s lives so they would live longer, rather than just using it to discover the correct premiums. To gather more information, and to help people live better lives, life insurance companies started encouraging yearly doctor visits, even setting up non-profit organizations to support the doctors who gave these examinations. Thus was born the yearly doctor’s visit, the credit rating agencies, and a host of other things we take for granted in modern life.
You can read about the early history of life insurance and its impact on society in How Our Days Became Numbered.
What does any of this have to do with networks? Only this—we are in much the same position in the cyber-insurance market right now as the life insurance market in the late 1800s through the mid-1900s—insurance agents interview a company and make a “hunch bet” on how much to charge the company for cyber-insurance. Will cyber-insurance ever mature to the same point as life insurance? According to a recent research paper, the answer is “probably not.” Why not?
First, legal restrictions will not allow a solution such as the one imposed by payment processors. Second, there does not seem to be a lot of leverage in cyber-insurance premiums. The cost of increasing security is generally much higher than any possible premium discount, making it cheaper for companies just to pay the additional premium than to improve their security posture. Third, there is no real evidence tying the use of specific products to reductions in security breaches. Instead, network and data security tend to be tied to practices rather than products, making it harder for an insurer to precisely specify what a company can and should to improve their posture.
Finally, the largest problem is measurement. What does it look like for a company to “go to the doctor” regularly? Does this mean regular penetration tests? Standardizing penetration tests is difficult, and it can be far too easy to counter pentests without improving the overall security posture. Like medical care in the “early days,” there is no way to know you have gathered enough information on the population to know if you correctly understand the kinds of things that improve “health”—but there is no way to compel reporting (much less accurate reporting), nor is there any way to compel insurance companies to share the information they have about cyber incidents.
Will cyber-insurance exist as a “separate thing” in the future? The authors largely answer in the negative. The pressures of “race to the bottom,” providing maximal coverage with minimal costs (which they attribute to the structure of the cyber-insurance market), combined with lack of regulatory clarity and inaccurate measurements, will probably end up causing cyber-insurance to “fold into” other kinds of insurance.
Whether this is a positive or negative result is a matter of conjecture—the legacy of yearly doctor’s visits and public health campaigns is not universally “good,” after all.