Complexity and the Thin Waist

In recent years, we have become accustomed to—and often accosted by—the phrase software eats the world. It’s become a mantra in the networking world that software defined is the future. full stop This research paper by Microsoft, however, tells a different story. According to Baumann, hardware is the new software. Or, to put it differently, even as software eats the world, hardware is taking over an ever increasing amount of the functionality software is doing. In showing this point, the paper also points out the complexity problems involved in dissolving the thin waist of an architecture.


The specific example used in the paper is the Intel x86 Instruction Set Architecture (ISA). Many years ago, when I was a “youngster” in the information technology field, there were a number of different processor platforms; the processor wars waged in full. There were, primarily, the x86 platform, by Intel, beginning with the 8086, and its subsequent generations, the 8088, 80286, 80386, then the Pentium, etc. On the other side of the world, there were the RISC based processors, the kind stuffed into Apple products, Cisco routers, and Sun Sparc workstations (like the one that I used daily while in Cisco TAC). The argument between these two came down to this: the Intel x86 ISA was messy, somewhat ad-hoc, difficult to work with, sometimes buggy, and provided a lot of functionality at the chip level. The RISC based processors, on the other hand, had a much simpler ISA, leaving more to software.

Twenty years on, and this argument is no longer even an argument. The x86 ISA won hands down. I still remember when the Apple and Cisco product lines moved from RISC based processors to x86 platforms, and when AMD first started making x86 “lookalikes” that could run software designed for an Intel processor.

But remember this—The x86 ISA has always been about the processor taking in more work over time. Baumann’s paper is, in fact, an overview of this process, showing the amount of work the processor has been taking on over time. The example he uses is the twelve new instructions added to the x86 ISA by Intel in 2015–2016 around software security. Twelve new instructions might not sound like a lot, but these particular instructions necessitate the creation of entirely new registers in the CPU, a changed memory page table format, new stack structures (including a new shadow stack that sounds rather complex), new exception handling processes (for interrupts), etc.

The primary point of much of this activity is to make it possible for developers to stop trusting software for specific slices of security, and start trusting hardware, which cannot (in theory) be altered. Of course, so long as the hardware relies on microcode and has some sort of update process, there is always the possibility of an attack on the software embedded in the hardware, but we will leave this problematic point aside for the moment.

Why is Intel adding more to the hardware? According to Baumann—

The slowing pace of Moore’s Law will make it harder to sell CPUs: absent improvements in microarchitecture, they won’t be substantially faster, nor substantially more power efficient, and they will have about the same number of cores at the same price point as prior CPUs. Why would anyone buy a new CPU? One reason to which Intel appears to be turning is features: if the new CPU implements an important ISA extension—say, one required by software because it is essential to security—consumers will have a strong reason to upgrade.

If we see the software market as composed of layers, with applications on top, and the actual hardware on the bottom, we can see the ISA is part of the thin waist in software development. Baumann says: “As the most stable “thin waist” interface in today’s commodity technology stack, the x86 ISA sits at a critical point for many systems.”

The thin waist is very important in the larger effort to combat complexity. Having the simplest thin waist available is one of the most important things you can do in any system to reduce complexity. What is happening here is that the industry went from having many different ISA options to having one dominant ISA. A thin waste, however, always implies commoditization, which in turn means falling profits. So if you are the keeper of the thin waste, you either learn to live with less profit, you branch out into other areas, or you learn to broaden the waist. Intel is doing all of these things, but broadening the waist is definitely on the table.

If the point about complexity is true, then broadening the waist should imply an increase in complexity. Baumann points this out specifically. In the section on implications, he notes a lot of things that relate to complexity, such as increased interactions (surfaces!), security issues, and slower feature cycles (state!). Certainly enough, increasing the thin waist always increases complexity, most of the time in unexpected ways.

So—what is the point of this little trip down memory lane (or the memory hole, perhaps)? This all directly applies to network and protocol design. The end-to-end principle is one of the most time tested ideas in protocol design. Essentially, the network itself should be a thin waist in the application flow, providing minimal services and changing little. Within the network, there should be a set of thin waists where modules meet; choke points where policy can be implemented, state can be reduced, and interaction surfaces can be clearly controlled.

We have, alas, abandoned all of this in our drive to make the network the ne plus ultra of all things. Want a layer two overlay? No problem. Want to stretch the layer two overlay between continents? Well, we can do that too. Want it all to converge really fast, and have high reliability? We can shove ISSU at the problem, and give you no downtime, no dropped packets, ever.

As a result, our networks are complex. In fact, they are too complex. And now we are talking about pushing AI at the problem. The reality is, however, we would be much better off if we actually carefully considered each new thing we throw into the mix of the thin waist of the network itself, and of our individual networks.

The thin waist is always tempting to broaden out—it is so simple, and it seems so easy to add functionality to the thin waist to get where we want to go. The result is never what we think it will be, though. The power of unintended consequences will catch up with us at some point or another.

Like… right about the time you decide to try to use asymmetric traffic flows across a network device that keeps state.

Make the waist thin, and the complexity becomes controllable. This is a principle we have yet to learn and apply in our network and protocol designs.


  1. Rafael de Oliveira Ribeiro on 10 July 2017 at 4:39 pm

    Hi Russ, nice article! I immediately thought of a former colleague who, while taking a vendor course, compared L2VPNs to regular L2 domains in the same vein (complexity) you wrote here.

    P.S.: I’m afraid there was a small typo when you cite the Latin expression: it should be “ne plus ultra”!

    • Russ on 10 July 2017 at 8:12 pm

      Thanks for the comment — and pointing out the typo!. I’ve fixed it…