What, really, is “technical debt?” It’s tempting to say “anything legacy,” but then why do we need a new phrase to describe “legacy stuff?” Even the prejudice against legacy stuff isn’t all that rational when you think about it. Something that’s old might also just be well-tested, or well-worn but still serviceable. Let’s try another tack.
There are many times in networking history, and in the day-to-day operation of a network, when an engineer has been asked to do what seems to be impossible. Maybe installing a circuit faster than a speeding bullet or flying over tall buildings to make it to a remote site faster than any known form of conveyance short of a transporter beam (which, contrary to what you might see in the movies, has not yet been invented).
In the realm of network design—especially in the realm of security—we often react so strongly against a perceived threat, or so quickly to solve a perceived problem, that we fail to look for the tradeoffs. If you haven’t found the tradeoffs, you haven’t looked hard enough—or, as Dr. Little says, you have to ask what is gained and what is lost, rather than just what is gained. This failure to look at both sides often results in untold amounts of technical debt and complexity being dumped into network designs (and application implementations), causing outages and failures long after these decisions are made.
Let’s play the analogy game. The Internet of Things (IoT) is probably going end up being like … a box of chocolates, because you never do know what you are going to get? a big bowl of spaghetti with a serious lack of meatballs? Whatever it is, the IoT should have network folks worried about security. There is, of course, the problem of IoT devices being attached to random places on the network, exfiltrating personal data back to a cloud server you don’t know anything about. Some of these devices might be rogue, of course, such as Raspberry Pi attached to some random place in the network. Others might be more conventional, such as those new exercise machines the company just brought into the gym that’s sending personal information in the clear to an outside service.
For those with a long memory—no, even longer than that—there were once things called Network Operating Systems (NOS’s). These were not the kinds of NOS’s we have today, like Cisco IOS Software, or Arista EOS, or even SONiC. Rather, these were designed for servers. The most common example was Novell’s Netware. These operating systems were the “bread and butter” of the networking world for many years. I was a Certified Netware Expert (CNE) version 4.0, and then 4.11, before I moved into the routing and switching world. I also deployed Banyan’s Vines, IBM’s OS/2, and a much simpler system called LANtastic, among others.
While software design is not the same as network design, there is enough overlap for network designers to learn from software designers. A recent paper published by Butler Lampson, updating a paper he wrote in 1983, is a perfect illustration of this principle. The paper is caleld Hints and Principles for Computer System Design. I’m not going to write a full review here–you should really go read the paper for yourself–but rather just point out some useful bits of the paper.
So, software is eating the world—and you thought this was going to make things simpler, right? If you haven’t found the tradeoffs, you haven’t looked hard enough. I should trademark that or something! 🙂 While a lot of folks are thinking about code quality and supply chain are common concerns, there are a lot of little “side trails” organizations do not tend to think about. One such was recently covered in a paper on underhanded code, which is code designed to pass a standard review which be used to harm the system later on.
If you don’t normally read IPJ, you should. Melchoir and I have an article up in the latest edition on link state in DC fabrics.
To make a case for linkstate protocols in DC fabric underlays, an extensive examination of the positive and negative aspects of BGP—and the other available protocols—is essential. Ultimately, it is up to individual operators to decide which protocol is “the best” for their application, a decision based on business and operational—as well as technical—reasons.
According to RFC1925, the second fundamental truth of networking is: No matter how hard you push and no matter what the priority, you can’t increase the speed of light.
A recent paper on network control and management (which includes Jennifer Rexford on the author list—anything with Jennifer on the author list is worth reading) proposes a clean slate 4d approach to solving much of the complexity we encounter in modern networks. While the paper is interesting, it’s very unlikely we will ever see a clean slate design like the one described, not least because there will always be differences between what the proper splits are—what should go where.