It Has to Work

From time immemorial, humor has served to capture truth. This is no different in the world of computer networks. A notable example of using humor to capture truth is the April 1 RFC series published by the IETF. RFC1925, The Twelve Networking Truths, will serve as our guide.

According to RFC1925, the first fundamental truth of networking is: it has to work. While this might seem to be overly simplistic, it has proven—over the years—to be much more difficult to implement in real life than it looks like in a slide deck. Those with extensive experience with failures, however, can often make a better guess at what is possible to make work than those without such experience. The good news, however, is the experience of failure can be shared, especially through self-deprecating humor.

Consider RFC748, which is the first April First RFC published by the IETF, the TELNET RANDOMLY-LOSE Option. This RFC describes a set of additional signals in the TELNET protocol (for those too young to remember, TELNET is what people used to communicate with hosts before SSH and web browsers!) that instruct the server not to provide random losses through such things as “system crashes, lost data, incorrectly functioning programs, etc., as part of their services.” The RFC notes that many systems apparently have undocumented features that provide such losses, frustrating users and system administrators. The option proposed would instruct the server to disable features which cause these random losses.

Lesson learned? Although one of the general rules of application design is the network is not reliable, the counter rule suggested by RFC748 is the application is not reliable, either. This a key point in the race to Mean Time to Innocence (MTTI). RFC1882, published a few years after RFC748, is a veritable guidebook for finding problems in a network, including transceiver failures, databases with broken b-trees, unterminated contacts, and a plethora of other places to look.  Published just before Christmas, RFC1882 is an ideal guide for those who want to spend time with their families during the most festive times of the year.

Another common problem in large-scale networks is services that want to choose to operate from the safety and security of an anonymous connection. RFC6593 describes the Doman Pseudonym System, specifically designed to support services that do not wish to be discovered. The specification describes two parties to the protocol, the first being the seeker, or “it,” and the second being the service which is attempting to hide from it. The process used is for the seeker to send a transmission declaring the beginning of the search sequence called the “ready or not,” followed by a countdown during which “it” is not allowed to peek at a list of available services. During this countdown, the service may change its name or location, although it will be penalized if discovered doing so. This Domain Pseudonym System is the perfect counterpart to the Domain Name System normally used to discover services on large-scale networks, as shown by the many networks that already deploy such a hide-and-seek method to managing services.

What if all the above guidance for network operators fails, and you are stuck troubleshooting a problem? RFC2321 has an answer to this problem: RITA — The Reliable Internetwork Troubleshooting Agent. The typical RITA is described as 51.25cm in length, and yellow/orange in color. The first test the operator can perform with the RITA is placing it on the documentation for the suspect system, or on top of the suspect system itself. If the RITA eventually flies away, there is a greater than 90% chance there is a defect in the system tested. The odds of the defects in the tested system being the root cause of the problem the operator is currently troubleshooting is not guaranteed, however. The RITA has such a high success rate because it is believed that 100% of systems in operation do, in fact, contain defects. The 10% failure rate primarily occurs in cases where the RITA itself dies during the test, or decides to go to sleep rather than flying to some other location.

Each of these methods can help the network operator fulfill the first rule of networking: it has to work.