We all use the OSI model to describe the way networks work. I have, in fact, included it in just about every presentation, and every book I have written, someplace in the fundamentals of networking. But if you have every looked at the OSI model and had to scratch your head trying to figure out how it really fits with the networks we operate today, or what the OSI model is telling you in terms of troubleshooting, design, or operation—you are not alone. Lots of people have scratched their heads about the OSI model, trying to understand how it fits with modern networking. There is a reason this is so difficult to figure out.
The OSI Model does not accurately describe networks.
What set me off in this particular direction this week is an article over at Errata Security:
The OSI Model was created by international standards organization for an alternative internet that was too complicated to ever work, and which never worked, and which never came to pass. Sure, when they created the OSI Model, the Internet layered model already existed, so they made sure to include today’s Internet as part of their model. But the focus and intent of the OSI’s efforts was on dumb networking concepts that worked differently from the Internet.
This is partly true, and yet a bit … over the top. 🙂 OTOH, the point is well taken: the OSI model is not an ideal model for understanding networks. Maybe a bit of analysis would be helpful in understanding why.
First, while the OSI model was developed with packet switching networks in mind, the general idea was to come as close as possible to emulating the circuit-switched networks widely deployed at the time. A lot of thought had gone into making those circuit-switched networks work, and applications had been built around the way they worked. Applications and circuit-switched networks formed a sort of symbiotic relationship, just as applications form with packet-switched networks today; it was unimaginable, at the time, that “everything would change.”
So while the designers of the OSI model understood the basic value of the packet-switched network, they also understood the value of the circuit-switched network, and tried to find a way to solve both sets of problems in the same network. Experience has shown it is possible to build a somewhat close-to-circuit switched network on top of packet switched networks, but not quite in the way, nor as close to perfect emulation, as those original designers thought. So the OSI model is a bit complex and perhaps overspecified, making it less-than-useful today.
Second, the OSI model largely ignored the role of middleboxes, focusing instead on the stacks implemented and deployed in hosts. This, again, makes sense, as there was no such thing as a device specialized in the switching of packets at the time. Hosts took packets in and processed them. Some packets were sent along to other hosts, other packets were consumed locally. Think PDP-11 with some rough code, rather than even an early Cisco CGS.
Third, the OSI model focuses on what each layer does from the perspective of an application, rather than focusing on what is being done to the data in order to transmit it. The OSI model is built “top down,” rather than “bottom up,” in other words. While this might be really useful if you are an application developer, it is not so useful if you are a network engineer.
So—what should we say about the OSI model?
It was much more useful at some point in the past, when networking was really just “something a host did,” rather than its own sort of sub-field, with specialized protocols, techniques, and designs. It was a very good attempt at sorting out what a network needed to do to move traffic, from the perspective of an application.
What it is not, however, is really all that useful for network engineers working within an engineering specialty to understand how to design protocols, and how to design networks on which those protocols will run. What should we replace it with? I would begin by pointing you to the RINA model, which I think is a better place to start. I’ve written a bit about the RINA model, and used the RINA model as one of the foundational pieces of Computer Networking Problems and Solutions.
Since writing that, however, I have been thinking further about this problem. Over the next six months or so, I plan to build a course around this question. For the moment, I don’t want to spoil the fun, or put any half-backed thoughts out there in the wild.